Thirteen Observations by Lemony Snicket

This moved me enough to break my blog hiatus. Mr Snicket has artfully articulated what I could not:

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree.

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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.

On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”

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The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

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.”

It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.
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The Great American Bubble Machine

Matt Taibbi has a really excellent article in Rolling Stone about Goldman Sachs and their financial tomfoolery: “The Great American Bubble Machine.” As usual, Taibbi has good research and good wit: “[Goldman Sachs] is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

However, I wish Taibbi had included two other stories:

1. The political assassination of Eliot Spitzer

2. The 1980s junk bond bubble

Still, it’s a must-read piece; if the above Scribd link is dead (R.S. already forced one version offline) just Google it.

Dumpster Diving for Fun & Profit

This weekend was busy: finally graduated college, hung out with frieds & family, threw out my arm playing Wii rowing, watched Celtics mop up Bulls, then watched Manny Pacquaio flatten Ricky Hatton in under 6 minutes (“I didn’t know it’d be so easy,” said Manny before leaving for hours of celebratory karaoke). 

I also spent about 5-6 hours dumpster diving around campus while all the bourgeois students moved out. Saturday the crew included my sister, father, brother, future-sister-in-law, and our friend Scott. Yesterday Kraig, Laura, Scott & I went out again where there was essentially just one full dumpster left but it was a goldmine. Cedarville has acknowledged the typical profligacy of its students and this year filled multiple truck trailers with donated stuff — but an obscene amount was still thrown out. We’ve been inspired by international hero Micah Hans Holden, who essentially does 80% of his grocery “shopping” by rooting around in dumpsters. He would’ve gone nuts if he’d seen the Cedarville dumpster piles this weekend. It’s a great hobby that I intend to keep up this summer — it’s anti-consumerist, voyeuristic, and profitable… what more could you ask?

Here’s a bit of the haul from day 2:

  

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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…)

Poor People Suck

The must-read article of the month is Michael Lewis’ “The End of Wall Street’s Boom.” It is a superb account of our economic crisis and how we got here, as seen through the eyes of a handful of people who predicted it. I thought about quoting snippets, but decided I’d end up quoting most of the piece: it’s really good. After reading this article I went and also read Lewis’ 1989 book Liar’s Poker, the story of his four successful years at Saloman Brothers up to and around the 1987 crash. Though 20 years old by now, it still felt fresh in light of today’s recession.

Lewis’ Portfolio article also serves an unintended purpose: sufficient refutation of the notion that stupid, greedy, lower-to-middle class homebuyers are primarily to blame for our present troubles. This, of course, has been a persistent theme during the last six months and represents standard class prejudice. America hates its poor.
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