The outer edges fuel the storm


Though tropical cyclones can also gain strength over land, we have seen and experienced elections decided at the outer bounds of rationality, not to mention national borders. And the same goes for scandals. When the two are one and the same, we reach a distinct crossing over into all manner of non-metaphorical winds, downed trees, powerlessness, looting even.
Still it’s important to realize that the fundamental strength of the storm comes from good old warm water in open ocean, just as the current, inspired presidenting comes from heartland voters and good christians everywhere. Sure, climate change and the Russians probably had something to do with the current disasters. But really they were only helping fuel the storm.

Simply Amazing Tools

So fB is headed for a showdown with the Mueller investigation, or at least the inauguration of a new transparency czar for the social media advertising publishing juggernaut. For all their community building and connectingness of a bringing a world closer togetherness(tm), it’s still just a website with a business model – and that business model is your attention:

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

The whole concept of ‘paid social’ is far more preposterous than anyone seems willing to admit. If you/they have created the perfect mechanism for connecting people with (only) the stories and issues they care most about, you/they have also created a tool for manipulation that is so precisely anonymous and disfiguring that it can, has and will again be used to undermine governments with very little actual effort beyond basic IT competence and price of a starter home in the ‘burbs. The naiveté of the hubris is just staggering, as are the pleas of innocence and well-meaning. Deciding that you will not make any editorial decisions is disingenuous – but also an editorial decision!
We are our own enemies, and our willingness to be manipulated and use such a ‘free’ product is a tale that is being told to us, right before our eyes, to which we only insist on contributing further rationales.
Also, Orwell was a piker.

The green silk bomber

Tucked inside the shallowness, an essential truth about the power of commodity:

But there is more going on here, and it’s being ignored by detractors and defenders alike. The problem is not that Melania Trump wore an unsuitable, blithely out-of-touch outfit, although she did. The problem is that this administration turns every event — no matter how dire — into a kind of anesthetized luxury fashion shoot, which leads us to some disturbing political truths.

Fashion-magazine layouts have a particular feel to them. We know it well: stylized, blank, alluring in an anonymous way, suggestive of sex, but devoid of sensuality or personal emotion. The photographs draw us in, but the models don’t return our gaze. Instead, they tend to wear a kind of frozen, faraway gaze, a look that frees us to gawk unashamedly, without fear of being caught staring. Fashion models feign ignorance of the camera lens in order to signal that we are not their interlocutors, but rather voyeurs whose desires are roused only to be rechanneled toward the items for sale (clothes, jewels, handbags, etc.).

Such photos exist to cast the fetishizing spell of the commodity over us. They create, that is, a dissociative relationship with the viewer. And while Melania Trump was known to have been somewhat stiff as a model, she has clearly mastered that squinty, middle-distance gaze, which she regularly employs as First Lady.

Just so. The disassociation creates allowances for so much – what it takes to make what we use/eat/wear; what happens to the packaging – 40 seconds of use, 75 years in a landfill (or ocean); where does the gas/electricity comes from; what those processes are doing to the planet. We allow ourselves to be cut off from these things, conforming to a genre of existential hypnosis such that we cannot sense who we are and instead access an affinity for emptiness repackaged as fulfillment. Fearing anything that might soil our golden view, we reach for something far more depressing. And all the while, so much of this can be easily fixed. What are your associations?

Impervious surfaces

Include our brains. This report about Houston from last year outlines how unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming more frequent and severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

We must learn to do better, but long-term thinking tends to challenge us more than anything.

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.