Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Election 2008: Bile vs. Guile

Regarding George Will's welcome broadside on the Straight-Jacket Express that Leon Hadar brought up over at the AmCon blog, even when Will's right, he's wrong:

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


Colossus, The Tribute

The Falling Sky's the Limit

It's remarkable how shameless our political leaders are regarding their state of hysteria (of course it wouldn't be hysteria if it wasn't without shame and decorum) and not a little disconcerting, suggesting (but by no means proving) that their collective panic is warranted. Last Thursday's convocation of politicians eager to impress upon the public how terrified they were (and by inference how oblivious they, tasked with overseeing the financial system, had been previously) was downright surreal. The sight of political leaders so disoriented they could barely prevaricate and dissemble inspires a mixture of revulsion and pathos, like seeing a turtle out of its shell. Less remarkable and more familiar is their lack of contrition regarding their decades of collusion that precipitated the crisis. First the combination of comedy and corruption that are the presidential tickets, the spectacle of the two mystified candidates scrambling to present competing facsimiles of leaderly competence, mimicking outrage while drawing on advisers complicit up to their elbows in the debacle, and now this, confirms it: the American political system has entered its late decadent phase.

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

Preparing and Pining for the Apocalypse

Looking for silver linings (figuratively speaking, though literally speaking silver and gold are good redoubts at the moment) and not finding any. The fascinating (and by fascinating I mean inducing the same kind of dread one gets when his doctor prefaces his diagnosis by enthusing on recent advances in treatment options) thing about the current economic crisis is its many aspects; I've spent the last hour trying to retrieve something I read yesterday about how Asian investors started migrating out of US securities a couple of months ahead of the present difficulties--but retracing my steps through the informational thicket I find it has grown unrecognizable and unmanageable, like some nightmare jungle growing by the second, vines coiling about my ankles and unwinding down from above. I had set out in search of the headwaters of our economic torrent, only to get lost and disoriented in the bush.

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.

Financial News, Friday, Sept. 19; Play us out, Karl


Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Gathering Storm

Unofficial video by Nickapottamus

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Too Big to Bail

Some in clandestine companies combine;
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.

--Daniel Defoe

Shana, they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash!
--Airplane!

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
--REM

The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency.
--Lenin

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.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hope and Hype

(minor clarification: "the Mortician" is David Axelrod, for his dour visage, not Ms. Obama)

Ah, it had nothing to do with Kennedy. Still, all that vigor disappeared once he found out he couldn't get anything done.
--Mad Men

Events, dear boy, events.
--Harold MacMillan

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.