Das Kapital

Watch this:

I’ve given myself some homework; maybe some of you want to join in. The goal is to finish Marx’s Capital Volume I (a mere 1k pages) by Christmas, supplementing my effort with a concurrent reading of David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital. This blog may or may not turn into a Marxist free-for-all as I attempt to make sense of this difficult book. If you would like to join in, note that Harvey and I are both using the Ben Fowkes translation published by Penguin Classics. I got both books off Amazon for ~$25, which qualifies you for free shipping — although if you have an *.edu e-mail address, you can currently sign up for a free year of Amazon Prime and get shipped costs waived on everything anyway. Also, note that Harvey has been kind enough to put his entire class on Marx up on the Web as video lectures, but I’m basically ignoring them since his Companion is roughly those lectures in book form. I think I’d definitely like some study partners, so e-mail me if you’d like in on this party.

Fiddler in the Subway

Michael Mechanic has an interesting interview up today on Mother Jones with Gene Weingarten: “Secrets of a Two-Time Pulitzer Winner.” Weingarten has a book coming out entitled Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of essays he wrote for The Washington Post and the WaPo magazine. After you read Mechanic’s piece, come back here to read the four Weingarten pieces, all of them excellent:

The aforementioned fiddler/violinist is Joshua Bell, whose concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo is worth watching/hearing in full (part 1 of 5 is linked). For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

Are you still hard up for reading material? I’m doing my best here. Last week was great because the NYT treated us to five days of Errol Morris’ fascinating series “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” I’ve linked to part one, where we’re introduced to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

“…If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent… When you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

The analogy is to anosognosia, or the disorder where a paralytic can’t/won’t recognize that they’re paralyzed. As if I weren’t already depressed about man’s mental faculties (pace Descartes), we also get this gem from Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley:

One of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, “No, we were wrong about X,” most people still believe X.

God help us; it’s a wonder we can tie our shoes in the morning. By the way, if you’re interested in more of Errol Morris-esque inquiries into “unknown unknowns” (Rumsfeld), I’d highly recommend the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — it is, unlike the faux-revelations of Malcolm Gladwell, a true paradigm-shifting (I use that word deliberately) work. Plus, Taleb will spare you years of agony having to learn the same things via the poker table… trust me, reading is quite preferable to bad beats in Texas hold ’em.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/05/AR2005120501092_pf.htmlT

The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, “The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality.” The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I’ve done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate” pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe “too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people.” For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively — pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words — where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see “The Tea Party’s Toxic Take on History” (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians” (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, “Victims have long memories… But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting.” I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the “politics of forgetting,” which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold’s Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles — even “one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!” Hochschild’s details Belgium’s King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this “forgotten holocaust,” save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold’s mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. “The horror! The horror!” Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold’s Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I’ve excerpted Hochschild’s passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it’s highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It’s also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold’s Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about “prophets and rebels” in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold’s Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard — and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.

Obamapocalypse

When the passage of H.R.3590 kicked up a shitstorm two weeks ago, I thought of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story entitled “The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro.” This 1911 piece tells of Arthur Orton, a ne’er-do-well operating under the alias of “Tom Castro.” When he meets fellow conman Ebenezer Bogle, the two men hatch a plan to scam Lady Tichborne, a grieving mother who is unable to accept the fact of her son’s death at sea. Hoping to squeeze some buckeroos from this rich old biddy, Bogle decides that Orton/Castro should travel to England to impersonate the late Roger Charles Tichborne even though Castro looks nothing like young Mr. Tichborne at all.

Tichborne had been a slim, genteel young man with a reserved and somewhat self-absorbed air. He had sharp features, straight black hair, tawny skin, sparkling eyes, and an irritatingly precise way of speaking. Orton was an irrepressible rustic, a “yokel,” with a vast belly, features of infinite vagueness, fair and freckled skin, wavy light-brown hair, sleepy eyes, and no, or irrelevant, conversation.

…The plan had an irrational genius to it… Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily convinced (emphasis mine).

So here’s the Tom Castro Strategy: when an approximation of truth would too easily reveal yourself as fraudulent, shoot for the moon and become as absurdly outlandish as possible.

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2009 Book & Music Recap

This is the first part of my annual recap of my year in media. Tomorrow I will probably look back at the movies of ’09.

I didn’t really keep up with music this year as much as I normally do. But in no particular order, the releases I was most fond of from this year were:

1. Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
2. Chuck Ragan – Gold Country
3. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
4. Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – s/t
6. The Monsters of Folk – s/t
7. M. Ward – Hold Time
8. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love

I should probably confess to loving half of Only By the Night but hating myself for it.

The books I read this year are listed below. I again fell short of my goal, but in this age of illiteracy I consider any number over zero to be a personal triumph.
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Tricknology Built All This

A couple weeks ago I came across this really interesting photo of Detroit, taken in 1930:

(Click for higher resolution awesomeness)

Then just this week I started reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, where he has this passage:

My grandparents’ eyes glazed over at the sheer activity, streetcars rumbling, bells clanging, and the monochrome traffic swerving in and out. In those days downtown Detroit was filled with shoppers and businessmen. Outside Hudson’s Department Store the crowd was ten thick, jostling to get in the newfangled revolving doors. Lina pointed out the sights: the Cafe Frontenac… the Family Theatre… and the enormous electric signs: Ralston… Wait & Bond Blackstone Mild 10¢ Cigar.

It made me think Eugenides looked at this same photo when envisioning those days. So I contacted him to find out:

Dear Mr. Cole,
It was either that photograph or one very much like it. The giveaway is that Blackstone Cigar. Thank you for sending it my way.
I hope you like the rest of the book.
Sincerely,
Jeffrey Eugenides

Oh, the internets are magic. This reminds me of the time Richard Rorty wrote me, about 2 years before he died, and, to my everlasting chagrin, I didn’t save it before Groupwise auto-purged it forever. I think writing awesome people will be my new hobby, even if it’s only half as exciting as Letters of Note.

Minimalist Readings With Chuck

Yesterday I was skimming through Chuck Palahniuk’s Nonfiction when I came across him mentioning his two favorite short stories. The first, he said, was Mark Richard’s “Strays,” but I can’t seem to find it online anywhere. But in searching I came across someone else who said their favorite short story of all time was Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas,” which is actually online and is, in fact, quite good.

Chuck’s other favorite short story is one by Amy Hempel entitled “The Harvest.” I wish I could remember more about what Chuck said about these stories, but I do remember that he loved Hempel’s first line: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” You can read the rest here. So there you go: as they say down South, “Two stories a day keeps the swine flu away.”

Yanks in Yangon

Last week my father & I made a quick two-day jaunt to Myanmar to visit some local pastors and see their seminary in Yangon. It was a bit of a shock going from Bangkok to Yangon, a city which feels about 30 years behind the times (LCD TV stores notwithstanding). I couldn’t shake the feeling that TinTin would show up soon and reveal the mysteries hidden in the pagodas and markets.

We did most our sightseeing on the day we arrived; most notable was a trip to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is just one part of an enormous Buddhist temple complex. It felt like 50% of the entire country’s wealth was contained there. It cost us $6 each to get in, but I think locals go free so there were a lot of people just sitting around, napping, eating lunch, etc.

I should’ve expected this, but I was still surprised at how much Yangon is influenced by India. We celebrated this fact on the last night by eating at a massive hotel buffet that featured Indian cuisine. Plus I snuck in a bit of sushi and an eclair. Otherwise, Indian.

Photos of the trip (mostly featuring Shwedagon) can be found on Flickr.

There was a lot of downtime between engagements with the pastors & students so I spent a lot of hours tearing through Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. I really dig Johnson’s manic style: I read Jesus’ Son in one sitting a year ago and only took 3 days to devour this 614-page epic. It’s a very remarkable novel, and I think sitting in Thailand & Myanmar reading a novel set in Vietnam & the Philippines really added to the experience. Very different countries, sure, but all Southeast Asia — the grime & sticky heat of Yangon provided a better context than, say, a winter cabin in Vermont.

A Smattering of Readings

A few paragraphs that I found interesting, but didn’t merit a full post and were too long to quote on Twitter…

Firstly, a particularly insightful bit from the always provocative Slavoj Žižek:

“I’ve noticed how many of the people who consider themselves to be more radical than the liberal standard do not work in political theory proper but, as it were, hide themselves as literary critics or philosophers. It’s as if their radicalism is an excess which requires them to change genre… This excess of radicality concretely art­iculates itself in some kind of general moralistic outrage. You get a kind of abstract, moralistic politics in which you ­focus on groups which are obviously underprivileged – other races, gays and so on – and then you explode in all your moralistic rage. This has to do with what you might call our cultural, post-political capitalism, in which the most passionate struggles are cultural ones. A large majority of the left doesn’t question liberal democracy and capitalism as such. In the same way that when we were young we wanted socialism with a human face, what a large part of today’s left want is capitalism with a human face.”

Secondly, the excellent last paragraph from a short fiction piece by C.U.’s own Michael Shirzadian:

“No woman, no cry, he whispers to himself, mistaking Marley’s lyric for something prescriptive, something almost didactic, a warning that love isn’t worth it. He believes it’s a philosophy to live by. Believes it’s a universal maxim sent by a good god, a merciful god, a god of music and fertility; a trickster, some say.”

Thirdly, we have a funny-but-true quip from the dude behind Stuff Fundies Like:

“If you believe that saying grace over every meal (including the bag of popcorn you consume while watching The Sound of Music) is always meaningful but also think that having Communion once a week will trivialize its practice — you might be a fundamentalist.”

And lastly, an excerpt from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically — the book I’m reading currently — wherein he humorously echoes my own experience with a massive beard:

“As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I’ve been called all three.
It’s not a well-manicured, socially acceptable beard. It’s an untamed mass that creeps up toward my eyeballs and drapes below my neckline.
I’ve never allowed my facial hair to grow before, and it’s been an odd and enlightening experience. I’ve been inducted into a secret fraternity of bearded guys — we nod at each other as we pass on the street, giving a knowing quarter smile. Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, it’s a Labrador retriever puppy or a pregnant woman’s stomach.
I’ve suffered for my beard. It’s been caught in jacket zippers and been tugged on by my surprisingly strong two-year-old son. I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions at airport security.
I’ve been asked if I’m named smith and sell cough drops with my brother. ZZ Top is mentioned at least three times a week. Passersby have shouted, ‘Yo, Gandalf!’ Someone called me Steven Seagal, which I found curious, since he doesn’t have a beard.
I’ve battled itch and heat. I’ve spent a week’s salary on balms, powders, ointments, and conditioners. My beard has been a temporary home to cappuccino foam and lentil soup. And it’s upset people. Thus far, two little girls have burst into tears, and one boy has hidden behind his mother.”

Ocean of Noise

J. Motta’s got me hooked on Swaptree and I’ve made a few trades already. One of my favorite swaps has to be getting rid of a neurotic alcoholic’s memoir in exchange for a tome on deconstructive religion & the meaning of forgiveness. No disrespect intended to Mr. Burrough’s, but he’s no Derrida.

Question: if you had live, even work, for a season in a) Buenos Aires, Argentina; b) Alexandria, Egypt; or c) Kathmandu, Nepal — which would it be?

I think everyone’s heard this by now, but Liberty University has shut down their chapter of College Democrats. This kind of tragi-comic act needs no comment from me.

Oh, and here’s yet another conservative being waterboarded. Three jeers for Sean Hannity for still not having the balls to do this. 

For no related reason, here’s an interesting photo, though I don’t know where it’s from. Reminds me of Manila.

My Favorite Debt

I picked up a hitchhiker this morning and he identified me immediately: “You’re a Cedarville student, aren’t you?” Is it that obvious? Do I just radiate repressed fundamentalist vibes? But Samir assured me it was just a guess based on probabilities: C.S.U. students speed by, C.U. students pick him up. He’s living at Wilberforce but travels for undisclosed reasons (not a job, he says) to Xenia every day, a 4 mile commute that usually takes him an hour because he doesn’t have a car. “Neither do I, this is my brother’s.” We laughed. I mentioned my trip last summer; he mentioned his Chicago-to-L.A. trek in the ’70’s. Farthest N.W. he’d gotten was Eugene, which he described as an “enormous Yellow Springs,” which we both concluded was awesome. So I’ve now received some 40 rides as a hitcher, and given two in return. At this rate I might even pay off my student loans before repaying kindness owed, but at least this is a debt I don’t mind at all.

By the way, I stumbled across a book that echos some of what I discussed a month ago. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets “examines what randomness means in business and in life and why human beings are so prone to mistake dumb luck for consummate skill.” I haven’t read it yet, but sounds interesting since it’s one-half of the same coin I blogged about earlier.

Also re: old posts, a friend gave me a copy of Phillip Lopate’s excellent essay “Resistance to the Holocaust,” an American Jew’s incisive look at the machinery of memory built up around the Holocaust and the ways in which this atrocity is used & abused. Unfortunately, I could only find a very brief excerpt online, the rest of which you’ll have to find in Lopate’s book Portrait Of My Body (1997).

Books Read in 2008

I tried to read a book/week again, which seems very reasonable, but fell short once again. I’m about halfway through a dozen other books, which I’ll probably just finish & count for ’09. Under each category, they’re listed in the order I read them. Incidentally, the first book I read in 2008 was The Audacity of Hope by Mister Obama. (more…)