Criticizing the market

In a society wherein it is the final arbiter, is the market beyond criticism?

Is the very idea that an arbitrary arbitrage of value could be subject to notions of virtue, inspected for justice, honesty, moderation, only now a naive trifle? Question its wisdom and identify yourself as an unschooled radical. We know better, so we say little. Good sense about our prospects in the market gets the better of us and we ‘trim our sails’ and ‘keep our powder dry.’ But these are boats that won’t leave the harbor, stocked with guns that won’t fire. What if we are poised upon the very footbridge that people will one day look back to and identify as the last chance? How many more opportunities can wait? Upsells, upgrades, limited offers, monopolies on that perfect, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, bucket lists… the language of premium experience and exclusivity harkens, tugging at heartstrings, it is assumed, in crass attempts to woo because of course it would. Nothing shall be off limits. But the organs blacken. We feel it but do not fight back. It’s just the market – this is what it does – equanimous and unyielding. It is the only entity that will pursue its truth, and follow the trail wherever it goes. Its judgment is neutral, unbiased, equal opportunity, nonracial and irreligious. Abiding by its decisions relieves the burden to prove anything: the market has spoken. Slowly boiling amphibians may at least have the semblance of regret.

This is the saddest article I’ve read in quite sometime, and extremely well-reported. Right-to-work. The American South is Seoul’s Mexico.

Image: Market Place II by Charles Nkomo

Secular values, temporary tattoos

Interesting op-ed on a longitudinal study on religion and family life in America, which added the non-religious to observant and produces interesting findings that also come as no surprise:

High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation.

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

My own ongoing research among secular Americans — as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture — confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy.

Again, this is only interesting and not a great surprise, unless you were convinced that heathens are, by nature, evil (one study-aid among many provided to you by one flavor of good book or another). And speaking of which, contrast this with the good-natured white nationalism of strong christian and Iowa congressman Steve King. How (rhetorical) does an adult human living in this country in 2017 believe in some kind of civilization that relies on demographic purity? Might it be a view emanating from, if not sanctioned by, very strong beliefs in Judeo-Christian tradition? Forgive the broad brush but come on – it almost seems like too much to be able to withstand such certainty. And no, there is no convincing this person or others otherwise. But there is calling them out as pathetic and racist, and that we must resolve to do.

The Pelvis of a Bird

No need to resist this. From an interview with W.H. Auden, published in the Paris Review in the Spring of 1974:

INTERVIEWER
Did you have good teachers?
AUDEN
Except in mathematics, I had the good luck to have excellent teachers, especially in science. When I went up for my viva, Julian Huxley showed me a bone and asked me to tell him what it was. “The pelvis of a bird,” I said, which happened to be the right answer. He said: “Some people have said it was the skull of an extinct reptile.”
INTERVIEWER
Have you ever taught writing?
AUDEN
No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.

Emphasis mine. Anyone who might ask will know this is something I consider quite bothersome. In my recent interview with the great Latina novelist Judith Ortiz Cofer, I had to, because I had the chance, ask her about teaching this subject. And her answer was confident. But I think she knew what i was getting at and I didn’t ask her to agree. Even aside from the John Gardner’s take on writers using academia for a living, how it keeps them at an analytical level that doesn’t serve their own work, I consider the overwhelming overlap of MFAing, publishing, agenting, editing and writing to be a net negative. AT any rate, Auden is wonderful. Spend a month with The Dyer’s Hand. You’ll be better for it.

Tactics v. Strategy, an ongoing series

So… who ever thought The Cossacks Work for the Czar would become a literal trope? If you are keeping score at home, and really should be, the skullduggery looks like this. A campaign received election assistance from a foreign government, discussed potential policy changes as recompense for the successful assistance [ON TELEPHONE CALLS THAT WERE MONITORED], publicly complimented and assured the leader of the same foreign government, and blames enemies and the media (Venn diagram available) for existence of, as well as attempts to call out, this treason.
Not unrelated, continued efforts in the only actual work the administration is currently pursuing consists entirely of working the refs:

While the administration is battling a large swath of the media, the fight with CNN has special intrigue because its parent company has a massive piece of business awaiting government approval: a proposed $85.4 billion sale to AT&T Inc. Messrs. Kushner and Ginsberg, who have been friends for a decade and whose discussion covered a variety of issues including Israel and the economy, didn’t discuss the merger in their recent meeting, said the people familiar with the matter.

If you know where to jump in here, please do. In the trumped up [ugh] dispute with CNN, its president’s relationship to the reality show that launched this whole fiasco is only mentioned in passing. But there it is.
Image: Painting by Ilya Repin, The Zaparozhe Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan

Front Lines

For a long time, I’ve thought that living in Republican-dominated states, especially in the South, was a form of being on the front lines – of racism, of anti-union sentiment, of hostility to immigrants and civil rights broadly construed. Even the lesser evils of being among people who feel over-taxed, persecuted for their (in every sense dominant) religious beliefs, sub-par infrastructure (no mass transit and the promotion of personal automobiles as priority transportation concerns) and general discomfort with the world as more people deservedly take their places in it, you are confronted with this it all up close. You know what it’s like and grow accustomed to fear and self-loathing as it leaks out everywhere among the shiny automobiles and neat, though increasingly sad [and appropriately named] subdivisions. After not too long, you begin to sense among the dominant political persuasion an uneasiness that borders on paranoia. The lack of confidence about the way things are going, despite the fact that they are in charge, is unmistakable and results in all kinds of frantic attempts to standardize and codify the fear. But it’s not normal and doesn’t sell easily. It’s not inevitable that these attempts fail, but often enough, people seek allies and gain them in the smallest way. Smiles and nods turn to conversations and simple shared affinities on this side of the line. You have every opportunity to reinforce your own convictions and/or assure others, in any way you choose. And to choose not to. You can also nod along, turn attention to more temporal concerns. Get along. Move along.

The new administration is simply this dynamic writ large; the anti-everything good and decent now has an official imprimatur that is the rushing the worst people and measures out front with great haste and uncut distrust. But the unease is the same, if broader. They know they are somehow on the wrong side, hence the anger and lack of confidence.
For this side, people have discovered the streets again. Attention has been gained by atrocious indecency, a willingness to loot not just the treasury but the national moral character itself. We don’t have laws against this stuff, to stop those depraved enough to endanger everyone. And again, it’s not inevitable that the nominal Our party will be able to seize the moments and string them together into a coherent future direction, foment the positive and give people in the streets a reason to overwhelm the polls when it comes time again.
But we’re all on the front lines now, and we have been for a while though not everyone is fighting, yet.

A Specific Case of Sometimes

There exists a misunderstood or mischaracterized mantra, if we will, that you cannot really succeed without the possibility of failure. And it would seem to make sense, though it is often enough forgotten how much trouble the very rich have over-compensating for the fact that they don’t feel legitimate in their own eyes. (There is a very good novel idea in there somewhere, and you get to it before me, good on you). There is also a specific case of sometimes, if green means that you win even if you lose, how were you ever going to be able to prevail?

Turns out that Robby Mook was the perfect campaign manager for Hillary Clinton after all. He’s just like his boss: can’t win an election, but can get rich giving revolting speeches afterwards.

Buzzfeed reports that Mook has, thanks be to god, landed on his feet after failing to defeat a racist clown who may well devastate countless lives before his term is done. Mook will be teaming up with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s (failed) campaign manager, to “offer a future-focused look at why Trump won” in front of any audience willing to pay enough for their presence. How fun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We were all naive, of that there is no doubt. But he wasn’t looking into the abyss we were, or are now. This is first-rate corruption, even to my tender eyes. Golf clap from the hedge-fund gallery, but please let’s awaken, all you little Saint-Justs everywhere. In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

First Day of the Rest of Your

How long will this last? How much can you take? Do you have a line that won’t be crossed? Do you have a budget for direct action?
Even within the sanitized discretion of our modern parlance the questions, and the situation, bring to mind the passionate, confused, committed young man Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. As this article notes, and you might read about him and his extended, late-eighteenth century moment,

When Victor Hugo in his 1862 novel, Les Misérables, described the young student Enjolras, who leads the climatic fight on the barricade, as having ‘too much of Saint-Just’ about him, his readers knew what that meant. A few years earlier, Hugo’s contemporary and fellow countryman, the great republican historian Jules Michelet, described Saint-Just as ‘the archangel of death’, a phrase that encapsulated the legend of the unnaturally beautiful and cold-bloodedly terrible Saint-Just.

So the question may be, do you have enough Saint-Just about you?

Image: Saint-Just in a portrait by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1793. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

See It Now

First of all Happy New Year and apologies for going blank for a while. We were hacked! And I’m not naming Russians names, but THANK YOU to someone special for getting this thing back up and running.
So… when the FCC gave licenses to stations to broadcast advertisements beginning in July 1941, they negotiated public service programming commitments as a requirement for a license. These were initially 15-minute current events recaps. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed later that year, the national emergency gave way to extensive special reporting that led to everything form newsreel theatre to interview and expose shows – John Cameron Swayze and Camel News Caravan to, eventually Edward R. Murrow himself and See It Now, the first program with live simultaneous transmission from coast to coast.
So the public affairs arena became profitable and something happened to it. We can connect other phenomena, and we should (the advent of Pop art), but all this happened in a way that seemed positive, fortuitous and in many ways divine. But we weren’t nearly savvy enough to keep the news boring enough to keep ourselves informed long enough to figure how we should treat these new information delivery systems that were so engrossing we would just sit down and watch… anything.
Now they have become useless for informing us – but they didn’t start out that way! The diminution has been deliberate, but informing people could be a viable business model! But, and this is serious, the quarterly profit expectations will have to be vastly curtailed. And this is only part of the problem. But let’s begin.

Let’s Have the Debate

galileo_galileiThere is no silver lining for what’s coming down the pike, so don’t mistake this for any semblance of that. The lining is all sh*t, with 5,000-count sh*t thread lapels and sh*t-stuffed pockets and 5-karat, sh*t-gilt buttons.

Atrios is surely correct: there is no real reason for climate denial at this point other than tribalism and pissing off liberals. Apocalypse Cult, check. But they don’t even believe the denial. It’s a classic shakedown.

Scientists are incredibly careful, despite the alarmist rhetoric with which they are tarred. If anything, they are too careful and measured. With so many colleagues among their ranks, I understand why. But here’s a prediction. The ascendance of fake news is going to force them to become less so. There is no answer to irrationality and scientists will be forced to become less afraid as a consequence. The tone, like the planet, is going to become hotter. It’s time.

Image: Galileo showed the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope (Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)

People in suits

dochollidayMaybe like some, I’ve been reluctant to act on or even write much about my perspective on the recent election, beyond sharing brief descriptions. The compulsion to hold onto that anger for a while longer, allow it form something useful, while at the same time reaching out personally to many who instantly became more vulnerable, has seemed to me the better course. Doing this, however, we risk a certain changed countenance and I indeed do feel differently about several things in many ways, my naiveté about many of our fellow Americans prime among them. But about other things, I do not feel differently, and in fact, my convictions have only grown stronger, and they offer guidance on how to proceed, which led me back to something by the great John Gardner:

The poet-priest had two functions: lawgiver and comforter. He had to know what laws to give, what comfort to give, what comfort to withhold as false. The poet has far less power now, but the job hasn’t changed. He must affirm, comfort as he can, and make it stick. Let artists say what they know, then, admitting the difficulties but speaking nonetheless. Let them scorn the idea of dismissing as harmless the irrelevant fatheads who steal museums and concert halls and library shelves: the whiners, the purveyors of high-tone soap opera, the calm acceptors of senselessness, the murderers. It is not entirely clear that these people are not artists. They may be brilliant artists, with positions exactly as absolute as, say, mine. But they are wrong.It’s not safe to let them be driven from the republic by policemen, politicians, or professional educators. Officialdom would drive out all of us, which is one reason that when we come out shooting we should all talk with dignity and restraint, like congressmen, and wear, like Doc Holliday, vests and ties. Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society – at least until society starts horning in – but between the age-old enemies, real and fake.