(Temporarily) Hanging Up My Spurs (Sort Of)

If you are among the handful that follow Curriculum Veto with any consistency, you may have noticed that it’s been a couple weeks since my last post. There is a reason for this. I am currently wrapping up work on a novel under the pressure of a semi-self-imposed deadline. Three summers worth of work will be effectively completed by the time I make my way west for Burning Man on 8/24. I’m starting to feel the time crunch, so it’s getting harder and harder for me to justify spending an afternoon on a blog post. I’m not promising that I’ll never post–although I honestly hope I can resist the temptation to procrastinate–but if I do, these posts will be infrequent and probably racked with guilt.

I’ll be back to CV in earnest after Labor Day, and if you find yourself missing my staggering wit and ferocious insight, check out my Twitter feed @CurriculumVeto.

Hugs,
Travis

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A Sunday Collage XII

Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.

What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. “I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.” I am reminded of a line from a recent essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett: that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?

~Nathan Jurgensen

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~Baschz Leeft

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In all of these cases, the hashtag is nothing more than an emoticon of sorts, says UC Berkeley Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. And this explicit See what I did here? hashtag use is plain “stupid,” Nunberg laments, because any trace of irony is neutralized once you point to it with a big honking #. Why write something excitedly when you can lazily throw in #excited? Why not just say “I miss you” instead of #missingyou? Why put a sentence through this kaleidoscope of formatting horse shit instead of just saying something? Say anything. The bar is set so head-imploding-ly low—just write a statement that doesn’t require me to retroactively apply a hashtag to get the gist of what you’re saying. Once the hashtag has been applied so sloppily, killed as a form of interesting metacommentary, “it’s not doing what it’s meant to,” says Nunberg. It’s broken and gratuitous.

~Sam Biddle

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“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”
“Is Pinterest Making Us Blind?”
“Is the Kindle Making Us Illiterate?”
“Are Houses Making Us Homeless?”
“Is This Dress Making Us Look Fat?”
“Are Paperweights Making Our Papers Fly Away?”
“Is Mom Making Us Dinner Tonight?”
“Are Inner Tubes Making Us Sink?”
“Is Artisanal Coffee Making Us Douchebags?”

~Zachary Pincus-Roth

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Opponents of the law have endlessly invoked “socialism.” Nothing in the Affordable Care Act or any part of President Obama’s challenges the basic dynamics of market capitalism. All sides accept that some of us should continue to enjoy vastly greater comforts and pleasures than others. If you don’t work as hard as Mitt Romney has, or were born less smart, or to worse parents, or enjoyed worse schools, or invested your skills in an industry that collapsed, or suffered any other misfortune, then you will be punished for this. Your television may be low-definition, or you might not be able to heat or cool your home as comfortably as you would like; you may clothe your children in discarded garments from the Salvation Army.

This is not in dispute. What is being disputed is whether the punishments to the losers in the market system should include, in addition to these other things, a denial of access to non-emergency medical treatment. The Republican position is that it should. They may not want a woman to have to suffer an untreated broken ankle for lack of affordable treatment. Likewise, I don’t want people to be denied nice televisions or other luxuries. I just don’t think high-definition television or nice clothing are goods that society owes to one and all. That is how Republicans think about health care.

~Jonathan Chait

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The danger of “destructive tolerance” (Baudelaire), of “benevolent neutrality” toward art has been recognized: the market, which absorbs equally well (although with often quite sudden fluctuations) art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a “complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss” (Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (New York: Knopf, 1964) p. 101) in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up. However, censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances. The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression, and pseudo-art (which can be such a prop) is not art. Art stands against history, withstands history which been the history of oppression, for art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to laws of the Form which creates a different reality–negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality. But in the long struggle with history, art subjects itself to history: history enters the definition of art and enters into the distinction between art and pseudo-art. Thus it happens that what was once art becomes pseud0-art. Previous forms, styles, and qualities, previous modes of protest and refusal cannot be recaptured in or against a different society. There are cases where an authentic oeuvre carries a regressive political message–Dostoevski is a case in point. But then, the message is canceled by the oeuvre itself: the regressive political content is absorbed, aufgehoben in the artistic form: in the work as literature.

~Herbert Marcuse

 

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Life, Death, and Moral Contemplation in the Arena: The Hunger Games and the Ambiguity of Violence


Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Pic from Adventures in Poor Taste.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grad program’s lack of summer funding has pressed me into service at the CV Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University. This means a lot of shoving book-loaded carts through the stacks and returning each book to its designated shelf. (An aside: if you flip through a library book and return it to the wrong spot, YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! Set it on a table, drop it off on the circulation desk, hell, throw it on the floor, but if its in the wrong place on a shelf, a book is as good as lost, and I hate you.) The library work isn’t what you’d call intellectually rigorous, but on the upside, I can do a lot of it with my headphones on. So over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to listen to the complete audiobook recordings of The Hunger Games trilogy. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting–probably something akin to Twilight-meets-Mad Max–but what I found was a surprisingly nuanced take on war, revolt, and moral ambiguity. Some of the weaknesses that you’d expect from YA literature are present here–the prose can be clunky and the teenage love triangle is tiring–but it’s treatment of violence was more thoughtful than most fiction geared toward an adult readership.

Let me start with a quick description of the series for those of you who are unfamiliar. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) The series centers around Katniss Everdeen, a girl living in post-apocalyptic society that grew out of the ashes of the USA. This country–called Panem–consists of 13 districts that are subjugated by the Capitol. To affirm its dominance, each year the Capitol holds the eponymous Hunger Games, an event that culls one male and one female teenager from each of the districts to engage in a grusome battle royale on national TV. Katniss wins the 74th Hunger Games and, through various acts of televised rebellion, inspires the districts to revolt. A civil war ensues, and Katniss–now the symbol and figurehead of the rebellion–is forced to deal with the ethical ambiguities of war.

It’s to the credit of author Suzanne Collins that the violence in the series is treated with the weight that it deserves. Deaths, even those of Katniss’ opponents and enemies, aren’t celebrated as victories or even skated over as regrettable necessities. Instead, Katniss mulls over the ethical implications of each death. She’ll kill if she must, but she’s constantly meditating over these killings as tragedies and atrocities. The Careers–combatants from the richer districts who have trained for the Hunger Games since early childhood–are certainly presented as unsympathetic and even sadistic, but the novels never let the reader forget that these are teenagers who are forced to kill for the entertainment of others. The cries of the once-menacing Cato from District 2 as he is mauled by genetically altered wolves inspire Katniss to kill him out of an impulse of pity rather than of malice or even self-defense. And even then, Cato’s death continues to haunt her dreams.

In this, Katniss mirrors the trauma felt by real conflict survivors. Near the end of the series, we find her so devastated by the Games and the war that followed that she is unable to speak, unwilling to eat, and contemplating suicide. Refreshingly, this isn’t presented as evidence of some inborn feminine fragility. There are no unbreakable heroes in The Hunger Games universe, male or female. Katniss’ (male) mentor Haymitch has anesthesized himself through his alcoholism. Her (male) friend and sometime lover Peeta is driven to madness by the torture he experienced at the hands of Capitol forces. Peeta’s case actually reads like an account of severe PTSD. He struggles to interpret reality and sees sinister motivations everywhere. He’s prone to unpredictable violent episodes, and, like many soldiers, these are often directed at the woman he loves. In one of the series’ most disturbing passages, he mistakes Katniss as a threat and attempts to choke the life out of her. In spite of this, Collins paints him sympathetically. Though he must be subdued for the safety of the other characters–Peeta willingly spends most of the third book in handcuffs–it’s clear that he hasn’t “become evil”; instead, he’s a young man beaten and broken by torture.

Though the Capitol and its sinister President Snow are the villains for most of the series, the rebel forces are shown to be capable of atrocities that rival their enemy’s in terms of callousness and cruelty. Like a pair of futuristic Oppenheimers, two of Katniss’ friends spend days in the lab devising weapons to use in a fight that they see as moral. Once the weapons are crafted, though, decisions about using them are out of the pair’s hands. They watch, helpless, unbelieving, as the rebel forces employ their double-explosion bombs in a false flag operation that kills a crowd of children and then the rebels’ own medics, including Katniss’ younger sister. Without imposing a false equivalency–the necessity of toppling the tyrannical Capitol is never seriously debated, Peeta’s occasional and possibly coerced calls for a cease-fire notwithstanding–the rebels are shown to be capable of profound evil in pursuit of goals that are arguably just. Revolutions aren’t magical, purifying flames in Panem. In fact, Katniss’ arrow is all that saves Panem from a possible Stalinist post-revolutionary dictatorship under President Coin.

This shades of ambiguity here are something rare in books targeted at Young Readers (and, for that matter, old readers). While Dumbledore might’ve had a slightly checkered past, can you really imagine the Order of the Phoenix orchestrating a plot to kill innocent children, even if they thought it might hasten the demise of Voldemort and his Death Eater regime? And Aslan the Lion? Would he consider such a slaughter? This isn’t a testament to the robust values of the Harry Potter and Narnia series; it’s indicative of their distorted representation of war and conflict. I know that we read popular fiction–maybe especially fantasy and sci-fi–at least in part to escape from the complexities and banalities of day to day life. I enjoyed the Potter books. It’s satisfying to participate in conflicts that are Manichean, even if you’re only participating via the proxy of fictional characters. It’s pleasurable to support a side that is faultlessly noble while your enemy embodies practically Satanic levels of evil. Or, at least, it makes it less complicated to celebrate the former’s triumph and the latter’s annihilation. But what makes for satisfying entertainment can also make for a warped view of war. If the stories we tell our children about violence present it as an ennobling endeavor where the good struggle to vanquish the wicked, how many steps are they from buying into concepts like the “Axis of Evil” or “they hate us for our freedom”? Stories don’t just end when the book is closed. What we read and watch, especially at a young age, helps establish cognitive frames that we’re likely to think with for the rest of our lives.

The experience of reading (or, in my case, listening to) The Hunger Games largely avoids these simplicities and lures its readers into the complexities its stories. Even as we’re disgusted by a culture that could hurl children into an arena to fight, die, and murder, we realize–or at least we should–that we’ve been seduced by just a repugnant entertainment. Much of the drama and the tension of the first two books, much of what keeps the pages turning, is a high stakes plotline of violence and intrigue worked into a reality show format. We might never want to see such an event implemented in reality, but if it was, the books ask, could we trust ourselves to look away?

The Epilogue of Mockingjay, the series’ final book, ties together a few loose ends, but unlike the tidy, gift-wrapped turd that ended the Potter series, it doesn’t give a rosy view of a happy post-war world. Yes, Katniss and Peeta marry (could we once see a blockbuster YA series end with the hero not marrying a teenage sweetheart?), but their recovery from what they’ve endured is wrenching. It took years for Katniss to trust him again and years more to even be willing to consider bringing children into the world. As we leave her, she worries about how she’ll explain her involvement in the Hunger Games and the rebellion to her son and daughter. For Katniss, as for many who experience war first hand, there is life after trauma, but it’s not the easy peace of the “suburban dads and Quidditch moms” that Harry & Co. suddenly become in the last pages of book 7. Instead, it’s a difficult process of picking up the shards that war has scattered, and choosing life in defiance of a world built on death.

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A Sunday Collage XI

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

~The editors of n+1

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Creative types, we suspect, are supposed to struggle. Artists themselves often romanticize their fraught early years: Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” and the various versions of the busker’s tale “Once” show how powerful this can be. But these stories often stop before the reality that follows artistic inspiration begins: Smith was ultimately able to commit her life to music because of a network of clubs, music labels and publishers. And however romantic life on the edge seems when viewed from a distance, “Once’s” Guy can’t keep busking forever.

Yes, the Internet makes it possible to connect artists directly to fans and patrons. There are stories of fans funding the next album by a favorite musician — but those musicians, as well, acquired that audience in part through the now-melted creative-class infrastructure that boosted Smith. And yes, there have been success stories on Kickstarter, as well — but even Kickstarter accepts just 60 percent of all proposals, and only about 43 percent of those end up being crowd-funded.

Our image of the creative class comes from a strange mix of sources, among them faux-populist politics, changing values, technological rewiring, and the media’s relationship to culture – as well as good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism.

~Scott Timberg

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Mark Adams.

There were many moments where [Trinity Wall Street Rector James] Cooper was unsure and unclear. And that’s all right, really because he’s human. But he’s a human who gets an annual package of over 1 million dollars.  He sanctions teach-ins and gives lip service to the values of OWS. Is this how Wall Street and the corporate ethos has corrupted The Episcopal Church? I know of golden parachutes given to failing rectors, but are we seeing right in front of us the phenomenon exemplified during the administration of Bush 43 – that of  ”failing upwards”? (Heckuva job Brownie!)

Cooper not only unleashed the brutal berserker of our so-called justice machine, he did nothing to stop it. He said nothing about the violence done to OWS nor about the violence done to people gathered around Duarte Square on December 17th. Beatings done in his name. …

The first sentencing was alphabetical and the most harsh. Mark Adams, a sweet spirit, comrade of everyone in OWS got 45 days in Rikers. Forty five days for clipping a chain link fence and trespassing on property that never really belonged to Trinity Wall Street in the first place.

~The Hopeful Episcopalian

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There’s a scene in this movie that involves an ax fight between the young Mr. Lincoln and a slave-trading vampire mastermind, set amid a stampeding herd of horses, who are alternately used as conveyances, obstacles and weapons.

~Andrew O’Heihir

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There is not one human being who, above a certain elementary level of consciousness, does not exhaust himself in trying to find formulas or attitudes that will give his existence the unity it lacks. Appearance and action, the dandy and the revolutionary, all demand unity in order to exist, and in order to exist on this earth. As in those moving and unhappy relationships which sometimes survive for a very long time because one of the partners is waiting to find the right word, action, gesture, or situation which will bring his adventure to an end on exactly the right note, so everyone proposes and creates for himself the final word. It is not sufficient to live, there must be a destiny that does not have to wait for death. It is therefore justifiable to say that man has an idea of a better world than this. But better does not mean different, it means unified. This passion which lifts the mind above the commonplaces of a dispersed world, from which it nevertheless cannot free itself, is the passion for unity. It does not result in mediocre efforts to escape, however, but in the most obstinate of demands. Religion or crime, every human endeavor in fact, finally obeys this unreasonable desire and claims to give life a form it does not have. The same impulse, which can lead to the adoration of the heavens or the destruction of man, also leads to creative literature, which derives its serious content from this source.

~Albert Camus

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In Which the New Yorker Gives Linda Hirshman Space to Feign Knowledge of OWS (and Promote Her Book)


Pic from the New Yorker.

I don’t know Linda Hirshman, and by the looks of this post on the New Yorker’s News Desk blog, she certainly doesn’t know anything about me, my friends, or the movement I belong to. The difference is that the most famous name in magazines doesn’t give me the space to rattle off her inadequacies without apparently doing even a modicum of research or engaging in any serious reflection.

Early on in her book promo/uninformed collage of Occupy stereotypes, Hirshman discusses how excellent activists were back in the day and, by implication, suggests that OWS’ talent pool is shallower:

Stonewall was the product of a handful of brilliant community organizers applying basic principles of social organizing. Without them, Stonewall would have been nothing more than one of several gay-bar pushbacks in the late sixties, or another one of the non-gay street demonstrations that characterized New York in that tumultuous time.

Without minimizing the outstanding contributions of the community organizers involved, Stonewall and the movement it precipitated were the products of all those who took part, not just the leaders. If thousands didn’t make the difficult decision to out themselves on the first Pride Parade that she (rightly) holds in such high regard, well, it wouldn’t have been much of a parade, would it? And if its experienced organizers she’s after, Occupy has a deep bench. I hate to rattle off names because I’m skeptical of the Great Man Theory of Activism, but to cite one amazing activist, how about Lisa Fithian? In 30+ years of action, she’s helped organize union strikes, WTO protests, relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, and more. She’s also been invaluable to Occupy. We aren’t, in other words, the posse of mindless and unstrategic enfants terribles that Hirshman seems to think we are.

She then tries to score some cheap points by slamming flash mobs and our alleged meeting habits:

The activists also had a regular place to meet in a structured way–and meetings, not flash mobs, are the heart of an effective movement.

This is a pretty clear tipoff that Hirshman has probably done zero research. As I tweeted at her (she’s yet to respond), Occupy Wall Street has meetings literally everyday. We even have a list of these meetings on our website, easily available by Google for any author who wants to write a blog post about us for the New Yorker! If she’d bother to look and maybe attend one of these meetings, she’d find that they are even “structured.” Facilitators propose agendas, we consense on them, there is procedure for offering proposals and issuing opinions, etc. But why actually check things out when its so much easier to pretend we’re in a constant state of flash mob! (Noting against flash mobs–they worked well for ACT UP, too–it’s that just they’re far from all we do.)

Hirshman continues:

[Gay bookstore owner Craig] Rodwell did what any smart organizer would do: he brought in a handful of his trusted friends to plan the event. Rodwell’s committee met every week in the bookstore. He had a discrete, manageable goal: to get people to show up on a particular Sunday in June, 1970. Reaching out to all the factions that were rapidly proliferating after Stonewall, he did not have to get everyone to agree on some lofty mission or to mass in front of a dozen banks to protest everything everybody did wrong, as Occupy did to so little effect on May Day this year. Just come out, as the old gay slogan said. And so they did.

As Rodwell left the Stonewall Inn that Sunday morning, a year after the riots and forty-two years ago this month, there were perhaps a dozen marchers. But as they proceeded from Stonewall up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, the numbers grew until there were an unheard of crowd of thousands of gay men and lesbian women out and out of doors for the first time in history. And so the myth of Stonewall began. Strategic, discrete, well-planned, original (in its time), the Stonewall march is the pure manifestation of how social movements succeed.

That’s awesome! Honestly, I’m in awe. Truly revolutionary moments like this are why OWS has such a strong admiration for veterans of the Gay Rights Movement. But what does this have to do with Occupy, exactly? On May Day, we got thousands into the streets, too, but apparently we shouldn’t have picketed banks because–well, because what? Hirshman seems to be contradicting herself here, because earlier in the post she chides the movement for not having clearly articulated goals* yet here she’s saying the first Pride Parade was great because it was enough to “Just come out, as the old gay slogan said.” And you know what, for them it was. To come out as gay at that time was in itself a profoundly political act. On May Day–“to so little effect”–we channeled our political energies by picketing banks, holding a Free University with dozens of lectures and discussion groups, organizing a solidarity march from Union Square to Wall Street with unions and immigrant groups, and more. But yes, capitalism still stands. As much as I admire the march Hirshman describes, if you stop tracing the trajectory of the Gay Rights Movement at that point, it wouldn’t have had much of an effect either save, perhaps, the personal empowerment of its partcipants.

Which leads me to her next point:

It was the birthday party for Stonewall, not the birth the year before, that gave rise to the triumphant gay revolution.

Occupy has yet to reach its first birthday party. We’re nine months old. Yet according to her, the gay revolution essentially didn’t even start until a year after its opening salvo at Stonewall. As she surely knows, movement building is a long and arduous process. Forty-two years after Stonewall, most gay men and women in this country still can’t get married. For some reason, though, we’re expected to have broken up the banks and instituted a regime of economic justice in, oh, nine months, or else–in her words–“Occupy is failing.”

The Gay Rights Movement is a truly amazing thing. It continues to inspire me and many others affiliated with OWS. What I resent is Hirshman using Stonewall like a police baton to bludgeon her strawman version of Occupy. But hey, as she points out in her post, she’s got a book to sell (“I describe the scene in a new book, ‘Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.'”) What better way to promote her tome than to talk up how much better her subject is than a contemporary movement she hasn’t even bothered to do cursory research on? Maybe it’s an excellent book. Maybe Hirshman is more concerned with getting the facts right when writing about a movement she cares about than one that she doesn’t. But I doubt I’ll read it. After all, I have OWS meetings to attend, ones with brilliant activists that meet in a structured way.

Maybe I’ll run into her at Pride, though. Based on the enthusiasm for OWS’ contribution to the upcoming festivities, OccuPride 2012, most activists are thankfully more interested in solidarity than ill-informed one-upsmanship.

*Hirshman should be reminded that “Gay Rights” is a broad movement, too. Did it want gay marriage, or to smash monogamy? Are transfolk part of the movement? There was dissent on these questions in the era she writes about (and there still is today, albeit to a lesser degree). But like Gay Rights, OWS uses its big tent to orchestrate targeted campaigns–cracking down on mob bars for them and, say, foreclosure resistances for us.

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Why Obama’s Angry Prof Isn’t Crazy: The (Arguable) Logic of Voter Abstention

The man in the video above is Roberto Unger, and he is really pissed at Barack Obama. So pissed, in fact, that he says he wants Obama–once his student at Harvard Law School–to suffer defeat at the ballot box this November. This in spite of Unger’s leftist leanings, and in spite of the fact that Unger served as an informal advisor to Obama during his 2008 campaign. If you don’t feel like watching, HuffPo lists Unger’s complaints about his former pupil:

  • “His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.”
  • “He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.”
  • “He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.”
  • “He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.”
  • “He has reduced justice to charity.”
  • “He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.”
  • “He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.”

In a piece published yesterday by the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills reheats the Democratic Party chestnut that we have to elect Obama, because, hey, Romney’s worse, and if you don’t fall in line, then you’re an airy fairy purist who is going to tie us all to your high horse and drag us to political catastrophe. He writes:

The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes.

Thanks for the lecture on realpolitik, Garry, but not every lefty pondering whether or not to cast a ballot for the President is ignoring strategy in an OCD-inflected effort to keep his or her political hands clean. For the record, I’m undecided as to whether I’ll be voting for Obama or for nobody this fall. Like Unger, I find it difficult to support the reelection of a man who refused to seriously rein in the financial sector that tanked our economy, wouldn’t bring up single-payer even as a position from which to negotiate during the health care reform debates, continues a deeply troubling campaign of drone strikes whilst defining “militant” as any young male that they happen to kill, extended the Bush tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. But my consideration of abstention in November isn’t (only) me pouting because Obama didn’t pursue aims congruent with my own, or the disappointment of having to compromise. Non-participation can be strategic, and if you listen Unger’s words, it’s clear that he knows this, too.

Wills describes supporting the GOP as “a vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex.” (Why not include Northern, Western, and Midwestern racists, Garry? I promise you racism ain’t just a Southern thang.) What he fails to mention is how this posse solidified its control over half of our two-party system. It made demands. It became indispensable. It instilled serious fear in Republican candidates that unless they took seriously the concerns of the far right, the base would sit on their hands and said candidates would be out of a job. Grumble as they might about concessions to the right, progressives have proven more amenable to compromise. The result of this dynamic–one side negotiating in relative good faith, the other not–has been a rightward drift where today’s Democrats act like George H.W. Bush-era Republicans and Republicans act like Biblical/free market fundamentalists. While these shifting goalposts have been a constant source of anger on the left, leftists have largely sucked it up and voted for Democrats even as the chasm between their own priorities and those of the party’s lawmakers continued to yawn. And when small-scale revolts do happen–see Nader, Ralph, 2000 Presidential Campaign of–the Democrats use the fallout as a cudgel, blaming the defectors for giving away votes that party seems to think it owns by right rather than point the finger at their own candidates who, by and large, don’t even bother to pay lip service to leftist concerns.

To be taken seriously, you can’t be taken for granted, and that’s what the Democratic Party has done with the progressive portion of its constituency. Military adventures continue, corporate malfeasance goes unpunished, the gulf between rich and poor expands, but, hey, at least Obama isn’t McCain, amirite? A concerted abstention at the ballot box by progressives *might* make Democratic candidates wary of taking this group as a given and turn the party leftward, and since the “center” isn’t some ontologically secure position but a drifting point established through the negotiation of various political actors, it could slide to the left, too. This *might* reconfigure political discourse and then political reality, providing a mirror image to the right’s ultimatums that have given us what amounts to a bipartisan consensus in favor of scantly regulated plutocracy. Of course, it *might not*. If Democrats don’t respond and progressives don’t vote, we could be find ourselves in a right wing wonderland where a fanatical GOP seizes all three branches of government for the foreseeable future. The Democrats might successfully demonize and demoralize the insurgents as they did in 2000. Or even if such a scheme does rejuvenate a newly progressive Democratic Party, we could wind up with aggressive gridlock (although it’s hard to imagine it being substantially worse than what we have now).

My point isn’t necessarily that leftists shouldn’t vote in November, but that there is a pragmatic logic to abstention, not just a dogmatic one. In his caricatures, Wills falls prey to false necessity, a fallacy that, ironically, Unger has dedicated a substantial part of his career to exploring. According to the concept of false necessity–or, more pedantically, “anti-necessitarian social theory”–society is much more malleable than we typically give it credit for. The organization of our societies is not predetermined  by our genes, our histories, our geographies, our whatever. Our societies can change in radical ways, and these changes are not steered by immutable laws of social behavior, but by our own efforts. Through this lens, it criticizes the tendencies toward self-declared inevitability you find in liberal democracy, Marxism, and capitalism.

In his assumptions, Wills accepts the current political terrain as a given. These are the Democrats, these are the Republicans, and we can’t hope to remake them (or, god forbid, introduce other options).  He tells us we “should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate,” but doesn’t even ponder the possibility that forms of political action outside the ballot box–and refusing to vote is such a political action–could alter the shape of the parties themselves. To accept the two-headed hydra of corporately financed parties is to accept a false necessity as a true one, and to embrace defeatism. The game I’d like to play (and, I think, Professor Unger would join me in this) is a broader one, one where we don’t just slow the bleeding as moneyed interests continue their purchase of our democracy but instead hold our leaders accountable for their allegiances, whether or not a (D) or an (R) follows their name.


Sorry, couldn’t resist. Pic from Quick Meme.

Is a strategy of abstention the best course of action? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s not the unreflective tantrum that Wills makes it out to be. And while Wills is correct that you never get a complete tabula rasa, sometimes you get something close. The right-wing  Reagan resurgence established its intellectual roots in the aftermath of the seemingly suicidal campaign of Barry Goldwater. Might the Democratic Party require a similar self-immolation to actually become a source of meaningful change? I really don’t know. But if what we’ve seen over the past few years is really is the best the Dems can do, perhaps the left should at least consider the notion that the party’s best isn’t good enough and think about what steps might be necessary to quit being taken for granted.

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A Sunday Collage X

~Salon

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“There’s a difference,” remarked one colleague, “between getting a girl to think you’re smart, and getting a girl to WANT to talk to you. The following are books that will make girls want to talk to you.

—Greatest pick-up book of all time is Just Kids by Patti Smith, because every girl has read it and they ALL want to talk about it.
—Any book ever written by Haruki Murakami
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
White Album by Joan Didion
What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. (Don’t question it. Just trust.)”

~Sadie Stein

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Most business schools do offer ethics classes. Yet these classes are generally divided into two categories. Some classes simply illustrate ethical dilemmas without taking a position on what people are expected or not expected to do. It is as if students were presented with the pros and cons of racial segregation, leaving them to decide which side they wanted to take. Other classes hide behind corporate social responsibility, saying that social obligations rest on firms, not individuals. I say “hide” because a firm is nothing but an organized group of individuals. As the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission affirms, we should not impose burdens on corporations that we do not want to impose on individuals. So before we talk about corporate social responsibility, we need to talk about individual social responsibility. If we do not recognize the latter, we cannot talk about the former. Business schools should stand up for what they think is the individual responsibility of a good capitalist.

~Luigi Zingales

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~CBS News

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We honestly hadn’t thought there was a glut of national media stories examining hard times for the working poor following the economic collapse of the century; there’s the occasional A27 blurb that mentions mass starvation, but only as part of an argument about why capital gains should be taxed at zero percent. Yet for Hovde, the papers read like Pravda*:

During the Q&A portion of the event, Hovde expressed his support for lowering the corporate tax rate, tackling the country’s spending problems and lowering the national debt.

Then, pointing to a reporter in the audience, Hovde said he would love to see the press stop covering sad stories about low-income individuals who can’t get benefits and start covering issues like the deficit more frequently.

“I see a reporter here,” he said. “I just pray that you start writing about these issues. I just pray. Stop always writing about, ‘Oh, the person couldn’t get, you know, their food stamps or this or that.’ You know, I saw something the other day — it’s like, another sob story, and I’m like, ‘But what about what’s happening to the country and the country as a whole?’ That’s going to devastate everybody.”

One day, just one day maybe, we’ll see someone working at any mainstream news outlet — perhaps a reasonable centrist at the Washington Post or New York Times who misses the days of bipartisanship, of Tip and Ronnie fightin’ all day and then going out for a drink, of Newt and Bill ending welfare — advocate for lowering the corporate tax rate. But probably not in this lifetime.

~Jim Newell

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This means that Twitter, officially a microblogging platform, in practice has often functioned in a way opposite to the blog. Of course a tweet is just a tweet, not to be made too much of. Even so, La Rochefoucauld, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Cyril Connolly, the Kafka of The Blue Octavo Notebooks, Cioran — they would have been excellent tweeters, and the best tweets, today, rival their greatest one-liners. (In fact to encounter their sententiae parcelled out as tweets would have made for a better experience than reading The Unquiet Grave or The Trouble with Being Born straight through. Aphorisms are ideally consumed like nuts or candies, a handful at a time.) So Twitter doesn’t only have the widely recognized usefulness of providing updates on news and revolution, and illuminating links, and many laughs and smirks. It has also brought about a surprising revival of the epigrammatic impulse in a literary culture that otherwise values the merely personal and the super-colloquial as badges of authenticity. “Write as short as you can/ In order/ Of what matters,” John Berryman counseled in a pre-tweet of 44 characters. Favorite that, followers.

~Editors of n+1

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Chris Hitchens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Boris Yeltsin walk into a bar…

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