Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?

Entry into the school of your choice ™

It’s back to school time! Lunch pails and school slates may have given way to Uber eats and iPads, but one anachronism that remains is the ability for donors to get their kids into the best schools. With the Trump Justice Department launching a dubious new project targeting discrimination against white students in university admissions policies, I’m not going to explain why a diverse population in any university is not just a nice thing, but inarguably a crucial component in a country or society’s progress. Straight-up affirmative action cannot even be used college admissions, and yet still the white kids suffer.
But I do wonder how all Harvard (or any college where this happens) students and alumni are not diminished when a rich guy can make a large donation to assure admission for his under-achieving offspring? Maybe this clumsy attempt to mollify the persistent mythology of oppressed white students will accidentally put the spotlight on just how uneven admissions processes – and other, nefarious types of preference – in the round remain. There is something rigged about the process, just not probably what is commonly believed.

The Plastocene

The Graduate is a great film, with an enduring effect on our culture. But one scene in the film called out a phenomenon that will have an even more enduring effect on our planet: “Just one word

In the first global analysis of plastic production and use, the true weight of the world’s most flexible material has been brought to light. By 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Of that, 6.3 billion is waste, with just nine per cent of it recycled. The majority, 79 per cent, is piled-up in landfills.

To put this staggering quantity in perspective, 8.3 billion metric tons is the same weight as 80 million blue whales, or 822,000 Eiffel Towers, or one billion elephants. The research was conducted by the University of Georgia, the University of California and others and is published in the journal Science Advances.

The scene in question:

Now, do you think you could stop buying plastic bottles? Like right away? Today? What does half-life mean? And… scene.

“Men of sighs” and “of tears”

Since everything seems to be All Russia, All the Time, I’ve been thinking about Konstantin Levin, the most interesting character from Anna Karenina, and relatedly D.H. Lawrence, who did not care much for what Tolstoy was saying with Levin. But for some other probably suspicious reason was led back to Turgenev and Knock Knock Knock:

Two incidents that marked the first steps in his career did a great
deal to strengthen his “fatal” reputation. On the very first day after
receiving his commission–about the middle of March–he was walking
with other newly promoted officers in full dress uniform along the
embankment. The spring had come early that year, the Neva was melting;
the bigger blocks of ice had gone but the whole river was choked up
with a dense mass of thawing icicles. The young men were talking and
laughing … suddenly one of them stopped: he saw a little dog some
twenty paces from the bank on the slowly moving surface of the river.
Perched on a projecting piece of ice it was whining and trembling all
over. “It will be drowned,” said the officer through his teeth. The
dog was slowly being carried past one of the sloping gangways that led
down to the river. All at once Tyeglev without saying a word ran down
this gangway and over the thin ice, sinking in and leaping out again,
reached the dog, seized it by the scruff of the neck and getting
safely back to the bank, put it down on the pavement. The danger to
which Tyeglev had exposed himself was so great, his action was so
unexpected, that his companions were dumbfoundered–and only spoke all
at once, when he had called a cab to drive home: his uniform was wet
all over. In response to their exclamations, Tyeglev replied coolly
that there was no escaping one’s destiny–and told the cabman to drive
on.

“You might at least take the dog with you as a souvenir,” cried one of
the officers. But Tyeglev merely waved his hand, and his comrades
looked at each other in silent amazement.

The second incident occurred a few days later, at a card party at the
battery commander’s. Tyeglev sat in the corner and took no part in the
play. “Oh, if only I had a grandmother to tell me beforehand what
cards will win, as in Pushkin’s _Queen of Spades_,” cried a
lieutenant whose losses had nearly reached three thousand. Tyeglev
approached the table in silence, took up a pack, cut it, and saying
“the six of diamonds,” turned the pack up: the six of diamonds was the
bottom card. “The ace of clubs!” he said and cut again: the bottom
card turned out to be the ace of clubs. “The king of diamonds!” he
said for the third time in an angry whisper through his clenched
teeth–and he was right the third time, too … and he suddenly turned
crimson. He probably had not expected it himself. “A capital trick! Do
it again,” observed the commanding officer of the battery. “I don’t go
in for tricks,” Tyeglev answered drily and walked into the other room.
How it happened that he guessed the card right, I can’t pretend to
explain: but I saw it with my own eyes. Many of the players present
tried to do the same–and not one of them succeeded: one or two did
guess _one_ card but never two in succession. And Tyeglev had
guessed three! This incident strengthened still further his reputation
as a mysterious, fatal character. It has often occurred to me since
that if he had not succeeded in the trick with the cards, there is no
knowing what turn it would have taken and how he would have looked at
himself; but this unexpected success clinched the matter.

Honi soit, as Lev wrote.

Emergent Forms of Other Belief


The Crisis Theme that seems to be the default, unchangeable background of everything these days can be exhausting. None of us seems to know how to handle social media – is it for self-promotion? sharing opinions? business? the fck is a status update? connecting instead of conversing – beyond obsessive attention to it or turning it off completely. That the tools have been created to make other people rich appears to be a mere byproduct, but is it? Do I need to read an article on it that my friends agree with to believe that? Every news item from the Dunce-in-chief to climate change to what’s wrong with the Democratic party to health care to guns hermetically seals us in a state of doubtful knowing. And like quicksand, if you try to get out of it too desperately, you’re only pulled back all the more. For those who insist on creating, it can be be double-trouble: your battle is not to react against but still ‘do something.’ What does that mean?

Friend of the blog Jed Perl lays out in an inadvertent cautionary tale in this Rauschenberg review, The Confidence Man of American Art:

It was as a genre-buster—an artist who crossed boundaries and cross-pollinated disciplines—that Rauschenberg was embraced in the 1960s. More than fifty years later, there are more and more artists who seem to believe, as he apparently did, that art is unbounded. The only difference is that our contemporaries—figures such as Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken, and Matthew Day Jackson—have traded his whatever-you-want for an even more open-ended and blunt whatever. A creative spirit, according to the argument that Rauschenberg did so much to advance, need not be merely a painter, a photographer, a stage designer, a printmaker, a moviemaker, a collagist, an assemblagist, a writer, an actor, a musician, or a dancer. An artist can be any or all of these things, and even many of them simultaneously. The old artisanal model of the artist—the artist whose genius is grounded in the demands of a particular craft—is replaced by the artist who is often not only figuratively but also literally without portfolio, a creative personality-at-large in the arts.

One can argue that there are historical precedents for this view. Picasso enriched both his painting and his sculpture by working back and forth between the two disciplines. And the work that Picasso did in the theater certainly precipitated significant shifts in his painting.

Just so, and there is much more. And I do not come to praise Rauschenberg or to bury him. One point can be that, for better or worse, he imagined himself and what he was doing. Sure he was affected by his culture and the times in which he lived. But Jed is correct – the question is where the question (whatever it is) takes the artist. If it runs you back into into the insufferable quandary of boredom or futility, it wasn’t the right question. We can work our way through this time, as others have other times, but not by taking it on directly. Okay maybe, if you’re Zola. But you’re not. So don’t do that at all. Ignore it? Abdication is consent. Also – nothing will change. That’s one reason to like the ‘confidence man’ citizen’s arrest of Rauschenberg. It’s a hefty charge. But that’s okay – you don’t need to [first] accept any of the givens about anyone or thing in order to get somewhere. And this is not about progress, anyway. It’s about getting to all some of that other space, all around you, that seems inaccessible. That’s what can be frustrating – and it’s not even true. It’s just a thing someone has created and you’ve allowed to be in your way, that you need to [yes] use your discipline to think beyond. And [yes] to make something.

Image: Portrait of Apollinaire as a Premonition, by Giorgio de Chiricio, 1914

Three stories


I once had a dream, within which was a contained a thread about my own work. I know – imagine that. A couple of tidy realizations were clouded (dreamlike) with an allusion to the titles of my next three books – what were they? It plagued me for days, as they were three titles I had not yet imagined. I’m getting close to another one, but that would be a fourth story. Let’s stick to three:
Trimming the fat in all the wrong places. That the Grey Lady is also not immune to corporate misgovernance is sad and depressing, and even though we’ve known for a very long time of its myopic shortcomings, it’s rather pathetic to see the paper of record put a knife to its own throat:

Staffers at the New York Times staged a newsroom walk out on Thursday as a demonstration of solidarity as management threatens job cuts. The protest followed a pair of letters sent earlier in the week to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn by Times reporters and copy editors.

Cartoonish evil. The problems with putting a imbecilic grifter in the most powerful office in the world has, by definition, no possible limits. Not even going to link to any because what’s the point.

The foreignness of policy disruption or, let’s defend a former Exxon-Mobile CEO. While it’s imaginable that a Secretary of State might have disagreements with her boss, it’s difficult to understand the chain of events that leads one to accept a ‘high’ position in this administration. Did you ask yourself, ‘what do I have to lose?’ Did you answer in the space provided?

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”

Image: author photo of OB, while we were away last week.

Fiction and the carbon economy


The concept of imaginative fatigue in the Anthropocene presents a kind of heady platform for lighting into all kinds of literary corruption and gatekeeping issues that are holding the rising waters in place, out of view or at least off the page:

This makes itself evident in the paucity of fiction devoted to the carbon economy, something the Brooklyn-based Indian writer Amitav Ghosh addresses in his marvelous recent book, The Great Derangement, writing, “When the subject of climate change occurs . . . it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon.” Ghosh, who has depicted the precarious ecology of the Sundarban mangrove forests of Bengal in his novel, The Hungry Tide, says that this absence has to be “counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” a failure so pervasive that he calls our era, “which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness . . . the time of the Great Derangement.”

I agree with the reviewer that any discussions about the ‘ravages of the carbon economy’ would necessarily include story lines on the failure of capitalism. And talk about a contrivance. Who would believe that? Perhaps at no point have we ever been so self-hemmed in – constrained by our own no-go areas. Does any writer today imagine Zola or Hugo, or Anatole France or, good grief Racine, adhering to such constraints? Is it only fear? Will the publishers and agents love us no longer? What then? Asking for a friend of the fate of the world.

Image: Author photo of the flooded Seine, June 2016.

A Financial Choice, Act II

In early September 2008, I drove down to Charleston to visit a cousin who had recently suffered a terrible accident. Throughout the drive I listened to extended public radio reports on an evolving calamity: the collapse of Lehman Brothers financial services firm. The horror that the government was going to allow such a large firm to go under was decorated with the baroque gadgetry of terms that would become more familiar in the coming years: credit default swaps, subprime mortgage lending, tranches, CDOs. The gore and detail of the cover that had been constructed around scams and fraud at the broadest level was audible in the voices of interviewers and guests. There was a tinge of disbelief within their attempts to explain what these terms meant and how they had gotten us all (!) into so much peril. It was as close to 1929 as we had come and potentially far worse – so extensively had the giant vampire squid of financial engineering welded its tentacles to every sector. Housing, banking, investing, construction, debt, bonds… this is business America now, and every other activity is vulnerable to its caprice. It was the stretch run of a presidential election as well; one candidate tried to suspend the campaign, the other fortunately tried to hold things together.

And he did mange to hold things together, despite rather obvious at the time challenges he personally faced. But the Lehman moment got everyone’s attention, everyone who mattered. $700 billion for Troubled Asset Relief (TARP), $250 billion for Capital Purchase(CPP), in addition to billions more in government-backed guarantees to individual banks. And eventually, in July 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was enacted. It seemed the public assistance required to save the vampire from itself had sealed the argument in favor of financial reform.

Yesterday, the Republican House of Representatives passed the Financial Choice Act and can you guess what it does? Right! Overturns Dodd-Frank. And not only is it a bad idea to weaken a law that requires stronger banks,

The bill also offers the wrong kind of relief. During the last crisis, all kinds of financial activity — including insurance, money-market funds and speculative trading at banks — depended on government support. That’s why Dodd-Frank placed limits on banks’ trading operations and provided added oversight for all systemically important institutions, and why regulators require them to have enough cash on hand to survive a panic.
Those provisions aren’t perfect — simpler and more effective options exist — but the Choice Act just scraps them. What’s more, it would eliminate the Office of Financial Research, created to give regulators the data they need to see what’s going on in markets and institutions. The law would leave regulators in the dark, and taxpayers implicitly or explicitly backing much of the financial sector.

If you didn’t click, that’s coming from fcking Bloomberg. The financial industry doesn’t even think it’s a good idea. In trying to undo more Obama-era legislation, the know-nothings in Congress are re-setting the table for our financial catastrophe guests. Sure, certain things could make Dodd-Frank unnecessary. But unfortunately, none of the thousands of people, firms, funds and frauds who populate this sector care about a stronger financial system or its being more competitive. It’s the logic of business – the democracy, whiskey, sexy of fools.
Image: Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1500

Spite and the reckless assault on nothing

The stupidity of millions, millions of individually stupid decisions, has brought a spiteful revolution to its denouement. Or a screaming kid to its mall, whichever you prefer.
He was able to trot out on a sunny afternoon and announce a positively pointless jab to his own eye. Wisht it had been more pointed:

It is similar to the predominant response to liberal terror over the prospect of handing the most powerful office in the world to an impulsive congenital liar with authoritarian tendencies. Conservatives on the whole devoted less attention to pondering the risks Trump might pose to their own country and party than enjoying the liberal tears.

“Everybody who hates Trump wants him to stay in Paris,” argues conservative activist Grover Norquist. “Everybody who respects him, trusts him, voted for him, wishes for him to succeed, wants him to pull out.” Here is an argument that approaches, even if it does not fully reach, complete self-awareness: The Paris climate agreement is bad because it is supported by people who oppose Trump. Therefore, the opposing position is the correct one.

If the liberal global elites have established a policy architecture to minimize the threat of climate change, weakening that policy architecture is its own reward. There is not much more to it than that.

All of those who chose not to vote for her, voted for this.

Today is Towel Day

In tribute to the great Douglas Adams.
And while we’re at it:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“What?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

No specific gin or lizard endorsement.