What’s happening in northern Nigeria?

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office put out this map of Nigeria a couple of weeks ago

What’s happening in northern Nigeria? Eric Draitser, founder of the website Stop Imperialism, seems to have an answer, and he shares it with readers of Counterpunch in this, the first of a series of articles he promises to contribute there.

Mr Draitser lists three major factors that have made the rise of Boko Haram possible:

First, there is Nigeria’s domestic politics, and the issue of Boko Haram and the perception of the government and opposition’s responsibility for the chaos it has wreaked.  With elections scheduled to take place in February, Boko Haram and national security have, quite understandably, become dominant issues in the public mind.  The mutual finger-pointing and accusations provide an important backdrop for understanding how Boko Haram fits both into the public discourse, and into the strategies of political networks behind the scenes in Nigeria, and the region more broadly.

Second is the all-important regional political and economic chessboard. In West Africa – an area rich in strategic resources – there are a few interested parties who stand to gain from Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks which amount to a destabilization of the entire Nigerian state.  Nigeria’s neighbor Chad has recently come under heavy scrutiny from Nigeria’s military apparatus for its purported role in financing and facilitating Boko Haram’s expansion. Chad sees in Nigeria potential oil profits as it expands its own oil extraction capabilities throughout the Chad Basin – a geographical region that includes significant territory in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.  Of course, major oil companies, not to mention powerful western nations such as France, have a vested interest in maintaining their profits from West African oil. 

Finally and, perhaps most importantly, is the continental and global perspective.  Nigeria, as Africa’s most dynamic economy, presents major opportunities and challenges for key global powers.  For China, Nigeria represents one of its principal investment footholds in Africa. A key trading partner for Beijing, Nigeria has increasingly been moving out of the direct orbit of the West, transforming it from a reliable, if subservient, Western ally, into an obstacle to be overcome.  Coinciding with these developments has been the continually expanding US military presence throughout Africa, one that is increasingly concentrated in West Africa, though without much media fanfare aside from the Ebola story.

Mr Draitser goes on to explain how the destruction of the Gadhafi regime in Libya destabilized the whole region to the north and east of Nigeria, transforming Chad from a subordinate player in North African politics into a revisionist power.

Compare with the FCO map above

Mr Draitser’s piece is the single most illuminating thing I have found about the situation in Nigeria, and I am very glad to have seen it.  I do feel constrained to quote from something I read the same day, a blog post in which Rod Dreher, referring to discussions of conflicts in the Muslim world, including northern Nigeria, complains that “most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.”  That isn’t to say that we have to take the actors in these conflicts at their word when they claim that their motives are entirely religious, and certainly the conflict in Nigeria would not be possible without the economic and geopolitical facts on which Mr Draitser focuses.  What I suspect is simply this, that it is a mistake to leave religion out altogether when we are analyzing a situation like this.

Be that as it may, I very much look forward to Mr Draitser’s next installment.  He refers to a forthcoming “Part Two”; I hope there will also be a Part Three, Part Four, and as many other parts as he can manage.

The Nation, 2 February 2015

Art by Doug Chayka

Several interesting things in the 2 February edition of The Nation magazine.

Gary Younge predicts that the January 2015 massacres in Paris will strengthen France’s far right Front National.  I suspect that the opposite will in fact be the case.  The way I read opinion surveys like this one, France is like other Western European countries in that about a third of the electorate wants to alter immigration policy radically, either to stop immigration altogether or to eliminate all restrictions on it, while about two thirds of the electorate wants some or other kind of reform that will welcome a steady flow of law-abiding skilled immigrants, encourage immigrants to assimilate to the established norms of society, and keep as many criminals and other troublesome individuals outside the borders as possible.  These have long been the familiar goals of immigration policy everywhere, and I very much doubt that the mainstream parties will have any real difficulty finding ways to promote them once it becomes clear that the alternative is to start losing important elections to the Front National. Once the mainstream parties come up with something helpful to say about immigration, law and order, and similar issues, the Front’s level of support will recede, leaving its core of chronic sore-heads high and dry.

Stuart Klawans reviews a number of recent films, including The Interview.  I myself will never forgive actor Seth Rogen for the 2011 Green Hornet movie, but Mr Klawans praises Mr Rogen’s character in The Interview as the embodiment of what the world most likes about the USA:

The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

I’m sure the conscript soldiers of the allied forces in World War Two did their share of grousing and goldbricking, though if they hadn’t from time to time risen to “the stern, manly virtues” of which their officers and NCOs so fondly dreamed them capable the world would be a much drearier place today.

Anyway, Hitler is a bit miscast in his cameo appearance at the end.  For all that he preached the stern, manly virtues, Hitler himself rarely exemplified them.  Between his time lounging about the streets of Vienna under the rather ludicrous delusion that he was a budding artiste and his latter days sleeping into the afternoon and sitting up through the night watching movies in his private screening room while others fought in his name, virtually the only time Hitler practiced the demanding code he would so famously preach was when he was himself a conscript soldier in the trenches in the First World War.  And that service, though it earned him two Iron Crosses (one of them First Class,) had its match and more than its match in the service of many hundreds of thousands of other common soldiers in the armies of that planetary conflict.

Indeed, it may have been precisely Hitler’s ordinariness that made his political career such an extraordinary success.  A man somewhat below average height, tending to overweight, a face utterly forgettable except for a most unfortunate mustache, originating from the middlemost of the middle classes, a failure in every youthful pursuit, devoid of originality in any avenue of thought, Hitler had no notable characteristic that would distinguish him from anyone else.  As a cipher, he was the perfect choice to symbolize a whole generation.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in his book The Culture of Defeat (Picador, 2004, pages 235-239,) Germans in the period following the First World War had an urgent need for such a symbolic figure. The nations that sent their young men to the trenches were wracked with guilt at the slaughter.  Nothing about Hitler prevented Germans from identifying him with the war dead collectively and individually.  While most families, looking at a man with a truly impressive war record like Hermann Goering or Benito Mussolini or Oswald Mosley, or later on Leon Degrelle, might find it hard to believe that their own dead son or brother had acted so heroically, Hitler’s achievements as a regimental dispatch runner were a drama that would plausible with virtually any able-bodied soldier in the leading role. His lack of any dashing qualities made Hitler not only a blank screen, but a sacramental object.  Channeling their guilt through the figure of Hitler, the Germans developed a civic religion that made it possible for them to accept the horrific realities of the industrial age as they were revealed in the mass killing on the Western Front.

As it turned out, devotion to Hitler was not an altogether successful means of purging Germany of national guilt.  Since 1945, the usual theme of German efforts to work through the guilt that is Hitler’s legacy has been ostentatious renunciation of the stern, manly virtues.  Germans and other Europeans who sympathize with those efforts make up a sizable percentage of the people whose enmity Americans might earn by occasionally celebrating those virtues.  This civic religion has gone seventy years without starting a world war or committing genocide, so it must be ranked higher than its immediate predecessor, but “preferable to Naziism” is rather a low standard to meet.

Again with Lawrence Dennis

Lawrence Dennis, touring London as a boy evangelist, with his foster mother

In a couple of comments on an article about James Burnham that Daniel McCarthy wrote for The American Conservative, I brought up Lawrence Dennis. Here are the comments:

1.

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936′s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

A couple of other commenters responded to this, encouraging me to enlarge upon it:

2.

@David Naas: Well, Lawrence Dennis seems to have thought that under an enlightened elite, a system which he would classify as fascist could be made more or less tolerable to the broad majority of the population. Dennis’ prescription for a tolerable fascism was one that stimulated the economy with domestic make-work schemes rather than militaristic adventures, and that put as little effort as possible into stirring up racial hatred and persecuting minority groups. Those make-work schemes were supposed to “ensure that wealth flows down across and out,” as EliteCommInc puts it, and the lackadaisical racism was supposed to be no worse than what was in fact established as law in the USA in Dennis’ time.

Dennis himself grew up as an African American child in the state of Georgia in the early twentieth century and as an adult was an extremely unpopular public figure, so he can have been under few illusions as to what sort of life might await those outside that broad majority. Dennis recounts a shocking episode in his book Operational Thinking for Survival. As a visitor to Germany in the mid-1930s, he was granted an audience with the Nazis’ tamed philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. Dennis tells us that he suggested to Rosenberg that the Nazis stop physically attacking Jews and trying to force them to leave Germany, as they were doing at that point, and that instead they should subject them to the same segregation regime under which African Americans lived. Rosenberg dismissed the idea, but that Dennis would suggest it, in view of his background, is a tragedy in the classical sense of that term.

I’m by no means convinced that any of Dennis’ views were correct, but they are certainly worth considering. Among other things, I think that Burnham’s conception of countervailing power in The Machiavellians gains a great deal of depth and significance if we see it as, in part, a rebuttal to Dennis and an attempt to sketch out an alternative to Dennis’ bleak vision of the future.

I wish that, instead of “worth considering,” I had said that Dennis’ views were “worth studying.”  Especially coming right after an account of his hobnobbing with a representative of the Nazi leadership and proposing a set of anti-Jewish measures, it sounds alarming to suggest that we might “consider” his views, as if we should somehow contemplate following him down that dark path.  It’s true that Dennis’ proposal to Rosenberg would have been far less horrible than the policies the Nazis actually adopted, but there’s quite a lot of space separating “better than the Holocaust” from “worth considering.”  Anyway, it was Dennis’ views on political economy, geopolitics, and the role of ideology in shaping opinion that I had in mind, not his drearily misbegotten attempt to ameliorate the condition of Jews in the Third Reich.

Worlds in Collision

There have been several interesting items in recent issues of The Nation.

Reviewing John Judis’ Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Bernard Avishai argues that President Harry S Truman had far fewer options in formulating policy towards events in and around Mandatory Palestine than Mr Judis claims.  Mr Avishai’s closing sentences are worth quoting:

Understanding Israel’s founding in 1948 as a necessary event with tragic consequences, and not as a presidential mistake forced by political pressure, will not make Obama less wary of AIPAC or his relationship with Netanyahu less tortured. But it could make his tact more obviously noble.

“Tact” may itself be an extraordinarily tactful choice of words to characterize Mr O’s relationship with Israel and the Americans who support the Israeli right-wing, but I would say that “necessary event with tragic consequences” is usually an accurate description of major occurrences in world history.  There may be some agent or other who was at some point in a position to alter the course of events, but that point may have passed long before anyone realized the significance of what was going on.  Certainly by the time President Truman took office, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was beyond the power of any US president to prevent, even assuming any US president were to be so heedless of public opinion as to want to prevent it.  The fact that President Truman so thoroughly convinced himself of the contrary as to announce to the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953 that “I am Cyrus” serves to remind us that the extreme self-confidence that men need if they are to rise to high political office often leaves them vulnerable to the most absurd self-deceptions.  Not that politicians have a monopoly on self-deception; Mr Avishai mentions Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Culture of Defeat, a book which shows how little relationship the commonly accepted opinions on all sides in the USA have to any facts concerning their country’s Civil War of 1861-1865.

A book about Immanuel Velikovsky prompts Paula Findlen to write an engaging essay about Velikovsky’s career and her own youthful enthusiasm for his work.  For my part, I wonder if Velikovsky’s eccentric theories about comets and colliding heavenly bodies set science back significantly.  Scientists are now comfortable talking about impacts that led to the formation of the Moon, triggered mass extinctions, etc, but in the 1970s, when Velikovsky’s work was in vogue, they were noticeably reluctant to consider such theories, perhaps for fear of being mistaken for Velikovskyans.

In September 2000, Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech in which he spoke ill of Thomas Jefferson, and explained why he had the right to do so.  I speak ill of Thomas Jefferson myself quite frequently.  I often read Jefferson’s deplorable works and study his deplorable acts, the better to deplore them, and my education advances in proportion to the amount of time I spend in his deplorable presence in this way.

In a recent issue, Richard Kim expressed exasperation with social conservatives concerned that the declining popularity of their views on sex in general and on gender neutral marriage in particular has destined them for marginalization.   Mr Kim points out that social conservatives still wield a great deal of power in the USA and that American courts have been quite deferential to religious liberty concerns.  The magazine rather undercuts Mr Kim’s point by running his piece under the headline “The Bigot’s Lament” and giving it a subhed saying that “the religious right nurses its persecution complex.”  If people are going to label you a bigot and dismiss your concerns as symptoms of a “persecution complex,” you are probably right to worry that you are being pushed to the margins.  Rod Dreher wrote a series of posts on his blog at The American Conservative a few weeks ago in which he speculated that in the future, people who share his belief that homosexual relationships are not the same kind of thing as heterosexual relationships may have to keep that belief a secret or face loss of employment and public humiliation, even as same-sexers have long had to keep their sexuality secret in order to avoid the same penalties.  Responding to a critique from Andrew Sullivan, Mr Dreher wrote:

This line from Andrew is particularly rich:

In the end, one begins to wonder about the strength of these people’s religious convictions if they are so afraid to voice them, and need the state to reinforce them.

This is the crux of the problem. Let’s restate this: “One begins to wonder about the strength of the love of gay couples if they are so afraid to come out of the closet, and need the state to protect them.”

How does that sound? To me, it sounds smug and naive and unfeeling, even cruel, about the reality of gay people’s lives. If they aren’t willing to martyr themselves, then they must not really love each other, right? And hey, if they need the state to protect them from a wedding photographer who won’t take their photos, how much do they really love each other?

You see my point.

I am glad we don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in that world anymore because people like Andrew insisted that gay lives had more dignity than the majority of Americans believed. Again, they did us all a favor by awakening us morally to what it is like to live in a country where what matters the most to you is treated in custom and in law as anathema.

I do think there is a realistic chance that in a decade or two it will be a career-killer virtually everywhere in the USA to profess religious beliefs that disapprove of same-sex sex and elevate opposite-sex sex to privileged status in the moral order.  I’m not entirely opposed to this happening; I think such beliefs are wrong, and the sooner they are consigned to the status of exhibits in a museum of discredited ideas the better off everyone will be.  On the other hand, while antigay beliefs may be losing popularity in the USA and other rich countries, and also in regions like Latin America that make a point of reminding the world of their affinities with the rich countries, they are far from dying out altogether.  That means that we can expect a sizable minority of closeted antigays to persist in the USA for quite some time to come.  And outside the rich countries, especially in Africa and the Muslim world, hostility to same-sexers is certainly not fading.  If immigration from these regions to the USA rises in the years to come, as it seems likely to do, a strong stigma against beliefs that oppose same-sex sex may lead to bitter confrontations and harsh stands on both sides.  An American counterpart to the late Pim Fortuyn may not be an impossibility for long.

These are concerns for tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, it is possible that a new stigma may attach itself to same-sexers, the stigma of membership in a genetically unmodified lower class.  In that case, it might be desirable that the period leading up to the shift should reinforce norms of mutual respect and fair play, rather than aggression and triumphalism.  Or it might not be; perhaps the collision with the new world will blot out whatever habits we may have  cultivated in the old one.  Assuming, of course, that there is enough of a genetic contribution to the physical basis of homosexual attraction for genetic modification to bring this particular collision about in the first place.

The Atlantic, April 2014

In her cover story about trends in parenting styles in the US and Britain, Hanna Rosin tells several charming anecdotes contrasting her mother’s approach to raising her some years ago to her own approach to raising her daughter today.  Ms Rosin follows up with data showing that her mother’s relatively laissez-faire methods were typical of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, while her own much more intensive style of supervision is typical of the early 21st century.  Statistics do not show that the newer approach has led to any improvement in the safety of children, and in fact support claims that such close supervision harms children in a number of ways.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from the heart of Ms Rosin’s article:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

Also in this issue, several authors are asked to name the best fictional character of all time.  Children’s author R. L. Stine convinced me:

Aside from being amiable, Mickey Mouse has no discernible personality of any kind, yet he has captivated the world, appeared in hundreds of films, and sold billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Has any other fictional character held sway over so many countries for so long?

To build an empire like that of Disney on the basis of “no discernible personality of any kind” is indeed an achievement I would have thought impossible had it not actually been done.

Michael O’Donnell reviews some recent work on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and seems mystified at the reluctance of some writers to give President Lyndon Johnson his due in that process.

Robert D. Kaplan seems to be less prominent than he was before the 2003 Iraq War; he may be the only person in the USA whose career took a hit for supporting the war.  Not that he is backing down; his piece in this issue is called “In Defense of Empire.”  I suppose we have to salute him for his willingness to stick by his principles.

At any rate, Mr Kaplan’s argument exhibits the some of same bizarre weaknesses in reasoning that underpinned so much of the rhetoric he and his fellow warhawks deployed in favor of invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.  As he and others habitually did in those days, Mr Kaplan makes a generalization and flatly refuses to analyze it, insisting on applying his glossy abstractions in several senses at once.  So, Mr Kaplan tells us in this piece that empires are more likely than homogeneous nation-states or loose confederations to “protect minorities,”  but that dysfunctional empires sometimes fail in their mission to “protect minorities.”

Now one need not be an expert in such things to realize that a statement like “empires protect minorities” needs some unpacking.  Sometimes an imperial power will align itself with an unpopular minority group, promoting the interests of that group and to some extent governing through it.  The minority’s unpopularity makes it dependent on the imperial power for protection, and therefore more likely than the majority to collaborate with whatever schemes that power may put forward.  That very collaboration exacerbates the minority’s unpopularity and vulnerability.  And of course there are many other ways in which imperial powers divide and rule their subjects, many of which involve favoring minorities as against majorities.  An sober examination of these methods might leave some people willing to tolerate imperialism from time to time, but it would hardly be likely by itself to constitute a case “In Defense of Empire.”

Derek Thompson explains “How National Basketball Association Teams Fool Themselves Into Betting Too Much on the Draft.”  Mr Thompson’s explanation identifies fallacies that distort decision-making in non-sports related organizations as well:

In most professional sports leagues, including the NBA, the worst teams are first in line to snag the most-promising amateur players in the next draft. When the ripening crop of amateurs looks especially tantalizing (this year’s is projected to be historically good), multiple teams will suddenly compete to be so uncompetitive that, through sheer awfulness, they will be blessed to inherit the top pick. One anonymous general manager told ESPN the Magazine earlier this season, “Our team isn’t good enough to win,” so the best thing is “to lose a lot.”

In a way, there is a dark genius behind the tanking epidemic. In what other industry could you persuade your customers to root for the worst possible product? But tanking puzzles academics like David Berri, the author of the 2006 book The Wages of Wins and a widely read commentator on sports economics. “Tanking simply does not work,” he told me. Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.

All three of these ideas seem to spring from an addiction to a messianic view of life, in which the best things can come only to those who have suffered the worst things (so, never to the merely mediocre, but perhaps to those who lose every game for months,) there exists a true path to greatness that will be revealed to those who seek it by the right means(so, the fetishization of science, including the anointing of such obviously non-scientific pursuits as basketball scouting as sciences,) and a charismatic figure is destined to come to the lowly in their darkest hour and to lead them on that true path (so, sacrificing a whole season of potentially competitive play in the hopes of attracting such a savior.)  For all I know, messianism may reflect a cosmic truth, as Christians and others say that it does, but it certainly does seem misplaced in the world of professional basketball.

Jenny Xie writes about a graphic designer named Nikki Sylianteng, who received many parking tickets because she was confused by the famously complex street signs that are supposed to tell New York City’s residents where they may and may not leave their cars.  Ms Sylianteng designed some street signs according to a simpler scheme.  She tacked her signs up next to city signs giving the same information and invited the public to tell her what they thought of them.  Here’s Ms Sylianteng’s website.

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a book called Living With a Wild God.  In it, Ms Ehrenreich mentions an strange psychological break she experienced in her youth.  She was walking by herself in a desert town when all of a sudden she was transported by a wave of ecstasy and the world seemed to be a radically different place.  Ms Ehrenreich has no idea what that was all about.  Though she recognizes the feeling in descriptions that talented religious persons give of their mystical experiences, Ms Ehrenreich is herself quite sure that whatever happened to her was entirely of this world.  In a brief notice of the book in this issue, Ann Hulbert summarizes this story and quotes a remark of Ms Ehrenreich’s:

The young Barbara had been keeping a hyper-articulate journal as she puzzled over the meaning of life, but she found no coherent words for the predawn blazing onrush of … what? Was she crazy? God wasn’t in her vocabulary. In the years that followed, Ehrenreich the biology grad student, social activist, journalist, and brilliant cultural critic and historian was struck dumb, too.

Now she has come up with the words, and I’m tempted to credit Ehrenreich with managing a miracle. But she resolutely avoids rhetoric in that “blubbery vein”—which is why her book is such a rare feat. “As a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training,” she struggles to make sense of the epiphany without recourse to the “verbal hand-wavings about ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendence’ ” that go with the territory. There was nothing peaceful or passive about the ecstatic state that seized her: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” There is nothing pious about her reckoning with her past self, and with “a palpable Other, or Others.” Ehrenreich has no interest in conversion: “I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender.” She wants, and inspires, open minds.

I don’t know whether Ms Hulbert has quoted Ms Ehrenreich fairly, but if she has I am surprised.  “Belief is intellectual surrender.”  So it is.  That’s the point, believers call for surrendering oneself altogether to the supernatural, in the case of monotheistic religions surrender to God.  Therefore, the challenge is to prove that intellectual surrender is bad, not to prove that belief is intellectual surrender.  Ms Ehrenreich is one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, and so I suspect she knows that, and that Ms Hulbert’s quotation was cut short by limitations of space.

Chronicles, February 2014

The latest issue of paleoconservative Chronicles magazine features several pieces (by Thomas L. Fleming, Claude Polin, and Chilton Williamson) reflecting on James Burnham’s 1964 book, The Suicide of the West.

Burnham’s work always struck me as highly derivative of Lawrence Dennis, especially Dennis’ 194o The Dynamics of War and Revolution.  Dennis made the mistake of accepting the label “fascist” as a self-description in the 1930s.  Dennis was not an enthusiast for fascism; he thought a fascist regime was inevitable, and that elites ought to face up to that inevitability and try to make the best of what he freely acknowledged was in many ways a bad situation.  He criticized US elites harshly, so that when the United States entered the Second World War, he found himself a friendless man, exposed to attack on all sides.   Prosecuted for sedition in 1944, it was only because the judge died during his trial that Dennis was lucky enough to stay out of prison.  I had hoped that the issue would include at least one reference to Dennis, but it does not.  Justin Raimondo is a regular columnist for Chronicles, and a defender of Dennis; Mr Raimondo’s column this month is about a lady who fixes up old houses.

A couple of pieces in the issue, Dr Fleming’s column linked above and a note by Aaron D. Wolf, bring up homosexuality.  Dr Fleming takes issue with the term “homophobia,” writing: “express the Christian point of view on homosexuality, as Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson did, and you are a homophobic bigot—though the idea of Mr. Robertson being afraid of gay men is truly amusing.”  I am not familiar with Mr Robertson, so I cannot share Dr Fleming’s amusement.  I can only congratulate him on it.

However, I think Mr Wolf’s piece does vindicate the term “homophobia.”  Mr Wolf, also thinking of Mr Robertson, writes:

Robertson believes homosexuality is sinful because God says so in His infallible Word.  He, like Saint Paul, doesn’t make a sophisticated distinction between inclination and activity.  And Robertson follows Paul’s thought process as spelled out in Romans 1—that a society given over to sexual perversion is a society that has followed a long path of degradation.  In addition Robertson, convinced as he is by a higher authority which demands submission and not explaining away, also recognizes that such perversion is not even rational behavior.  Thus, the Duck Commander, in the field, armed, and with his girly-man interviewer in tow, said with vulgar rhetorical flourish what most men, Christian and non-Christian alike, have said in locker rooms or at bars or by the water cooler or wherever: that the very idea of what gay men do, or want to do, is repulsive.

As I understand it, when psychologists talk about phobias, they are talking about anxiety disorders.  So someone who suffers from acrophobia, for example, is not simply “afraid of heights,” but is likely to be seized by anxiety when exposed to heights.   Further, it is my understanding that the two main causes of anxiety attacks are, initially, the fear that one is being forced to meet  impossible demands, and, subsequently, the  fear that one is about to have an anxiety attack.

With those points in mind, I would say that anyone who “doesn’t make a… distinction between inclination and activity” before declaring that God has judged particular people to exemplify “perversion” and “degradation” and to be “repulsive” probably has an anxiety disorder.  Mr Wolf can, by acts of will, prevent himself from engaging in any particular activity at any particular moment.  If he regards same-sex sex as perverse, degrading, and repulsive, he can therefore choose to abstain from it throughout his whole life.  However, inclinations do not respond to acts of the will in that way.  This is not a “sophisticated distinction.”  It is the very crudest sort of magical thinking to imagine that a desire or an inclination will go away simply because we tell it to.  Indeed, it is in the strictest sense unchristian to believe that this can be done, since it denies the reality of temptation.

So, if anxiety is the result of the fear of being forced to meet impossible demands, the belief that one’s inclinations must respond to acts of will in the same way that one’s activities do is a recipe for anxiety.  If that belief is reinforced by the threat that “most men, Christian and non-Christian alike” will regard one as perverse, degraded, and repulsive if one does not succeed in this impossible task, then of course the result will be an anxiety disorder.

And not only in those who have experienced a desire for same-sex sex.  All of us know perfectly well that we cannot shape our inclinations by acts of will, since all of us have at least some inclinations of which we would like to be rid.  Mr Robertson, as a recovering drug addict, knows that better than most.  So, if one believes that merely experiencing a homosexual inclination is enough to mark one as unacceptable for the company of men, one would surely be haunted by the fear that such an inclination might someday, somehow, pop into one’s feelings.

Perhaps this belief, miserable as it makes so many people, is also behind much of the rapid growth of support for the rights of sexual minorities in the West in recent decades.  If we do not distinguish between the inclination and the activity, then denouncing the activity means reviling the people who are inclined to it.  The more same-sexers one gets to know, the harder it is to believe oneself to be a nice person while using phrases like (to quote Mr Wolf’s note) “designed for the toilet” with application to matters that are essential to their social identity and most intimate relationships.  So, perhaps the Mr Wolfs of the world are the true vanguard of the gay rights struggle.

The Narcissists

Recent articles in Slate and The Nation have set me to wondering about the general uselessness of white people as commentators on race.  Not that Michelle Goldberg and Tanner Colby, the white commentators who wrote those pieces, are useless; they comment quite usefully, not on race in any very broad sense, but very specifically on the knots whites tie themselves in when race comes up.  Ms Goldberg and Mr Colby are each engaged in a sort of rhetorical analysis.  Here’s one of Mr Colby’s remarks about white conservatives:

Affirmative action is unfair to white people and the Democratic Party is a plantation—that’s about as incisive as the rhetoric usually gets. Even when Republicans have a legitimate point to make about the shortcomings of some government program, it’s almost as if they can’t help blowing their own argument. They’ll start off talking sensibly enough about educational outcome disparities and within seconds they’re rambling incoherently about how black men don’t take care of their babies. It’s really astonishing to watch.

Now I grant you, complaints about black men not taking care of their babies, when they come up in the course of a highly abstract political discussion about something else, are probably going to be less than helpful.  But at least those complaints have something to do with black people, even if they are so laden with stereotypes and refusals to listen that the black people they imagine aren’t much like the ones who actually exist on the planet Earth.  If engagement with imaginary black people doesn’t sound like much to celebrate, consider this paragraph from Ms Goldberg’s piece:

There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color. For example, after [Mikki] Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag erupted last fall, Sarah Milstein, co-author of a guide to Twitter, published a piece on the Huffington Post titled “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” At one point, Milstein argued that if a person of color says something that makes you uncomfortable, “assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person.” After Rule No. 3, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not,” she confesses to her own racial crimes, including being “awkwardly too friendly” toward black people at parties.

“Something about you, not about the other person” and “Look for ways that you are racist.”  Racism is a million things, among them a form of self-absorption.  Therefore, to say these things is quite literally a way of saying, “Why yes, I am self-absorbed!  Let’s talk about other ways in which I’m self-absorbed!”

Ms Goldberg goes on:

“I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate,” [Professor Brittney] Cooper says. “It’s about feeling disempowered and always feeling at the mercy of white authority, and wanting to feel like for once the things you’re saying are being given credibility and authority. And to have white folks do that is powerful, particularly in a world where white women often deploy power against black women in ways that are really problematic.”

Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect. “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are,” says Jezebel founder [Anna] Holmes, who is black. “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.”

If the internet has taught us anything, it is that anything you can think of is a fetish for someone, somewhere.  With a global population of well over 7,000,000,000, it could hardly be otherwise.  Many millions of those 7,000,000,000+ are black women, surely a big enough population that there must be at least a handful of people in it representing virtually every possible enthusiasm.  So it would hardly be surprising if some among them could fairly be said to “get off on white women being prostrate.”  Even so, I strongly suspect that a study would show that more whites find gratification in the idea of being rendered helpless by blacks than blacks find in the idea of rendering whites helpless. I also suspect that most blacks and other nonwhites who do entertain fantasies of humiliating whites would grow tired of the reality long before the whites were sated with it.  Attention, including hostile attention, is addictive.

It’s like men’s masochistic fantasies about women; if you look at those fantasies, it usually isn’t at all clear what the “mistress” is supposed to be getting out of her “servant.”  Most of the time he wants her to put on some kind of uncomfortable outfit and do a significant amount of manual labor while he just lies around bleeding all over her furniture.  Men find outlets for these fantasies by paying women to “dominate” them; online, masochistic men sometimes lend each other a helping hand, sharing masochistic fantasies in which they are the center of attention as objects of hostility.  The whites who take the lead in the race-shaming games Ms Goldberg describes are offering the same service to their fellow narcissists.  As there are not enough domineering women to go around when it comes to satisfying the fetishes of masochistic men, so there are not enough militantly antiwhite nonwhite women to go around to satisfy the desires of certain whites for hostile attention based on race.

And why would there be?  Why should black people, male or female, be as excited about white people as white people are excited about themselves?  Besides. the particular humiliations Ms Goldberg describes require some brainpower to inflict.  If you’re smart enough to play those games, you’re probably smart enough to realize that they are what my classmates in school used to call “white people shit” and to find a more constructive use of your time.

The Nation, 25 November 2013

Three items of note:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece on “The GOP’s Poverty Denialism” includes a paragraph that very clearly expresses a phenomenon that I’ve often noticed on the political right, but that I’ve never been able to put into words:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

I’ve spent a great deal of time around Republicans and other American right-wingers in my life, and that pair of beliefs is the single most annoying thing about them.  Whenever a Democratic president is in office, or the Democrats seem to be controlling the state or local government, they’ll bang on about the harm those Democrats are doing to the economy, then in the same breath declare that there has never been more opportunity for those who are willing to work.

I think there is another pair of contradictory beliefs underlying the right-wing addiction to this contradiction.  Most of the libertarians and virtually all of the Republicans I know tend to interpret any case of prosperity in the USA as proof of the virtue of an unfettered free market.  That applies not only to periods of economic expansion, but to any amenity, even roads and and other public works built by tax dollars.   Indeed, the wealth of rich individuals is often cited as a sign of the goodness of a free market, even when those individuals have been enriched entirely by tax schemes or government contracts.  On the other hand, the same people, faced with recessions, poverty, etc, reflexively attribute those conditions to the fact that the USA does not have and never has had an unfettered free market.

Far better to be a radical libertarian like the late Murray Rothbard or Sheldon Richman, who denounce our regulated, subsidized economic system and call it by the name “capitalism.”  Rothbard and Richman are frankly utopian in their call for a freed market, and so are able to be logically consistent in their appraisal of present conditions.  Better still to be a real conservative like Henry Adams, who in his History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison showed how even 16 unbroken years of bad government could not stop a basically healthy society from prospering, as in other works he showed that good government could not stop a deeply corrupt society from decaying.

Also in this issue of The Nation, Rick Perlstein argues that the people now leading the Republican Party are very much the same as were the right-wingers in that party decades ago.  In some ways I think Perlstein is right.  It never ceases to amaze me when Democrats are hurt and surprised to find that Republicans don’t like Democratic presidents, a phenomenon on which Perlstein comments thus:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.

When Senator Helms made that remark, Democratic friends of mine earnestly explained to me that the reason Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much was because of his activities during the Vietnam War.  Now the same Republicans had been every bit as hostile to Presidents Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy as they were to President Clinton, and the very people who were so concerned for the mental health of the Clinton-haters would themselves soon be making dark comments about what justice would mean in the cases of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney.  The particular stories and images that people nurse in their hatred of Mr O are of course different than the stories and images that would feed their hatred of a white president, but I cannot see how anyone could honestly say that the degree of the hatred directed at President Obama is or could be any greater than the hatred all of his predecessors have received from their opponents.

However, I do think that Mr Perlstein exaggerates both the continuity between the irresponsible Republican fringe of yesterday and the irresponsible Republican mainstream of today and the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.  His first paragraph describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against the Truman administration in terms reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz’ campaign against the Obama administration.  Mr Perlstein sums up that and several other analogies with the line: “Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, [has] always been the same.”

As regards Senator McCarthy, that strikes me as patently false.  Senator McCarthy’s original pet cause on Congress, before he devoted himself to an effort to create the impression that the US government was infested with vast numbers of Soviet agents, was support for public housing.  By today’s standards, McCarthy’s economic views would put him on the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Even the hallucinatory drama of a crusade against subversive influence in Washington, with the names of the players updated as the times require, is endlessly replayed by Democrats and Republicans alike in this age of security clearances, free speech zones, and universal surveillance.   World Communism may not be too frightening these days, but Republican administrations can always find sinister foreigners with whom they can accuse their opponents of sympathizing, and Democratic administrations can always find dangerous misfits in the interior of the country whom they can caricature as mortal threats to an open society.  So the cycle of Red Scare and Brown Scare continues, so the federal police powers grow steadily, so Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Administration maintain a smooth flow of operations.

As for the difference between the Democrats and republicans, consider this paragraph from Mr Perlstein’s piece:

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.

I place great importance on the integrity of the political process.  I would rather my favored side lose a fair election than win an unfair one.  People who are like me in that way have at several points formed voting blocs that held the balance of power in the USA.  The 1970s were such a time.  That was why the release of the Pentagon Papers did so much to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War early in the decade, why the Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon so damaged the Republican Party in the middle of that decade, why the Church Committee investigations into abuses of power by the CIA raised the prospect of real reforms, and why laws were enacted to move toward public financing of political campaigns.  The public had seen that the political elite was not living up to a code of fair play, and voters who were indignant about that were able to swing elections against politicians whom they blamed for the misdeeds.

Where I disagree with Mr Perlstein is in the question of who it is who must believe in this code of fair play.  It is not the politicians, and not their most committed partisans.  I say that I would rather lose an election fairly than win one unfairly.  That is why I would not be a successful politician.  In the heat of the contest, of course candidates and their supporters will do whatever they can to win.  If they aren’t so absorbed in the contest that they will resort to any dirty trick that is likely to gain the victory, they probably won’t be able to conduct themselves effectively if by some chance they do win.  That holds regardAless of party or period.  It is for voters to hold them to a code of fair play.  The better job voters do, the less politicians will have to gain and the more they will have to lose by resorting to wickedness.  Of course, as Mr Perlstein points out, the US political system is structured to limit voters’ ability to do their job.  That makes it all the more important that we do work at it.

Also in this issue, Jackson Lears reviews several books about happiness.  In addition to the authors of the books reviewed, Mr Lears mentions the following eminences: Ernest van den Haag, Samuel Beckett, Steven Pinker, Philip Rieff, Margaret Thatcher, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Milton Bradley, William James, Theodore Dreiser, Ray Stannard Baker, G. Stanley Hall, Alfred Tennyson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. W. Goethe, Dale Carnegie, Studs Terkel, William Whyte, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Franklin, D. H. Lawrence, Abraham Maslow, Clifford Geertz, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, John Brown, Barack Obama, John Muir, C. S. Lewis, John Keats, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bernard Mandeville, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, William Morris, Edmund Burke, and Robert Frank.  Quite an impressive roll call, though a bit imbalanced in regard to gender and race.  The gender imbalance might not be quite so irritating if Mr Lears had not mentioned Frankenstein, but not Mary Shelley.  As for the racial imbalance, you can at least give Mr Lears credit for being clear as to what a brother has to do to gain his attention, since the only non-white person mentioned is currently serving as president of the United States.

Anyway, of the six books actually under review, five strike Mr Lears as silly and pernicious.  Some are pseudo-science, some are collections of platitudes, all are designed to forestall any criticism of the way American capitalism operates today.  The exception is How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Of the Skidelskys, Mr Lears writes:

[T]he authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.

The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.

In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.

In his habit of promiscuous quotation, in the deeply ingrained conservatism revealed by the sources he favors for his quotes, in his constant suspicion of and frequent dismissiveness towards fashionable opinion, and in his high esteem for leisure as a goal of civilized life, Mr Lears reminds me of the writer who has influenced me more than any other, Irving Babbitt.  Because of that resemblance, as much as the content of his argument, I am inclined to read the Skidelskys’ book.

“A fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after Mad sold out”

Contrary to the cover, it is very unlikely that anything funny was going on there.

I just stumbled on the Wikipedia article for the late, unlamented Cracked magazine.  It’s hilarious, 10,000 times funnier than anything that ever appeared in Cracked magazine, on a par with the best material that appears on that magazine’s descendant, Cracked.com.  Who could fail to laugh out loud at an article that includes this sentence: “In Germany, there were three publications that included Cracked reprints. First was Kaputt, which ran from 1974 to 1983; it was followed by Stupid, which ran from 1983 to 1984, and, finally, Panic.”

Considering what happens to interesting writing on Wikipedia, it will probably be deleted and replaced with something unreadable by the end of the morning, so I’ve preserved its text here, after the jump.   (more…)

Ange Mlinko burns a Norton

Ange Mlinko (photograph: Poetry Foundation)

Ange Mlinko wrote  a bracingly stern review of Norton’s new edition of its anthology Postmodern American Poetry for the 15 April 2013 issue of The Nation.  Ms Mlinko includes a promising bit from the introduction by the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover: “Hoover is at pains to define [postmodernism] in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.'”  What programmatic statement could set out a worthier goal for a collection of lyric poetry?  History is an entire dimension of experience, and our age systematically obscures that dimension.  We urgently need poetry that can pick us up, turn us around, and set us down with our eyes facing history.

Yet as Ms Mlinko tells it, this book loses sight of that or any other worthwhile goal.  Most of it is given over to poems whose chief merit is that they bear some “marketable label” such as “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ and ‘Googlesculpting,'” “‘Conceptualist‘ and ‘postlanguage lyricist.'”  The review closes with the last six lines of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles“; my favorite bit of the review is this half-paragraph in which Ms Mlinko brings her own axe down on Professor Hoover’s book:

The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”*: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.

Ms Mlinko mentions some of Norton’s other anthologies, among them Bernard M. W. Knox’s Norton Book of Classical Literature.  I used that one for years in one of my classes; Professor Knox was the perfect example of Ms Mlinko’s “traditional anthologist [who] gathers good poems according to his sensibility.”  Professor Knox was perhaps the last major Classical scholar to practice “taste criticism” of ancient Greek and Latin literature.  He was a throwback to the days when schoolboys started Latin at five and Greek at six, coming to university having read each of the canonical works of classical antiquity two or three times, so that by the time they emerged as university dons there was a non-trivial probability that they might have something of value to say about them.  Professor Knox’s erudition, and the taste it underpinned, formed a monument on the order of a great public building.  Reading his books is like visiting the Acropolis.  Yet even his anthology was profoundly eccentric.  The principle of selection seems to be an illustration of the roots of lyric in other genres of Greek literature and the influence of Greek lyric on Latin literature.  Greek lyric poetry is not very much represented, however.  So when I taught from it, I used to bring in translations of Greek lyric poems from outside the book and assign them in conjunction with the Greek selections to which they responded and the Latin selections which responded to them.  The students were always quite interested to see the influence lyric had on Roman prose writers, especially on the way that an historian like Livy develops a focus on individuals.  I really ought to write something about that someday.

Anyway, Professor Knox had a great advantage over Professor Hoover.  Ms Mlinko asks why any professor would assign a class a textbook like Postmodern American Poetry.  Her answer: “Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.”  All of Professor Knox’s authors had been safely dead for many centuries before he assembled his book, freeing him from any temptation to give preferential treatment to authors who are in a position to place orders for large numbers of books.

*Ms Mlinko’s description of George Calvin Waldrep as a poet who is “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish” and who deserves our pity for his placement in this book may lead one to imagine a latter-day Whittier, who contrasted his rustic Quakerism with a bewildering urban sophistication, but that isn’t quite what Mr Waldrep is like.  Here’s a set of five poems of his that appeared in Typo in 2004.  I think they make it clear that he was aiming for just the spot in which Professor Hoover has placed him.  On the other hand, his sequence “The Batteries” (published as a chapbook in 2006, then built into his 2007 book Disclamor and reviewed here) is sensational, and lives up to the programmatic statement “an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”