Sunday, December 13, 2009

Possession

I confess I've never been overtaken entirely by passion. I've never given myself over unconditionally and without reservation to anything; neither joy nor grief, hate nor love. Likewise for any given idea; but this is just another way of saying the same thing, for the passions are ideas too. The purest ideas, confounding transposition into mere language and only hinted at by even the most sublime art. One has to live such ideas. The poets tell us the lover, as opposed to the merely amorous, is a zealot prepared to accept death itself on behalf of the idea of love.

But for me always there is an inaccessible self-consciousness, a clinical awareness that becomes alien. There is a foreigner within narrating the varying circumstances of my existence: so this is Dennis stricken with grief; so this is Dennis afflicted by love; etc. It has taken in every tragedy or conquest, every humiliation and all the pride, unaffected. This awareness constitutes, impossible I know, a distinct entity. Another Dennis.

I've always had my suspicions about this separate consciousness that is not conscience. It's not the opposite of the conscience, but the absence of it, that part between mindless instinct and moral self-awareness. It--he--observes me as if from without. He waits for the thing, whatever it is, to end; he makes no distinctions of geography--the peak of Everest or the easy chair, it's no difference. He takes everything in with a wonder-less curiosity, and never with surprise, even as he takes note of the novelty of a given occurrence, how familiar it is, or not, how it might change the dynamic of my existence, but not really, because, he knows, it's all just protocol and convention in the end, until it all ends--and this I expect he will witness with the same idle, abstract gaze. He is impossibly inhuman.

But there he is, always, looking down on the confusion of my psyche as if through impenetrable glass. I can only dimly sense his formless presence behind the reflection I cast on the pane separating us--of me, unsentimental and unforgiving in its clarity. He sees all and records nothing; he doesn't care. He humors no vanity. He has the goods on me; he doesn't care. He taunts me with his lack of reproach for anything, great or small. He will not be run off; he can't be gotten to. His indifference is eternal, mocking, superior.

I've felt passion, of course, even "deeply", whatever that means to you. But if a man hasn't at least once been "consumed" or "blinded" by passion, whether it be love or hate (and what's the difference, in the end, between these inversions of each other?), he cannot say he knows them. It then follows that he cannot recognize them in others; he can only behave as if he understands. He knows what a thing is supposed to look like and responds accordingly, in the interests of order, but mostly out of habit. Eastern mystics of one sort or another--and I can't tell them apart--might say he is unrealized as a human being.

But a human can only be human, in part and in whole, no more or less in the depths of "inhumanity", and always. The depraved man appalls us not only for his deeds but for his irrefutable demonstration of humanity's potential for evil; it must then follow that he demonstrates for each of us our own capacity for evil, because we cannot escape the bond that is our shared humanity. With each transgression the evil expand the Devil's realm, as surely as the the great establish the uppermost boundaries of human achievement. Every iteration of a man is an argument on behalf of and proving itself; lives committed to malice, lives sacrificed selflessly or stupidly, "madmen", lives "wasted" to sloth or obsession; all are competing models of man. No man can escape the assertion that is his life; he lives as he would have everyone live. Each life is the proposition: "this is Man."

There is some sort of accommodation between the reasoning frontal lobe and the reptilian brain stem, a Faustian bargain, a grotesque, conjoined symbiosis, right here in my head. Here appetite meets abstraction. A devil's workshop fashioning rationales for base impulse. It's a bureaucracy employed in legalizing anything, as needed. But it is not immoral--that would be too human, a transgression of morality and thus a recognition of it, leaving the prospect for contrition and redemption; it is amoral. It's out of this world, man.

A Christian might call him the Devil. Popular convention calls him "detachment", a sort of psychological debilitation, an unfortunate byproduct of modern society, or of Society; a decayed capacity to feel resulting from the ease and equivocal nature of the age; a problem of too little struggle--and too much time. One convention even, ironically, blames Convention. Vanity imagines him as a superior posture. Psychology gives him one name after another, as if to coax him out by finally landing on the magic invocation; after long and total failure, this science of the mind resorts finally, crassly, to myriad refinements and specialized forms of the original, temporary solace from the alien self: the intoxication and suppression of the senses.

These answers may suffice for a time, even a lifetime, but in the end they all fall short, because they allow for some accommodation or destruction of the demon. Even the Devil cowers before God, just as we mortals do. I am witness: my demon is a constant in presence, measure, and autonomy, immutable and ageless, there from the flash of conception to a death he will likely witness with the same impenetrable indifference. But in the end he cannot be separate, even if he confounds my will to the end; he is central, he is in fact the last reducible part of me, to be resolved by fire or oblivion, as the case may be. He will not distinguish between these two, therefore I cannot. I speak only for myself, understand.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Barry Bugs Out

Tom Englehardt nails the true nature of President Obama's address to cadets at West Point:
Certainly, the choice of venue, and so the decision to address a military audience first and other Americans second, not only emphasized the escalatory military path chosen in Afghanistan, but represented a kind of symbolic surrender of civilian authority.
Rush Limbaugh's wistful musing about a military coup is more oblivious than devious: after a perfunctory, brief struggle, the coup is victorious (Of course, if the president had been arrested at West Point and replaced with a military junta, I'm not entirely sure Limbaugh wouldn't find a way to justify it. Are you?). Under political duress, the president has accepted the role of conditional, if not yet nominal, Commander-in-Chief, surrendering an authority he doesn't want and wouldn't know what to do with anyway. Now he bites his nails and waits, like the rest of us.

But it's not the president's prerogative to divest himself of command over the armed forces to avoid its political consequences--elite convention notwithstanding. The extraordinary executive power over war itself remains, insulated from legislative or judicial interference, nominally vested in an elected president, wielded by a cabal. This is dereliction of duty of the highest order. The Commander in Chief has abandoned his post to cower in the rear while his mutinous subordinates take command.

But okay, this is all retrograde and simplistic, I know. Just the sort of thing to set elite eyes rolling, like taking the Constitution and sovereignty too seriously. Let's crassly accept the "political reality" and acknowledge the asymmetry between the White House and the the military establishment :

The Pentagon dictates policy directly to the Republican Party, Fox News, conservative radio and Internet, while fighting to a draw in the contested middle that is the the unallied media.
Obama, on the other hand, leads a party divided on the war and has a more conditional alliance with a media complex--MSNBC, NPR, etc.--that is both less powerful and less subservient than their adversaries. It's no great boast, but the liberal media and Democratic Party have, on this issue, shown superior independence and character. The difference casts in relief the decadence of the Republican Party and its staunchest media organs.

Meanwhile, in the Boy Wonder's White House Joseph Biden, garrulous and glib, self-imagined Caesar to Iraq's Gaul, is what passes for a pragmatist and sage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (her position the product of a previous political capitulation), known for taking flight in hectoring recrimination before the galling indignity that is the unscripted media encounter, is sent abroad to placate a resentful world. The charmless representing the clueless. God help us.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there's not much chance that you're the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country in a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you're not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that's just where the danger begins.

--The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

Monday, November 23, 2009

D'uhccuse...!

He's just saying there's nothing wrong with that.

Well, they look like a white crowd to me. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but it is pretty monochromatic up here. No surprise in terms of the ethnic nature of the people showing up. Nothing wrong with that. But it is a fact. I think there's a tribal aspect to this thing, in other words, whites versus other people. I think [Sarah Palin]'s very smart about this.
--Chris Matthews, television journalist

Chris Matthews' self-awareness is notoriously suspect. His analyses of the national psyche, to the extent they are coherent, typically reveal more about him than to him, and often. His random digressions branch off one after another, shedding the pungent, overripe fruit of his personal Tree of Knowledge. Around him his fellows navigate with care, watching where they step, casting nervous glances upward at the slightest sound.

Perhaps they feel some embarrassment at one of their own speaking too freely in front of the help; what's revealed is not just one man's coarse intellect, but the prejudices and delusions of an entire class. Chris Matthews can't maintain the ruse because he doesn't know it's a ruse. Still, he perpetuates it. Chris Matthews has managed to dupe himself, if no one else. Chris Matthews lacks situational awareness.

Not long ago, his undisciplined emotionalism would have been discouraged as a feminine preference for impulse over reserve; it would have been deemed unmanly. In that light Matthews' notorious masculinity fetish is neither homoerotic nor misogynist, but an honest fascination with a foreign point of view. His sexual boorishness is a failed interpretation of masculinity, lapsing into caricature. His visceral reaction to Hillary Clinton, catty.

But no one deliberately sets out to make himself a fool--unless he does it on television. Of these there are two kinds, the actor who plays the fool for our amusement and the fool who is lured before the camera, for our amusement. The most common form of the latter is the reality show participant.
Reality television democratized, ergo de-mythologized, celebrity. Distinctions are blurred in the ensuing chaos. In the post-revolutionary order professionals have ceded some local narrative control to the audience. Indeed, the spontaneous narrative that Reality television, and now "viral" Internet material, attempts is not a foreign product introduced to the people, but is generated from within them, performed by them and consumed by them. The author is the hive. Production is superfluous.

The viewer has grown used to (if not the reality, the conceit of) providing his own narrative. He is increasingly adept and accustomed to this. This is one tough crowd.
Thus the industry of television is confronted with a transfer of expertise to the audience, a sort of purchasing power; "media personalities" have less control over their media personalities. Television journalists used to be the gatekeepers of the information flow, now they are deluged along with everyone else in the flood. They have lost their monopoly on reality.

Its individuals must adapt to the new evolutionary environment; "redefine" themselves, in euphemism. The desperate scramble produces new, grotesque hybrids; shape shifters alternating between, and sometimes straddling, traditional and Reality television. No one yet understands what is happening. Reality TV aspires to surveillance of the individual by the mass; multiple raw feeds strategically located. It's a medium-specific tyranny of the majority. Professionals, once mystical creatures, have lost their former privilege. Everyone is fair game.

Matthews, like Tyra Banks or any other regular on The Soup, is a media personality less sophisticated than his audience and less aware of the nature of his performance. Chris Matthews is reality television.

The audience is no longer helpless and docile. It rebels against kitsch and manipulation. Anything introduced into the veg-o-matic of popular culture is now broken down, sampled and pilfered, recombined. The artist loses control over his work once it's released into this wild. Television's non-fictional performers are subject to this as well. The audience crafts additional or alternative narratives; unearths unintended subtexts; improvises parody of inferior work. These are defensive strategies. If we're not to be rid of them we are obliged by a sense of decency to ridicule a Tyra Banks or a Chris Matthews. One must marvel. One must not take some people seriously.

But he must consider them seriously, as symptoms of the human condition. After all, the joke is ultimately on us.
Reality television is the gallows humor of a culture self-slated for execution. The greater part of its appeal is not, as first glance suggests, the sugar-rush ridicule of one's inferiors; it's the bitter acknowledgement they are, after all, our fellows, countrymen, kin even. They are us.

You complain: Reality television shows a perversely select group. Yes; but it does not necessarily follow they're a meaner lot than the whole. After all, some are too wretched even to make it past first cut at For the Love of Ray J. How great is their number?

We may yet know. Commerce ensures new contrivances for luring their basest natures into the electronic square are even now being worked up by some of our sharpest young minds. Decent kids every one, no doubt.

Reality television has only begun charting the depths of human greed. By "greed" I mean also greed for love, status, attention. Like it or not, reality television is a valuable artifact of the present. But the ever-shifting lineup of "reality's" global community theater all manage to delude themselves in the end into thinking they are stars.

Reality TV is a living document of our decadent end. It was, after all, the poet-cum-charlatan-cum-"satanist" Aleister Crowley who declared

Every man and woman is a star

and began his "Book of the Law" with

Do what thou wilt will be the whole of the law
(commerce, I presume, necessitated a book-length addendum to this perfectly concise, all-encompassing statement of principle).

Reality television has never been more succinctly defined. You're the star; do what you will. Here it is prefigured before television. It just as neatly sums up current popular convention. "Reality", a long time latent, has been released into the atmosphere we all share. Its intrusive nature interrogates high and low. Its endless iterations are unforeseeable. The confused persona we know as "Chris Matthews" is one measure of its progress.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The More Things Change...

From a former jar-head friend now working in Afghanistan as a contractor:

About the only thing you really need to stockpile is patience because it's a military/government project, where the sad but common saying is "f--k up, move up". You'd be astounded at the incompetence and how deep and swift it can flow through here sometimes. You remember.

I want to make an anti-Ken Burns documentary someday, for our decade's Iraq/AfPak project: over stills of soldiers in the field, accompanied by a soundtrack of melodramatic strings, a voice-over (is James Earl Jones still doing voice work?) reads letters and emails home; but instead of co-opting the chivalrous eloquence of the nineteenth century to romanticise the massacre from the comfort of our temporal remove, we get the contemporary voice and the gruesome comedy. Plain, unsentimental, profane, resigned. And a thousand times truer.

Oh, wait. It's been done:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

cowardice

This is a little embarrassing.

I thought I might write my way out of here. Setting messages in virtual bottles adrift in the electronic ether. Someone would find one, send out a search party. I would finally join society, whatever that meant. I had an idea of what it was, gleaned from a lifetime of secondhand accounts warped by the demented lens of electronic media. These posts are my various attempts to mimic that, to conjure in reality what I see in representation, as, increasingly, is the whole of my behavior. I'm a one man cargo cult.

Years ago, before my self-delusion was finally spent, before I finally accepted as chosen this isolation incrementally achieved through countless retreats from various relationships to the "outside world", that is to say humanity, I thought of my existence as taking place in a darkened room. There is a door somewhere, but I can't see it. I can only grope about in the dark, walking the wall with my hands. I could not know if I was endlessly retracing the same circuitous route in a tomb, or moving down an endless hall. But as long as I had faith in the existence of the door I was alright. It would lead me out; I would have friends, lovers, enemies. I would be normal, finally. This has been the unachievable goal I've set for myself. I would be part of a greater whole, drawing strength from it, rather than a whole unto myself, consuming my own psychic innards until my hollow, gelatinous shell caves in upon itself in a rubbery heap.

But delusion fades over time. Now I know: there is no door. The darkness is mine, projected outward. I cherish the room as all I know, because it is. I don't want to leave, therefore I cannot leave. I'm going to die in here. But I do miss the idea of the door. We are all precisely where we have chosen to be.
Save yourselves.

The Sacred and the Vulgar

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Lone Wolf Tickets

A question. Has anyone yet attempted to leverage yesterday's tragedy at Fort Hood into a defense of the Patriot Act's "lone wolf" provision? Maybe the question is not if, but when. I'm thinking of starting a pool.
Of course it may not be necessary. Yesterday* the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to extend three provisions: roving wiretaps; section 215, or the "libraries provision" diminishing privacy rights; and the "lone wolf" provision, which should probably be renamed the "pack of wolves" provision, for its potential (arguably inevitable) future misuse against political "radicals", as defined by whatever pack is in power.

[*correction: the House Judiciary Committee voted on Nov. 5 to allow the LW provison to expire; the Senate Judiciary voted last month to extend all three]

update: Speaking of grassroots terrorism, if the Seattle police are right, a man now in critical condition who was shot and arrested earlier today for the assassination-style killing of a Seattle police officer was waging a terrorist campaign of his own (with at least one accomplice) against the city's police department. According to police, Christopher Monfort, an Obama-lookalike with a similar biracial background, is also a suspect in an arson case involving the torching of several police vehicles at a motor pool. The arsonist left a note promising to kill police officers. Monfort is a University of Washington graduate and sometime activist:
Monfort received a bachelor's degree from the UW in March 2008, according to the university's degree-validation Web site. His major was in Law, Societies and Justice.

Last year, Monfort belonged to the McNair Scholars Program, part of the university's office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. The program aims to steep undergraduate students in sophisticated research, preparing them for graduate work.

Monfort provided this title for his project with the McNair program: "The Power of Citizenship Your Government Doesn't Want You to Know About: How to Change the Inequity of the Criminal Justice System Immediately, Through Active Citizen Nullification of Laws, As a Juror."

In an abstract of his project, Monfort said he planned to "illuminate and further" the scholarship of Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University. Butler is a proponent of jury nullification, a controversial principle whereby jurors feel free to disregard a judge's instructions and acquit a defendant no matter the strength of the evidence.

Butler has argued that such nullification may be particularly appropriate in cases where black defendants are charged with nonviolent crimes.

"It is the moral responsibility of black jurors to emancipate some guilty black outlaws," Butler wrote in a 1995 Yale Law Journal article, adding: "My goal is the subversion of American criminal justice, at least as it now exists."

update II: Seattle police now claim to have found bomb-making materials and more evidence linking Monfort to the arson and the murder, and have declared him a "domestic terrorist."

update III: After initially speculating that Monfort acted with one or two accomplices, they are now saying he acted alone

Monday, October 26, 2009


Blockhead, Insomniac Olympics


Sparks, I Wish I Looked a Little Better (1983)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Narrative Blowback

Has the media's recoiling fascination with the Angry White Mobs of health care reform's roadshow crippled that effort and stalled the Obama administration?

Marshaling evidence to that effect, liberal codger E.J.Dionne, for one, draws the only relevant conclusion: there is no such thing as a "liberal media bias." In giving the "tea-baggers" all that sneering attention,the media overstated their numbers and fury; and as we all know consequence equals intent and consequences are always intended. Employing their conspiratorial mob tactics (political organization and assembly, raised voices, unfashionable clothing) they snookered the media into acting as their own oblivious man behind the curtain, projecting the illusion of a powerful force. It's a new twist on an old story: idealistic and naive city folk brave the American interior in search of a dream, get taken by slick operating small-towners. It was a Simpson's episode. Of course, eventually everything will be a Simpsons episode.

But the pitchfork extras were too well cast. Like anthropologists happening upon a long-isolated tribe, the press marvelled at these folk, no longer mere legend. For all their habitual rhapsodizing about the historic demographic shift America has taken from shameful homogeneity to the uncertain (but nonetheless mandated Great and Necessary) multiracial beyond, the media was nonetheless shocked to find a retired middle-class as white as the workforce it once was. The past exists only as reproach, and those consigned to it carry its shame like the mark of Cain.

They have no character arc, or future. First this was prophesied, then it was decided. The unease produced in them by the media's endless celebrations of their long-overdue and deserved demise (the post-racial age of Obama) is treated as spontaneous bigotry welling up from inexhaustible depths. The racist nature of their demand for their "nation back" is presumed and condemned in one breath, and made no more understandable by Obama's open claim to the nation on behalf of a new, better people, defined by only by what they are not--white. Those clamoring for their "nation back" are literally guilty of talking back.

Of the accusatory adjectives used to describe the crowds, old and white, the first remains a furtive and facile appeal to an ancient prejudice, but the second has become a pejorative in its own right, encouraging a new sort of bigotry--one not so much sanctioned as it is required. All else being equal, "White" is now a moral failing into which one is inescapably born. How we arrived at this perversion of both Christian and Enlightenment values (in the name, alternatively, of both) remains shrouded not in mystery but coercion. One is not allowed to ask.

Media bias, liberal or not, is nothing more than the aggregate of the influential class' prejudices, fantasies, and phobias. It is not action but drift. Its predictable nature creates the illusion of direction and control. But once set in motion, round and round it goes, where the narrative stops, nobody knows.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Oblivironia

That's my suggested word for oblivious to irony.

An example. Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, in Israel as part of a 56-member Congressional contingent summoned by AIPAC, repeating a theme developed there to criticize US foreign policy:

"I’m very troubled by that, because I don’t think we in America would want another country telling us how to implement and execute our laws."

Maybe I need to combine oblivion with gall. Yeah, needs work. From Philip Giraldi's Sept. 3 column.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Summer ends over a weekend here, usually right about now. The grey cloak shrinks the sky, the fall chill shrinks the skin, my spirit lets out a pathetic whimper, but, as if by design, I'm returned the energy I'd thought, as every year, lost for good to one last August. Doors will reopen this Sunday, muse willing.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dennis Does Democracy

I went to my congressman's (Rick Larsen, Democrat) "health care forum" yesterday, having been compelled by one of the Moveon-type liberal activist organizations that send me emails (I think it was "BarackObama.com").

I arrived at the stadium (of the Seattle Mariners' triple-A baseball team, the Everett Aquasox) two hours early as the email suggested; there was a crowd gathered at the gates. The anti-reform faction had set up a table. A woman with a microphone was reading from a sheet of talking points, her insufficient amplification system being shouted down by the chanting of the pro-reform faction. Whenever someone took the microphone they were drowned out by chants of "Yes We Can" or "Liar, Liar."

The lefties were outnumbered by about 2 to 1, but appeared to be more the product of a unified organizational effort, with pre-printed signs and many in matching t-shirts (the conservatives all had hand-written impromptu signs). The local Democratic Party affiliate had set up their own booth with petitions and campaign-style paraphernalia. People jostled to block their opponents' signs with their own, but mostly kept their hands to themselves.

Eventually a group of young men showed up with Obama-as-Hitler posters. One of them positioned himself behind the conservatives' table as a woman was speaking, holding his sign aloft. He was hustled off by one of the larger conservative men. I later learned this was a contingent of LaRouche supporters. They were all young, with at least one woman in their group, and unexceptional enough in appearance.

At one point an overweight fellow with an effeminate manner showed up with a bullhorn, demanding: "Repeal the Bush tax cuts! Repeal the Bush tax cuts!" He was surrounded by detractors who argued with him for a while; he explained that he was there because the anti-reform protesters were "not welcome" at a "rally for health-care reform." Whether he was mistaken about the nature of the "town hall meeting" or was referring to the preliminary gathering at the gates I'm not sure. While his bullhorn gave him amplification superiority over the conservatives' paltry sound system, he gave it a rest after a few minutes.

After about an hour the conservatives shut down and the crowd calmed. People mingled about showing deference to friends and foes alike; debates broke out here and there; a polite Northwestern version of the contentious battles that are going on across the nation.

When they opened the gates people were passing out question forms but once we got inside Rep. Larsen, after speaking briefly, took random questions directly from the crowd. These were mostly challenges to reform, often lacking coherence or taking the form of statements; this went for both sides. Not all challenges were from the right; one citizen asked if Larsen opposed single payer reform because he had taken "half a million dollars from the insurance companies" (Larsen denied this charge). Larsen denied that illegal immigrants would be eligible and the "death boards" charge. Occasionally there were shouts from the audience, boos or applause; one man stormed over to place himself directly in front of me (if you want to find the crank, he's always right in front of me; it was annoying, but I delighted in pointing myself out to my daughter later on the evening news) and berate the congressman at volume. He shortly relented, sulking off in an exaggerated fashion, muttering that he would "be quiet, for now." This was the single such incident of "shouting down."
If what I saw was a typical example of what's happening at these meetings across the country, then the media is overreacting. But then, as I've pointed out above, this is the polite Puget Sound.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Slog Days

I'm out on the back porch because the house just won't cool down. Tanned and tawny haired from the sun, looking like an aging surf bum and moving like the just plain aged in the oppressive heat, I swear I'll never complain about the Northwest's lack of sunshine again.
I have my legs crossed--habitually in what I've been taught is acceptable male fashion, ankle on knee and calf not angled too far above the horizontal. Our cat positions himself to look up at me, framed comically by the triangle formed by my propped-up leg. He blinks hello; it goes unacknowledged and he blinks again, more slowly and deliberately. I'm convinced this familiar practice is conscious signalling of affection on his part, born of the circumstance that cats only sleep in the presence of those they trust. He closes his eyes as an expression of this trust. I blink back and he is contented. He stretches languidly before moving on to a shaded spot, where he nearly pants like a dog in the heat. It seems suspiciously overdone, as if he's playing it up, not necessarily for me but for himself. Such as I am doing here. No work will be done today.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

...but we can't get our picture...

My latest TAC contribution is online.
Also offered gratis: Wilson Burman on Bernanke, Chase Madar on Samantha Power, Stuart Reid on the Pope and James Antle on Joe Scarborough.
"Ben Bernanke, Samantha Power, and the Pope walk into a bar..."
Subscribe here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Business End of Empathy

McClatchy is reporting that liberal advocacy groups are going after the lead plaintiff in the Ricci case, who is expected to be called to testify at this week's confirmation hearings for supreme court nominee Sonya Sotomayor:
On Friday, citing in an e-mail "Frank Ricci's troubled and litigious work history," the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way drew reporters' attention to Ricci's past. Other advocates for Sotomayor have discreetly urged journalists to pursue similar story lines.
Specifically, the advocates have zeroed in on an earlier 1995 lawsuit Ricci filed claiming the city of New Haven discriminated against him because he's dyslexic. The advocates cite other Hartford Courant stories from the same era recounting how Ricci was fired by a fire department in Middletown, Conn., allegedly, Ricci said at the time, because of safety concerns he raised. The Middletown-area fire department was subsequently fined for safety violations, but the Connecticut Department of Labor dismissed Ricci's retaliation complaint.
Sotomayor's confirmation is an all but forgone conclusion. The point now is to obscure or discredit, after having failed to bury, Ricci, something Sotomayor attempted as an appellate court judge. Despite the White House's later attempt to portray Sotomayor's vote there as admirable judicial restraint, the true nature of that decision--dodging a constitutional question in fear of its consequences--was exposed at the time in Jose Cabranes' dissenting opinion (PDF). A judicial advocate of a certain interpretation of law welcomes the opportunity to make that interpretation--if it can be made without looking foolish or inept, thus later precluding such as a supreme court nomination. Luckily for Justice Ginsburg, she has no such worries (or shame).

Aside from the fact that Frank Ricci's history has no bearing on the legal question presented by Ricci v DeStefano, and liberal critiques of the ruling have depended on ignoring or mischaracterizing the actions of New Haven's mayor (in collusion with--or under threat by--an openly bigoted, convicted felon community organizer), PAW, in its desperation to obscure the corrupt machine politics arising from, and the legally unsustainable basis of, "disparate impact" as a model for anti-discrimination law (indeed, the fundamental conflict between "disparate impact" and "disparate treatment" which this case exposes), wants you to deplore Frank Ricci (and the lawsuit that bears his name) for (1) having the temerity to file a discrimination lawsuit, and (2) having once been fired.

The irony of a "liberal" effort to discredit someone for filing a discrimination lawsuit and losing his job, possibly for "whistleblowing", is further proof that fiction cannot compete with reality. "Bleeding Heart Liberals", we hardly knew ye. Whether PAW is oblivious to, or merely takes for granted, the legal reality that who is entitled to legal protection from discrimination is a matter of some discrimination, I cannot decide. But it's either sublime confidence or sheer nerve, provoking the public's habitual skepticism toward discrimination litigation in what is ultimately an attempt to preserve its current foundation. That very skepticism is what PAW and others typically identify as racism, reaction, ignorance, etc.

The open disdain of some for certain classes of people, including those who dare challenge quota hiring, is the flip side of a certain philosophy that, in this debate, falls under the shorthand term, empathy. If the word is not merely superfluous twaddle (and we have to assume it is used for some purpose), and has meaning, it must assign relative values of moral worth, holding other values constant, to classes of persons; these values must then bear upon the application of law. Minority trumps majority, female trumps male, poor trumps rich, etc. Of course this is nothing more than current "liberal" convention plainly expressed, which is precisely why some seize on the president's coded invocation to expose that convention. "Empathy" here is a euphemism for "favor."

The oblique and muted liberal critiques of Ricci have featured just this sort of reasoning, by people too steeped in their conditioning to recognize it; is it not empathy for the "white firemen" after all, to find in their favor? Categorically, no. They earned the decision by virtue of being right. Why, some have asked, are the Republicans calling Frank Ricci to testify? Is it not because he is sympathetic? Yes--but the confirmation process is a political process. The valid political counter-argument to Ricci's testimony would be to call Mayor DeStefano, for instance, to testify; this would also be a means of putting our "empathy" to work for us in deciding who deserves it more. It would further be an expression of confidence in the logic and justice of this faction's position.

Both sides on the Ricci divide were citing a political factor when describing the plaintiffs as "sympathetic." The best defense of "empathy" thus lapses into absurdity: it doesn't mean anything specifically, just that we should be good. When your best defense is irrelevance, it's time to concede.

A faction laying claim to "empathy" or any other virtue (think "patriotism", for instance), would make a talisman out of a word. It's not the enlightenment arising from meaning but the obscurity of emotion they invoke. Otherwise empathy is meaningless, as its defenders here have ably demonstrated.
The law is there to to limit power and just the sort of demagogy that invariably invokes such words as empathy. In the Ricci case the law served just that purpose. Watching the knives come out for Mr. Ricci, we see the ruthlessness upon which an unyielding claim to virtue is dependent. What is the law before virtue itself, after all? Empathy, like the classic liberal ideal, has been distorted by the political reality of modern America into its opposite.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Quantitative Sleazing

From Bloomberg, Johnathan Weil reports a US prosecutor says a stolen Goldman Sachs computer program capable of manipulating global markets may fall into the wrong hands (wrong being other than the world's most powerful investment bank). About the first of this month Goldman notified authorities that former employee Sergey Aleynikov, not content with post-its and paper clips, ripped off the program in his last week working for the company. He was arrested getting off a plane in Newark on July 3. Arguing against bond, the government's prosecutor asserted:
It wasn’t just Goldman that faced imminent harm if Aleynikov were to be released, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Facciponti told a federal magistrate judge at his July 4 bail hearing in New York. The 34-year-old prosecutor also dropped this bombshell: “The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways.”

Publicly Goldman is not going on record, but trying to play down worries:
Goldman isn’t commenting publicly about any of this, though it seems the bank’s bosses want us to believe there’s no need to worry. On July 6, Dow Jones Newswires quoted a “person familiar with the matter” saying this: “The theft has had no impact on our clients and no impact on our business.” Note that this person was so familiar with Goldman that he or she spoke of Goldman’s clients as “our clients” and Goldman’s business as “our business.”

Weil notes:
All this leaves us to wonder: Did Goldman really tell the government its high-speed, high-volume, algorithmic-trading program can be used to manipulate markets in unfair ways, as Facciponti said? And shouldn’t Goldman’s bosses be worried this revelation may cause lots of people to start hypothesizing aloud about whether Goldman itself might misuse this program?

According to his attorney, Aleynikov admits to downloading the software, but denies intending to use it in any "proprietary way." Aleynikov had left Goldman to work for fellow Russian emigre Mikhail Malyshev's start-up company, Teza Tech. Malyshev has been sued by former boss Citadel, alleging he's in violation of a non-compete clause. Malyshev specialized in--what else?--high-frequency trading, and according to the story linked above:
Malyshev, a Russian emigre with a doctorate in astrophysics from Princeton, left Citadel's quantitative trading unit in February after the funds he helped run returned about 40 percent last year. Their performance stood out at a time when most hedge funds lost money and Citadel's flagship portfolios tumbled 50 percent.

The quants shall inherit the economy.

Friday, June 26, 2009



Beck, Hell Yes


Autechre, Second Bad Vibe
Looks like one of the performers from the Beck video.


Lemon Jelly, Space Walk
Voice sample: radio transmission of astronaut Alan Bean describing the sunrise during a space walk, Skylab 3 mission, July 1973

Zero Gs and I feel fine

Note how sampling works as metaphor.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Closed for reinvention. Back soon.

update III:
Girlfriend:
"You come home, you order out food...and then you play those stupid Tito Puente albums until 2 in the morning!"
Guy:
"Tito Puente is gonna be dead, and you'll say: 'Oh, I've been listening to him for years. He's fabulous.' "
--Stripes

update II: be sure to check out the beehive to the right of the screen at 0:08. Like a Nascar Nefertiti!

udpate I:
Did somebody say "twang"?


The Osborne Brothers, Ruby, Are You Mad?

I can only think of two forms of original American folk music, the blues and bluegrass. The blues are subterranean rhythms that strip away all pretense and adornment to allow the unimpeded expression of desire and sorrow. Bluegrass is similarly engaged, yet impelled in the other direction, toward the sky. Where the blues and funk envelop you in the soil of earthen, down-tempo bass chords, bluegrass carries you into the heavens on manic high notes. Blues is earth; bluegrass is sky.
The nearness of nature and its inexorable pull are the common feature. Both evoke the primary and unequivocal realities of desire, family, toil and loss. The unavoidable immediacy of these things in the hungry and desperate experience of the rural poor of the early twentieth century is what gives these forms their inimitable beauty. We are drawn to these as authentic expressions of joy and sorrow no longer possible. The American pastoral.
I was trapped in traffic with nothing but an AM radio to distract me, in LA, when I abandoned the droning obscenity of the OJ trial to land on a non-profit station's bluegrass hour. What the hell. Random finds are the best finds. That's when I first heard this song. This piercing, high lonesome lament was like the lunatic ravings of a mental patient. I had "discovered" something that had been there the whole time. Who knew?

Now; leave me alone, I have work to do.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Condescension and Credulity

No matter with what skill the great manage to seem other than they are, they cannot conceal their malignity.
--Jean de la Bruyere, Characters

That implicit credulity is the mark of a feeble mind will not be disputed.
--Sir William Hamilton

After a brief, nominal flirtation with the ideal of objectivity the political press is poised to revert to its roots in factional advocacy, with the larger outlets financed and influenced by corporate, private or foundational sponsors. That is, what of it will be left behind by the receding waters of the economic and cultural deluge. This goes carelessly unlamented by many amid the celebration of a "new media" (see New Economy, 2000). I see no reason to celebrate an order wherein any news organization with significant resources is ultimately funded by one powerful faction or another.

Yes, we've never had a truly unbiased, independent press. The ideal is likely impossible. But impossibility is the last reason to abandon a worthy ideal. Impossible ideals are the only ones worth striving for. It's all in the striving. The old class and regional biases, as exemplified by the world's most provincial newspaper of selective record, The New York Times (granted, its province constitutes its own city-state, giving its prejudices an imperial reach) aren't going away after all, and the fall of one order doesn't necessarily give way to something better. Human nature already ensures that the natural tendency of institutions is toward degradation.

The mayhem of the blogosphere is welcome for, among other things, its popular revolt against Crimethink as mostly determined by the "old media" in its role as a sort of priestly caste. Their monopoly may be gone, but the new advocacy model of journalism only increases their accusatory fervor, as opposing outlets trade accusations, depending on who's calling out who, of bigotry, anti-Americanism, xenophobia etc. But the stirrings of insurgency should not be mistaken for success (or its inevitability), and the potential for a reaction leaving our discourse more constricted than before remains. The mechanisms of control and panic still being put in place under the ruse of a "war on terror" lend themselves well to the purpose. To say nothing of the fact that once created power travels easily from descending to ascending faction, like a parasite abandoning a dying host for a healthy one. Power is agency; it tends to spill over the confines of its original justification to find new purposes, and is never surrendered by those who have it on mere principle.

An unfortunate consequence of Barack Obama's unique and slightly perverse appeal, and the rout of a decadent Republican Party, is the conversion of too many from opponents to proponents of power. This includes what remains of the "mainstream media", whose bias is not toward liberalism or conservatism as much as it is toward cowardice--accepting uncritically on one hand the appeal to consequences upon which current liberal social science and ensuing policy is based, and on the other its (counter-intuitively) natural complement, the nationalism of the Right. The term "political correctness" should be expanded to include American exceptionalism, at the least. What passes for liberalism today is just chauvinism differently expressed. Neither Left nor Right is uniquely corrupted by power. Power itself is the problem. That the exercise of power is an unfortunate necessity of governance makes it not less but more true.

The advantage, for instance, in a real, exaggerated, or surmised "right wing terrorist threat" is too tempting, with the potential for discrediting or radicalizing (prodding the fiction into reality) the opposition. Combine this with the impetus for legislation against "hateful" speech increasing along with a Democratic majority and the multi-ethnic populace which it must keep in a state of festering resentment and alarm (just as the Right must do with its base) and the previously mentioned journalists advocating on behalf of a very particular and hostile worldview. More than ever we need those with the resources to do sustained investigative reporting to at least feel chastened by a standard of objectivity. The aforementioned New York Times might seem to deserve its fate (every fate that isn't the result of natural catastrophe, and even sometimes that, is "deserved," after all) but the breadth and scope of its daily issue is a wonder, and its loss would be a tragedy.

The new media has also produced the ominous phenomenon of the top-down activist organization, reverse-engineering the model of the grass roots organization to put it directly in the service of the powerful and flooding the arteries of the new telecommunications with creepy, viral efficiency. I'm convinced that if the emails I receive from MoveOn.org came in audio format they would be expressed with a thick Russian accent over a straining analog recording of martial music. No, that would give them too much of a human quality. The "Age of Obama" threatens to become the slogan of our new multicultural tyranny, imposed in part by the political/ideological equivalent of the non-governmental organization.

Alas, what remains of the moneyed press increasingly exists not across an antagonistic divide from from the powerful, but is fragmented by the same factional rifts and insulated by the same elite prejudices. Big Media is an adjunct of the ruling class. This, combined with the inevitable connoisseur's appreciation of the art and play of politics that develops over time, renders it congenitally incapable of distinguishing political maneuver from statesmanship. Which brings me, finally, to the subject.

It's become difficult to tell where the President's political skills leave off and Big Media's credulity begins. The mistaking of platitude for profundity and condescension for compromise has become downright pathological in the age of the Wonder Brother. Never has so little awed so many so much.

This incapacity increases as our democracy matures, a consequence of age accelerated by the Obama effect, the increasing viability of the Fox News/MSNBC model of advocacy journalism, and the much deserved disrepute into which the Republican Party has fallen. If independence is our measure of health, the fourth estate, having endured a fitful adolescence and the disillusionment of middle age, is entering its dotage. As is the case with the aged, it's intellect is no longer supple and its biases are irrevocably set; it's less and less able to control its utterances for the sake of decorum; it grows fonder of sentimental kitsch. The press' gushing over this or that vaporous issuance from President Obama is the equivalent of the kitten and puppies calendars decorating an old folks' home. Correct that; the various artistic representations of Obama by acolytes, uncritically admired recently in that same Times, are precisely equivalent.

So when President Obama directly addressed abortion in his speech at Notre Dame, what we witnessed wasn't the brave magnanimity over which so many gushed--the president made certain there would be no change in his decidedly uncompromising support for taxpayer-funded abortion on demand in every municipality in the country. Offering meaningless, self-congratulatory expressions of compromise unattached to substance in such a way is an act that would typically be described disapprovingly as nerve, not "courage", as in "it takes nerve." But you do have to hand it to him.

As is the case with the new president, still, it wasn't the act but the reception that is remarkable. In this case the complete surrender of a former bastion of opposition to the cruel, calculating expedience of the president's abortion position, abandoning (to use the president's favored language) the powerless and voiceless to the powerful and loud. Ralph Ellison's concept of the inherent oppression of "invisibility", something the president is sure to have appreciated in the romantic abstract, has never been so applicable. This would be a defining feature of the unborn child (though the president's insistence on abortion goes beyond unborn and unwanted to inconvenient, as he will not sacrifice the good graces of Planned Parenthood to compromise on behalf of children who survive extraction), along with helplessness and powerlessness. The president's definition of abortion as a "choice" is an unremarkable commonplace in our low, dishonest age after all.

No; contrary to the adulatory response from the president's vast amen corner, what we witnessed wasn't a marvel of rhetoric or magnanimity, not a bold offer of common ground, but a condescending expression of power. Condescension is a form of disdain. The president brandished his position on abortion, a position the church once insisted was unconscionable, and planted it like a flag in the heart of what was once one of its grandest institutions. To the cheers of its children. This was not lost on him, even if it was lost on the press.
Some things aren't open to compromise--rather, this used to be true. "Common ground", here offered by the unmoving and unmoved, is the field of surrender. Compromise is the murder of principle by expedience, and "unity", another favorite of the president, is a prerequisite of tyranny. Meanwhile, what remains of the mainstream press has become so intoxicated by the expression of power that it cannot recognize it as such.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Voices, Violence and Vocations

Impelled by religious zeal, a man commits an act of terrorist murder, targeting an individual he deems responsible for the slaughter of innocents. The charge follows: through the use of extreme language activist organizations, news outlets--the very opinions and beliefs they espouse--provoked the violence. By implication (or direct inference) these beliefs are discredited not by logic, fact or argument, but by an act of violence. Not content with the widely held view that the violent act should not be allowed to advance its ends, those with opposing ends determine it should advance theirs. Opportunism attaches to outrage. The shock of an act of violence magnified by social effect and media ubiquity becomes transformative after all, defining the limits of speech and, as necessarily follows, thought and action.

This process played out yesterday regarding the murder of an abortion doctor, as the sustained smirk occasionally punctuated by conspicuous displays of sanctimony that is MSNBC's typical news block gave way to sustained sanctimony occasionally punctuated by conspicuous displays of smirking. Whether or not this outrage is authentic is beside the point; when the personal outrage of the primped and powdered set of the nightly newscast became operative our society and its discourse became a measure more juvenile (it is not the authenticity of individual emotion that determines whether or not it is unseemly, it is the venue). It was the first indication I've had yet that Rachel Maddow (who's been otherwise exemplary in, for instance, holding the Obama administration accountable for its promises) was capable of anything other than her standard expression of vapid, self-satisfied ridicule (is this some Alinsky-ite strategy?). I'm not being facetious when I say it was touching; nonetheless, it was entirely inappropriate. It would be progress of a sort, however, if she retained a trace of that solemnity for her on-air persona in the future.

The act described in the first sentence above has happened not once but twice in the past two days. Will FoxNews, for one, follow reports of today's lone Islamic terrorist with a similar display of accusatory outrage? I think I haven't the stomach for any more cultivated outrage (Fox's daily, default level of bombast already beats even yesterday's orgy of righteous anger from MSNBC). I'm certain many have already pointed out the similarities between the two murders. I'm less confident many will draw the right conclusion--that speech must be defended above all, and violence can't be allowed to determine our laws or morals. Whether or not the murderers were right about the injustice they perceived is irrelevant. How one reacts to these crimes seems determined above all by point of view; but when murder or violence is the case, there can be only one point of view.

But this much too must be acknowledged: enough violence will determine the measure of our liberty whether we like it or not. Popular will, and panic, will ensure that. The decade has taught us nothing less. We've only had a taste of the repressive measures the consenting governed will be willing to impose upon itself. Violence works, and sometimes in very small, highly focused applications. Not to achieve the ends of its actors, for these questions will still be determined by the competition of popular and factional wills and that cruelest factor of all, expedience; no, violence works to degrade our freedom generally. It works to limit our very thoughts. Enough of it, enough of the terror it inspires, enough of the attendant opportunistic outrage of the politically engaged, and the limits will come, in gradually increasing severity. They're already at the border.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Koko Taylor (1928-2009), Wang Dang Doodle


Jimmy Dale Gilmore Trio, The Mobile Line

"It's a league game, Smokey."


The Avalanches, Frontier Psychiatrist
"That boy needs therapy!"


Mint Royale, Show Me




Townes Van Zandt, Waiting Around to Die, from the film Heartworn Highways

Friday, May 15, 2009

Shill.He.Is

The single most distressing result of Barack Obama's election is not the looting of your grandchildren's economic prospects to pay for the new administration's Great Lurch Forward into insolvency. It isn't the accompanying loss of liberty. Nor is it the mass decampment of "anti-war" leftists now silent or openly supporting the escalation of the war in Afghanistan (so that's what they mean by "MoveOn"). No; it's the ascendance of shameless kitschmeister Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, whose "Yes We Can" video on behalf of the Obama campaign took the cliched political cant that is rap's tertiary stock-in-trade (after gangsterism and narcissism) to surreal and sinister levels, putting it directly in the service of power. The natural process of his passing down through the Dante-esque circles of celebreality television into ultimate obscurity is now delayed by at least four years.

Witnessing Bob Dylan's participation in Pepsi's cloying, Super Bowl-launched ad campaign ("every generation refreshes the world") alongside Will was like finding a beloved elderly family member working as a carnival geek. To a remixed "Forever Young" a sixties-era Dylan passes the baton (in the form of a pair of wayfarer sunglasses) off to Will. If this was a true representation of the state of popular music, the g-forces induced by such a sudden drop in iconic quality would cause the culture to pass out. Don't panic--it isn't. The raw material of humanity hasn't been left out overnight to spoil, and there are as many talented young people as ever, in and out of hip hop. Just don't tell Mr. Dylan. Like his early eighties "conversion" to evangelical Christianity, the less said of this embarrassing interlude the better. Let's give the president a pass too. Let him think that Puff Daddy and The Black Eyed Peas are relevant, that Wanda Sykes is funny (if that woman has ever said anything funny, it was surely an accident). There are too many meaningful delusions of which he will have to be disabused, by argument and circumstance, over the next four years, to worry about the trivial.

Now I learn from the blog Where Hip Hop and Libertarianism Meet (only to find they have nothing in common, I'm sure--no worries, Big Man Fascism, your muse still only has eyes for you) that Will.I.Am will be caddying the carpet bag for Terry McAuliffe (who Will identifies as his "closest political mentor") as he stumps for the governorship of Virginia. It's going to be a long four years.
In my last post I said some harsh things about the American film industry. Then, this appears: Film Studio Mulls "Coyote Ugly" sequel. Coincidence? I think not.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Deconstructing Eric, or, Little by Little

Abraham Lincoln once said that "If you're a racist, I will attack you with the North," and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.
--Michael Scott

Our Attorney General is right. We are a nation of cowards, fearing an honest discussion of race. But, unless he's breaking utterly with rigorously observed convention, he's dead wrong about what that discussion would look like. A newly open conversation about race and public policy is the last thing an Eric Holder wants.

In fact, Mr. Holder's intent was to preempt just this possibility, which he reasonably fears as an unintended consequence of Barack Obama's remarkable success. That success shatters the very assumption upon which it is most dependent--that America is inherently and uniquely racist, forever incomplete thereby. Holder finds himself tasked with performing the traditional February rite of reinforcing this assumption--as the first black attorney general serving the first black president. That's one hell of a contradiction. It's going to take a nation of millions to obscure it. Thus Attorney General Michael Scott's suggestion that every day be a nation-wide Diversity Day:
...if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.
When I saw the scare-quote screen crawl (I shall start calling them scare-crawls) on a television across a room, "Atty General Holder Says US 'Nation of Cowards'," I assumed Mr. Holder had renounced the fear-mongering on behalf of "security" that has overtaken the Nation since 9/11. Something about the courage required by liberty and the cowardice required by tyranny. Perhaps he even had the nerve to suggest the terrorist threat has been exaggerated by those seeking power and wealth. I imagined myself defending him to you. This is, after all, only what he should be saying. But Holder wasn't there to calm a panicked nation; he was there to panic a calm one:
If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted -- and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about 50 years -- the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely -- and to do so now.
But this is nothing new. The remarkable thing about Wednesday's speech was that the Attorney General broadened the mandate of the U.S. Department of Justice:
But we must do more, and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must -- and will -- lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.
Mr. Holder did not reveal any plans for how he will "lead the nation to [Lincoln's] 'new birth of freedom' "; probably because he has none. Of course he may think we're not ready for them. As if this immodest language isn't disturbing enough, Holder combines it with an attempt not to merely prompt debate but to direct it:
I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us." There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self interest
This is a false accommodation. That there "can be" a "very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action"; is given, and not by the Attorney General. The implication is that current debate is heading for "illegitimate" territory, deliberately reinforcing white anxiety and black resentment that holds opposition to affirmative action as racist until proven otherwise.

To limit the debate is to control it. Holder, arguing like a good (or just fair) lawyer, needs to place the status quo he defends between two arbitrary "extreme" boundaries. Thus certain opinions are "simplistic" (of course he could be talking about the stubbornly crude logic of disparate impact and quotas--his call to frankness and depth included neither) or "extreme", serving "narrow self-interest."

It is a monologue Holder desires, alternating between narrow, meaningless poles toward a safely predetermined end, mouthed by a multitude distracted by false choices. The product of a collective, conditioned mind. But this much is obvious. What is more interesting is the unintentional but more revealing subtext, inaccessible to the author, incapacitated as he is by status, position and, appropriately enough, chauvinism. Holder's speech revealed the potential conflicts facing a civil rights movement-turned-industry by Barack Obama's stunning, rapid rise.
Those who most fear the reality of a "transformation" to a "post-racial" America are those who've most benefited from the decidedly racial nature of recent American politics--again, embarrassingly demonstrated with Obama's success. The end game of affirmative action and discrimination-through-litigation is revealed as long overdue. The intent of the "conversation" about race, now more than ever, is to de-legitimize that challenge by declaring it unfit for conversation.

If we should start taking seriously the "post-racial" nature of Obama's rise, we might start asking that it mean something beyond assigning a professional and political premium to certain individuals based on Obama's myth of "race and inheritance." But the obvious advantage that race played for the inauthentic son of slavery and segregation contradicts the myth. The notion of a white American jackboot forever on the neck of our culturally most powerful--black Americans--was questionable before Obama's remarkable campaign and the ecstatic reception of his inauguration. Now it is farcical.

But it isn't only that Barack Obama renders the white/black reparations dynamic absurd. The nascent Diversity State finds itself too soon and too totally triumphant. The bogey of white oppression threatens to become no longer plausible, and those groups assigned varying stature within the hierarchy of grievance are already eyeing one another uneasily.

The order now threatened by diversity is not pre- but post-civil rights. That minority became synonymous with oppressed, and "underrepresented" synonymous with denied, once only enhanced the power of the dominant minority, which extracted concessions from a still comfortable majority (that could still afford them and held an expectation of final conciliation). Smaller minority groups were content to follow the leader and accept a subordinate position. But what happens to that dynamic in a "post-racial" ("post-white") America where the majority of individuals have a birthright claim against the white plurality and no sense of obligation toward a black population that is culturally dominant, politically favored and stubbornly lagging in professional and scholastic achievement?
It was therefore Holder's purpose to preclude any challenges to black America's position atop the hierarchy of grievance. Black equality is more than simple equality. Holder is here to defend the primacy of his faction as the vanguard of a revolution now triumphant:
In addition, the other major social movements of the latter half of the 20th century -- feminism, the nation's treatment of other minority groups, even the antiwar effort -- were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality. Those other movements may have occurred in the absence of the civil rights struggle, but the fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment. Further, many of the tactics that were used by these other groups were developed in the civil rights movement.
By more false accommodation he allows that feminism, anti-war protests and other minority rights movements "may" have happened without the black civil rights movement--insinuating that they probably would have not. When Holder goes on to assert that black history is too little studied, and that "African American history is American history", he declares that black history is more than American history, and greater than any other group's American history.

The line is that we must continually revisit the sins of the past to understand our present. But in reality the better things get in the present, the more the self-interested must recourse to the dismal past, and the more the present has to be compared to an ideal of race relations that has never existed and may not be possible. There is no historical precedent for America, and nothing like her at present.

The regions from where America's "disadvantaged minorities" originate cannot compare in wealth, opportunity or liberty. Resentment of this humiliating reality feeds into that encouraged by the dishonest class of political opportunists represented by Holder. The language of civil rights has become an affront, no longer condemnatory of practice but of a people and a nation: the long history of Western civil liberties is only begun with the American civil rights movement and invalidated by the interlude of American slavery. "Simplistic", indeed.

We are in the late decadent phase of the civil rights movement. Declaring victory and demobilizing is not an option--this would involve the voluntary surrender of power, something that does not happen. Power is only surrendered under coercion or dissipated over time. The latter threat panics Holder and friends. Pretext must be found to justify power. Enemies, if they don't appear, must be found. First, they are said to be hiding among us. Then, the enemy hides latent within each of us. Our eternal vigilance against "hateful" thought is a population regulating itself on behalf of power.

Holder's acknowledgement of the problematic nature of diversity reveals an internal contradiction. By unmindful incrementalism we went from the noble ideals of equality and tolerance to their near-opposite: diversity as a goal in itself. Even now one cannot suggest publicly that a policy of ethnic diversifying is no more legitimate than one of ethnic cleansing, and no more fair. And while ethnic cleansing has a long, sordid history, ethnic diversifying has none at all.

A multiracial democratic republic worthy of the name will defend equality before the law against those who equate it with equality of results. It's too late in the game to deny that fairness in hiring and education produces racial inequality--inequality that, as we've seen, does not necessarily benefit the majority. Ethnic diversity and democracy are thus at odds. This was once a given; now it is heresy. But it is heresy only because we think it's awful that it should be so. Thus far we have chosen not to reconcile a diverse population to democracy, but to reconcile democracy to a diverse population. This may be inevitable. But, as the truth is always worth knowing and no subterfuge lasts forever, we would do well to call the Attorney General's bluff.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Criminal Boordom

A senior British diplomat faces prison term for anti-Semitic remarks:

A senior diplomat in the British Foreign Office has been arrested for inciting religious hatred after he launched into an anti-Semitic tirade at a London gym, the Daily Mail reported on Monday.

Witnesses told the British newspaper they heard diplomat Rowan Laxton shouting "f**king Israelis, f**king Jews" while watching a TV report of Israel Defense Forces operations in Gaza from the seat of an exercise bike.

He also reportedly shouted that IDF soldiers should be "wiped off the face of the Earth."

The Daily Mail said Laxton continued the tirade even after he was approached by other gym users.

A complaint was later filed to police and Laxton was arrested and charged with inciting religious hatred, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term. He has since been released on bail [emph. added]
Seven years. Raskolnikov only got eight, for crying out loud. Britain's laws are Britons' business (thank God), but I marvel at how laws written as prohibitions against incitement to religious/racial hatred are broken by the mere expression of religious/racial animosity--even those which leave an individual alienated from his fellows. Laxton, married to a Muslim woman and moved to anger by the carnage taking place in Gaza, was making no friends at the time of his "offense", and suffered not only the immediate opprobrium of those around him, but likely would have suffered professional loss in the ensuing scandal. Normal societal prohibitions--and the exceptional requirements of a public, political figure--were working as they always do in some form or fashion to regulate behavior as determined by the dominant cultural milieu. Yet still, this is not enough--and will never be enough, for some.

Prohibitions on expression, being the product of zealous paranoia, will not stay still. Once a given expression becomes a crime, privileges of place and privacy must fall away, unprotected; what one first cannot say at work (no longer merely a professional requirement) he soon cannot say in public (no longer a question of manners or moral community): at the grocery store, in an elevator, at the gym, as above; and, if this advance is not arrested, eventually at home. Certainly not in front of the children (and there will always be those who automatically assent, "but of course you can't say that, and of course, never in front of the children!"). Once a word or phrase becomes criminal, one can only speak it if it passes unheard like the proverbial tree in the forest (but, as that riddle has no answer, some will anguish over the question, if hate speech occurs and there is no one to hear it, has a hate crime occurred?). And if the spoken word is prohibited because it's deemed too much a menace, the same word written is immediately fair game, because it is the meaning that has been criminalized. Here too it is the communication of a thought that is prohibited. One cannot write it, because eyes might find it.

What one can never say one is forbidden from thinking--because any evidence of that thought is punished; his thoughts have no greater freedom than criminal activity that is deliberately concealed. Yes, one's thoughts are always his own little kingdom, kept by himself, but what becomes of him, and his thoughts, when the State determines that they must remain there, kept to himself?
Criminalized speech is, by necessity, criminalized thought.

It will still surprise most Americans, but prison terms for offensive speech are much less remarkable in most of the world than they are here. The Haaretz link to the above story sighed, "One Born Every Minute" (alongside a photo of a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bundling the story in with the latest "wave of anti-Semitism" narrative to follow an Israeli military offensive). Don't despair guys, soon there'll be one jailed every day, until we've rounded them all up. What could go wrong?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

...

The peep show divider comes down, the house lights come on; everything seems to be boiling beneath the surface in the acidic, garish light. The patrons, marginal characters and outright perverts, seedy sorts and vulgar youths, slumming yuppies and middle-aged men whose faces unintentionally plead for lifting the weight of years of disillusion and regret; all squint and cringe in the hostile glare. We are the uninvited of the great bacchanal, the unrecorded casualties of the revolution, homeless in the ensuing tyranny of gild and gluttony, staggering and limping about unnoticed. We all shrink and lower our gaze in the light's exposure, seeing no one, as if to be seen by no one.

Time for you to go too, friends. Use one of the doors to the right, or go out the way you came in. No one look at another. File out in furtive silence. You pass a slotted paybox on your way out, stuffed with expired coupons, slug nickels, greasy notes and scraps of old newspaper.

The ancient doorman is as still as the stained and eroding stone-front of the building, into which he appears to be, no you're sure he is, fading, like a mineral pocket dissipating into a greater mass. He looks at nothing and sees everything. Behind the dull, insensate eyes he records it all, like a meter mindlessly ticking through an infinite number. He's always been and always will be there, even after the body is gone, after the building is demolished and replaced, demolished and replaced again, after nature's reclamation of the spot; always the impression left by this blip of sentience in the cosmic mass, will remain in some form, a spectral smudge, eternally fading but never going away.

Back on the street you expand out and up as we disperse; your spirits lift. You think about someone at home or someone in the past; you stop, looking about at your fellows. Each seems to trail a bit of light behind him; you marvel a moment at this illusion of light and psychology. There is a twinge you don't recognize, a pull inside of an icy grey hand upon a silent bass string. For a split-second you are utterly disoriented, your history and identity vanish, lost to you entirely; you don't know who or where you are. Something is revealed, something you always knew but never considered, something overwhelming. The shudder of displacement passes so quickly you're not sure it happened. You pull your collar up around your neck, which feels exposed and vulnerable on the street. Already you're forgetting the queer sensation. Home beckons, comforting temporal echoes of its warmth and familiarity reassure you; someone is there now, you're certain, waiting; before moving on you take one last look at the others, all shuffling off beneath the alternating red and white of the flashing sign that reads,
UNTETHERED

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Boards of Canada, Satellite Anthem Icarus (Nic Brown, David James)


PJ Harvey, This is Love
A thousand Alanis Morrisettes don't amount to a blemish on Ms. Harvey's scrawny bum.


Aphex Twin, IZ US

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Commutation

People are afraid to merge...
--Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis

There is not room enough. Not for everyone. The passage is insufficient for the mass of humanity bearing down upon it. Audacity and nerve will determine who passes ahead and who languishes behind; an instant hierarchy of the quick and the rude. Deference risks humiliation. Small gestures of civility punctuate the tedium of cautious distrust, hopelessly, heroically outnumbered like the last dwindling acts of defiance thinning away in the ascent of a new tyranny. This is a chaotic system of jangled nerves and bruised pride, man and machinery, forming and dissolving for a time here at this narrow pass. My commute begins in earnest. I enter the scrum. Time to merge.

Everyone is converging on the bottleneck, all manner of automobile, reflecting distorted fun house mirror images of each other on their shiny hard-beetle shells. Their headlamps sweep the dim before them like insect feelers. Out ahead the freeway is split into two neon rivers of white and red, streams of molten light. My head hurts.

The cars declare status and defiance. Contradictory ethos and aesthetics vie for supremacy; there goes one trumpeting his moral superiority and a higher social awareness; this one declares his ironic detachment; an insurance salesman/outdoorsman slides jauntily alongside; a celebration of pure aggression howls along on oversized tires; over there an affected bohemian cuts off a conspicuous rebel. Each is off to toil in a cubicle. Here and there are the gaudy candy-chrome rolling stock of an entire generational demographic's bad taste, celebrating the dull greed they cannot know for their immersion in it. I love them all; I would be lost without them. Some bear slogans; the embarrassing, gauche inelegance of the literal-minded and too familiar. One squeezes in front of me rudely. What Would Jesus Do? He asks. Well, he wouldn't have cut me off, I'm sure. Above it all are those with the smug certainty of instantly discernible superior dollar value; greater wealth demonstrated, higher status accrued, evolutionary primacy earned. Game, set, match.

Cars buck nose-down as they brake suddenly, rear up again in acceleration, baring their prowess. Some speed up to screen out others who pull alongside, an impromptu game of chicken for the receding gap; everyone is jealously defending his rolling realm of personal space. Leaving room for another to pass finds one soon overwhelmed with interlopers crowding into the open space. There is an unspoken system of rules that we're all compelled to test endlessly. Still, somehow, the horn's blare is only resorted to as the last break with civility and order. An impotent insult and pathetic lament. This gives me hope. The brake lights, flaring irregularly and collecting in masses, tap out our frustration like some sort of Morse code.

Within the comfortable cells of the cars are people, immobilized in their mobility. Within the people are dwindling stores of calm, alkaline slowly being consumed by the crackling acid of frustration and resignation; an energy producing chemical reaction gradually rendering them inert. Radio waves are beamed into these darkened compartments; the shrill and braying tones of affected cynicism, emitted by the most desperate and craven examples yet of humanity's endless permutations--drive-time disc jockeys.

But I am not there yet. Should I rise on time for once? Must I lay here, waiting for the last-chance urgency of no more time to finally compel me to movement? What, after all, is appealing about the ten minutes of first-waking dread spent staring at the mystery spot on the ceiling? How I love my cell! How I love the walls that keep me in and keep you out! Ten minutes sooner, ten minutes of gumption and resolve, a mere ten minutes, and I can pass ahead of the critical mass that turns a routine merge into a predawn bloodsport of mangled vanity. It must be that I love the ten minutes of self-pity, of immobility, the futile attempt to will away reality. As for that spot, I swear it's moved, just barely, since yesterday; what if it's shifting, imperceptibly, like one of those boulders that creep across the plain, leaving a slug-trail behind? Does it matter? Close the eyes and open them repeatedly, vainly trying to prompt a new reality. Let's try that. Russian roulette for a suspect consciousness.

Or just go back to sleep. And dream again.

...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Heckling the Coronation

During his first year in office, President Obama can be expected to unquestioningly acquiesce to the consensus demanding he oversee an increase in public debt twice as large, as a percentage of GDP, as any year in the Roosevelt administration. He will do this because, as any successful politician, he is congenitally incapable of recognizing, much less offering resistance to, the elite's will to power (known to the benighted as bipartisan consensus). A fish cannot know it is wet, and a politician cannot be made aware of the recurring tendency of elite design to diverge too far from the common good, mostly because he cannot distinguish between the two.

The intent of this radical increase in public indebtedness is to somehow stave off the inevitable reckoning of the last two decades of imprudent public and (far more, of far less appreciated consequence) private borrowing, preserving the illusion that we can sustain a standard of living based on greed and the serial contrivances of speculative and, now, credit bubbles.

Even as the new president takes us to task for our irresponsibility and "cynicism," he assures the gilded class among us that he's quite prepared to defer onto your grandchildrens' grandchildren the cost of propping up a system founded on irresponsibility, illusion and instant gratification. As much as it takes, apparently. Never accuse the new president of lacking nerve.


While citing the "lessons of the Great Depression", the new administration will be taking out this mortgage on a nation no longer, as it was in the thirties, rich in the resource that was still only just becoming the key to global power and industrial might, oil; a nation poised to exploit vast stores of still unrealized industrial and human capital; a nation that would enter into a great war that would act as the ultimate stimulus program, bringing together all of these factors in one unified effort and leaving our global competition broke and broken. That nation was like a contained spring straining to expand. The spring has since sprung.

Now it is the elderly percentage of the population, the poor (whom we continue to import from abroad, lest we fall prey to "nativism" or "protectionism") along with their attendant entitlements and social programs; now it is the cost of energy and food, that are poised for growth. Ours is a nation already drained by two unnecessary and unsustainable wars, that are weakening us relative to an increasingly resentful and disdainful world. Now it is a nation that doesn't know how to deploy a massive stimulus, of corporations that employ as many or more abroad as they do at home and view any sense of allegiance to the nation that charters and protects them as a sacrilege; of governments and municipalities incapable of large projects due to a self-conflicted complex of regulations and patronage programs.

Since the imagined conservative rebirth of the "Reagan revolution," we have been steadily selling off our industrial base in what Paul Craig Roberts aptly identifies as a system of labor arbitrage. This process is unguided by anything but aggregated greed, and for that reason its champions are probably correct about its inevitability. If it had a deliberate end it would be that the parceling out of our capacity to build things must be complete long before any near-equilibrium in global wages and production costs manifests a floor beneath this stomach-churning descent and thus ends its profitability. Our industrial base will end up somewhere, just not here. Perhaps at that point we will lure it back with our desperate willingness to work for starvation wages (brilliant!), provided of course our foreign friends have developed the keen distaste for "nationalism" and "protectionism" with which we are so selflessly blessed.
In conjunction with this halving of manufacturing's share of GDP, we have doubled finance's share of same. Like the imagined endless bounty to be found in treating a perfectly fine industrial capacity as if it's the object of a salvage operation (akin to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane) to be parted out and liquidated, we've also bamboozled ourselves into believing in the infinite divisibility of money and confidence, in an inexhaustible fifth dimension of wealth to be mined moving money about--check that, the money need not move, nor even exist other than as digital 0s and 1s in our computer programs. Observing this remarkable displacement of the physical realm, one soon wonders why we don't simply declare ourselves wealthier. Of course we've pretty much done just that.


But that declaration was really a loan application. The goods received for that loan abound: the exurbs were overextended and their now derelict far reaches stand shuttered, monuments to a different sort of failure of imagination--too much, not too little; the electronics still entrance us and dictate our daily lives; the massive plasma televisions still emit their comforting, hypnotizing glow, even from the humblest abodes; cinematic wonders produced by massive allocations of money, logistics and manpower--productions akin to small mercenary wars of plunder--still entrance us in theatres. Even the President makes a fetish of the dull convenience of his Blackberry, confident to the end in the transcendent efficacy of instant communications and the cool factor. Time to pay for all this stuff or default; there is no third way. Contrary to what we're being told, deficits matter, more than ever.

The president was admirably sober in his inaugural address (prompting one acolyte to concede, "well, he's not perfect"), calling for shared responsibility for the calamity upon us. Normally I'm all for us taking ourselves to task as a people, but it must be noted that now the powerful hector the common for doing precisely as instructed: borrowing and consuming. There has long been a consensus favoring consumption over saving, probably because those who gain access to the privileges of power by adopting the consensus, whatever it is, in the same way one once adopted the dominant religion, knew that this was the only politically feasible course of action. To be on the wrong side of this may have been far-sighted, but it was not politically advantageous or financially lucrative. Curiously, this state of affairs remains. But then that's the problem with elite consensus, which I don't pretend to have a substitute for, it's a bit like a company's management--their failure is the company's failure. When they go, everything goes. Management does not resign en masse, and the elite doesn't acknowledge its errors (or its existence).

Our elite has failed us. Don't expect that to be featured in the official proclamations. Whose "dogma" (to use the phrase that President Obama, in one of his brilliant ironic turns, used to stigmatize his political opposition simultaneous with a call to unity) was it that declared profligacy a virtue and thrift a vice, after all? How sophisticated did the elite expect (or want) a forklift driver in Tennessee to be about finance or monetary policy? Has he, derided as fat and lazy and unfit for the global economy by people whose highest aspiration is to one day read from a teleprompter while presenting television audiences with an inoffensive visage, worked less for more? No; he's worked more and gone further into debt for less.

Still, the last sanctioned form of bigotry, that against him (provided he's white, and a he, of course) will be the redoubt sought by our desperate ruling caste. Someone will be blamed for the coming degradation in our prospects and standard of living. In another time it might have been minorities and immigrants. We always make the mistake of fighting the current war as the last, thus the endless evocations of the Great Depression now. Likewise, some will compel us to tilt at the windmill of a racial, fascist reaction. Some of them will be deluded; others will merely be resourceful.

And resourceful they have been. At some point it became something of a scandal to be too white; maybe it was when a photo of three firefighters at Ground Zero made a perfect image to be cast in bronze but for their inconvenient accuracy as a racial sampling of the fallen. The diverse racial makeup of the new first family is proclaimed the new standard, and we are cued to shudder at the thought of reverting to our dismal past.

This declaration of a new model of superiority would be more bearable if it wasn't just (in its least destructive aspect) one more impingement on merit; but the reality that it marks out for exclusion the majority of families in this country (for being insufficiently integrated, though I'm certain we're not about to begin calling groups to task for being uniformly non-white) seems not merely bigoted (which it very much is) but mad. I'm just retrograde enough to cling to that quaint notion of equality that has been so much bandied about during this week's festivities, just so lacking in sophistication to get the impression the references now to color of skin and content of character mean precisely the opposite of the words expressed.

But that noble ideal, having been too long useful to the corrupt, too often resorted to by the craven, has, in a remarkably similar fashion, been as devalued through overindulgent minting as our monetary currency. It's now as cheaply produced and disposable as those "collectible" Obama coins and plates we see advertised on television (and made in China).

But there is more than absurdity here. There is also the deliberate stoking of fear and anger; the purposeful manipulation of white neurosis and black grievance, all so a man, and his attendant factional allies, can gain power claiming an almost superstitious capacity to allay these things (to "heal"). An act (in the theatrical sense) of dubious legitimacy and responsibility. This is the sinister underside to the mass reverie (and there's always a sinister underside to mass reverie) about President Obama's "historic" ascension. This is the leer beneath his already iconic smile. But, if your conditioning against crimethink hasn't already caused you to reject me out of hand for somehow wandering into the political minefield of race, this brings us to the second contradiction in the president's inaugural address for which I will, next time we meet, offer one last lonely jeer lost amidst the adulatory crowd--his avowal to unencumber science in public policy.