Wednesday, December 31, 2008
We'll leave aside for the moment the interlocutor's widely shared confusion--that President Bush does, or that President Obama can be expected to, maintain a leadership role that is more substantial than ceremonial. The inverse relationship between the freedom of action afforded a president and the power vested in the executive office continues to grow, along with the complexity of the job and Congress' by now institutional cowardice. Likewise the relationship between the caliber of man drawn from the electable and the reverential expectations we have of the office. For this we have only ourselves to blame. Remarkable leaders are possible only by astounding coincidence in this environment, and they will not be fashioned out of creative desperation (witness the fiction of President Bush's post-9/11, thrust-upon greatness).
Of course, before Barack Obama's world tour touched down amid the automatic adulation of the children and the childlike of Europe, he'd already performed a much smaller gig in front of a tougher crowd in Israel, where he dutifully asserted that any amount of force (or US munitions) Israel deems necessary to deter Hamas' crude rocket attacks is justified, because he has children of his own (the children of Gaza, and how their deaths might perpetuate the cycle of violence--something the president-elect has at least feigned awareness of in the past--would not be allowed to complicate this simple calculus). Yes, he doesn't really believe this, he was just saying--which is precisely the point. Even now, three weeks before the nation changes administrations in a state of bewildering economic and geopolitical crisis, the next president of the United States has little experience beyond just saying.
That rhetorical bet of last July is now being called, before the president-elect has even sat at the table in earnest, as sanction for a gruesomely disproportionate military response leveled upon an all but powerless adversary. The precocious senator, having grown used to posturing before people intoxicated by the imagined wisdom inherent in his mulatto moral superiority, and having his elegant vapidities received as profundities, has forgotten, or never properly learned, that words have meaning. Of course he's not alone; we've all forgotten this. Barack Obama wouldn't be possible otherwise.
More to the point, this man who's made a religion of power (with which he has, like the born-again Christian and his savior, a close personal relationship), has ascended with such absurd ease and rapidity to its pinnacle he hasn't had the opportunity to develop sufficient respect for its consequences. His make-believe of last summer, playing at global "leadership", is suddenly harsh reality. Israel's hard bargainers weren't just looking for him to genuflect properly (this much is to be expected), but were looking for something a little more concrete. Obliterate the Gazan ghetto with America's finest military hardware before an outraged world, burning through American soft power as rapidly as we expend her munitions? Yes we can!
So the presumption and airs of that heady summer last are nowhere to be found as the president-elect ducks questions on his way from gym to golf course, his sudden shyness papered over by embarrassing beefcake shots. "One president at a time" is how the dodge is put into words, even as Israel's actions and Ehud Barak's assertions, placing limitations upon the incoming administration with the complicity of the current one, reveal it for what it truly is, capitulation to a forced reality. The economic crisis warranted no such respectful inaction, but rather haste in supporting the status quo; Obama's duck-and-cover in this instance is really the same thing after all, reassurance to the players upon which the new president's cherished power is utterly dependent that he will not step out of line. As for that much-hyped esteem which the rest of the world so cheaply bestowed on our frail young prince, it will wear out as quickly and to the same disappointment of any cheap purchase if Mr. Obama doesn't redeem it with real, yeah, "change".
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
I've had a similar experience once before: feeling flush and generous, I handed what I thought was a soliciting beggar what I thought was a dollar (it was a ten), and he pressed into my palm a piece of crack cocaine. Reflecting on this later, I was impressed with the speed and ease of this unintentional transaction (a crack dealer of crack); McDonald's has nothing on our neighborhood cocaine derivative vendors--and they would never have accepted my explanation of misunderstanding with a prompt refund. Localism proves out again!
I am tempted to embellish this history with its logical comedic-dramatic progression, my arrest and detention for possession; now that would be a story. If you witness me doing this at some point in the future, please keep it under your hat. If one can "print the legend" sometimes to keep the ennui of everyday life bearable, an occasional fabricated farce, provided it's consistent with the general absurdity of our existence, seems almost mandatory.
But to return from the crack trade to the more distasteful subject of political action: Being naive and always a bit behind the curve I assumed that the only decent thing would be that the emails on behalf of Candidate Obama would end with the ascension of President-elect Obama. The campaign would demobilize, like a victorious army; the activist organizations would resume activism on behalf of goals, not on behalf of an administration, or a personality. Yeah, I'm a little slow that way.
I still hold out hope for the media. Sure, Chris Matthews embodied the MSM's posture perfectly, if a little too frankly for his more subtle peers, by immediately renouncing his journalistic obligations to declare his commitment to the "success of this administration" in these desperate times--but that was no change in policy, just a shift in loyalty. This same "lead, follow or get out of the way" orientation is how he and others, flush with post-9/11 patriotic hysteria, shepherded the public along from paranoia to the present occupation of Iraq. First terrorism, now the economy: it's one crisis after another prompting our powdered and rouged television class to repeatedly desert their journalistic posts, and surprisingly few still have made the connection between the crises and their widespread lack of professional integrity.
But no; even as Barack Obama assembles the Clinton Cabinet, the emails not only keep coming they keep praising the arrival of Change. So far, this change in government is beginning to resemble that bad old joke: An army unit has been in the field for months without hot water. The CO calls the men together and declares: "Men, our hygiene has become appalling. I hereby order each one of you to change his underwear. Jones, you change with Smith. Jackson, you change with Kowalski..." etc.
MoveOn, one of my new imaginary friends, had always existed for me as a sort of punchline. In appropriating an expression of impatience, they took for a name an appeal to expedience over the difficulties of constitutionalism, debate, compromise, thought. Surely, no one could take an organization so named seriously. It's like calling yourself "TalkToTheHand.org". But the joke's on me, as usual. MoveOn moves, and emails me, on, and on.
But they have brilliantly, if inadvertently, captured the inherent corruption of the activist movement with their moniker. Things need to get done, or so a group, often standing to reap wealth or power thereby, determines, and reflection is the enemy of action (see Iraq War debate, 2003). Truth is not the point. Haste is. One cannot act on behalf of "progress" and not thereby act against popular will, legality, moderation, democratic process. These things cannot be allowed to impede "progress", whatever it may be (and tomorrow it will be something unrecognizable as such today), in the minds of some. Curious how quickly the liberal forgets his mistress subjectivity, she who magically trumps morality as an idea or any comparative value between cultures, to shower absolute objective value upon that obscure object of desire, Progress.
None of this is to deny the legal--and cultural--degradation inflicted on us by the self-styled "conservative" still sulking about the White House as of this writing. Look to those who promoted this walking, talking absurdity if and when Barack's legions set about dismantling that inconvenient impediment to Progress, the Constitution. There are no heroes in this piece that is the present.
The ACLU, on the other hand, seems to get it--in their emails they propose how they will hold the incoming administration to its promises to reverse constitutional degradations. The success or failure of Barack Obama's administration, as any, is incidental to the rule of law and standards of decency; movementarians, of any stripe, will always invert this order, and always on the slim promise of small change for the better somewhere down the line (witness conservatives who've thrown their lot in with Bush/Rove).
Principle should trump Personality, for a change. But for the MoveOn.cyborgs and the Perpetual Campaign, it's all about promoting the administration and the ambitious non-entity at its center onto which they project their flattering illusions and petty bigotry. Neo has penetrated the Matrix, and now come the pointless and pretentious sequels. We're in another Matrix! All is a Matrix! Cue Rage Against the Machine, ad nauseum.
Monday, December 01, 2008
She had seen May Day parades when people were still enthusiastic or did their best to feign enthusiasm...As a group approached the reviewing stand, even the most blasé faces would beam with dazzling smiles, as if trying to prove they were properly joyful, or, more precisely, in proper agreement.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
You know he talk so hip he’s twistin’ my melon man…
Don't you know he can make you forget you're the man?
--Happy Mondays, Step On
The appeal of Barack Obama is best understood as kitsch.
The Obama campaign, as any, is more a work of art than of argument. It is (present tense, for it continues) a narrative blend of hagiography, historical fiction, mythology and propaganda. Like any work of art it may blend various genres and themes, but it is ultimately of one specific type. All political movements rely more or less on kitsch, but the Obama campaign, stripped to its essence, is kitsch.
This phenomenon-as-political movement is a masterwork of improvisational, interactive environmental theatre, with the electorate as its participatory audience. But a political campaign is no mere work of fancy or fabrication. When power is the end for which the narrative is the means, one cannot refuse his role in the play, even in opposition. We are all players now in Barry's melodrama.
What do I mean herein by “kitsch”? Not the common usage that has rendered the word little more than a synonym for "inferior." Nor any of the only slightly narrower meanings of unsophisticated, anachronistic, culturally irrelevant or crude. I do not mean merely that it is sentimental; though sentiment is its active ingredient. I refer specifically to that self-conscious and obliquely self-referential aspect of kitsch; of kitsch as the celebration of a given sentiment as its own end and justification, as an ennobling thing it its own right. The quote above captures it better than I can. In that part of Kundera's book devoted to the subject he notes how ubiquitous and permanent kitsch is, how inseparable it is from the whole of culture and human existence. The author was not only outlining kitsch's role in the totalitarian movement that looms grey and dour over his story, but also conceding the kitsch element in that story.
Content does not make kitsch; kitsch is in the nature of our relationship to content. Kitsch is the self-indulgent celebration of one’s capacity to feel and emote, through the deliberate suppression of doubt, nuance and skepticism. Kitsch is not the artist saying "behold this truth", but the audience prompted to declare, “behold our love of truth." Kitsch is the saccharine film soundtrack that drops in before anything has actually occurred, cuing us to emotion. For the acolytes of the Obama campaign the kitsch element can be summed up as, "behold the depth of our feeling."
This is kitsch's appeal, directly to our vanity. Even as we seem to be drowning in the language of its opposite and mortal enemy, irony, kitsch is everywhere. Even our gangsta rappers indulge in kitsch; they are among the worst offenders. The unfortunate rap theme written for Barack Obama was a prime example of kitsch, by a familiar practitioner thereof.
Kitsch's prevalence and permanence are so great that unravelling it from the totality of our experience is daunting, and most will (perhaps with more wisdom than this author) come to sigh that it is "everywhere" before moving on to more productive pursuits. This is unfortunate, because that very same prevalence is precisely why an understanding of kitsch is so important. There is no sensible "anti" kitsch position, as if we will eradicate the ineradicable. It would be unfortunate if one political faction or other were to successfully fashion it into an adjectival anchor to weigh down their adversaries, creating a new term of calumny to go with "fascist", "communist", "racist", et cetera ad nauseum. But we're well served in better understanding it, so as to better understand ourselves and that vast area of effective human behavior that is neither wholly rational nor studiously moral, but desperately and sometimes dangerously emotional.
What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Because kitsch is the willed absence of doubt, it acts as a neatly closed emotional system, impervious to skepticism and hostile to introspection--herein lies its political genius. Through propaganda, kitsch arouses revolutionary ardor and imposes totalitarian control. Kitsch fires up the rabble and cows the mass.
Those few of us left capable of viewing the Obama phenomenon with detachment will recognize its seductive offer of an easy, celebratory catharsis, its encouragement and indulgence of the individual's sense of moral superiority. The effectiveness of this appeal is manifest in the adoring crowds, in the deliberately incurious and uncritical appreciation of the candidate and now president-elect that continues. In the candidate's unspoken collusion with the media to equate his personal ambition with the civil rights movement itself and to subsequently equate any rejection of the candidate's race-based appeal with a rejection of his race, holding criticism of the campaign guilty of bigotry until deemed innocent.
In the wake of electoral victory, the rhetorical purges would begin within hours. One such story in the New York Times portrayed Southern white support for John McCain not as merely as evidence of the declining influence of these voters--but assigned a reverse cause-and-effect, ascribing their declining influence (as a sort of punishment) to their resistance to Barack Obama.
They were presented with candidate brandishing his race as a value--a moral superiority--in and of itself. They rejected the race-based candidate, voting more than usual for the nationalist Republican over the liberal Democrat. The charge then follows that they've rejected Obama entirely because he's black (not because he runs, almost entirely, as black; needless to say, any automatic support accruing to Obama for his race is, curiously, anti-racist); of course, this is then fed back into the system, as proof of the desperate need of the candidate, to rout once and for all this "racism".
In the case of Obama, kitsch appeal operates at a heightened advantage, cuing a long-conditioned response in whites inclined toward critical self-examination and conspicuous expressions of tolerance. This practice has always come with an expectation of change, of eventual improvement in relations among the races generally, between blacks and whites specifically. This subconscious expectation of a final conclusion is borne of our familiarity with the cinematic arc of film.
But after decades of unprecedented state action and an opening up of the culture none would have imagined possible, the foreseen idyll of perfect racial equality and its ensuing harmony (the kitsch promise), has faded into the harsh reality of a stubborn inequality. Inequality increasingly reveals itself as the predictable result of a society unprecedented in both its fairness and ethnic diversity.
But this cannot be said. Even as blacks gain cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers but not talents, they continue to lag in the professions and business pursuits. Meanwhile, other minority groups advance disproportionately as well up through the ranks of society. The rate of change, the opening up of opportunity in a society that not long was as segregated as the rest of the world remains to this day is nothing short of revolutionary. There is no historical precedent for America; yet, the more liberal, the more meritocratic our society, the deeper the resentment of inequality--and, contrary to our hoary egalitarian assumptions, we can expect increasing material inequality as the result of increasing equal opportunity. We have the unfortunate task of reconciling a diverse and restive population to this humiliating reality. Strategies are subconsciously developed.
The historical reality and present romance of black suffering in America assigns a moral premium to blackness; not unrelated, the general appetite for and fascination with black culture assigns it a cultural premium. Routinely, a thing is dismissed as inferior or, yes, derided as kitsch, if it is deemed too "white." All of this serves to heighten, in the projecting mind of the audience, the candidate's natural gifts, and assign others not in evidence, such as wisdom.
Whether he understands it or not, it was in pursuit of these structural advantages that Barack Obama abandoned his origins and embarked on his anthropological excursion into the heart of African America.
Instinctively the ambitious sense the path of power. The dirty little open secret of Obama's personal narrative is the "multicultural" candidate's lack of curiosity in things beyond the narrow and provincial Ghetto Gatsby identity he's crafted for himself. Quite contrary to the attempts of some to portray the man as foreign and Muslim because of his time in Indonesia, what's truly striking about that is his apparent--or deliberate--indifference to the experience.
It was there that he and his feminist mother were exposed to a stark counter-example to the West; it was there, not in the United States, that he was bullied for being different. It was from there that he was sent home to take advantage of the vastly superior opportunities and advantages of home and, eventually, to entrance earnest white liberals relating the emotional torment induced in him by the outrages inflicted on a Black Man in America: someone asked to touch his hair, his grandmother feared an intimidating black beggar (who "could have been my brother" he narrates, impervious to the irony that this man for whom he imagines a comfortably remote brotherhood is assaulting an actual relative, for whom the young Barack apparently felt not a moment's protectiveness). For Barack Obama, Indonesia and Hawaii look great on a resume, but their experience and contrasts aren't of much practical use.
In light of this, his attitude toward conservative whites, his charges of narrow bigotry and provincialism, would be found laughably oblivious if not outrageous placed in their proper context, but one gets the impression he doesn't truly understand the nature of his metamorphosis, of his ambition and rise. The language, for him as well as his acolytes, is too seductive; its effect too successful; its rewards, he has brilliantly demonstrated, only as limited as the ambition and energy that harness it.
Examining the phenomenon one is struck--and perhaps reassured--at how unexceptional, outside of ambition, is that which we know of Barack Obama. Having deliberately veiled himself in a cliche, welcoming the projection onto him of the neuroses and hopes of a restive nation, he is like the void in the eye of the storm.
In this environment the convention that structural disadvantages and white attitudes account for the lack of black success in business and the professions, for disproportionate rates of incarceration and poverty, for the whole host of ills for which each white individually is daily hectored to feel responsibility, as a feature of collective guilt, is not merely unsupportable, it's absurd.
The more evident this becomes the more fiercely defended the taboo against questioning collective guilt as a model for race relations. The absence of comprehensive societal equality requires ever more fanciful explanations; ever greater expressions of commitment to equality of results are required of public servants; ever greater denunciations of a nation that has taken historically unprecedented actions to achieve it. This is the pathological behavior of a neurotic society. The nation yearns for a climax, a final act of absolution. It stubbornly recedes the more we strive for it. Thus Barack.
To maintain the taboo, any resentment of this must be equated with bigotry; skeptics are ostracized and deprived of status. Propagandists distinguish themselves fashioning rationales and assigning blame for a distressing reality. In America the civil rights movement has made the familiar trek from revolution to totalitarianism. Kitsch has sustained it on that journey.
Of course in this cultural milieu, adopting the collective guilt model so regularly and inelegantly expressed in such arenas as Barack Obama's former long-time church, "whiteness" as an ineradicable sin in itself is a necessity. The candidate himself stated as much clearly when describing slavery as "America's original sin", as if the institution originated and continues here, rather than in Africa. He also means, more to the point, "cardinal sin". There is no final absolution for white America, just perpetual contrition. The fact that this immodest and wildly presumptuous phrase isn't controversial in the least, acquiesced to by silent consensus, is cultural sanction itself. The Caucasian holds second class moral status. Whiteness is the "human stain" of a stigmatized identity. This is too valuable a bludgeon for those who wield it (ironically they are mostly white elites, mobilizing minority resentment to bring their white opponents to heel) to be surrendered without a fight.
Ritual condescension of offended identity groups is a requirement of polite society and public stature. To escape a censure that grows harsher the more hollow the condescension becomes, whites individually and as a group place a premium on the achievements of prominent blacks, who must be found and promoted to assuage and take advantage of this. This is the environment Barack Obama burst upon with his 2004 speech to the Democratic national convention.
Barack Obama effortlessly assumes the mantle of grievance for the greatest sins of the nation--slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement. But, contrary to the habitual assumption, his unique personal history gives him not a greater understanding of this history, having neither the typical black American nor typical white American experience, but a lesser understanding. Barack Obama stood outside of this epic dynamic, looking on with envy. His choice of a fabricated identity on one side of it should disabuse us of the assumed inherent misery and unfairness imposed upon black America--no one is so fortunate to be born an American than an African American. There is no cachet in being white.
For Barack, American race relations is a cherished romance that became one with his considerable ambition. This romance will not be sacrificed now. Observers silently take solace in the assumed falsity of his black struggle. About the time of the election a prominent political reporter could be found on a television interview program, with perhaps unintentional frankness, trumpeting Obama as an African American without the African American experience and, more to the point, anger; touting, to put it crudely, his inauthentic blackness.
For a candidate to arrive on the scene as a sort of prefabricated historical figure, for his ascension to be defined as an act of justice and absolution; in light of the grand myth of the civil rights movement in America and the sheer power of this narrative--the wonder of Barack Obama is not that he is here, but that it has taken this long for him to arrive.
The news reports following the candidate's triumph proclaimed the fall of a "barrier." But the barrier had faded long ago--in fact it was over ten years ago the nation was so transfixed by an African American public figure, Colin Powell, for the very same reasons it's now enamored of Barack Obama, that at one point it seemed he could have chosen between the presidential candidacy of either political party--this before his political affiliation was confirmed. In fact, the automatic goodwill bestowed on that man has still not dissipated, despite the fact his personal career of mediocrity in powerful positions has only been interrupted by his implication in the misinformation campaign preceding the Iraq war.
Barack Obama did not "smash a barrier", as the headlines trumpeted. Barack Obama was carried along by a powerful force to where he is. Barack Obama was inevitable.
We're probably fortunate it is this man, and not some other--probably because he seems decent enough, and relatively free of corruption for an ambitious politician; this of course we've taken on faith, as part of the deal. He may even prove capable.
It is not entirely an earnest if misguided aspiration to justice from which arises this absurdity; it is also a form of chauvinism. It comes from the cloistered sense that history begins with and is confined to America. This truncated historical context is accompanied by a shrinking of the present's context, ignoring the example of every other nation in the world that must grapple with the challenges of diverse populations and tattered histories. The libel compares the nation to an idyll that has never existed, not to the world that is and has been; it's a further outrage that the imagined idyll is born of a distinctly Western and Judeo-Christian concept of equality before God, regardless of race. The charge that "America is a racist country" is meaningless placed outside of its proper context: as compared with what other country? Likewise the hoary fashion and shallow conceit condemning Western culture as a whole. In America we alternate between ignorance and disdain not only for the past but for the world beyond our borders--even, or especially, those who routinely condemn America for its racism.
Contrary to the mass conceit of the Obama campaign, it is more this chauvinism and not a post-racial, global consciousness upon which Barack Obama depends. Escaping us is the irony of this moral bludgeon being wielded by a man far more likely to be descended from Kenyan (as well as European) slave traders than black American slaves. Again, there is no environmental history of blackness for Barack to call upon, only the birthright bestowed by his transitory father; only, in the end, the color of his skin and the features of his face. Barack Obama is a white liberal living out the exquisite dream of actually being black. More relevantly, he is an ambitious politician taking advantage of it.
To be successful a campaign must identify itself with and within a single, all-encompassing myth. The McCain campaign attempted to make itself one with the myth of national greatness, through the personal narrative of heroism of its candidate. The Obama campaign, more successfully, made itself one with the myth of civil rights. Ultimately the point is to present the candidate as the living human embodiment of Providence. In a post-religious age, politics and celebrity fill the evangelistic void. Personality captures power and familiar interests and factions advance behind this wedge.
By myth I do not mean illusion. Fundamental truths are revealed to us through the myths we hold dear. The fundamental truths our candidates sought to co-opt this year were the necessity of love of country in one instance, the justice of equality before the law in the other. But through the vulgarizing exploitation of the ambitious, a nation's founding mythology becomes flattery and demagogy, mere caricature. The fundamental parent truths underlying our mythology are difficult, humbling and, perhaps most relevant to this, limiting. Through political expedience our founding myths are becoming overladen with contradiction, no longer recognizable to us.
The disappointments in store will reveal to us that a nation is not sustained by wealth, or power, or even democratic process, but the binding power of a fundamental truth that, unlike the flattery of kitsch, demands something of us and guarantees nothing. What we may be witnessing now is our degenerate end as a people that brandishes as a weapon a mythology it no longer believes.
Friday, November 28, 2008
The blog environment is wonderful in a lot of ways; in others it is profoundly depressing. It's beyond me how any idea, small or large, ingenious or insipid, being instantly pounced on by the glib attentions of the mob, will survive in the future. Everyone checking in with their opinion, mistaking the right to it with the need for it; as if everything is to be put to an immediate referendum, and thus quickly approved or dispensed with. My God, how we disdain doubt and cower before the merest hint of contradiction. Stray, dissident thoughts are pounced on like fumbles, disappearing beneath the desperate mass of converging egos. I'm rambling, but suffice it to say: not everything has to be neat, practical, clear-cut and promptly resolved. That first impulse is always less thoughtful than what comes in time. But we all behave now as if time is nearly out--even though, or perhaps because, technological innovation gives us more and more of it. This leisure of time and freedom is new to humanity, and we sometimes embarrass ourselves. We need to start acting like we've been in the end zone before.
The transitory nature of the blog post, and the rapid, coalescing migrations of the internet's vast audience, with its here-today gone-tomorrow attentions, makes for writing both too glib and too plain. Above all it's introduced an element of desperation into our discourse. The blogosphere resembles a depression-era dance marathon.
It's also created a whole new reader; he who mistakes his lack of concentration for authorial incoherence, his shortened attention span for your long-windedness, his inflexible and unsubtle intellect for conviction. Do not humor him. Taunt him mercilessly until he shapes up or ships out for whatever dull, reassuring confines he may find among his like-minded.
As for the piece that was here originally, its only real flaw was in being over-edited, not overwritten; it was about half as long as it should have been. My sin was self-consciously editing it down, and cross-posting it where it didn't fit. It will be back, longer and bellicose as ever. What can I say? If you want someone to write for you the way a military unit marches, the blogosphere is overrun with this sort of thing. Several such authors are two clicks out by way of the blogroll to the right. But if this trend keeps up we'll all be communicating in monosyllabic grunts before long. I understand the elegance of minimalism in fiction, but there is no real place for it in the essay. That's not to say that a piece shouldn't be properly lean; this isn't the same thing.
As for military drill, I've done it. It has a certain appeal, especially for someone who's always felt awkward and ill-suited for society. "One big heel" our drill instructor used to enthuse, compelling us to stay in step. Sometimes we marched right up onto the sealed concrete between two barracks, and that big heel would echo off all of that cool, flat stone about us in a positively intoxicating fashion. You don't need me to tell you how dangerous a thing that is, how much it says about us. The converse of safety in numbers is danger outside of them.
Every profession, George Bernard Shaw said, is a conspiracy against the laity. Likewise, every organization is a conspiracy against the individual. Conspiracies we engage in against our autonomy. Necessary, but no less destructive (not always necessary, and rarely as necessary as any proposal to organize shrieks). If there's to be any benefit for you and I in this gut-wrenching levelling of culture and society that now passes for modernity, this mindless, ongoing demolition project for which respectable opinion is forever scrambling to fashion rationales and contrive pretexts, it should be that we claim our rights as individual men in relation to the State and all those quasi-states and aspiring tyrannies--"movements", organizations, activists. If we can't keep them from pulling the rug of tradition and custom out from under us, if we can't keep from doing it to ourselves in our infinite capacity for greed and blindness, at least perhaps we can resist the new hierarchies and oppressions the ambitious are fashioning for us. This is a salvage operation.
Never lament the state of this or that "movement"; it's all a farce, a ruse for organizing us rubes. I have a few colorful suggestions for your various "movements."
Contrary to our instinct, the result of democratization is not necessarily liberating. Quite the opposite. First ideas will be given no time or room to breathe, then they will simply start expiring in the womb. There is no true or lasting wisdom in mass opinion or consensus, just coercion of one sort or another. Only in solitude and reflection can one see beneath the sometimes mesmerizing reflection on the surface, to the murk beneath. There's no guarantee of anything but satisfaction at having had the courage to look.
"Strike me, but listen!" Thucydides is said to have cried to a general who had raised his hand in outrage at an inconvenient truth. Well, curse yourself for doing it, but look.
Like mom used to say, having two ears and only one mouth means one should listen twice as much as he speaks; we all need to read more and write less.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
which no one hears
King's hat fits over their ears...
I'm still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah...
You're enjoying your day
Everything's going your way
Then along comes Debbie Downer
--The Debbie Downer Theme
January 20 is a long way off. A certain overly proud man still stalks the halls in the White House, self-conscious under the august gazes of those imposing portraits on the wall (oh to know the content of the imaginary dialogues), ruefully retracing his dizzying rise and humiliating fall. We've all been there, when trying to fathom failure or heartbreak: obsessively revisiting events in one's mind over and over again, searching for some gap, some logical inconsistency that will reveal reality anew, altered and made compliant, or at least bearable. Altogether an unhealthy process when done in isolation.
The Family's hired narrative help in the media have been reassuring, or threatening, us that he cares not a whit for how we appraise him, confident in history's judgement. Well, no sober perspective regarding popular opinion was on display when we were treated to a glib, cinema-age version of a Roman triumph, vulgarized to the point of sacrilege, stripped of solemnity and verging on camp. When I recall him prancing about for the cameras on a warship, decked out in battle gear with strategically placed sock, I shudder, plotting on the graph in my mind the egomaniacal crash that should follow such--let's call it irrational exuberance.
So let's hope that those still in power, whether nursing wounds or hangovers this morning, recuperate quickly and heed the admonition that nothing is so dangerous as a humiliated lame-duck president preparing to hand over power to the opposition. Perhaps there was at least one timely Debbie Downer at Obama HQ last night. At this point I'd like to say something optimistic. Which would no doubt prompt Debbie to offer, "has anyone seen Dick Cheney lately?"
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency.
Some of us believe McCain is clearly unsuited for the presidency and no more due to "moralism", boiling or tepid, than to "bottomless" certitude, unless we're referring to a morality that places John McCain's advancement above all else and the ensuing certainty that anyone and anything getting in its way are fair game. It's ambition unrestrained by a modest or measured temperament, and the subsequent lack of morality, preachy or otherwise, that McCain displays, despite the fatuous theme of "service".
I'm reminded of Will misreading the minor controversy regarding Jim Webb's snub of President Bush at a White House reception for newly elected congressman. You'll remember Webb tried to avoid shaking hands with the president, only to be confronted and asked, "how's your boy?" Will, perhaps due to his own basic decency, was quaintly clueless as to what had actually happened:
...disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, [President Bush] asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another.
Will mistook the hostility of the president's disingenuous question, which was nothing more than an attempt to force an intransigent Webb to submit to the protocol of their power arrangement--to knuckle under--sharpening his attack with the indecency of bringing the man's son (who, it shouldn't be lost on us, was carrying a rifle and facing peril under the command of President Bush) into it. It was about as civil and caring as a mafia boss asking a recalcitrant union leader "how's the family?"
We should be able to discount personality, seeing as it's not only subjective but subject to the artistic mythologizing so nauseatingly on display in the current campaign. We'd all like to think our mature and advanced democracy guards against the vanity and jealousies of petty men--with the outsized power of the executive branch, make that one petty man--but the Bush administration is depressing evidence that personality and temperament are as operative as ever. And this year we choose between aged choleric and youthful melancholic. I don't know what is more depressing, the dismal choice or the fact that the latter is clearly superior. If irreconcilable misanthropes had slogans mine would be: Refuse to Choose.
Monday, September 22, 2008
The habitually ironic language Senator Schumer used to describe the reaction to Ben Bernanke's fire and brimstone sermon can speak for the bewilderment of the nation as a whole: “History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment.” Sort of like a moment. Perhaps when it all hits the fan in earnest we can at least reclaim spoken language from its flaccid state. I do hope when I'm tied to a stake by some feral, post-apocalyptic tribe I don't turn to see a fellow victim lamenting that it's all kind of like something, really.
Some of the language used brings to mind another incidence of grandstanding hysterics, that precipitating the Iraq war. This crisis is real, of course, and the content of this tragedy less fictional, but the form is the same: a sudden threat is identified, extraordinary actions and powers are deemed necessary post haste. Drastic measures will be accomplished through the mixture of cowardice and corruption that is sometimes called bipartisanship; they will likely be difficult to unwind, if not permanent. Questioning the consensus is all but forbidden. Now, as then, the details are too grim for the tender public: Senators Dodd, Schumer, et al, would not disclose them Friday. Back then it was classified information that couldn't be freely circulated; I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you. Now it's I could tell you but it'd probably kill you.
You'll recall the "crisis" precipitating the war also featured administration appointees briefing Congressional leaders and leaving no dry seat in the room. It makes me wonder what sort of prop Paulson might have used, a la Powell brandishing his vial of mock anthrax at the UN. Perhaps a toilet brush, to terrify them with the prospect of poverty and its indignities. As with the war, consequences for the powerful and responsible few will be deferred indefinitely, but will be immediate for the nation's integrity, prestige and pocketbook. The war may have not been necessary (though this question, and its moral implications, have been flushed down a memory hole capped with the illusion of "success"--as if we've gone through it all to deliver Iraq and its oil wealth to an Iranian-allied Shi'ite government) but even so it can be seen as a consequence of an extravagant society overly dependent on oil--just as the collapse of our financial system is a consequence of our dependence on borrowed money.
But however dislocated our leaders are from their constituents, it's still on us, the citizenry. The consequences of being a debtor nation have been well known, and one doesn't have to understand the complexities of credit default swaps or tranches to understand he can't borrow his way to wealth unless he plans on dying deep in debt. Our short-sightedness as a nation is the aggregate of our desperate decadence as individuals; no one seems to care anymore what will become of the world they leave behind (even as they flail away against mortality in the gym and in the plastic surgeon's office, as if they're going to live forever, and forever young). I'm sure someone has already used the metaphor, but as a nation we are a gambler on a losing streak, doubling down.
And out here in the provinces it all still seems so remote; nothing appears to have changed. Football was played on Sunday. The electronic menagerie of celebrity eavesdropping, reality television, the glib and soulless sitcoms; it all looks exactly the same. People are going about their business, carefree. Funny, I don't feel insolvent. But I am getting a sinking feeling: who, after all, is going to pay for this all? I'm not talking about taxpayers, either, but our foreign would-be benefactors. Foreign money is already looking for other places to go and the economy, coming down from the false stimulation of the last tax rebate scheme, can be expected to produce lower tax receipts; two sides of a vice. Meanwhile, the bill grows; foreign investment firms with offices and the attendant exposure in the US are clamoring for inclusion in the bottomless bailout plan. Another busy-work stimulus scheme with which incumbents hope to arm themselves for the coming electoral carnage is in the works.
There is one possible consolation: an attack upon Iran is probably off the table in the oval office. Of course, with certain messianic factions that don't concern themselves primarily with the health and viability of the US economy and the order that depends on it, and the fact that Israel and Iran themselves might not care that our schedule doesn't permit another war at the moment, having their own ideas and requirements, makes me feel a little like one of those trembling pols I started out here making fun of.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Seriously; gold, silver and maybe oil, which in my worst-case scenario stays around a hundred dollars a barrel due to demand abroad despite the US lapsing into recession/depression, leaving us with negative growth and rising commodity inflation. I fear this more than the "global depression" which is the consensus worst-case, the US coming apart while everybody else continues to grow, learning how to thrive without us. Of course I have no idea where all that prudently saved Asian money will go, either, once our financial system implodes.
Someone compared this all to an economic Vesuvius, bringing to mind an image of unsuspecting modern Americans captured forever in three dimensional snapshots, like those unfortunate Pompeians cast forever in ash as they cowered beneath the pyroclastic onslaught. As we remain mostly oblivious to our impending fate, many of us will be caught in various ignoble postures, sitting in traffic or in cubicles, laying in tanning beds, getting tattoos, en flagrante delicto solus before the computer screen, pouring potato chip crumbs directly from the bag into my maw watching financial chat on (er, um, financial, uh, excuse me I seem to have lost my train of thought...oh yeah--sorry, I was transfixed briefly by the graceful, cascading arc of Becky Quick's golden mane) television.
As for me, I'm going to spend the weekend with a tall stack of DVDs of the post-civilizational dystopia genre, re-reading all my catalogued and annotated back-issues of Modern Survivalist magazine, looking for tips the television personalities (uh, television, um, the uh, what was I saying? oh yeah, sorry, I was helpless in the vortex of those limpid, almond eyes for moment) cannot provide; in the meantime I'll be outfitting my Honda with a swiveling gun turret and a Kevlar reinforced twenty gallon auxiliary fuel tank.
Okay, maybe my long-cherished fantasy of marauding through the post-apocalyptic hellscape at the head of a band of cutthroat brigands isn't going to come about at long last. But I do think that things are going to change for us all, just a bit; and it needn't be all bad, in the long run at least, should it mean retiring finally our ironic empire of consumption and conquest.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Gathering Storm
Unofficial video by Nickapottamus
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Erect new stocks to trade beyond the line;
With air and empty names beguile the town;
And raise new credits first, then cry them down;
Divide the empty nothing into shares,
And set the crowd together by the ears.
Shana, they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash!
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency.
Correct Vladimir Ilyich above to read "debauch capital"--and it needn't be the subversive effort of committed revolutionaries. Those who've debauched capital, replacing it with purely theoretic value dependent on nothing more concrete than faith in the inexhaustibility of greed, are, or imagine themselves to be, the most fervent capitalists of all. It takes either sociopathic oblivion or absolute faith in the infallibility of our system to do it this kind of damage; anything else leaves room for those undervalued resources, doubt and modesty--room for decency to latch on. Every calamity is particular to its time, and our time is peculiar for celebrating confidence as its own justification, not to be contingent upon anything so limiting as truth or coherence. We've made a faith of self-confidence and a superstition of positive thinking. Odd for such irreligious times; or not so much odd as inevitable.
But don't chalk it up to the system or society; chalk it up to human nature. These competing means of ordering societies and economies that constitute the continuum from communism to capitalism are all just strategies to harness the power and mitigate the corruptions of human nature. Even our creativity has a dark underside, revealed whenever some human endeavor goes belly-up. Of course this sounds vaguely heretical to most on the right still, like suggesting tax rates can be too low or American power can be misguided. That a system is better than another doesn't make it perfect (or, to put it another way, an end in itself). But the belief in the perfectibility of systems--like the perfectibility of man--is a thing that will always be with us, playing out its familiar cycle of enthusiasm and folly, ruin and revolution.
Our curious system of selectively unrestrained and selectively rigged capitalism has become capitalism sans capital--degenerate, you might say. Traders (if this is an accurate term--things have gotten so involved that one can't be sure) are shamans of a sort, impressing everyone with the intricacy of their incantations. They bear a certain resemblance to postmodern literary theorists. The more opaque and dense their constructs the more successful they are, or were.
In fact these folks aren't so different from each other; they form a class dominant in some ideally situated corner of society or the economy, and from this privileged perch leverage their influence. They are, above all, dismissive of limits and tradition, seeing them as outrageously repressive. They each create their own closed, self-referential systems, forbidding to those uninitiated in their arcane language. They share a similar disdain for both physical reality and conceptual morality, leaving them curiously untethered, floating in the ether of their theoretic gases. They are in denial of nature, appreciating it with neither a religious nor empirical point of view.
Of course if one denies the existence of nature, he denies the existence of human nature, and comes to believe that human behavior is infinitely malleable and predictable, if one only devises a sufficiently exhaustive theory of it. Funny how right and left meet out there, around their respective bends.
Monday, September 08, 2008
Ah, it had nothing to do with Kennedy. Still, all that vigor disappeared once he found out he couldn't get anything done.
Events, dear boy, events.
To emerge sane from the recent party conventions and the endurance test of a campaign ahead of us, one must block out most television coverage, now a carnival sideshow more useful for the revelatory subtext of elite disconnect and desperation rather than as reportage or commentary. MSNBC, once their coverage degenerated into the equivalent of a high school clique war, had me tuning in just to see if Matthews and Olbermann would finally consummate their disdain in flailing, flinching combat. Alas, our powdered and pancaked schoolyard brawlers have been separated. I will have to recourse to imagining how it might have played: the sound of their coats rustling against their microphones, their heavy breathing and curses as they grapple, in the background the chant from the convention floor, U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Jarring cut to a patriotism-themed Chevrolet commercial.
Still the antics of our television journalists were dignified in comparison to the degenerate discourse that passed for political speech-making at the Republican convention. The great democratic experiment is destroying its laboratory. Such concentrated absurdity I can take only in very small doses. So I'm left deliberately ignorant of the polls or consensus regarding the political raffle, relying on my faulty impressions, which usually fail.
Nonetheless I'm increasingly convinced that Barack Obama is doomed to disappoint despite, if not partly because of, John McCain's crass and corrupt attempt to trump the Democrats' race card with his own gender card. I'm not sure it matters any more. I feel like Henry Kissinger watching the Iranians and Iraqis go at it, lamenting they can't both lose, hoping for maximum carnage. Forget about lesser evils. The path of lesser evil has led us to the hell of mediocrity and corruption. I'm taking the advice of a bumper sticker I saw long ago, when things were nowhere near as bad: don't vote, it only encourages them. But I reserve my constitutional right to indulge in America's true pastime, complaint.
As for Senator Obama he projects, other than mediocrity made conspicuous by the media's studiously averted gaze, uncertainty--if one only dare look. His selection of the buffoonish but "safe" Joe Biden (holding all the cards, he checks nervously) betrays his lack of confidence. He's gotten way out in front of his plotted career trajectory, propelled there by a force he set in motion but now under its own creepy mass-delusional momentum. The man suggests something more than the usual politician's insincerity. It's there beneath the condescension of phony bipartisan comity and kitschy "eloquence"; his unsuitability to the task of taking the helm of a rudderless ship of state held in the aggregated current created by multiple corrupt factions. Does he hear the falls ahead?
Not only is the miraculous feat of racial unity his acolytes expect (bless their delusional hearts) impossible, but his actual goals, to the extent he has any beyond his cobbled together, platitudinous wish-list of a platform, are beyond the means of a government holding a ballooning debt obligation in an imploding economy (not to mention ever-expanding military commitments, guided by something bearing no resemblance to national interest, in a world hardening against us). Our politicians are promising change and change is coming, just not on their, or our, terms.
It's the fear of change that motivates us, as always, despite the quadrennial phony demands for it. The public pretends it wants change and politicians pretend they can deliver it. Despite the mantra we, naturally, fear change, no matter how necessary.
Likewise, Barack Obama's campaign is more nostalgic than forward-looking or reformist. The Democrats have the problem of complicity in the same criminal travesty that promises to return them to power. The time has come for a fundamental reorientation of foreign policy and public indebtedness, but the Democrats are as incapable of or unwilling to address these dangerously related issues as the Republicans. Aside from their disingenuous call to reform, their partly diversionary answer to our predicament is to revisit the now corrupt and anachronistic civil rights movement. It's their strong suit after all. They've produced a sequel of their biggest hit. Much of the public and the political center is lining up to see it. It's a heck of a lot less trying than a fundamental reconsideration of our role in the world.
Barack Obama is successful not because we despair for the state of race relations--quite the opposite. He's successful because we wish to insulate ourselves with the comforting myth of the civil rights movement--because, contrary to the Democrats' never-ending, opportunistic appeals to racial resentment and hysteria, legal equality and civil rights we do better than anyone else in the world. We do it so well we don't know when to stop. We've decided it works for all ills and injuries, here applying it like a balm on a broken back, when the patient needs to be in traction. Combine it with our other obsessive compulsions, self-congratulation and promotion, and Barack Obama is inevitable.
9-11 broke our confidence and Iraq hasn't, as hoped, repaired it. We want to subsume the criminal horrors of the war within a narrative of "victory"; we want the easy credit bacchanal to resume; we want cheap gas and cheap thrills; we want the world to recede back into the murk beyond the electronic ether of "reality" television (what an ironic concept); we want to continue to insulate and inoculate; above all, we want to feel good about ourselves. It's a form of kitsch.
Politicians, with their monomaniacal ambition and endless rationalizations for the corruption, rapine and bloodshed they sometimes engage in and sometimes ignore, are alien creatures to the common man, but they're the common man's creations. They reflect back on us; they are the living embodiment of our decadence. And this year we are enraptured by two egos in possession of corpses channelling competing narratives of personal suffering and turmoil. It's the first election of the Oprah era.
The Economist, achieving exquisite oblivion as only the combination of sophistication and convention can, recently ran a cover of our two presidential candidates under the banner,"America at its Best". Let's hope not.
The Democratic Party presents its candidate as the long awaited antidote to the timeless disease of racial strife. The party has so long told the lie, and acquired so many store front preachers of the false but profitable faith that arises from it--the lie being that racial discrimination and inequality are the distinct products of white imperfection (without irony), to be corrected by the stern hand of government intervention--that it has fallen for its own con, and is no longer in a position to manage it. There is no turning back now, and the aging party members hope that somehow, some way, it will all resolve peacefully and profitably. But an inherent contradiciton ultimately has to be resolved, and if your contradiction is that your demographic is inherently evil but you are not because you recognize it and wish to atone by force of law (you are one of the good ones), you may find yourself without a chair when this music stops (see Clinton, 2008). Perhaps this explains the appeal of the "Hope" mantra, all but chanted with closed eyes and palms turned heavenward.
The very resentments and passions Obama conjures threaten to consume him, whether in electoral defeat or in executive failure. Cold comfort can be taken in the fact that there really is only so much any president can do, despite the expansive powers of the office. We should turn the Klieg lights of celebrity away from candidates and spotlight those around them.
But the man is unsuited, despite all the cloying, conspicuous gushing of a press that retains its liberal bias only where it will do the most harm, so eager to praise the intelligence and character of a black figure, any black figure who doesn't threaten to upset things too much and take his rhetoric too seriously. If it isn’t already a Chris Rock joke it should be, this impulse.
Of course Barack Obama does take his worst rhetoric seriously (what he modestly describes as the "big heart" forever in conflict with his political "hard head"--foist such megalomaniacal characters on yourself at your peril, America), but no one, not even his political opposition, wants to be caught noticing. The man's reliance on forty-year old political assumptions indicates not just a disturbing radicalism but an adolescent intellect. But even in counting on his lack of sincerity--as witnessed by the Wright controversy--his admirers build on his myth.
The Obama phenomenon resembles an all-night group cocaine bender, with everyone blathering away, betraying and ignoring the same desperation evident behind the dilated pupils and in the cheaply conjured, shallow fraternity; loss in the election or failure in office will be the hard comedown of the following morning, with the sickly morning light coming through the blinds, when everyone realizes it’s over, that they’re not really going to go vacationing together next summer, all the talk now a bit embarrassing…
It seems it will all resolve in recrimination for the “racism” that just wouldn’t let America finally reconcile her history of slavery and segregation. The tantrums will be entertaining at least. I’m sure some have already dim outlines of their “America’s Shame Continues” pieces.
And it is a shame, what with the neocons on the other side (or, rather, more heavily represented on the other side); why not make the Great Gesture and get it over with, one is tempted to say, the inevitable disappointment when Obama and the Mortician move into their new digs and realize the place is haunted to the rafters and the closets all filled with skeletons. Let the people and all the earnest twenty-something keyboard hotshots get their first lesson that human nature, resentment, bigotry, etc will not be vanquished by token. Used to be we realized human imperfection wasn’t the province of governance but its confounding influence.
And who knows, Barack might prove capable of wise selection from the cacophony of competing voices and jockeying hangers-on, and might manage to restore some constitutional integrity, arrest or turn back some corrupting trends, despite the fact that in Chicago’s target-rich environment he always opted on the side of the Machine. And it is depressing how consistently he did.
Governer Palin (who, by the way, I like--for governor of Alaska) may be McCain's gamble but it's a gamble that promises (or threatens) to pay off big; every time Obama calls attention to her lack of heft he calls attention to his own, and an apparent inversion of his ticket's arrangement in this regard. But my favorite line comes from Politico, touting Obama/Biden's "forty years" of foreign policy experience--36 for Joe and four (rounding upwards) for Barack. Four years spent preparing this presidential run, as Obama himself noted would be necessary when asked about a possible presidential bid about the time he took the oath as a senator. He's rightly called on his presumption, but the real problem is with the opportunists about him. There's a charming, callow honesty to be found in the Senator's written and spoken record, which constitutes an epic ode to power (his first book is almost entirely a paean to power, and how it is achieved) in stark contrast to his contortionist campaign; more evidence his success has overtaken his wildest dreams.
But I suspect the Wonder Brother will lose, because he has no business being president and it's obvious (understanding the far more qualified candidate seems the far greater evil--and all that implies for the health of our system), leaving race relations rawer than ever, with Joe Lieberman as Secretary of State and Rudy Guiliani as Attorney General, God knows who else in the cabinet; meanwhile the party goes on at AEI, AIPAC, etc. As for us, we've run out of blow, and it's getting light outside.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Well, it's a well-run campaign, midget'n broom'n whatnot.
Devil his due.
Say, I gotten idee.
What sat, Junior?
We could hire us a little fella even smaller'n Stokes's.
Pappy whips at him with his hat.
Y'ignorant slope-shouldered sack a guts! Why we'd look like a buncha satchel-ass Johnnie Come-Latelies braggin' on our own midget! Don't matter how stumpy! And that's the g**damn problem right there - people think this Stokes got fresh ideas, he's oh coorant and we the past.
--O Brother Where Art Thou?
Wikipedia and Google are working overtime this holiday weekend. I refuse to go there, just yet (well, once to find the proper pronunciation so I can go with my own cheesy play-on-name title). It's enough that few of us knew who this person was until a few hours ago. That seems to be the issue here, though I suspect it will quickly cycle through the weekend news programs before they settle in, running the same few video loops over, and over, and over, searing some absurd image into our brains to God-knows-what effect; parsing down to absurdity the always overestimated electoral implications, desperately trying to factor in the tangibles of hairstyle and eye wear, speaking tenor and pitch, etc.
Everyone who is anyone seems by now in agreement that the presidency and thus the vice presidency should be about personality and perception, because that's what television media is calibrated to deliver. The resemblance of political news to celebrity news has gone beyond deliberate to become unavoidable. Soon there will be no dividing line, and the non-telegenic will be barred from public service as if bound by physical deformity. We are now into our second and third generations of television journalists who deliberately feed the public superficial pulp; they are no longer capable of making the distinction themselves. This might explain their bemusement and occasional outrage at the blogs. Journalists don't ask tough questions of leaders because they don't want to get the public started. We could start asking tough questions of them.
Any contrarian voice against this order of things is probably the sort of eccentric character that still talks of enumerated constitutional powers and congressional declarations of war. Cut to Chris Matthews assessing how the new gal looks cradling an AR-15. At moments coverage may resemble fetishistic soft-core guns & girls pornography. This is the zeitgeist. We really deserve whatever deprivations come at this point.
As when George H.W. Bush chose the ill-prepared Dan Quayle (doing him no real favor in the process), John McCain has demonstrated a disdain for the office he covets and disregard for what might become of it, and the nation, in his absence. The process by which a VP pick is decided upon must resemble that much-parodied one by which film producers pitch to executives ("it's 'The Godfather' meets 'Driving Miss Daisy' "): "we need to counter the other studio's, er, party's historical drama...it's The Vagina Monologues meets Deadliest Catch." At least Chris Matthews can swoon over a woman for a change.
Whatever may come, none can say it's either unwarranted or surprising.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
now I try to be amused
--Elvis Costello, The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes
In Slate's unfortunately named "Big Idea" column, Jacob Weisberg, waving about the latest NY Times/CBS poll (PDF) like Joe McCarthy brandishing his list of names, campaigns for title of this season's most conspicuously contrite white (a la Steve Sailer's "Uncle Tim" sweepstakes) by pointing out that Racist White America is not singing along enthusiastically or harmoniously enough with the Obama fantasia (unlike the lockstep support and vicious turn against the Clintons of Black America, which is either an allowable double-standard or a post-racial phenomenon noticed only by, presumably, Racist Whites) and the unfortunate outcome of a McCain administration will not be the result of an unqualified candidate but of an unqualified people:
What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one. Yet Barack Obama, with every natural and structural advantage in the presidential race, is running only neck-and-neck against John McCain, a sub-par Republican nominee with a list of liabilities longer than a Joe Biden monologue. Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums, and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, lacks clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two of them appear to be tied. What gives?The "natural and structural" advantages are Obama's "charisma", celebrity, a tight campaign organization and a busload of money. We remain unconscionably non-responsive to the superficialities, and it must be you-know-what. John McCain may very well be the greater evil in this race, but to conclude that there's no contest here, between a junior senator of no achievement beyond leveraging a well-received, high-profile speech into a presidential nomination (assuming we're still capable of distinguishing between political maneuvering and actual governing) and a veteran senator and former congressman who nearly captured his party's nomination eight years ago is like being the only pothead in the room and berating everyone else for not finding your new lava lamp mesmerizing.
If Barack Obama was willing to risk power to contrast himself with our current catastrophic drift in foreign policy this "all else being equal" argument might carry some weight. A more principled campaign, if one were still possible, would. The unfortunate fact is that the American public is only too willing to forget about Iraq as long as the "surge is working" narrative can be made plausible through the two-minute drill of their brief daily encounters with the news cycle--and Obama is playing directly to that. So Weisberg's ilk is astounded that Interventionist Lite, offered by the Racial Candidate Lite, doesn't automatically trump the wrinkly old white guy, and the wrinkly old white folks feel more comfortable with one of their own. The harder our priestly media class has to work to uncover "racism" the shriller they get.
The real tragedy is this is all leading, somehow, to a McCain presidency. We have bigger fish to fry than the red herring of Obama's false promise of a "post-racial" future that is precisely the opposite of what he, and his class, desire, even if they thought it possible. His is a backward-looking appeal to racial guilt and the solidification of our current racial spoils system disguised as a march forward to reconciliation. It all increasingly seems destined to leave race relations rawer than ever, as evidenced by such as Weisberg's childlike hope resolving in a tantrum of melodramatic despair (see below).
What Obama's campaign is managing to do is convince people, with good reason, that racial resentment will be a feature of American life for a very long time. Of course, that was precisely the gist of Obama's grand speech on race, in the appalling presumption of an obscenely privileged man berating the nation that privileges him for its "original sin" of slavery--only in America is Barack Obama's campaign possible, and no need to worry Black America, it will never be enough. No one will ever ask you to forgive whites for their collective, historical guilt or relinquish your cherished romance of collective suffering, much less take note of the fact that no African population has ever had the power, freedom or opportunity that has been afforded African Americans. And why would Black America give up this advantage? I ask without irony or condemnation. It is mere human nature and no people in similar circumstances can be expected to behave differently. But I would be so very proud of a nation that at least made an effort to preserve its democratic republic and traditions, by, if ever so gently, acknowledging this reality.
Only in America is Barack Obama possible, indeed; no other nation is decadent enough to indulge in such absurdities. The pessimism and resentment infusing the Obama campaign is remarkable in light of the rhetoric. But the real tragedy is that the current crisis in America is no time for it. Obama seems destined to fail, largely because he has no business being president. It simply won't be enough to point out that the current executive has no business being president either, so therefore we must be bigots for rejecting this one.
It's unfortunate that so many Democrats decided they needn't take their bright, shiny new candidate for a test-drive before nominating him, but if he is capable of repairing the damage of the Bush administration it will only be by some astounding, fortuitous coincidence. No argument is offered that he is capable, just reprobation for any who dare ask.
Barack Obama wants to be president because he wants to be president. John McCain, God help us, has some more specific ideas about what he will do with the office. It's unfortunate that the Democrats' answer to arguably the most disastrous administration in American history is a precocious political wonder they Hope will require little Change in the way things are done. But I'll let Weisberg sum up the fatuity of it all:
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race."Crazy irrationality over race" indeed.
The first half of that remarkable paragraph is just the sort of appalling magical thinking that brings well deserved scorn upon the Obama campaign, which can be summed up thus: "here is a black candidate; reject him and you're a bigot." We are further chastised that the "the whole world is watching" expectantly. This bludgeon of an argument, so clumsily and creepily brandished in the unfortunate locale of Berlin, is rightly rejected. It's a cheap trick and a disappointing response from the Democrats to the Bush catastrophe. But then that's the point really; this is a bipartisan tragedy, and before the neocons broke out into the open field after 9/11 they patiently ground out the short yardage through administrations Democratic and Republican alike, and they have never been without blockers from the liberal interventionist line.
Another problem with the Great Gesture thinking regarding Obama is that it is contradicted repeatedly by the candidate, again, openly stated in his much lauded and little studied speech on race. There is a thinly veiled threat beneath it all, as evidenced by Weisberg's near panic about "the world's judgement" and "the United States had its day". It may very well be we've had our day, but I submit that the bizarre phenomenon of Barack Obama is evidence of that decline, not our only hope of escape. Of course this is what makes it so depressingly just another aspect of our masturbatory national pastime of self-flattery. Barack is here to make us feel better about ourselves without really trying to better ourselves. No wonder Oprah loves him.
Weisberg marvels at white "America's curious sense of racial grievance", citing the fact that twenty-six percent of white Americans answered that they have at one time or other "felt discriminated against"; presumably he will only be satisfied when the one hundred percent of them that are overtly discriminated against via a complex of federal and state law and regulation (that Barack Obama enthusiastically supports) are cowed into answering in the negative, or accepting the increasingly fanciful arguments that discrimination is not discrimination when it is codified into law and directed against the majority (how this will all work when whites constitute a plurality is anyone's guess, but judging by the subject herein, I wouldn't place any bets on that demographic shift bringing us into the sunlit open of a "post-racial" future where all claims are put to rest). I used to be disgusted...
Monday, August 18, 2008
Monday, August 11, 2008
Yet the base material of humanity does not change; we are not significantly different from our near forebears of recorded history. The talents and passions remain the same; the media and conventions for their expression have changed drastically. The outlets are more numerous and the audience more vast; the barriers are fewer and less effective. But the barriers that kept out also kept in, channeling and cohering; the limitations of convention and standards refined the arts and also had the effect of remorselessly selecting and deselecting a creative elite. There is no crucible now for either creating this elite group or refining their art, even if the idea of refinement itself were not already discredited. Within the more strict limitations of a given medium and the cultural whole this system--which, by way of its severity, used the artist as a medium for an idea as much as the artist used his particular medium to express the idea--high art was created, and the Western idea became the highest expression of humanity, through painting, literature and music unmatched before or since.
Western culture refined the idea of the autonomous individual; "personality" was born here. The cinematic close-up is its ultimate expression, a study of human nature both unforgiving and worshipful, a realism that goes beyond the perfect representation attempted by pre-photography portraiture--"more real than real". The camera is both a perfectly transparent vehicle for portraying human expression and a distillation of it into transcendence. A thing cannot be put on that great big screen and not glorified. Cinema is what's left of high culture, but the demands of commerce and the general vulgarization of society mean that it cannot but speak the common language of low art. It's a sort of schizophrenia.
But the Western idea of the individual was born in the sin of its fatal contradiction, of the ultimate irreconcilability of absolute personal autonomy with social harmony; between the distinctly Western individualism expressed and the punishing requirements elite standards placed on the individual.
Personality is eventually lost in the flattening, liquefacting mass of popular culture, where discernment is apostasy and even the president of the United States is an affable vulgarian. We are coming upon something representing our primitive origins, a classless, unindividuated mass of humanity that crushes the individual. An Eastern idea sagely warned us of this inevitability, popularly expressed as "what goes around comes around." The age of high tech primitivism is upon us, replete with ritual sacrifices and mass violence--all safely subsumed within a bloodless virtual, electronic popular culture. It will be both antiseptic and gory. Our capacity for cruelty and violence, a near constant of human behavior, is both aroused and sated within the virtual realm, where it is safely contained as long as societal order is maintained. How durable societal order is, how sound its balance, is a thing we likely can only know by its loss.
We also created the idea of the Idea.Attendant upon this was the discovery of Truth, as a real and discernible thing, of a physical reality indifferent to our passions and desires. Truth beyond beauty and will. Truth will not be argued away or willed into conformance; it can only be unearthed. This is just too much for us. In our vanity we turn upon it; futilely we attempt to draw it back down, to rip it to shreds, to obliterate it. This is the nature of our self-referential, oppressively popular, anti-elitist cultural moment. Despite its hostility toward religion, postmodernism is inherently, supremely religious--in the sense that we currently understand the word. It would be more accurate to describe it as superstitious or pagan--a pre-religious and pre-ideational order, where sentiment and subjectivity ruled, and these were judged worthy by virtue of their desirability and usefulness to a dominant order, and where observations or evidence troubling that order needn't be suppressed because the necessary idea of truth had yet to be revealed.
But of course we can't go back--the cat's out of the bag--we didn't create something after all as much as we discovered something and set it loose upon the world. We cannot succeed in displacing the Western idea--it displaced us from the moment we willed it into expression. It will pass on, perhaps to the East, perhaps to some future generation, after the cataclysm and its inevitable reaction that we are now setting in motion. All of this was inevitable. What remains we cannot know.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
I'm an insidious political movement, spreading lies and propaganda; I'm an insurgent campaign, sabotaging your frontal lobes, a mindless anarchic cult movement poisoning the wells of your memory; I'm an arsonist setting fires in your subconscious. I want to seize control of your cortical speech zones, to broadcast the coup to the countryside. But nothing works. I rant, I rave, I purposely offend; no use. I relent and return, now with flattery, seduction, narcotic lies as if to lull you to sleep. I slip something into your drink. No use.
I corner you, leaning in close, trying to intimidate; you laugh. I plead and prostrate myself, making ridiculous promises; you are repulsed. I sulk away, but after only a few steps I look back toward you longingly. You are captivated by the sky-screen overhead, stretching from horizon to horizon; it wraps you in a cacophony of noise and light. I scurry back, placing myself between you and the electronic ether. You stop a moment, betray slight recognition, momentary alarm then sudden boredom; the divider comes down and your eyes go blank again. I step back, considering you from a distance, then rush forward, as if to startle you. I dance like a buffoon, striking my head on something. Stop and smile sheepishly, looking all about for you; a standing, three-dimensional shadow of transparent residual light, fading, trailing off in the direction of your escape, is all that remains.
Blood is forming in my ears, they are pounding out an irregular heartbeat. I’m nauseated, my head is swimming, the cacophony is rising, becoming one overarching and unbearable hum. I grow more desperate for escape now, looking about for something with which to slit my wrists, something on which to impale myself, but nothing is solid or real; everything is mere projected light of cascading horizontal lines, like a television screen. Reaching to grab hold of something, anything, my hand passes through the false surface, disappearing within, disappearing to my sight and lost to my sense of touch. Alarmed I pull my hand back, holding it protectively. It’s cold and smooth like ceramic, giving off a faint steam.
I look around self-consciously. The electronic menagerie is spinning about overhead, blurring into one unintelligible swirling mass; individual images appear briefly, strobe-like, foreign and familiar at once, a narrative progression revealing an indecipherable logic. I realize it is my history, yet I recognize none of it. Suddenly I become ashamed, tearing at my hair and clothes. It looks so small up there, against everything else; it's being drawn into the mass. It makes no sense; it is worse than meaningless, not a lack of meaning but a subtraction of it. It's a black hole of meaning, an atrophy of energy without consequence or effect. I'm terrified that it will consume everything. It's my fault; I set it in motion. I know what I must do but I'm trembling pathetically, a caricature of cowardice, teeth chattering, knees shaking so violently I'm drifting sideways.
I feel I am being drawn up into the ether; I feel the density of my mass dissipating. I imagine it is being transported up into the sky-screen. Absently I pat myself here and there, verifying my physical presence. The images are coming faster, one upon the other. I see it now; they are accusations and condemnations; they are a body of evidence of the greatest crime, of the lowest form of sin, of the only real sin in the end; a murder of sorts, not the taking of life but of not taking life, of leaving it to rot, of leaving it fallow and feral, base and stunted. I am guilty of sloth and cowardice, of dereliction of duty; the case is irrefutable. Things are not going to end well. I look about furtively. And then it stops.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a g--damned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.Get that, "there's no way" he can breach the defenses of local churches (I imagine he fantasizes his image on a wanted poster over the holy water, right up there with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins). Not since George Bush donned that flight suit have I witnessed such a manly display.
I suppose if the Professor deferred the instant gratification of publicly brandishing his offended intellectual superiority and treated those with whom he disagrees as if they actually have a right to their contrary beliefs, he would have to acknowledge the congregants were minding their own business engaged in worship to which they have a moral and constitutional right, entirely within the confines of the Church. The fact that the student places no value on the "cracker" gives him no right to disrupt, and thereby deny, these people this, their most fundamental right.
Myers makes much of what he sees as melodramatic language employed by the church in its defense and their demands that the Eucharist be returned. But the language and deeply held nature of the outrage expressed by the church is entirely beside the point--and any casual but competent observer will see from the start that the question is this: does the church have a right to its practices free of harassment? This did not take place in the public square. That's what's striking here--Myers and cohort simply do not recognize the church's right to defend the place and circumstances of their worship; they essentially assert that their certainty regarding what they see as its delusional and silly nature empowers them to interfere with it.
This is little different from an invasion of an individual's private sphere, or the disruption of any group's free assembly--the petty and sordid nature of the student's actions notwithstanding. I suppose I too will be deemed a frothing-at-the-mouth zealot if I see in this the embryo of totalitarianism, but I do. I have many things of various levels of sentimental value, that others will deem meaningless, in my home. Does Professor Myers presume the right to take them and make a show of defacing them, and does he assert that right based on his superior arguments as to the irrationality of my sentiment, and the fervor with which I defend it? And this man dares to compare this with the Inquisition--when he is the one demanding this inalienable right be surrendered to the prank of a petulant child. Irony everywhere these days, and still some don't recognize it when it falls on their oblivious heads.
This is after all the same sort of provocateur strategy employed in the revolutionary phase of the last century's more destructive totalitarian movements, Left and Right--and religion and religious institutions were among the first targeted and held in special contempt (a contempt Myers holds just as fiercely, if his actions are more comic than sinister), as obstructions to absolutism. In a time of increasing government power, decreasing constitutional rights, militarism and the hijacking of Born-Again Christian churches by militant millenarians--all of which are increasingly becoming part of a whole--hostility toward the Catholic Church is downright baffling. One has to conclude that, despite the attempts of these antagonists to hang the history of human folly and vanity on religion--the classic, ubiquitous misperception that human flaws arise from human institutions, rather than bedevil them--they believe their certainty is justification enough to destroy an institution that, in their eyes, competes with them for power.
I do have one suggestion for this self-styled defender of the Enlightenment: go where the battle is joined in earnest, say to a madrassa in Pakistan (or a mosque in Europe, for that matter) and have a go at the "meaningless" articles of their faith. I recommend an artist's rendering of Muhammad, for instance. Just paper and ink! Or, if Myers' notoriety goes beyond the local churches and is global (Carlos the Jackanape, International Man of Hysteria), he can pull the same prank he has planned already--complete with address provided on demand, and on-camera starring role. The clarion has sounded, Professor.
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Today's Torah portion is Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:7 to 17:27