Monday, March 19, 2012


I grew up in at least modest comfort.

My father was a professor. My mother studied to become a nurse. Two brothers, a sister, cats named Humphrey and Hepzibah, several generations of Red Irish Setters. We lived in a nice little white house with green shutters, just down the street from several blocks of subsidized housing. The projects were only two houses down, but those two houses made all the difference. They were filled with black residents, Puerto Rican residents, and entrenched poverty-stricken white families, of the kind that most academic white liberals have such trouble writing about. My father was a beatnik turned hippie turned academic; he'd make his students lie on the floor while he exhorted them, about Artaud and life through the flames. My mother played naked badminton, cried over Jesse Jackson and saved the local arboretum from developers; it now bears her name. If you're inclined to be uncharitable, you could squeeze her into some liberal do-gooder stereotype. All I know is that she taught me, through her behavior, about gentleness and compassion. For a time I thought they were something important. Nowadays I suspect they are everything important.

My paternal grandfather, an old school pacifist, back when that meant something, wrote anti-war polemics in academic journals. "We must end war or war will destroy us." In time, his pacifist tendencies would be perceived as Communist sympathies, in exactly the wrong era to be so perceived. It ruined his career; before long, the family curse of alcoholism took care of the rest. He died twelve years before I was born. My maternal grandparents smoked too much and took us to Friendly's, played card games against each other and swore when they lost. My grandfather had a military high-and-tight from the day he left the army, but in the last year of his life, he let his hair grow past his shoulders. There was one aunt and one uncle and two cousins, and then, in that peculiar American way, there wasn't.

When I was seven, my mother died very suddenly. It was hard on all of us, but it ultimately killed my father. I went to see her in the hospital. They had wrapped her eyes in some sort of covering; later I came to realize it had to have been because, being brain dead, her eyes would have been hollow and vacant. I know it can't be right, but in my memory the wrapping is the texture of paper, white paper, butcher's paper. All I knew at the time was that nothing to me could have been more distant than her docile body. She had been physical and antsy, and the motionless object before me should have said it all, but I was still surprised when my father came home a couple days later to tell us she was dead.

But: the kids in the projects. They were there (in the projects). What parents they had were there too. We went to school with them (you cut through the projects on Daddario Road and then through the woods that seemed to go on forever but couldn't be more than fifty yards and there was school). Some of them we were friends with. I've kept in touch with a few; you know, Facebook. The way you do. Anyway: throughout it all, they were there. That perpetuity is the kind of thing a polite lefty does his or her best to avoid-- you can't be perceived as condescending, that's death in left wing cultural competition-- but you have to understand that, mercifully backgrounded for a nice boy like me, life in the projects beat on all along, injustice self-replicating like summer, fall, winter, spring.

He did his best. He was loving and creaky and defiant and tender. He had a big belly for grabbing and he was absolutely unsparing against idiocy or sentimental dishonesty. He radiated realness and when he felt like it, dressed in a stained shirt and shoeless he could render men in three piece suits totally speechless. He met the big-picture, grand parenting responsibilities well and the little, embarrassment-sparing parenting responsibilities poorly. He did not forget and would not let us forget our advantages even in the periods of our grief. That was hard (he was often hard) but it was right (he was always right). He spent too much time locked away in his room, typically with a bottle of vodka. But he was gentle towards us, and he was wise, and he had lived through it all, and when I crawl outside of myself for long enough to encounter something like self-respect, it's his voice I hear. All in all, we were very lucky to have him.

He remarried. I have spent more than a decade not thinking about my ex-step mother and I have no great desire to do so now. It didn't work, never worked, but then he was ill. The daily unhappiness of the failed blended family experiment was usually lost against the experience of watching him fall away, drop by drop. Screaming fights and broken windows but always, in the center of it all, the sad spectacle of someone trying not to waste away. He was 45 the day I was born. He went to church and sang in a crackling old voice. Unlike with my mother, there were to be no surprises here. The insurance company shipped him across country to die at Cedars Sinai. My little brother endured a year in hell in a Los Angeles middle school. My older brother and I lived alone in our house and went to high school, telling the administration there we were being looked after by an uncle who didn't exist.

When my father lay dying in the hospital I came to visit him for the last time, and he was dressed in a too-small robe, and they had given him a hypoallergenic blanket made of plastic, and in his delirium and weakness as he saw me approach he feebly tried to move the blanket to cover himself and preserve his dignity in front of his 15-year old son. And I knew even then that memory of all that was fierce and flawed in that fierce and flawed man would slowly be lost, and in my mind all I would have left was that feeble motion, that plastic blanket.

It didn't take long for whatever paltry sense of responsibility to evaporate. You'd think, given it all, that we were entitled, but there I go thinking about it again. Before long, it was over with my stepmother and us. The disintegration was long and tangled and wearying and terrible. There was the house and the money and the heirlooms and albums, and Christ, the books, I still think about them. Little by little over the last days when there was any interaction at all, things would disappear, I mean literally I would go to what had been my room and stuff of his I had would be gone. Those few fragments I had left, taken. His leather jacket disappeared from my closet, my fucking father's fucking leather jacket. At least I saw him physically degrade. All the things seemed to leave when I wasn't looking, I'd just suddenly find that I had less and less of what my family had been.

In life the tragic problems mix with the ridiculous. There can be such little space between the homework assignments and the liver cancer. How to get a ride to the movies. Sheer terror: what would happen to my younger brother? Would he end up in the state system, in some kind of home? You could just do nothing, control nothing. Over time, we went broke. I wish I could say I was smart with what I ended up with but I wasn't, I was a stupid, angry kid, and I just had no idea about anything, the only thing I understood was how I would go to speak and I didn't even have words. Friends would say, "being orphaned, it's not really about the money," and of course it wasn't, but of course it was. My sister had a young baby. I don't think people realize, even for decades after childhood, all the help, all the loans, the place to stay...well. Eventually, we were able to get a house. That's a blessing.

When time passed and all the endless legal and financial and material connections with my stepmother were dissolved, it was time to look up and around at a young adulthood I had no capacity to face. My grades had been terrible. (I think you'll excuse me.) I couldn't get into college. Sometimes there was money and sometimes there wasn't. I didn't know who or how to ask for help. And the guilt, it just wormed its way into everything I was, I could physically feel it, the punishing self-hatred that pressed against my temples and left me curled up on the floor. The terrible survivor's guilt that attended every decision and every purchase and every moment, the constancy and terrible banality of it keeping me from even the pathetic defense of romanticizing my situation.

At times, it felt that all that was left was my despair, my rage, my helplessness, my grief. And in the very heart of it all I could not pretend, even for a moment, that I knew anything about what it meant to exist in poverty. We deserved and required better. We needed support, material and governmental, and we needed sympathy, and we needed recognition. But I can't, don't, and won't pretend that what I faced was the same as being born without social capital, within entrenched poverty. To separate personal need and desire from the broader, more direct purpose of left-wing practice is precisely why we are critical, precisely why we are conscious.

And over time, things were getting better for me personally.

Understand: it didn't even take one generation. Social capital reasserted itself. Privilege did what it does. At the very moments when my life was most broken, the vast advantages of being born white and male, to educated and caring parents, who read to me and told me I was good, who connected behavior to consequences and advised me to live life consciously-- all these realities quietly worked in my favor. No, I don't have any money, I'm in student loan debt up to my eyeballs, I could very easily emerge from graduate school without a job, my credit's a wreck, things like car trouble and unexpected tax penalties can totally derail me....  But there is an obvious path to material security for me, whether in the job I want or not, and that advantage is the product of social capital that I did very little to earn. I live a comfortable, fulfilled life, and all for all I am an immensely fortunate person. I have fool's luck, wanderer's luck, and I want to remember that every moment of every day.

Back at the projects, they're still there. Some of them got out. A couple are dead or in jail. Many of them are still there, with children of their own. (You know how easy it is to find American families in their fourth or fifth generation of poverty?) That is not a coincidence. Social capital is real, it matters, it is determinative. And, yes, I have worked hard, and yes I'm smart, and yes, I wish some of the people I stay in touch with from the projects had made a few different choices. But to hold those feeble caveats against the pitiless force of demographics and chance is an absurd enterprise. They were not given the advantages I was given.

This is all just anecdote, just a story, just my story. But you can find the numbers, and they can slowly drive you crazy, all the vast disadvantages of birth and class: life expectancy, literacy, access to health care, odds of being the victim of a crime, odds of being convicted of a crime, education level, income, happiness.... Please, keep your bootstraps to yourself. I've had my fill of fantasy. But my conscience insists: this same reality has to speak to Occupy, and the young activists within it who look out an ugly and unjust world and ask for more. I want better for them, I swear I do. I understand their anger and their disillusionment. But please, take it from me, and trust me, about the terrible seduction, how easily you can fall into believing that left wing practice is for you. It just can't be, it can't. I believe in solidarity and I believe in the power of the temporarily oppressed and I believe in highlighting the fierce urgency of now. Still, it can't be about young college graduates, not at the heart of it. You can't allow yourself to slump into the posture of what you believe you are entitled to. If the purpose of Occupy is to benefit the college educated, if it becomes some generational warfare caricature, then none of it has any meaning. You have to have the courage to give up on asking for what is best for you.

If that sounds cruel or callous, don't believe it. I share their concerns. I have agitated and will continue to agitate for those young college graduates that face an uncertain future and mountains of debt. I believe that our resource distribution system is fundamentally unjust, and I further believe that the culture it spawns is fundamentally oriented towards justifying that corrupt system. (And it is precisely that schizophrenic culture that conditions these people to lament that they are not living the ideal life.) I agree that shit is fucked. But it's been fucked, and it will continue to be fucked after their immense social capital restores them to the material conditions they thought they were fated to receive. If a movement arises that is oriented towards pursuing their needs, that's who it will serve, and it will leave behind those who need a movement most. History teaches me that. Empiricism teaches me that. And my own brief life teaches me that. Orient your work towards the empowerment of the worst off, or privilege will orient it away from them for you.

Debs taught me, and so did Haruki Murakami, and so did my mother: the only political question I care about is who is on top and who is on bottom. That's it. I've said it from day one and been ridiculed for it from day one and will not relent, whether you appeal to tradition or to revolution, whether you call yourself radical or reactionary. I've heard it all before, and whether it's some old libertarian or some young Jacobin is irrelevant, it's the same lecture, there's not one atom of difference. This devotion is all I have left from all that I went through. Anyone can join, rich or poor, PhD or high school dropout. But we proceed critically, we proceed consciously, and we support the empowerment of the powerless, the truly powerless, first and beyond all else.

You don't have to be the worst off to have my support, my friendship, my sympathies, my vote, my solidarity. But to be upwardly mobile and educated and America, as I am and was, and speak of your problems as if they are the moral justification for revolution-- no. Generational warfare? Why, when the same inequity and injustice that harms the child continues to constrain the father, the grandfather? Arbitrary divisions of age and circumstance? No: I'll stand with anyone who is willing to change the world for the empowerment of the dispossessed. I will break bread with the young and educated and dissatisfied, I will work towards their goals and ending their problems, but I will never stop insisting that it is a deeply regressive mistake to highlight those problems as the first priority of a revolutionary movement. Things change, in your life, and you get to be consumed in that change, and you get to cry for the moon and for yourself for awhile, but you never forget the ceaseless cruelty of a homeless shelter, of a housing project. If that means you are speaking for the subaltern, or that you are being condescending, or that your radicalism is a product of privilege, so be it. You are who you are. Keep your own counsel, do your own good for those who are not used to having good done to them, and burn a quiet flame inside of yourself, and I swear I will have your back, no matter how good or bad I've been to you in the past. My support is probably worth nothing, nothing at all, but I swear I will keep that promise.

Movements will fall away, but the movement will endure. Temporary conditions will change, and with them the short-term self-interest of the self-interested, but you can be irresolute. Fads in politics and media, new ideas and new rallying cries, all of that is inevitable and temporary. All that will remain is privilege and its lack, entrenched poverty and embedded affluence, and the reactionary power of what is and what has been. And only this political question will endure: do you want to change the miserable condition that exists on this earth?

Few things are so hard for me as the battle between what I want for the world and my pessimist's heart. I look at the human species and all I can see is loss. All I can do is motivate myself with the same burning self-hatred, the same contempt for my powerlessness, the same sickness I feel when I perceive my self-pity. I have nothing to offer the most damaged in the world, beyond the silent peripheral grace of how desperately I feel these things that I feel. So feeble as that is, I keep and own it, and day by day, it burns and burns.

so, I was right

...about the Apple-Mike Daisey thing. I mean you've got Ira Glass bending himself into pretzels to defend the working conditions at factories where workers threatened mass suicide, and every story is about the meaningless Mike Daisey metanarrative and not about the actual scandal of such horrid working conditions. Fact: this reaction exists the way it exists because liberal yuppies care more about their Apple gizmos than they do about working conditions for Chinese laborers. Just true, folks.

Update: Per the transcript:
Charles Duhigg: More than half of the workers whose records are examined are working more than 60 hours per week.
Ira Glass: Now, is that necessarily so bad? I mean, aren’t a lot of these workers moving to the city to work as many hours as possible? They’re away from their families; they’re young; and they’re there to make money and they don’t care.
Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right.
Would Ira Glass ever allow his children, when grown, to work 60 hours a week? In those factories? In those conditions? Of course not. But then, his children are going to grow up and be decent liberals who buy organic and feel guilty when they hang out with black people. Chinese factory workers, well, they were put on earth to make shiny electronics for us all to enjoy. They aren't real people, in the way someone you meet around the office at NPR is a real person.

Update II:

Anonymous said...

Freddie, I'm all for you trolling the center-left, but it's unfair for you to not to include the portion where Ira faces those conditions.

Ira Glass: Well, now like, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again, but okay, yeah. [laughter]

Charles Duhigg: I don't know whether you should feel bad, right? I mean—

Ira Glass: But, but finish your thought.

Charles Duhigg: Should you feel bad about that? I don't know, that's for you to judge, but I think the the way to pose that question is… do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and, and other products could be anufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions and perpetuate because of an economy that you are—

Ira Glass: Right.

Charles Duhigg: —supporting with
your dollars.

Ira Glass: Right. I am the direct beneficiary of those harsh conditions.

Charles Duhigg: You're not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different
conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.

Update III: Read Aaron Bady. I can't really handle this right now. All I know is that no one who really believes in the equal value, dignity, and importance of the lives of these workers could possibly justify Apple's actions, or act as if they are less important than Mike Daisey.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the perfect piece for our times

I think this Tim Parks piece is an absolutely perfect encapsulation of what it means to be a writer of commentary today. Your job is simple: assure people that they are smart, above average, and savvy, that their choices are the right ones, that they are living the correct life, that they are special. And always, always the mechanism is the same: you assure them that they are good by insisting that others are bad. The world is full of sad small ugly people, but you! You are good. You are better than them.

Yes, you see, there is apparently some sort of cultural phenomenon out there that wants you to believe that you are wicked if you start and don't finish a book. I read an awful lot, I study writing and publishing, I frequent literary circles and try to remain plugged in, and until Tim Parks informed me, I was blissfully unaware that you could be judged for such a thing. Personally, I like to finish books I start. Reading is a private, personal thing, and I'm motivated by my own desires, and I keep my own counsel on my reading habits. So should you. So should Tim Parks. If you never finish a single book you crack, and that's fulfilling for you, go for it. Unfortunately, though, Tim Parks lives his life in a slightly different way than I do, so according to the mores of a fraudulent age, he must judge me to reject the implied judgment of my different behavior.

Tim Parks doesn't read books all the way to the end, and he feels guilty about it. That is his pathology and should remain his own. But because he cannot stand the minute possibility of judgment-- because even the existence of alternative behavior suggests judgment-- he has to create this whole bizarre mythology about what reading a book all the way through necessarily means, and how that meaning is somehow enforced by our culture. I mean, you can't turn on network television or read a copy of US Weekly without people shitting on your for not finishing The Tale of Genji, am I right? And since he's so afraid of this attitude being perceived  as middlebrow, he's got to deride those who read books all the way through as inherently juvenile. Because, you see, if you do that, you're just doing it for self-confidence, and if you seek self-confidence through reading books, you are not the archetypal man of letters than super-genius Tim Parks is. The possibility that some people might read differently or for different reasons than Tim Parks is, of course, a foolish notion. I know it's odd to call masturbation solipsistic, but holy shit.

What a pathetic, child's vision of confidence, to be such a shaking flower that you need all of your choices in your life affirmed by symmetry in the behavior of those around you. But that status is encountered all across the Internet.

Do you feel guilty about anything in your life? Anything at all? Is there a single part of yourself that you find suboptimal? Never fear: there is some enterprising blogger or essayists who's right now crafting a piece that exculpates any and all guilt you might ever feel. Everything that you do is good. Whole careers have been built on this notion. You're good! Other people are bad! Are you some overeducated Brooklynite "arty but not in a pretentious way" wheel watcher who hates her job and devotes an inordinate amount of time writing "witty" commentary on celebrities and writers in an attempt to divert attention from the slow death of whatever emotional life you once had? Fear not. Gawker will mock anyone who doesn't exist in precisely your proportions. Are you a video game fan who not only thinks that video games are art but that they are the best art and anyone who doesn't think gamification can solve every problem in creation is an asshole and by the way gamers are an oppressed minority? Don't worry, the Internet is rife with writers who want only to assure you that you are the greatest. Are you the kind of yuppie technocrat who hates other yuppie technocrats despite the near-perfect similarity in your habits, consumption, demographics, style, taste in music and television, and endlessly lame jokes? Farhad Manjoo is currently working on yet another piece where he assures you that you are better than the identical asshole on the other side of the cubicle.

You know what the Internet has taught me, more than anything else? It's this: nerds are, like Jesus, perfect and yet perfectly oppressed. Having lived as your typical self-hating Internet obsessive for, oh, 7 years now, I can report with great confidence that the most important message out there on the Web is that nerds are God's most precious creation, but like the chosen people of Judaism they must suffer in a hostile and ignorant world. You see, nerds like thing so much better than you or I, so much more deeply and fully and passionately. You might think you love some piece of media, but if it isn't a comic book or sci-fi or a video game, trust me, you don't really love it. If you suggest that you like a novel by some fruity European writer as deeply as Buffy fans love that show, you are a regressive fandom-hater and probably a pederast. But once upon a time, one guy said that maybe Dr. Who was a little bit childish, and since then not a day has gone by without someone publishing a lecture about how genre fiction is every bit as good as any other kind and how if you don't admit that you like Spiderman more than Hamlet you simply must be a roiling sack of self-deception and anhedonia. I endured a little bullying as a kid, but I never faced anything like the goddamn self-pitying, whining, entitled, childish martyrs who have appointed themselves keepers of the flame of nerd power.

 Is there anyone out there who hasn't read the same fucking "there should be, like, no such thing as a guilty pleasure, man" essay fifteen fucking times? How many times can people write that essay and still pretend that it's a novel idea? And where is this supposed guilt? Do you detect this guilt? It's funny, all I read are people denying that anyone should feel guilty about any cultural attachment they have, and yet everyone so sure that our culture is just full of people feeling guilty about liking Real Housewives. I mean, thanks, Dan Kois, for informing us all that the problem with movies these days is that they're too mature and subtle. Has that man ever actually been to a movie theater? Has he not seen the lines for Transformers: Totally Aggro Edition? I get it, dude: you really are deeply hurt that there might be people out there who make slightly different consumptive choices than you, and especially that some tiny shred of humanity might think that those choices are somehow better than yours. Find the strength to carry on. Dig deep within yourself, explore the deepest wells of personal fortitude, and remember that you are literally never going to be forced into an argument about a Win Wenders movie, but if you didn't ejaculate violently during The Dark Knight, you will be set upon by the nerd police viciously.

Holy shit, what is wrong with writers who live in New York?

What are the fucking odds that you're going to turn on Facebook today and have someone make you feel guilty for not reading Ulysses? Seriously. Has that ever happened in the history of the world? What planet do people live on where they imagine that there's some such thing as high society, and that these people are into opera and ballet, and they have some sort of cachet or cultural capital, and they sit around and adjust their monocles and sneer down on the rubes who like Halo and the Walking Dead? Guess what: ballet and opera could cease to exist in the next 50 years. PBS is never going to be anything like as successful as whatever new channel Nickelodeon put together to stoke your nostalgic ego. The world is not bursting with young writers of challenging fiction, and if any exist, Jonathan Franzen is probably right now paying to have them assassinated, because he's the goddamn difficulty in writing police. I simply do not exist in the same universe as people who believe that there's too much pressure on them to watch an Eisenstein movie or read Wuthering Heights. That is pure projection, some shred of half-remembered cultural information that is totally powerless, and even that is too much judgment. I promise, Dwight Macdonald is dead, figuratively and literally.

If I admit publicly that I don't watch Jersey Shore, I'll be dragged outside and murdered. Please, find me someone who will sneer at you if you've never read Proust. Search high and low.

You know, maybe the problem with this sick fucked-up culture is precisely that people don't feel guilty, that everyone is so endlessly proud of their pathology and narcissism, that Seinfeld taught everyone that the people on that show were cool and smart, instead of miserable, horrid creatures crawling around and treating each other terribly. Maybe you should feel guilty. You know that neighbor who donates a lot of money to the homeless and volunteers at the shelter? Maybe, instead of waiting for some smartass piece of shit to write the inevitable "but are people helping the homeless really helping," you should say to yourself, that person is doing something I could and perhaps should be doing. Maybe you actually should feel guilty about buying the electronic doodad that required some 11-year old boy getting chemical burns to manufacture. Maybe a little bit of guilt is just what the doctor ordered, guilt about behavior and about culture and yes, guilt about the fact that you're 34 years old and you still put on a fake spacesuit and pay hundreds of dollars for plastic tchotchkes.

Maybe what we all need is some counteracting effect to an advertising machine that has told us our entire lives that we are the single most important thing in the history of the entire universe. Maybe the reason people are slowly driving themselves insane with Twitter and comments on the AV Club and cranking out the Yelp reviews is because they've lost any semblance of the notion that there is such a thing as a moral duty, a duty to more than whatever limp desire crawls across your lizard brain at any particular moment. Maybe the reason books with titles like Everything Bad is Good For You exist is not because what they say are generative, moral, or true, but because people like being told to do whatever makes them feel good, and so they will pay back the writers who say so with money and pageviews and notoriety. Maybe we are so endlessly shitty to each other because we have given up completely on the idea that behaviors have differing values and absent a God, we need to create and enforce standards among ourselves even when that doesn't make us completely happy.

Christ. I need to lie down.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mike Daisy is less important than thousands of workers

I just have to say, the glee that has erupted over the revelation that Mike Daisy fabricated large parts of his case against Apple says an awful lot; it just doesn't say what people think it does. The fact that Daisy lied (and it certainly appeared he did) doesn't mean that Foxconn's factories and other parts of Apple's supply chain are good places for workers. On the contrary, the facts still tell us that these are hellish, despicable conditions and that Apple's enormous financial success  is predicated on enormous human suffering. That's the important story, but it will of course be lost in another self-congratulatory circle jerk on Twitter. The fact is that criticism of Apple is always going to be subject to far more scrutiny, and far more desperate efforts to undermine it. That's how powerful the attachment is, and given what little things principles are, they don't stand a chance.

You should all watch this story, because it is absolutely perfect for the savvy blogging generation: it is about personality rather than materiality, it highlights the meaningless metanarrative rather than the actually important story, it exculpates that savvy blogging set from their considerable and well-deserved guilt at subsidizing these shameful conditions, and it lets them engage in judgment (a condition they are decidedly comfortable with) rather than sit in judgment themselves (a condition they are decidedly not comfortable with).

The reality is that for most of us who use fancy electronics (like the laptop I'm using to write this post), that use is in direct conflict with a desire for healthy, safe, and empowered workers. For most of us, that's just your typical daily petty hypocrisy, of the kind capitalism makes inevitable. For most Apple people, given their total refusal to accept even the most anodyne criticism of the company-- now perhaps the most powerful in the world-- it's something worse.

Update: Commenters are about unanimous that I'm wrong here. So.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

taking it easy on myself

It's interesting; I've now encountered the following quote from Susan Sontag four times in the past week, posted by a couple Facebook friends and in a couple blog posts. This is probably where it's springing from. (Check that link for me behaving badly in the comments.) On a certain level, it's just what I want to hear.
Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus…No 'we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain 

I mean, when I think about America's problems, top of the list is not that Americans are too aware of suffering in other countries, right. Hard to say what "rhetoric" here even means; all argument is rhetoric. I don't blame anyone for being seduced by this passage. We have certainly seen all the problems that come from American do-gooding. But the illusion of consensus? The idea that there's too much American consensus about the need to end war-- wow.

I am torn between the desire to affirm this and the knowledge that invoking this passage now requires a willful rejection of context. Every day, the American public is still inundated with pictures of smiling soldiers, gleaming American flags, aircraft carriers cutting through churning seas. Meanwhile, our media and our government and our people are in a conspiracy of silence regarding the victims of our military, our machine. But apparently, to show the bodies of the children we keep massacring, more dead bodies in Afghanistan, would be a failure of... I don't know, ontology? What theoretical construct can you gin up? Grab your Spivak and your highlighter, and construct a rationale for why there's something enlightened about your apathy.

Here's the "we" that I assume: I assume that we are responsible for the conduct of our country, and so we have to be aware of its horrid behavior, and we have to do everything possible to stop it. The American people don't know the consequences of our military's behavior. To refuse to show them because Virginia Woolf told you can't possibly be the best stance, can it?

I think my many years of noninterventionism on this blog will convince you that I'm not interested in any neocolonial military adventures to get Joseph Kony. But the Kony backlash was so swift, so universal, and so complete in its sanctimony, I couldn't possibly mistake it for a positive development. Has there ever been a more self-congratulatory genre than the anti-Stop Kony essay? I haven't read a single one that wasn't actually a statement of the author's superiority to the noobs who posted that infuriating video in the first place. Can anyone get outside of the Endless Cultural Contest of Superior Savviness? Can I?

Here's the question. I told this story. It was one of the most profound and important moments of my life. So: should my father not have taken me to that mass grave? We could have done many other things, stuff that the tourists who choke the island do. We could have gone body surfing in Kuda. Would that have reached enlightenment? Could it somehow have been better, more critical, more conscious?

I'm actually asking, here. Y'all who have read me for a long time know that I would be perfectly thrilled to get to a place where Americans understood that remaking the world for goodness and democracy is not our business. But I remain entirely unconvinced that my principled isolationism is different from apathy. I feel it is, I hope it is, and I'm not going to change my mind. (War on Iran, jesus christ.) I just don't know where other people's suffering begins and ends anymore.

Update: Anonymous in comments:

 "'Has there ever been a more self-congratulatory genre than the anti-Stop Kony essay?'
Yes: the "Stop Kony" video."


Monday, March 12, 2012

Up with Chris Hayes

My support means zero, but I have wanted to say for some time that Chris Hayes deserves great credit for achieving what I would have thought impossible: he's brought real diversity of opinion to a major cable news network. One episode of Up with Chris Hayes (which is a pretty shitty name, if you ask me) has more genuine diversity of opinion than your average week of Anderson Cooper 360. Largely that's because he's willing to bring on people who are typically dismissed as "loony lefties" by those in the Very Serious Media, but even beyond that there's an admirable range of informed, articulate people on the show.

Still, you see the limits of anything that's regarded as TV-ready mainstream. Check out this panel on Israel-Palestine from yesterday. In the context of our media, it's a remarkably even-handed and fair discussion and panel makeup. But there are some assumptions that are so ingrained in the conversation, nobody challenges them.

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J-Street and an effective and principled defender of the Palestinian people, said that everyone on the panel was opposed to a nuclear-capable Iran. Now, as far as it goes, I'd much rather that Iran not have nuclear weapons than have them; I'm opposed to the existence of nuclear weapons, after all. I'm conflicted on nuclear power, given its dangers but also its potential as a non-carbon producing energy source. However: I am just as opposed to nuclear weapons and power in Israel and the United States as I am in Iran. I didn't hear, and haven't heard, a statement of equitable political principles that explains why it is somehow more legitimate for Israel to have nuclear technology than Iran. Worse, there appears to be a consensus opinion that no such principle needs to be articulated.

I would very much like for Hayes to have asked that question yesterday, why Israel is entitled to a nuclear arsenal and Iran is not. But perhaps that's a bridge too far.

Monday, March 5, 2012

oh, boy

The first thing I did today was read the first piece in the brand new edition of The New Inquiry. It's written by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, and it is discouraging and wrong-headed. I

First, this is part of a broad, deeply misguided attempt by Occupy-types to exaggerate and misrepresent the  plight of the college educated. For a movement of genuinely left-wing origins, it is absolutely bizarre to me to witness this obsession with what is, by almost any metric (domestic or international), a privileged class. Go through the demographics, and you'll find measure after measure that demonstrates that college graduates are in better shape than the national average, to say nothing of the lower class. People respond to this by telling me that, well, the recently college graduated are a separate situation. But that's not really true. The economy is improving, and the positive effects are overwhelmingly being enjoyed by the college educated.

And of course they are; the system, after all, is built by and for the college educated. I'm reminded of this great piece by Kevin Carey, which tracks down the subjects of similar doom-and-gloom articles about downtrodden college graduates from the past. As you might expect, after their flirtations with dropping out, positive or negative, they were assimilated into the machine of American advancement. If you are optimistic about that system, you could view this as a positive correction. If you are critical, you can see it as the inevitable reassertion of privilege. Whatever the case, it shouldn't surprise you to know that for most college graduates, these flirtations are temporary. The rewards that the grinding lifestyle of American "success" offers are just too tempting. I wonder again: how many of those protesting now will be paid in full members of the system they protest, in five years? In ten? Only time will tell. But the odds are high that many of them will slump into that life. It might please you to think of the hippie-to-yuppie movement as some sort of unique failing of the Boomers, but it is a recurring cycle.

This is particularly disappointing:

It is also an inevitable consequence of just how available higher education has become. With limitless student loans and freefor-all admissions to for-profit colleges, education is no longer a surefire indicator of class or race 

This statement is absurd. Are race and socioeconomic class "surefire" indicators of education level? Of course not. But they are very highly correlated. Speaking as someone who spends his life researching college education, that's as close to a truism as you can find. Even with the rise of for-profit universities, less than a third of Americans has a bachelor's degree. The racial college achievement gap is large, and it's not shrinking; it's growing. Social class is extremely determinative of access to college education.  From 1970 to 2006, those from the highest income quartile had a better than 70 percent change of holding a college degree. Those in the lowest quartile? 10 percent. I wish the data was a little fresher, but there's no evidence that there's been any major changes in the last half-dozen years. Abrahamian has fun with the fact that she applied to grad school this year, but indeed, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the greatest job growth of the next ten years will belong to those with a masters degree (PDF). This is fifteen-seconds-worth-of-Googling stuff. Perhaps I don't know what left-wing business is anymore, but I am sure that it has nothing to do with denying continuing inequality in access to education and what that means economically.

I further don't understand the continued phenomenon of the essay that at once weeps for the college educated and questions the value of a college education, but is so fussy in its discussion of where the author went to school. I don't blame anyone for having tangled feelings about attending an elite institution. But this piece and pieces like it are so pregnant with the author's desire for that elite nature to mean something, it's suffocating. After all, the implicit logic of this piece, like most like it, is "even for me." Even for me, a Columbia grad! I could write this piece. But I went to a "directional" university, a noncompetitive, open-admissions college that nevertheless flunked out a lot of people and was too high a bar for many local people to clear. The point would necessarily be blunted, because after all, such graduates are not expected to flourish as Columbia graduates are expected. I would like very much if those evincing disdain for college education to stop being so showy about their own. How many of these articles are written by people who took their own advice and actually chose not to attend to college?

David Leonhardt dealt with all of this very well, in a piece where he considered research that demonstrates, Abrahamian's assertions notwithstanding, that college education increase wages even in those job sectors where a college education is not required. And he has exactly the right attitude for "the skeptics themselves, the professors, journalists and others who say college is overrated. They, of course, have degrees and often spend tens of thousands of dollars sending their children to expensive colleges." As he says, "I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice." Like so many of the new, purportedly left-wing arguments against college, Abrahamian's piece poses as the work of the oppressed while its existence is predicated on privilege.

The oldest, most sinister seduction for any left-wing intellectual is to mistake concern for the underclass for being a member of an underclass. No, neither Abrahamian nor I are members of the moneyed elite. But we are very fortunate, very lucky people, and that exceeds even the narrowly quantitative. After all, I'm living on $13,000 a year. But I have social capital that other people who make that much don't and can't have, and that makes a huge difference. I live a comfortable life. My guess is that many of those for whom Abrahamian speaks do as well.

Update: I've been writing about the need to reduce college tuition for a long time. I've been writing about the need to help those with student debt for a long time. I'm in favor of strong measures to curb tuition and of broad forgiveness of student loan debt. These are real problems that need to be addressed. But from a practical standpoint, solving them means being honest about their depth and the relative position of those who are afflicted with them. From a critical standpoint, understanding them requires an absolute fidelity to the facts, about privilege, and class, and structural inequity. And from the standpoint of political action, no movement is healthy if it is predicated on the complaints of a group of people whose problems are historically assured to improve.

Malcolm Harris, who is building his Internet celebrity on this issue, doubles down on all of the bad impulses this kind of thinking engenders. He is here using the language of revolution to justify what is, at its essence, a dispute among the ruling class. He reminds me of nothing so much as the autoworker who curses the "foreigner" who he imagines has stolen what he thought was coming to him. Because Harris knows that his complaint is ultimately a direct expression of entitlement, and the entitlement of those who presumed they would be rewarded by our corrupt system, he has to build a case that is simply antithetical to the left-wing project: the notion that recent college graduates are the dispossessed around which a revolutionary movement deserves to be mustered. Read his piece. I don't exaggerate.

It should go without saying that this is a project I want nothing to do with. I feel for those struggling under student loan debt, in part because I am myself, but I will not engage in the sophistry and dishonesty that asserts that they are the class that most requires liberation.