Saturday, August 30, 2008

Palin Comparison

SPIVEY
Well, it's a well-run campaign, midget'n broom'n whatnot.
ECKARD
Devil his due.
SPIVEY
Helluva awgazation.
JUNIOR
Say, I gotten idee.
ECKARD
What sat, Junior?
JUNIOR
We could hire us a little fella even smaller'n Stokes's.
Pappy whips at him with his hat.
PAPPY
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

And the Uncle Tim Goes to...

I used to be disgusted
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...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Placemarker

The American Conservative is temporarily offering its entire Aug. 25 issue and all archives online in PDF format. View my contribution to the current issue (again, in PDF) here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fragmentary Grenade

The democratization of society (not to be confused with the democratization of politics or governance) brings about the democratization of culture; the democratization of culture, in stigmatizing the distinction between high and low art, destroys high art. It destroys the very idea of high culture. We don't merely disdain it; we are no longer capable of it. Ironically, the democratization of culture rigorously oppresses its highest expression--from which our democratized present sprang.

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.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Modes of Escape

I'm trying to find the way into your psyche. I'm looking for the passage. I'm shifting shapes and forms, trying one on after the other. I shrink myself down to a viral state, hijacking blood cells, remaking them in my own microscopic image, setting them adrift in your bloodstream to reproduce like a cancer. They're coursing through your body. I deploy billions of homunculi, half-formed sleeping alien mutations parachuting into your loci of fear, in pre-conscious semi-awareness their eyeless and gaping faces thrash and press against the transparent, silken membranes that contain them, where they breath viscous fluid through toothless, tongueless mouths. They dash on the rocky outcroppings of your mind, squirming in their death throes like eels. I take on the form of a thousand spores drifting and alighting over and over again, seeking out purchase in the soft membrane of your conscience. They wither and die; they drift off into the ether to expire in anonymity. My prayers are dying in droves, my beliefs are becoming superstition; my notions are too numerous to have meaning.

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.