Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meditiation on Formal Perfection

*kramer walks through a wall without flinching* jerry i,m home *jerry's knife-wound filled corpse sits on the couch* jerry tell me a joke;
If this stopped at the first line or independent clause or whatever it would still be a kind of hilarious that I could never hope to duplicate. It cracks me up still; it is cracking me up right now. Do we enter mid-PCP binge? What sport if this is the case! Kramer stalks the streets, bugs out, refuses to put on an AIDS ribbon, has business ideas such as beach-scented cologne or maybe a sort of coffee table book about coffee table books, slides, disappears, subsists in New York City without a job or any apparent purpose in life and then CRASH, without flinching even, drywall and paint chips littering Jerry's once-orderly apartment, he has walked through a wall, the greatest of his vaunted entrances. Through a wall, jittering though unfazed, oblivious as always (indeed, none of this makes sense--never mind comedic sense--if one is unappreciative of Kramer's just sort of like, Zen-like, mystical obliviousness), bleeding but unflinching even though there's something very obviously wrong. What is it? He isn't greeted with a stinging bon mot or a friendly groan. It is dark, the apartment is a deep shadow tempered only by the suggestion of a soft and distant streetlight, casting its stale glow from another world. A gaseous, fetid quality pinches the air, but Kramer is on PCP so he smells and notices nothing. God, he is on so much PCP. He sees nothing but the back of a hanging head and hunched neck and everything appears as normal, except that Jerry's corpse is positively filled with knife-wounds (although if Kramer knows that, of course, the humor of the situation is sort of totally lost, unless you find humor in someone expecting to hear a joke from a wound-riddled corpse. Which I sort of do, now that I think about it!). Jerry tell me a joke;--this isn't even the punchline of this situation. That I believe is off somewhere else, perhaps far off, occupying some indeterminant point deep in a vast unwritten Beyond. And this is funny only insomuch as tragedy at its cheapest and cruelest and most flippant or most reducible is funny. Take the Twitter handle Weed Hitler, for instance. See that's exactly what I'm talking about.

This might be the greatest tweet of all time.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 175-205: Coitus Splint

Thank the Great Cosmic Owl that tomorrow is my last day as a New Yorker. We've been through a lot together, this city and I. I've eaten veal heart in Queens and been inside the original CBGB's back when it was still actually CBGB's. I've stood on the southern tip of the Rockaways; I've been run out of a beach co-op on the southern tip of the Rockaways. I've been harassed by bored, off-duty cops. I've been in the attic of St. John the Divine. I've seen the Pupin Cyclotron, which is now scrap metal. I have wistful, nostalgic memories of about a half-dozen music venues that no longer exist--I can drift into "back-in-my-day"-like reminiscences without a shred of irony or pretentiousness, and with a real, unimpeachable longing for the old Market Hotel, the old Knitting Factory, the old McCarren Pool. Not to mention the restaurants that have closed since I got here--P&W Sandwich Shop on 110th, the kosher felafel stand in front of Borough Hall, El Toro Partido on 138th. Dreams have a very short lifecycle in this town, because this is a mean, status-obsessed, law-and-order oriented sort of town. It's a town of rules and obstacles, a town where the police are creepily ubiquitous in the rich parts of  the city and a fucking occupation army in the poor parts. It's a city where you can't drink or ride a bicycle or smoke without exposing yourself to nattering yet potentially serious legal consequences. It's a city where it's impossible to have fun at a rock show, because for most people rock shows are actually a kind of work, more about the joyless slog of status-driven self-making than cultural or individual enrichment. It's a city where you're expected to overpay for everything, just for the supposed privilege of physically inhabiting said city. It's a city that pretends to care about art and creativity, when what it's really obsessed with are patterns of consumption. It's a city where designer-attired men in Babybjorns flag down taxis at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Six years of this shit is enough. I'm happy to leave this city and its myriad annoyances and anxieties to people with stronger nerves and thicker bankbooks than myself. I'm over it, which is part of the reason why I'll be starting a new job in Washington, DC on Monday.

An unglamorous and socio-economically striated New York is the setting of J R, and my God do I recognize the place. It's an unglamorous New York, but it isn't cinematically unglamorous in the tradition "Taxi Driver" or Don DiLillo's Underworld. The obsession with status is coded into the city's DNA, threaded through the novel with almost overpowering subtlety. The city's darkness operates on a microbial level--the novel has very few impressionistic touches when it comes to evoking the city-as-postmodern-hellscape, and it's possible to blink past Gaddis's almost-cubistic illustrations of the city's soullessness. New York is a city of tweed-jacketed men plotting scams and takeovers and foreign invasions from penthouse offices lined with stuffed zebra heads. But more than that, it's a city whose tiniest, most throwaway details are consistent with a tweed-jacketed, top-down world of normalized unfairness and criminality.

The long paragraph on pages 193-4 is a case in point. The paragraph brings together two of Gaddis's recurring motifs--time (as expressed in the upward progress of the elevator) and sound (the Light Cavalry Overture, the Spanish rhythm). I have read no other book that goes so out of it way to evoke the artificiality and oppressiveness of the contemporary soundscape. The inane conversations of the novel's characters, disconnected bits of radio chatter, the music playing at the bank on Burgoyne Street 30 pages into the novel--it's as if Gaddis is narrativizing the constant junk noise that most of us just tune out or accept. In a weird way, this is a novel of ambience. So the long paragraph in the elevator is like a tidal wave of inane detail. There's little punctuation to guide you; the aural and visual and sensory noise just sort of sweeps you along, until you reach the literal Hell (and Hell it indeed is--check out the references to Virgil, Dante etc.) of the Diamond Cable offices.

Before then, you're given an almost chillingly casual snippet of untoward sexual pursuit, a scene made normal by the headrush of ambient details the reader is bombarded with:

" idly scratching hand thrust down the front of the denims burnished where it moved hidden as the other, empty, rose behind her gasped against the waist high rail there for -- You like to give head? posed in a tone as vacant as a face..."
I'm willing to bet that no adjective appears in this book as often as "vacant." This is actually kind of a funny scene, from one angle: Mrs Joubert(?) is propositioned for oral sex on an elevator; this being the sleepwalking, static-choked world of J R, vacancy ensues. And it's also a very disturbing scene: Mrs. Joubert is subjected to perversion and creepiness that is are normal, so coded into the chemistry of everyday life, that it warrants nothing other than vacancy--which is another way of say that everything warrants vacancy. The world of J R is one of darkly comic passivity. Everyone and everything is completely paralyzed, reified, for you Marxists out there--a condition that enables and even justifies the systems of control that the novel satirizes.

I made a similar point a few posts back, that it remains to be seen if the titular J R will be the avenging angel in all of this. Of course, he might also be a horrible demon child, a monster built by these systems of control, rather than the one figure who can challenge or even dismantle them. The two adult protagonists who could inhabit this role have been hilariously inadequate to it thus far--Gibbs and Bast's complete impotence is played for laughs in these 30 pages, and the "Zebra music" scene and Gibbs's train adventure are two of the funnier episodes in the novel thus far. Perhaps significantly, J R hasn't been held up as an object of ridicule in the book's first 200 pages.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 150-175: Nobody Has to See Anybody

Whilst procrastinating en route to today's J R reading, I finally willed myself through the pilot of "The Newsroom" and holy fuck is this show fucking awful. And it's awful in a way that actually ties in nicely with today's reading! See what really grated me about "The Newsroom" wasn't its haughty, even paternalistic construction of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the viewing public (OK, that grated me), or the fart-sniffing self-righteousness of nearly every single character (that also really grated me) or "The Newsroom's" seemingly-magical and totally unctuous ability to piece together one of the most complex stories in recent years--a story that the New Yorker's Raffi Katchedourain only wrote about like, a year after the fact--in like what, 15 minutes (THIS REALLY GRATED ME!). What outraged me the most about The Newsroom was the fact that it depicts people who are good at and who actually really like their jobs.

Is this how life typically works? Do things actually function so smoothly, so seamlessly? Is morale always this high? Are most people constantly possessed with an unquenchable sense of purpose, which sense is expressed in eight hour or ten hour increments five days a week? There is something uncanny, even something disturbing, about such a sleek depiction of such motivated and unwrinkled professional existences. I prefer "The Office," or "Larry Sanders," or even "Louie"--I prefer struggle. The elusiveness of fulfillment, the inner battles with one's limited competencies, and, by extension, one's limited capabilities (i.e. one's inadequacies) as both a professional and a human being--these conflicts are seemingly absent from "The Newsroom." There's struggle, but its stupid, politically-located struggle--struggle against the vacuousness of the newsmedia and the idiocy of the American public, mostly. These conflicts are bullshit, and the characters are more bullshit still. They love their jobs too much, and they love themselves too much.

Which brings me to the the first ten pages of today's reading, where days--perhaps weeks--pass within the confines of an office in Queens. In a novel of changing leaves and ticking clocks, the scenes in the General Roll offices are notably disconnected from any temporal signifiers. And yet time is constantly being mentioned: take a late lunch, because it will make the afternoon seem shorter. Get a plant to liven up the office, because that's where you spend half your life (not half your time--half your life). A weekend goes by. Angel leaves for a business trip; Angel comes back from a business trip. People come and go. A female employee is on her period.

Both the reader and the office hacks are acutely aware of how time is passing, but they're unaware of just how much time is passing. And it's passing quite quickly, by the novel's standards: the book's first day takes what, 80 pages? Here, we go through a week in the space of a few thousand words. And it's a week in which very little happens. Much of this novel is dedicated to scenes in which nothing really seems to happen: it's dedicated to obscure, bureaucratic discussions, to technical jargon or legalese, to deep conversations on complex matters that have been foregrounded with little and in many cases no previous exposition. The office scene is a poignantly low-stakes version of that. Time is hastened by virtue of the banality of the conversation filling it. There's frustration and sadness as the bottom of this--Time passes, nothing happens. It's a common and all too human frustration, and Gaddis evokes it brilliantly.

He evokes it for sound, thematic reasons as well. On page 172, Our Hero explains what I'll simplistically describe as the disembodiment of capital. Money flies around without debtors or creditors understanding who's sending it or who's receiving it or where it's going or why. The paths that it travels are not random, but there's no way of conclusively pinpointing its behavior. Shakespeare makes a similar argument in Act 4 of Timon of Athens, when the title character reflects upon the seemingly mystical quality of gold, a substance that can cancel the predicted course of nature, and that even the gods are enslaved to:

[To the gold] 2085
O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
'Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen's purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian's lap! thou visible god,
That solder'st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! that speak'st with
every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire! 

Of course, the mysticism of capital is different from the mysticism of specie--capital implies an intricate system of debits and credits; gold is simply money, a more straightforward signifier and enabler of wealth. Gold is a noble and valuable thing; capital, in contrast, can be the absence of value, or the promise of future value. Which is why the office scene is so vital: the office is where value is created; it's where things are made and produced, the tangible side of the crypto-black box economy that J R unwittingly describes. In these 25 pages, we get something of a full look at Gaddis's notion of contemporary capitalism, in all its quiet frustrations and absurdities, in all its mystical banality. It is something less noble, less worthy of high poetry than the notion of capitalism that Timon rails against. This is no bright defiler of Hymen's purest blood, and maybe in the next 500 pages, we'll find that it's something altogether darker--and altogether more familiar to us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Occupy Gaddis: A Mongolian Detour

Didn't read any of J R today. A terror-inducing line outside the Shedd aquarium doomed us to an afternoon at the Field Museum, which has a temporary exhibit about Gengis Khan, the most fascinating  historical figure of all time. The exhibit had plenty of interesting shit about the "how" of the rapid and violent expansion of the Mongolian empire (short answer: technological advantages, which included superior longbows, stirrups and badass siege machinery, including a version of the giant crossbow on wheels from Warcraft II, which the exhibit had a delightful scale model of; a carefully-oragized military, a total lack of moral scruples and, you know, just wanting it more). But what about the "why?" Why does a band of illiterate nomads decide that forcibly incorporating the entire known world into a well-organized crypto-cosmopolitan, semi-bureacratic state is like, worth the effort? How does the idea occur to them? Like where does this kind of ambition even come from? I mean this in the literal (as well as philosophical) sense--with modern colonial powers the expansionist impulse is fairly straightforward to understand: there's a drive for resources, political clout and foreign markets, not to mention ideologies of racial and cultural supremacism. But the Mongols didn't care about resources--hell, they even introduced an early version of fiat money. They had no civilizing drive; the reason the empire got so enormous so quickly is that they didn't fuck around with imposing their values on the conquered. In a weird way, the Mongols were open-minded and semi-tolerant because they were motivated purely by tribalism, which is emotional and inward-facing, rather than ideology or religion, which is systematic, expansionist and inherently arrogant. The Mongols weren't involved in any generational political struggles when they kicked this thing off either. They weren't locked into a mutually-destructive long game with the Russians or the Arabs or the Chinese (all of whom they would eventually conquer). They were just kinda roaming the steppes, tending their horses, minding their own business. Then something changed. But what? Why go through the headache? Thoughts?

So I didn't read today, but these people probably did: Infinite Zombies writes about the money-art nexus, with a nifty take on the bust-drowning on page 1. Chazz Formichella on humor in the novel.

Occupy Gaddis pp 51-60: Brooklyn Telephone Directory

Stray thoughts regarding a journey from Chicago to the Schaumberg Ikea and back:

-We board the Metra. It is 10:30. The train passes a baroque church, domes like the lid of an antique candy jar. We get to Des Plaines, which we mistakenly believe is pronounced D-ee Play-ne. It is not. The place name, though Francophonic, reverts to more familiar, phonetic pronunciation. Forty-five minutes from Ogilvie, Chicago is a theory, a previous point on an unfamiliar railway line that leads to...

-Des Plaines. When I heard the words "train to a bus to an Ikea," I immediately pictured some weed-eaten parking lot adjacent to a whooshing highway underpass. This is not the case. Des Plaines has a theater. It has a library newer and nicer than that of  my former college. It has a Thai restaurant. Inexplicably--for our own individual benefit almost--it has excellent public transportation. It has Civilization. It has...

-The bus. It swoops around worrying and unexpected curves, it stops to change drivers for some fucking reason, it huffs its way down Golf Road, which, perhaps coincidentally, abuts a golf course of sorts, or at least it abuts a driving range. It is a straight road, an arrow of a road, fucking a flat frontier of green and corn and two-level houses and cyclists and inflatable swimming pools. Speaking of cyclists, I spot a woman hauling one of those child carriages--and a child--behind her bike on a perilous four-lane road, a road without a bike lane, I should add. Is this person a fucking moron, or is this mode of transportation imposed by economic necessity, rather than idiocy, per se? The bus approaches an office park. This is our stop. For...

-The flag of St. Gustavus flutters proudly in the breeze. Ikea is a foreign outpost of another nation's nationalism. This nation is Sweden, so who gives a fuck. At lunch, I am served a platter of 15 meatballs, with a Swedish flag impaling the central ball. Said impalement was committed by a wasted-looking female employee in her late 20s, a woman whose ancestry might not have been particularly Swedish. Is this an example of Swedish Soft Power, or is it a more sinister indicator of the postmodern erosion of the Nation State as a morally and practically viable idea, even within our emblematically-American heartland? Or maybe this doesn't demean us Americans so much as it demeans the Swedish nation, which was once something of a regional and even imperial power, a conqueror of men, rather than furniture stores and meatball platters. My brother (whose apartment we are furnishing) and father go tie up some loose ends, which mostly involve paying for our furniture--our Bjorns and Halaks and Anders Behring Breviks--and arranging its safe delivery to downtown Chicago. I read ten pages of J R, a novel I will not be writing about in this blog post. Although earlier...

-Our helpful Co-Worker was Jeffery. No, not Jeffrey--Jeffery. Much joking will later be made on his account. Were his parents drunk in the delivery room? Or, more tantalizingly, more romantically--were his great great grandparents drunk on corn liquor in the delivery room/wagon/tent; was their clerical error lovingly reproduced throughout the generations, was it enshrined even a century later, carried forward by their Ikea-employed progeny? Jeffery was an English major at some earlier and perhaps more hopeful station in life. He knows every fold-out couch by name. He says that he hasn't sold any of his college books. For a moment, I imagine that J R is one of them.

-We finally leave. We encounter a Greek, or maybe an Armenian. For money he drives on a highway, in a direction that we're unsure of, towards the city, maybe away from it. We stand at a prairie railway station, staring at the backside of the Arlington Park grandstand. I mention how flat everything is here, how straight. There are no hills, no distinguishing buildings even, it's one sprawling expanse of flat, checkerboarded by straight-ahead roads converging at the occasional 90-degree wedge. The wind picks up, and I'm reminded that tornadoes are a common occurrence around here. Don't worry, my brother tells me. Clouds gather before a tornado hits. It it is clear. I have no idea which way the city lies. In matters directional, only God can help you--the sun is already setting in the west.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 29-51: What Democracy in the Arts is All About

I was in Book Court today when the proprietor, a shaggy and appropriately well, bookish-looking middle-aged guy noticed my Nationals cap, and offered consolation as regards the 14-inning heartbreak of the previous afternoon, during which the Nats were one blown call away from beating the universally-hated (even in Brooklyn!) New York Yankees. In the 8th inning, Tyler Moore scored what should have been--what was, as replay would immediately reveal--the go-ahead run in a close play at the plate. He was called out. Fuck everything.

Philosophical question: how often does it (sports, life, whatever) come down to Just One Thing? The game did not come down to One Thing--The Nats stranded Ryan Zimmerman at 3rd in the bottom of the 13th, and Craig Stammen pitched three perfect innings in extras, just to be pulled in favor of the recently-injured and all-of-a-sudden washed-up Brad Lidge. But the game did come down to Just One Thing--it is not as if the home plate umpire observed the collision at home plate, peered through the temporal mists, considered, for a moment, the Nats' upcoming failures to manufacture runs and manage their pitching staff, and decided to preemptively punish them by deliberately fucking up the game's deciding call. No. This did not happen. What happened was the temporary breakdown of some fairly basic assumptions. Baseball is played with an expectation of a pristine, overriding order. The balls are balls, the strikes are strikes, etc. You cannot manage anything--sports, life, whatever--if chaos governs your assumptions. Things have to work the way you expect them to. The calls have to be right.

The One Thing that screwed my Nationals was the suspension of this higher order. But fuck it, what is this higher order? Isn't it nothing more--or less--than the arbitrary tyranny of rules, and the people and institutions that uphold and impose them? It's late, and I spent almost my entire post-Book Court day traveling to Chicago, so I'm not gonna wade too deep into the actual reading today (a shame cuz it's an important section: little JR, dressed in an ugly sweater and ditching his Tim and Eric-esque glam rock Wagnerian community theatre interpretive dance routine in order to go commit RICO-level wire fraud using a government-owned phone, the devious bastard, makes his first appearance). But order and the imposition of order is a crucial aspect of the book so far, and most of our characters are adults sitting in a room somewhere, using television screens to remotely control invisible groups of mindless, impressionable children. It's sort of creepy! These are petty, mediocre people that demand loyalty oaths and believe in punchcard-based social engineering schemes--in their hands, even high art becomes a kind of dysentery. They are almost fascists, although not really--although, come to think of it, whether they are or not, and whether Gaddis is trying to evoke a sort of Cold War-bred, distinctly American brand of authoritarianism would be a ripe topic for a future post. My little baseball example proves that this arrogant positivism ("arrogant positivists" strikes me as a more accurate description here than "fascists," but hey, where do you draw the line?) can only hide its facile and constructed nature for so long, and I hope that one of the pleasures of this book will be seeing a sixth-grader upend and destroy the systems and assumptions that envelop him. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 16-29: What America is All About

Mr. Coen (Cohen) eventually shuts up and leaves, and the bottom of page 17 through the top of page 18 represent the longest dialogue-free chunk of novel so far. It describes a world that's immediately familiar to me: "open acres flowing in funereal abundance" give way to a "suburban labyrinth," which sounds like just a fuckin' horrible place: the local World War II memorial is already a "crumbling eyesore," the fire department's (literally funereal) crepe-paper is packed away like an old soda advertisement--if I read the top paragraph of 18 correctly, there's a single, wasting farmhouse marooned in a gingerbread-flat expanse of fresh-paved parking lot. I grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs, near the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Randolph Road. At that intersection there are shopping complexes on either side of Randolph, but until about two years ago there were also a pair of crumbling and decidedly agricultural-looking three-level homes with gables and wood siding and even a small veranda, squished between the nail salons and fast-fooderies, homes made poignantly homeless by the urbanizing onslaught, begging, just like fucking begging to be torn down. One of them was replaced with a Wendy's; the other simply rotted away until its ragged wooden bones were quietly disposed of.

So until recently, there was evidence that my old neighborhood--if it could even be called that--was once something much different. It was agricultural; the road once demarcated property boundaries, and Washington DC felt, and was, very far away. There was no beltway, no ICC, no Metro, no El Salvadorians, no dignified yet mass-produced starter homes, no RideOn buses or belching SUVs. This wasn't like, 100 years ago or anything. This was like, 50 or 60 years ago. And it wasn't necessarily better back then. In fact, life was horribly unfair: in those days, did anyone living in that corner of the DC metro area (if they even called it that back then...) ever dream that Ethiopians and Koreans and Jews would be living in enormous yet affordable houses and sending their kids to the best public schools in the country and taking advantage of a vast public transit system, and that the daily toil and existential uncertainty of farming would be systematized and finally outsourced to places where it actually like, made sense to set aside enormous tracts of land for the sole purpose of agricultural production? I'm thinking probably not! A world as logical and egalitarian and non-racist as ours seemed Utopian or even absurd back then, and the destruction of my neighborhood's agrarian past--indeed its total effacement from the physical landscape--is actually a sign of progress.

But here (in the novel I mean) we have the dark side of this revolutionary and positive transformation. Yes, there's the replacement of bucolic uselessness (the replacement of some bullshit agrarian myth) with something more equitable, progress-oriented and democratic. But progress is a monster, and this particular section is jam-packed with moments of comic monsterousness: a cartoon Cold War military man wants to  integrate his town's cultural initiative with the local school's duck and cover drills. Show the kids a real bomb shelter, he says--show them what America's all about. The kids, meanwhile, are being taught using televisions, and are so incapable of original or critical thought that Mr. Gibbs's speech at the bottom of page 20 ("Order is simply a thin, perilous condition...") is meant to be like, funny. And it is! Speaking of funny, there's this great exchange on page 25:

--And there's this twelve thousand dollars item for books.

--That's supposed to be twelve hundred, the twelve thousand should be paper towels.

Progress is a monster, but maybe it doesn't have to be. In the novel's first 30 pages, we've sat in on two very jargon heavy, very procedural, and actually very boring meetings that have to do with financial and legal minutia that aren't really explained to us. We are waiting on some humanity to appear, someone we can cling to, a character or a voice (there are only voices at this point in the novel--no characters) that will tame or control or even redeem the pulverizing monster of post-war American progress. Maybe it's Edward, who's appeared in this novel (around page 16, I think) without (curiously enough) actually saying anything. Maybe it's the titular JR. Maybe there's no redemption to be had, and we're in for 720 more pages of pure po-mo apocalpyticism. We'll see.

A couple stray observations: Ms. Flesch (great name) keeps talking about "her Ring," referring to a local performance of music from Wagner's Ring cycle. In Elizabethan English, "ring" is slang for virginity. My ring! a sexually pent up (Ms!) schoolteacher keeps exclaiming during a budgetary meeting in the mid-50s. Heh.

And finally: some of the descriptions are already tending towards the unintelligible. There are points where the language seems like it's on the brink of total breakdown. Page 22:

"...loomed worsted with a bluish tinge in arbitrary sway over the pastel arrangement behind the desk, cordially drawing Mister diCephalis half out of a sleeve of knife edge pressed nondescript."

This prose is practically cubist. The physical descriptions in this book are just impossible sometimes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 1-15: Money, In a Voice That Rustled

As best I can tell, William Gaddis's JR is a single uninterrupted block of text, with no chapter breaks or divisions of any type. You know what else is a similarly unified, formally coherent, uninterrupted block? Life itself. Hah.

Anyway, my first exposure to Gaddis was Agape Agape, which I purchased on a Saturday night during my restless and sexless highschool years. I bought it from Kramerbooks and Afterword, a  pretentious and overpriced book shop near Dupont Circle. I had spent a disappointing evening visiting with a friend of mine from my previous summer's trip to Israel. He was in town for a model UN conference, which was being held at the same hotel where Ronald Reagan had nearly been assassinated in 1981. We couldn't stray far from the hotel; nuclear war could break out at any moment, yes even on a Saturday night; lives and college applications were on the line, and over-earnest 10th graders in dress shirts had no choice, just no choice other than staying within a five minute walk of the place. So we reminisced, watched some Olympic ski jumping--a physical absurdity whose repetitiousness hardly detracts and probably even adds to its undeniably hypnotic quality--and went to a Fuddruckers.

I want to say that my night was salvaged by the chance purchase of a book that somehow changed or at least slightly enlarged my world, or that has stuck with me in some way or another, but this is not the case. Gaddis was an unfamiliar name to me, and the book was short and struck me as at least vaguely potentially intriguing, for reasons I can't really recall. Perhaps the cover blurb or the opening pages indulged or vindicated whatever disaffectedness I was feeling at the time--maybe they explained or more likely deepened the psychic displacement of being cold and alone and like, an hour and half from home, and acutely aware of just how futile and unsatisfying the performance of basic social obligations could be, even the ones that you consider to be real, self-imposed, meaningful obligations. Even those could leave you milling around an expensive bookstore for reasons you're not quite sure of, looking for something or possibly anything, even an incomprehensible 100-page rant about player pianos, just anything that will deepen this awareness of the meaningless and the random that's suddenly and seemingly inexplicably descended upon you. The English seminar po-mo symbolism of the player piano was totally lost on the purer, gloriously unfertilized, just blazingly original mind I carried around back then (the last time in my life that I blogged on a consistent, even bi or tri-weekly basis), and while I can remember the formative books of my high school years (Dos Passos, Faulkner, Whitman, Abdelrahman Munif and Hunter S. Thompson all figure prominently) I wouldn't include Agape Agape among them. My ownership of that book is a physical tribute to a brief and still bizarrely vivid moment of deep juvenile frustration and dread, nothing more or less.

Is there inherent coherency and meaning to something that's presented in a single, intimidating block of text, or is any coherency and meaning necessarily imposed upon it by expectation? This is a question that immediately presents itself in JR. Two details from the first page: "We never saw paper money till we came east." East from where? Coincidentally, the very friend I was meeting at the Reagan assasination hotel the night I first discovered William Gaddis was the descendent of Russian Jews who fled to China and then immigrated to the west coast of the United States before settling in Cleveland (they spent several months in Shanghai, which once had a surprisingly not-inconsiderable Jewish population). This is to say that the historical experince of "coming east" is not a common one in this country of ours. Typically you go west--you only "come east" if you've gone west and either you or fortune changed its mind at some point or another--or if east is the direction you're moving in the first place, as per my friend's family's novel experience.

Then a few lines later: "There was never a bust of father, Anne. And I don't recall his ever being in Australia." This is connected to some anecdote related earlier in the conversation, but it's not one that You the Reader are privy to. Or maybe it's related to "moving east?" Who knows. My point in this is that actual, real life is made real by the lack of external, objective signifiers or signposts--no one is telling you what's happening, YOU are tell you what's happening, all the time, right now, while reading this even. In that sense your life is consistent, coherent. In the end, you're alone in there. Depressing! Empowering! Does JR have a similar unity of perspective? It would seem so.

Yet: the first fifteen pages of this book are geographically diffuse: summers in Cairo, awards recieved in Europe, busts drowned in Vancouver bay, mysterious stints in Australia, permenant moves east. Indiana, which isn't local. And yet the action is totally trapped. It is claustrophobic, with physical, environmental details deliberately withheld: "Sunlight, pocketted in a cloud..." is the only desciprtoin we get on the first page. The action inhabits a world beyond physicality: these are voices from nowhere. The action is happening far, far away, as if on the other end of a telephone conversation (I think a lot of the novel actually is a telephone conversation? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself). This talk of bastardy and dividends and business interests doesn't seem to apply to anything or anyone, just a series of dissociated names, spoken by three very odd people. Because there are no chapter breaks, there's no hint of when or if these people will be transitioned out of the story. It's all a bit like the Circe chapter in Ulysses, isn't it?

This dissociation is deliberate. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that Thomas's company makes piano rolls, or cylinders(?) that are inserted in player pianos. James is a composer, a "real" musician, in other words. You'd think that there's sort of a symbiotic relationship between the two brothers' pursuits: James writes piano pieces, Thomas repackages them as piano rolls; James can share his music with masses while Thomas can profit off of his piano rolls. Why it's the dawn of popular music, or art as a mass product. But this is not the case: very quickly, we learn that Thomas and James are not particularly close, which is to say that the creation of music and the mass-production of music are not particularly close, at least not now. They embody personality types that can't really get along, in other words, even if they should get along. I don't know if Gaddis is trying to set up a kind of polar opposition between two clashing artistic or aesthetic value systems--doubtful; I'm only 15 pages into this, and I'm guessing the player pianos are left behind before too long, and the kind of disembodiment and dislocation of Art (did you know you can watch  Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters now?!?) will seem like a quaint and obscure little matter by the time the American Dream is turned inside out or whatever the heck this book is famous for doing. For now: we have voices chattering about something we can't place, in a location we can't really envision, in what's probably a midwestern but nevertheless comparatively "eastern" part of the country. Matters of money--the ultimate totem of arbitrary assigned value, the emblematic collective fiction of this and really every age--is the sole topic of discussion, although other things (family, a broken button, a broken chair) keep getting in the way. Now, and for however long I stick with this (I'm planning on blogging every day, or as close to it as possible--hold me to it!) we're adrift in a massive block of text, adrift in something approximating life.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Star Trek-Related Service Journalism Mental Health Break

Why am I even writing this? This blog used to be a place where I would try to push my skills as far as they could go, a place for narrative and experimentation and writing I'm conceited enough to think of as art. It was an aspirational sort of place, and maybe it still can be, at least when I achieve the level of caffeination necessary to pull off a non-bullshit 4,000 word post. But until that day, and because this is a post I'll quite enjoy writing and have actually been thinking about for awhile now (pathetically enough...)--it's my top 15 Deep Space 9 episodes!

Recall that a few months ago, I wrote rather a long meditation on the first two seasons of DS9. Since then, I've finished watching every arc episode, Klingon and Ferengi-centered episode, and interesting-sounding standalone--in total, I think I've watched a little over half of the series, which Ronald D. Moore accurately described as the most "human" of the Star Treks. I agree with him, but before sharing my best-of it's worth looking at what exactly this might mean, at what "humanity" meant in the context of a show practically dedicated to fictional alien cultures. After all, the show's four principal races—the Klingons, Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians—are given something more than a schematic treatment, and their affairs upstage most of the human goings-on, I think. DS9 went for nearly-anthropological thoroughness as far the Big 4 were concerned; you learn not just how their political and religious systems are organized, but also what they value, and how their basic attitudes towards life, the universe, everything etc. differ amongst each other, and from ours as well.

It's easy to say that humanism in DS9 really refers to the use of alien cultures as a kind of reflection upon human values and human society, but I'm not sure this is true. In The Original Series, Kirk and Company were constantly encountering alien races whose sole existence in the universe seemed to be to teach humanity (which in this case meant racism/Cold War-addled late-60s America) a lesson. It's more accurate to say that the humanism of DS9 is rooted in both a celebration of and ambivalence towards multiculturalism that was very 1990s, but somehow still resonates. For instance, in the final episode (spoiler ahead), the Klingon Chancellor Martok disgusts Sisko by celebrating the destruction of Cardassia--one only needs to look at the debate over what to do about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, along with Russia and China's happy abetting of said ongoing slaughter, to see the difficulty of co-existing with people whose values disgust us. And one only needs to look at an American society still hopelessly—yet rightfully—hung up on issues of race and class difference to see the importance of understanding what multiculturalism and co-existence can and cannot do. DS9 is partly about the discontents (and, if you're being uncharitable, the hollowness) of the Federation's brand of liberal utopianism, a situation that's not without its parallels in the contemporary democratic west.

But that's not the only "human" thing that this orgy of brilliantly-realized alien races seemed to hit on. DS9 was about other perennial issues too. I think O'Brien was the only major character without an identity-related hangup or ten. Meanwhile, the Cardassian occupation of Bajor left the Bajorans coping with the aftermath of a century of victimization, and the Cardassians dealing with the failure of their entire political and moral order, for most of the show's first five seasons, and possibly even longer. The show was about how and why the scars of war can never heal, as well as how and why they eventually must heal. Indeed, I cannot think of another show that took a more nuanced view towards the legacy of genocide, xenophobia and war--in fact, I can't think of very many shows that are even interested in these sorts of questions or issues.

BSG, I supposed. But DS9 lacks BSG's didactic quality, which even the battle scenes and slickly-produced explosions couldn't distract from. I would sometimes got the sense DS9's producers were lecturing me (they certainly don't seem like free market types), but I always got the sense that BSG's producers were lecturing me. And I never really liked what they were telling me either--as I mentioned earlier, BSG tried to pull the neat trick of drawing constant, belabored equivalencies between the human race and their Cylon tormentors, as if victim-blaming and relativism were a substitute for moral nuance. DS9, which has the deepest and most interesting stable of villains of just about any sci-fi show ever, never needed to use cheap equivalencies and parallelisms as a crutch. Because why should it, or any creative endeavor worth its salt, approach evil with laziness? Evil, after all, is extremely fascinating, perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon in this or any universe.

Anyway, here are what I believe to be the fifteen best episodes of the series, along with a brief explanation as to why:

15. “Defiant” (Season 3): Thomas Riker hijacks the Defiant for the Maquis, and takes the quadrant’s most powerful warship deep into Cardassian space. Riker’s sense of heroism wavers as it becomes clearer that the mission will be a failure—and as Kira convinces him that he’s throwing his life away for reasons that even he doesn’t seem entirely certain of. This episode achieves something resembling high tragedy, insomuch as this is possible within the formal limits of a 40-minute first-run syndicated sci-fi show.

14. “Rocks and Shoals” (6): A Trek take on the classic set-piece of two enemy ships marooned on the same island, or planet, in this case. Except that one of the enemy ships is full of Jem Hadar, whose Vorta overlord would rather get himself off the planet alive than save his increasingly unstable charges. A Jem Hadar soldier explaining to Sisko why he has no choice but to die in a wasteful, suicidal attack in order to maintain “the order of things” is arguably the climax of the show’s long and highly fraught engagement with the nature-nurture debate.

13. Visionary (3): In one of the most conceptually brilliant episodes of the series, O’Brien finds himself traveling slightly forward in time. At first the future seems banal—he chats up Quark, watches Klingons and Romulans brawl on the Promenade, nothing unusual in other words. Then sees his own dead body in sick bay and eventually witnesses the impending destruction of the station. Odd as this sounds, I actually like this one for its humor. Who couldn’t gaffaw at past O’Brien and present O’Brien lamenting the hopeless convolutions of Trekkian temporal mechanics?

12. Body Parts (4): Liquidator Brunt offers Quark something of a Hobbson’s Choice: kill himself in order to fulfill an earlier contract, or violate the contract and end up on the Ferengi Commerce Authority’s dreaded blacklist. Lots of identity angst ensues—as does buddy comedy, when Quark contracts Garak to kill him as quietly and as cleanly as possible.

11. Tribunal (2): O’Brien becomes the unwitting victim of Cardassia’s Kafkaesque legal system. You share his panic at the cards being so horrifyingly stacked against him—as well as his righteous indignation when refusing to beg for his life at the end of the episode. “Tribunal” offers a fascinating glimpse at the self-image of the series’ major villains—the episode’s almost humorously over-the-top depiction of Cardassian pathology vis a vis the inherent rightness of their social and political system, marks one of popular culture’s better treatments of totalitarianism.

10. Waltz (6): Such a simple episode. Sisko and Dukat are trapped in a cave together; nothing more than that going on here really. Except that EVERYTHING is going on here, because we learn about the dark, psychic forces underpinning the leading villain of the series, a man who, among other things, desperately needs others to validate and flatter his own injured sense of greatness. Also notable: Dukat hallucinates and converses with the sort of “internal” characters that Baltar would have to deal with in BSG. Additionally notable: this is the last time in the series that Dukat would do anything even vaguely interesting, in my mind. This episode is a sort of last-hurrah for the greatest villain in all of Star Trek.

9. Blood Oath (2): Dax fulfils an oath from a previous host and joins three aging Klingon warriors on a bloody and inevitably empty quest for revenge. At least the first 3/4ths of the episode involves Dax talking herself into the necessity of joining such a quest, and coping with her own sudden sense of bloodlust. Contains probably the saddest (and most cinematic) final few minutes of any DS9 episode.

8. In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light (5): This one involves a Dominion planet asteroid, gladiatorial combat, and Garak—basically it’s the most thrilling hour and a half of the entire series. The big reveal about Garak and Enabren Tain midway through par two feels like it explains everything, while explaining nothing at all.

7. Civil Defense (3): The Sisko kid trips the universe’s wackiest self-destruct sequence, and what begins as a minor crisis quickly escalates into a life-or-death showdown between Dukat, Kira and Garak. I’m still not quite sure why the station doesn’t blow up in the end, but if Star Trek-style deux ex machina really bothered me that much I’m not sure I would have spent such an in-retrospect appalling amount of my life watching it…

6. For the Uniform (5): Sisko finally captures his white whale (or his Jean Valjean or whatever), but he needs to commit an appalling act of planeticide in order to do it. Sisko sinks to such astounding moral lows in this one that it’s unclear whether you’re meant to sympathize with him—or with Eddington, the most charismatic and idealistic villain (or anti-hero) in the entire series.

5. It’s Only a Paper Moon (7): Nog’s PTSD (this show was all kinds of prophetic…) sinks him to a Timon-like retreat from reality—and pushes him into the safety and security of Vic Fontaine’s holosuite program. But It’s Only a Paper Moon, after all, and in a uniquely Trekkian scenario, a hologram has to convince a humanoid of the value and meaning of real, non-simulated life. You could read this as a metaphor for obsessive fandom, but the drama in this episode is so carefully plotted that it seems almost insulting to do so.

4. Hard Time (4): O’Brien emerges from a simulated 30-year prison sentence as a different, broken man. But it’s not the “hard time” that’s gotten to him, so much as his senseless murder of his cell-mate, a murder that he actually quite enjoyed from the looks of it. Of course, his cell-mate never really existed—it’s a stand in for his own humanity, for his moral center, for his sense of compassion. In the series’ most cerebral and most disturbing episode, O’Brien tries to come to grips with the apparent ease with which he extinguished that part of himself. This is the kind of episode that the less character-driven Treks (every one other than DS9, I mean) could not have pulled off.

3. The Visitor (4): What to say that hasn’t already been said already. I think TV Guide once named this the greatest Star Trek episode, period. It is not. But it is one of the franchise’s chief examples of using Trekkian dramatic structure (i.e. shit that involves time travel, wacky pseudo-science, aliens, bizarre astronomic phenomena, omnipotence, faster-than-light travel, surprise M-class planets, etc.) to tell stories that are both universal and piercingly human.

2. Far Beyond the Stars (6): The most po-mo episode of the entire Trek franchise, “Stars” actively draws attention to the artificiality of Star Trek. In fact, the episode is sort of entirely about the artificiality of Star Trek, and about the bleed-over between the real and the imagined that the most convincing of art can create. But this episode is so much more than a cheap po-mo mindfuck. It’s brilliant because it uses that bleed-over to isolate the true villains of the Star Trek, the timeless, seemingly-metaphysical (but only seemingly…) enemy of Kirk, Spock and every Trek character to come after them: xenophobia, groundless hatred, violence, and war. Benny Russell and Benjamin Sisko are effectively fighting against the same thing, and “Stars” subtly points to the possibility that Trek is really a big, elaborate sublimation of latent cultural and social anxieties. In that sense, “Stars” is a kind of companion piece to the TNG finale “All Good Things…,” an episode that has a much rosier (but not necessarily contradictory) thesis as to what this whole Star Trek thing is really all about.

1. The Wire (2): Garak has a headache! Dr. Bashir discovers that it’s due to an implant in Garak’s brain, left over from his Obsidian Order days, that allows him to release endorphins into his brain such that the most brutal of tortures will feel like an afternoon at Spa Castle. Banishment from Cardassia and life on DS9 is such hell that turning the implant on at all times and flooding his system with artificial endorphins is the only way for him to cope with the misery and disappointment of daily life. But he becomes dependent on the endorphins, even as the implant begins to eat away at his cerebral cortex—so the cure to Garak’s depressive madness actually becomes the disease, and the only way to figure out how to safely remove the implant is to get Garak to talk about his past, a fate literally worse than death, as it turns out. The episode is framed around three conflicting (and probably mostly fabricated) explanations that Garak gives for his banishment from Cardassia, explanations that in some way implicate a man named Elim in the events leading up to Garak’s exile. As we learn at the end of the episode, Elim is actually Garak’s first name, and the Elim in Garak’s stories is either a calculated lie or a coping mechanism, or both.

What makes this the finest 42 minutes of the series? Perhaps it’s Alex Siddiq and especially Andrew Robinson’s virtuosic acting; Robinson in particular would never top his performance here. Or perhaps it’s the episode’s elaboration on Garak and Bashir’s friendship, always a microcosm for the multicultural angst that pervaded the first two seasons of the show. But a large part of its allure has to do with the introduction of a mystery that is never actually solved. A lesser show would have told its viewers why Garak was actually kicked out of Cardassia, and would have taken away much of the drama and mystery, much of the slipperiness surrounding a character that many consider to be the most interesting in the series, simply for the sake of satisfying the perfectly human urge to know. But this episode frustrates that urge, and even five seasons later the viewer still has scant idea why Garak was exiled from his home world.

This is the last time I will ever write about DS9 on this blog.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hitchens and Religion--In Case You Haven't Read Enough About This Particular Topic Already

I was reading over the girlfriend's shoulder on the subway yesterday when I came across this sentence (or rather sentence fragment) on page 173 of Christopher Hitchens's god is Not Great. They're the opening words of a chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" and they're as succinct and as damning an indictment of the late polemicist and literary critic as anything I can think of:
A little more than a century after Joseph Smith fell victim to the violence and mania he had helped to unleash...
Hitchens goes on to contrast the dishonest and mercenary founder of Mormonism with MLK, whose use of religious language and themes to combat the evils of racism and oppression has, at times, been capable of producing "profound emotion of the sort that can sometimes bring genuine tears." I assume Hitchens, ever the unwavering opponent of bigotry and injustice, is talking about himself here. But I have to call bullshit--I question whether it's even possible for someone so heartless to weep "genuine tears," or to even understand what it means to do so.

My knowledge of this is Wikipedian at best, but at least according to Mormons, Joseph Smith was a victim of religious persecution, martyred in the process of affecting God's will on earth. Now in this case--and again, I'm really just working off of Wikipedia here--"God's will on earth" included things like suppressing a burgeoning dissenting element within his movement, which in turn included things like closing down the offices of a newspaper accusing Smith of harboring bigamist and theocratic ambitions. Polygamy, theocracy, suppression of the press--we moderns can agree that these are terrible things. Maybe we can even agree that historical hindsight entitles us to view the Mormons of 1844 as the brainwashed self-righteous outsiders that they most likely were; as people whose belief in a religious fraudster pushed them further and further into the American periphery. It is unsurprising that Christopher Hitchens would fail to sympathize with the leader of the less progressive wing of a religious movement so wholly untethered from and so totally unconcerned with modernity, tolerance, empirical truth, etc. When you put it that way, I'm not sure I even sympathize with them.

But--and again, I'm no expert on this--it appears that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in fact lynched and mutilated by an angry mob after being accused of "treason" against the state of Illinois (this after the pair went to the provocative lengths of declaring martial law in the Mormon hamlet of Nauvoo after shutting down the aforementioned anti-Smith newspaper). The mob consisted partly and maybe even largely of local anti-Mormonists who, in addition to being your run-of-the-mill religious bigots, saw Smith's imprisonment as an opportunity to expunge a group of local rabble-rousers--kill the suddenly-imprisoned and soon-to-be-executed Smith, they must have reasoned, and this whole polygamist vs. anti-polygamist, theocrat vs. anti-theocrat nonsense could be foisted on strangers living deeper in the frontier. Regardless of his illiberalism, it is not accurate to say that Smith "fell victim to the violence and mania he had helped unleash." Instead, he was a victim of religious persecution. It was persecution that attained a certain, inevitably murderous legitimacy as a result of Smith's own failings as a leader (all five of the people charged with Smith's killing, including the editor of a local anti-Mormon newspaper, were eventually acquitted). But so what? We don't agree with most of what the Rebbe of New Skvare believes, but if he were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason and then lynched by non-Jewish Rockland County locals on the basis of his religious leadership alone, I'm guessing even the most progressive among us would be so appalled as to start questioning the very nature of the country and society we're living in.

This half-sentence, throwaway dismissal of an individual's religious liberty--which is, by extension, a throwaway denial of basic human dignity, up to and including the right not to be lynched by an angry mob--contains just about everything that makes me uneasy about Hitchens's work. And it's not just that Hitchens could speak and write passionately about one group's persecution while callously shrugging off another's (my friend Benjamin Kerstein once noted that Hitchens was so appalled by Nazi symbolism on the streets of Beirut that he put his life in danger to vandalize a Syrian Social Nationalist Party monument--but he still believed that Antiochus's failure to eradicate Judaism was one of history's great tragedies). Rather, it's his criteria for who does and doesn't deserve some rudimentary human dignity: Hitchens isn't bothered by the facts of Smith's death, because Smith spread ignorant, poisonous piffle that is simply below all contempt. Never mind that it's piffle that millions of people believe. And never mind that religious association might have to do with things over than mere belief; that even in 1844, Mormonism provided its followers with an outsize, even Utopian sense of purpose that my modernity and Judaism don't prevent me from admiring on some level. Never mind all that--if a belief structure doesn't pass Hitchens's ontological sniff test, then those who promulgate it don't deserve his sympathy or even that most basic of freedoms, i.e. the freedom not to be killed as result of one's deepest convictions.

I think that fifty years from now, Hitchens' lack of intellectual curiosity, and lack of even basic empathy in terms of understanding what religion means to people--joined with his abundant willingness to drone on about religion for literally hundreds of pages at a time--will go down as his greatest critical failing. I'm guessing his work on religion will be politely ignored; chalked up to the sort of unfortunate eccentricities that the most brilliant minds are often prone to. After all, Hitchens was an eloquent defender of western liberalism, someone whose refreshingly shameless (and antiquated) fervency for the philosophy and rhetoric of the Enlightenment powered his writings on topics as diffuse as Cyprus, radical Islam and Bill Clinton. Who wants to remember that he flippantly suspended his own principles as far as religion was concerned?

His admirers can hope that future generations forget about this. Hitchens used to insist that "religion poisons everything." He did so with total sincerity, a sincerity that seemed slightly delusional when I saw him debate Rabbi David Wolpe a few years ago. It was Wolpe who came off as decent and genuinely open and tolerant; Hitchens who came off as petty and unctuous. Religion apparently doesn't poison-everything after all! It is, however, hard to read this half-a-sentence and not wonder whether Hitchensian anti-religion, and the hostile, anti-intellectual and even morally degrading stance towards one's fellow man that it entails, isn't a little poisonous itself...

...Elsewhere in silliness, it's Nick Kristof! Meles Zenawi has been dictator of Ethiopia for two decades now. He's presided over famines, stolen elections, and pointless and needlessly destructive wars with Eritrea. His county is somewhere in the 170s of the Human Devleopment Index, which surely has something to do with his government's long-standing hostility towards NGOs, civil society groups, democracy--you know, the things that allow people to question why their country is such a fucked up and woefully mismanaged place. He's a bad dude! He's been a bad dude for a really, really long time!

But Meles has really crossed the line this time.

DAVOS, Switzerland

IN a filthy Ethiopian prison that is overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats, two Swedes are serving an 11-year prison sentence for committing journalism.

Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, share a narrow bed, one man’s head beside the other’s feet. Schibbye once woke up to find a rat mussing his hair.

The prison is a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood, according to Schibbye’s wife, Linnea Schibbye Steiner, who last met with her husband in December. It is hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night, and the two Swedes are allowed no mail or phone calls, she said. Fortunately, she added, the 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed “the Swedish embassy.”

What was the two men’s crime? Their offense was courage. They sneaked into the Ogaden region to investigate reports of human rights abuses.

That's right, readers. He's imprisoned Swedish people.

Now I agree that Zenawi's imprisonment of two Swedish journalists is alarming. But at this late stage in the game, I can't help but think back to Jeffrey Sachs' risible claim that Zenawi was a member of "Africa's new generation of democratic leaders who are pointing the way" in The End of Poverty. Zenawi was considered a trailblazer and a democrat back when he parroted Jeffrey Sachs' beliefs about the Western obligation to sustainably develop Africa. Zenawi's true colors have been obvious for decades now, but it's only when he turns on western journalists that he earns himself the dubious honor of a Nick Kristof column.I gather that Zenawi has fallen in and out of popular favor based solely on the perception of sustainable developers and soap-boxing New York Times columnists--self-appointed apostles of progress and change whose individual agendas apparently have little to do with the millions of Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis who have suffered under 20 years of Zenawi's rule.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Notes on the SOPAcalaypse

What a bizarre political moment SOPA has produced. I cannot remember a more loathed piece of legislation. George W. Bush's social security privatization push was cause for widespread anguish, but it never had much of a chance of getting passed, and didn't make it nearly as far through the legislative process as SOPA and PIPA have. The PATRIOT act is so hated in some quarters that's it's seen as a harbinger of our declining democratic values--but it also has scores of willing defenders, and at least serves the abstractly altruistic purpose of preventing us from getting blown up by terrorists. The fight over Obamacare dragged out for over a year, but with a solid majority of Americans in support of overhauling this country's dysfunctional healthcare system, it's hard to group it with SOPA, which seemingly nobody supports.

Like really, have you read any op/eds, essays, tweets--like, individual tweets even--in favor of this thing? Even the usual channels of dipshittery--your O'Riellys, your George Wills, your New York Times editorial pages--are silent on this one, with actual intelligent people who know a little something about the Internet--your Julian Sanchez, your Reddit, your Electronic Frontier Foundation-- dominating the public discourse. Admittedly I'm somewhat of a casual observer here, but it seems like the SOPA debate is pretty much down to "every smart person who writes about tech policy for a living, along with randos from across the political spectrum (Eric Erickson?!?!)" vs. Lamar Hunt. And God bless the good Texas congressman, because without him, and his trusty sidekick, the reptilian (and ethically-challenged!) Chris Dodd, there would be no debate of which to speak. Hunt and Dodd are seemingly the only two people in existence who are willing to offer a quote or a public statement in support of SOPA, and in a weird sense, they deserve our gratitude. If the lead villains were any less transparent, any less flippant or contemptuous, the anti-SOPA movement would be a somehow less satisfying to witness.

On the other hand: take a look at the list of lawmakers who support this thing. More instructively, look at the Democrats who support it. SOPA has won the support of both conservative democrats (Gillibrand, Wasserman) and very liberal ones (Conyers, Reid). In fact, it's even supported by Rachel Maddow's former lead-in on Air America, a man whose mere presence in the U.S. senate was once offered as proof that shameless, fearless progressives still had a constituency in this country. For reasons I can't even begin to fathom, Al Franken, a man who like, wrote a bestselling book about the culture of dishonesty and hypocrisy in American political discourse, is a SOPA supporter, and a PIPA co-sponsor. But just to begin to fathom them: let's recall that Franken is the Senate's most outspoken supporter of net neutrality, so he already believes that the government should adopt an aggressively interventionist policy towards both the uses and overall architecture of the internet. Likely the net neutrality debate convinced him that he has both an expertise and a level of clout on web policy that he obviously doesn't possess--but this reasoning only explains why Franken trusts himself and people like him to determine what the internet should look like and do. It doesn't explain the underlying principles that would actually convince him to support SOPA, since backing the regulation of internet service providers doesn't necessarily require you to back the regulation of the internet's content.

SOPA has produced one of those depressingly familiar (but also quite bizarre!) political moments in which our valiant leadership is acting contrary to the public's actual wishes and interests, and in accordance with an occluded and probably corrupt jumble of motivations known only to themselves, to the extent that they are even known at all. Last night, I had the awe-inspiring experience of seeing Kevin Spacey play Richard III at BAM; possibly the most chilling moment of his performance (which was an embarrassment of chilling moments) was the Act I soliloquy in which Richard tells the audience or himself or whoever that he's realized what a corrupted and hateful person he is, that he has no friends, no family, no one who trusts him, no one who he can trust or depend on; that he's alone with his ambitions, succored only by a toxic insecurity and an insatiable desire for control. "I am crept in favor with myself," he says, in one of Shakespeare's more profound reflections on political psychology. It's like he's saying that power is a lonely and dangerous prospect, and those who seek it drift blindly towards a kind of Glochesterian event horizon where ambition shapes the self even as the self shapes ambition; where your motives become cluttered and hidden even from yourself, and where the self is overwhelmed by a mad, self-justifying lust. How many SOPA supporters are "with themselves?" How many have no understanding of what they're doing or why they're doing it? How many have become unmoored within the deadly, tumbling seas of their own disordered minds?

But I digress. My point in all this is that it is bad for democracy when laws this reviled are supported for reasons that no one can really explain or justify. SOPA deserves to die on its merits. But it deserves to die because I don't want to be the subject of a political system that can blacken even Al Franken's heart. A system that passes SOPA in light of this loud of a public outcry is a system that cynicism has finally conquered. Along with the now-totally inexplicable continuation of the drug war, SOPA's success would be yet another depressing indicator that our leaders are crept in favor with themselves alone...

...And what of our most powerful leader? For me, the most fascinating aspect of the SOPA debate is President Obama's relative absence from it. Obama could have single-handedly stopped SOPA weeks ago simply by promising to veto the bill if it's passed--I doubt that there are that many Democratic legislators who want to kick off an election year by both defying a sitting president and voting for SOPA twice; moreover, I doubt that these legislators and their Republican allies would constitute the 2/3rds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Such a promise would have been politically savvy, and perhaps even politically essential. Not sure if you've noticed this, but the cool kids in the Republican conference are pretty much lined up against this thing: Bachmann, Issa, Scott Brown, Marco Rubio, as of this morning. Ron Paul. All opposed. SOPA opposition is one of those rare libertarian causes that isn't offensive to some large percentage of the Republican base, and that isn't offenseive to some even larger percentage of the general electorate. Surely some Republican strategist is going to figure out how to marry the Paulite civil-libertarian surge to the apparently quite-popular idea that the government should keep its fucking hands off of the internet. My guess is that this strategist will also figure out how to turn the SOPA narrative against the Democrats, what with the president being a Democrat and a PIPA co-sponsor basically being the lefty version of Jim DeMint.

More importantly: Obama carried the youth vote the last time around. It's part of why he won swing states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. He convinced young people that the 2008 election was a historic moment, and that his was a historic campaign. He built a movement on the hopes and on the backs of 18-30 year olds who truly believed in him. How many are gonna believe in him if he actually signs SOPA? How many will even vote for him? I know I won't. Just by letting SOPA fester for this long, Obama is signaling that the entertainment industry's support might actually be more vital to his reelection chances than the kind of movementarian, grassroots youth mobilization that propelled him to the presidency. This alone is kind of a "fuck you."

Mashable has a pretty interesting primer on Obama's SOPA position. On the one hand, Obama believes that the Justice Department should have the ability to go after websites that pirate American intellectual property. On the other hand, he's against a bill that would threaten freedom of expression online. Whatever; Franken and company probably don't think that the current incarnation of SOPA threatens freedom of expression online, and Lamar Hunt is greedily welcoming any opportunity to keep SOPA on the legislative agenda. Obama could put an end to SOPA in a single press release, given the unpopularity of the bill. He could send a clear message to Congress that they badly fucked up and should now be forced to start this process over again. So why hasn't he?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

And Now For Something Comparatively Trivial

So it looks like my very own Washington Nationals are on the verge of signing Prince Fielder. Oh my God. The Washington Nationals are on the verge of signing Prince Fielder. Fuck! What do we do with ourselves, Nats fans? For years, we've been shackled to a franchise that was hesitant to spend money on anyone, regardless of whether that "anyone" was a first-round draft pick or a hall-of-fame manager. The Nats front office has been characterized by a series of high-profile failures and flare-ups, such as the failure to either trade or re-sign Alfonso Soriano, the Esmalyan Gonzales fiasco, or Jim Bowden's entire tenure. Even seemingly-good ideas, like dedicating unimaginable amounts of money to stealing a borderline-star player from a bitter divisional rival, have dramatically backfired, at least thus far.

If this happens--if the Nationals land an actual, no bullshit top-flight free agent at the peak of his productivity, and at a position of the utmost need--it would be the franchise's defining moment since moving to DC, reflecting a dramatic change in attitude and priorities. A Fielder singing would serve as an acknowledgement that the Nats can't win by playing small ball; that while they might be able to bunt, sac-fly and suicide squeeze their way to an 80-81 record, it'll take a bit more than that to beat the Phillys and Floridas of the world. And it would be an acknowledgement that the Nats can't win just by sitting on their hands and hoping that their prospects pan out two or three years down the line--it would cop to the reality that management actually has to make bold, expensive decisions every once in awhile if they want to field a contender. More so than the Werth signing, the record contract for Strasburg and the Gio Gonzelez trade, giving Prince Fielder a 9-year, $200 million-type deal would signal a complete reorientation for the club.

Now we Washington sports fans are used to moves like these actually wrecking the franchises they were meant to save. The Caps traded so little for Jaromir Jagr that his acquisition was tantamount to a free agent-signing, and after landing Jagr, the Caps promptly signed him to the most valuable contract in NHL history. Jagr's tenure resulted in his two worst seasons, zero playoff series wins, whining, infighting, firings, and by far the most painful fire sale in DC sports history, a culling that left a doddering Olaf Kolzig as virtually the only recognizable player on the roster. The Redskins' signing of a disinterested Deon Sanders hogged cap space and symbolized an entire era of mismanagement and excess. The Bullets gave up two first-round picks for the right to sign Juwon Howard to one of the largest contracts in NBA history; in return, Les Boullets got one measly playoff appearance and the worst nickname, jersey and logo in the history of sports. Surely the names Haynesworth, Stubblefield, Jeff George and Albert Belle are familiar to some of you.

By now, DC fans harbor an ingrained suspicion of expensive potential saviors. But it's worth setting aside here, because signing Fielder makes more actual, organizational sense than any of those other, inevitably nightmaric moves. As Nate Silver explained in a seminal essay about baseball free agency, the value of an additional win increases exponentially when a team is within the playoff contention "sweet spot" between 80 and 90 wins. By value, Silver actually means long-term financial value for the franchise--because pennant races produce buzz and the ticket sales and TV views that come with it, and because even a single playoff appearance can increase a team's revenues for up to a decade, games in which a playoff berth is potentially at stake have a potentially-outsize effect on a franchise's long-term and of course short-term cash flow. According to the chart, win #90 (which is usually a playoff-clinching win, since teams miss the playoffs at 90 wins like, 1-3% of the time, if I remember correctly) is worth an additional $4.5 million of revenue, whereas win #79 is worth only about $750,000.

Cumulatively, wins 80 through 90 produce somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million in extra revenue. The Nats won 80 games last year. According to baseball reference, Fielder performed at 5.2 wins above replacement, and 5.9 offensive wins above replacement last season. The Nats are currently in the process of negotiating a new TV deal with MASN and have yet to sell the naming rights for Nationals Park, so the "sweet spot" multiplier might even be understated in this case (Fielder is one of those players whose adds value to a franchise beyond his performance on the field, I think it's safe to say). Twenty mil a year for Fielder could be a bargain from an organizational perspective, at least for the first 3 to 5 years of the deal. The Nats wouldn't just be throwing money at a sexy free agent, the way the Caps and Redskins used to.

Another reason not to worry about a potential Fielder signing: even if the Nats end up overpaying Fielder over the second half of an 8 or 9 year contract, they're already overpaying Adam LaRoche. LaRoche produced a piddling 4 runs above replacement over 600 plate appearances during a contract year in Arizona in 2010. LaRoche's season was cut short by a shoulder injury last year, but there's no use in pretending that the guy is actually like, all that good. The Nats brought him in--and paid him an astonishing $7 million for his replacement-level services--simply because their infield defense had been pitiful the season before, and because an aggressively mediocre journeyman who had the proven ability to hold up over an entire season seemed better than the currently-available alternatives (Morse's breakout season made LaRoche's acquisition seem a bit superfluous. But Morse was a 27-year old career minor leaguer when the season began.). There's something to be said for consistency and a baseline of competence, even when that baseline is fairly low. But does it really make more sense to overpay a 32-year old replacement-level 1st basemen in 2012, when the team appears to be on the cusp of something special, than it does to overpay a 32-year old probably well-above replacement-level 1st basemen in 2017, after five years of actual, honest-to-God contention? If the Nats are going to overpay a 1st baseman, I'd rather it be Prince Fielder 5 years from now than the current incarnation of Adam LaRoche (by the way, apparently Florida, Milwaukee and a number of other teams disqualified themselves by refusing to sign Fielder to more than a five-to-six year deal. If five years of overpaying for .700 OPS is the price of five years of arguably underpaying for 1.1 OPS, then fuck it, just sign him. We'll figure out whether and how often he plays after we win the 2015 NL pennant...).

Obviously there are concerns. Fielder is a below-average defensive player, and unless he does a ton of steroids his power statistics will likely plummet during the second half of his deal. But let's worry about that shit later. If the Nats land Fielder, they add a player who finished top-3 in the NL in walks, homers, runs created and win probability added in 2011 to a power-deficient lineup that could very well improve next year. If Jason Werth performs just slightly below his career average, if Ian Desmond continues his tear from late last season, and if Danny Espinosa and Michael Morse can stay within the 20-25 home run range, this is a mildly formidable lineup, even without Prince Fielder batting 4th. And with him batting 4th, the Nats would turn their franchise around and acquire a player who might as well be a robot constructed by a team of cyberneticists who also happen to be sabermetricians in their spare time.

Most importantly, now that I've hacked out a fairly lengthy blog post on the matter, this deal had better like, actually happen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Least Shocking Thing Ever: Former American Conservative Blogger and Professional Jew-Baiter Philip Weiss Apologizes for Ron Paul

This isn't the kind of thing I like writing about on this blog, but when you can't let something go you just can't let something go. I was scanning the worst website in existence when I came across Phil Weiss fulminating about the mainstream media's collective poo-pooing of Ron Paul's presidential campaign. The Post and the Times don't want an honest discussion of American militarism in the Middle East!, Weiss claims without citing any evidence whatsoever. Worse than its ad hominem nature is the post's inclusion of what might be two of the more ignorant paragraphs I've ever read about the Egyptian uprising of roughly a year ago:

If you care about the antiwar issue, joining with Ron Paul is like seculars joining with the Muslim Brothers to get rid of Mubarak. You needed a broad coalition to push Hosni out. And in the end, that coalition did the impossible; it moved Obama. Obama wouldn't have jumped in if not for Tahrir. He needed political cover. A broad coalition gave it to him.

But what if leftwing secular social-media types had stood around Tahrir Square asking the smart question, Hey what do these folks-- Muslim Brothers and Salafis-- want to do with the role of women in politics? They would never have gotten rid of Mubarak.

Ignoring, for a moment, how abhorrent it is to attribute Mubarak's ouster to some mythical liberal-Salfi-Ikhwan-social media alliance, rather than the years' worth of potentially life-threatening political organizing and civil society-building undertaken by traditionally lefty outfits like the April 6th movement--ignoring that: it's unsurprising, but nevertheless distasteful, to see someone like Weiss weeping over someone like Paul. Weiss once blogged for and frequently contributed to The American Conservative, a publication that Pat Buchanan founded in 2002 and edited until 2007. The sentence preceding this one would itself be an ad hominem, had TAC not published the following paragraphs, which were authored by none other than Phil Weiss, and which were selected more or less at random after a brief skim of this article:

Yes, but what about my hard-earned views? Israel and the Mideast were crucial pieces in American foreign policy. Jewish giving was the largest factor in Democratic campaign financing. Peter had never squelched my views, but how free would I be as a writer, knowing what I knew about the bosses’ feelings?

As the meeting went on with Peter praising my talents in his Ziegfeldian way, I became upset. “Peter, don’t you see what’s happening in this country? Ron [Rosenbaum] just went to Slate. He is pro-Israel. Slate also lately hired Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli who loves the neocons, to write from Washington.” I grabbed a galley of Jeffrey Goldberg’s book from one of the piles in Peter’s office. “Goldberg works for The New Yorker in Washington and because he thought America was dangerous for Jews, he moved to Israel and served in their army, then he moved back here and pushed America to go to war in Iraq. Well, I’m different. I don’t think America is dangerous for Jews, and I’m critical of Israel. And there’s no room for me here. There’s no room.”

Weiss is a proud, card-carrying conspiracy theorist who has published articles in America's leading paleoconservative journal, which was itself founded by one of America's leading card-carrying conspiracy theorists. Of course this guy would be a Ron Paul supporter.

Ron Paul believes all sorts of asinine things about Jewish influence; beliefs which happen to justify a left-wing, anti-war view of America's role in the world. And as I mentioned in my last post, Paul's ability to stake a heroically reasonable position on certain issues rests on a bedrock of pure crazy. The difference between say, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson is that Paul understands that his ideas will stagnate if he's unable to build up a base of support. Depressingly enough, in America in 2012, barely-telegraphed conspiracist tripe about Jewish influence and Jewish money is one way of building up a base of support.

The parallelisms between Mondoweiss and the Ron Paul campaign explain why Weiss's enthusiasm for the Texas congressman has produced such a fit of pique for me. Weiss, like Paul, is a race-baiter masquerading as a fearless truth-teller. Weiss's blog might be successful (well, relatively successful) because it follows the spirit of the Paulite movement in staking a heroically reasonable position on the Middle East--but it's also successful because it follows the spirit of the Paulite movement in offering an unabashed appeal to the American psyche's basest, most paranoid, and most racist instincts. Ron Paul and Phil Weiss are kindred spirits in the worst possible sense.