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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Part I: Thank You for Your Lovely Cards . . .

I'd like to start out by sincerely thanking all those friends and readers who sent cards, flowers, etc. and generally wished me a speedy convalescence from the recent unpleasantness.  The doctors advise me that I'm likely to regain complete functionality in both wrists within the next year, and I'm certain that it was your warm encouragements that are responsible for this unusually speedy recovery.  It's really touching to know that I'm never far from my readers' minds, despite my long absence from the blog.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely at liberty to discuss the precise chain of events that lead to my hospitalization.  There are certain pending legal matters to be resolved, and I've been counseled against any discussions which may prejudice their outcome.  Nevertheless, the kind interest you've displayed in my welfare and the provocative nature of the photographs appearing in the "Police Beat" column of the local Blattsburg Tattler do call for some exposition of the matter, which I will now attempt--within the limits of prudence, of course.

I've often been told, "Don't drive angry!"  Which is generally good advice, but is much more difficult in practice than it's simplistic rhetorical formulation would suggest.  I live in an isolated portion of rural Wisconsin, where it is frankly impossible to do so much as pick up the morning paper from the mail box without driving five miles from the house.  I attribute my near constant rage to living in rural Wisconsin as well.  The people here are almost without exception intolerable bigoted hicks and hayseeds.  The few locally available alternatives are not much more soothing.

"Wow.  This stuff you've written here is real sh*t, Liam.  I mean, this isn't worthy of publication on a bathroom wall."

Raj is one of the very few non-honkies resident in my small town, and his Indian-born globe trotting urbanity is generally a welcome relief from the otherwise unrelenting provinciality of the place.  He'd actually grown up in Berlin, London and Paris--cultural and literary capitals whose names I was still learning to spell when I met him at night school, a creative writing class at the regional technical college.  He'd gotten his B.A. at a big name liberal arts school on the West Coast with a serious reputation and lengthy roll call of seriously elite professors, so his opinion does bear some attention.

"Okay, Raj.  But I think you're being a little hyperbolic there, chief.  After all, it is a first draft.  And you're completely glossing over its elegant narrative exploration of the proletariat's complicity in his own alienation.  Give this thing its due."

"Give this thing its due?!  It's garbage!  Absolute, uninspired formulaic garbage! Trey Parker regularly craps out better episodes of South Park while tripping on acid than the drek you've wiped all over these pages!"

"Heyheyhey!  Let's keep this discussion productive, okay?  I can handle criticism if there's a point behind it.  Care to unbundle that landfill of a critique there and point out a single, specific instance of this so-called irredeemable "drek"?"

"Well well well . . . Where to begin?"  Raj rifled through the jam-and-butter stained manuscript, violently stabbing his thumb towards the offending page once he'd settled on one example.  "How about this?  The scene where you have Karl Marx coming home early to find his wife Jenny in bed with the economist Adam Smith.  What is this supposed to be?  An episode of "Falcon Crest" or "Rocky and Bullwinkle"?"

I really was NOT understanding Raj's point of view on this one at all.  OF COURSE it was a ridiculously melodramatic parody.  That was the intention all along.  The entire concept here was meta commentary on the "Snidely Whiplash"-esque quality behind the phony Left/Right culture wars.  Did Raj really think I'd write in a goofy todtenkampf between Adam Smith and Karl Marx on the rooftops of Victorian London without any satirical plan?  I took a deep breath and did my best to dial back my own building rage.  I started to explain as slowly and calmly as I could.

"Raj, you're missing the entire point here.  The point is exactly that--to ridicule the cartoonishly simplistic terms of the public debate.  Is that really not apparent to you?"

"Liam, how can I say this?  How can I adequately convey to you the tired, "been-there-done-that" quality of this unimaginative rubric without implying that you're a hopeless philistine? . . . Oh, that's right--I CAN'T."

I probably would have been able to endure his jealous, fairly hack-like sniping had it not been for the eruption of a snorting cackle of laughter from the horse-like co-ed sitting a few yards from us in the cafeteria.  It's one thing to receive a vigorous challenge from a reasonably informed person, but it's quite another to be subject to the abuse of the bovine cretins that haunted the halls of this technical college.  I exploded out of my chair in a fury, ripping the manuscript from Raj's hands and swinging my way about toward the exit in a near blind rage.

Which probably explains why I slammed headfirst into a pillar on the way out, showering the manuscript and the contents of my computer bag all over the floor.  Now the whole cafeteria roared with laughter.

So this is more or less where my head was just before the accident, and why it seemed like a good idea at the time to get away and just clear my head for a bit with a quiet drive through the winding country lanes.  If anyone had come up to me at that moment and insisted on that tired old aphorism, "Don't drive angry!", I probably would have head-butted them and told them to mind their own business.

But again, that was before the accident.  Before I'd encountered Abbey Small and the Buddhist Mafia.  Before everything spiralled out of control.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Do You Do with a Problem like Timmy? Results as of 6th October

Thanks to everyone who participated in the poll about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's treacherous behavior.  This was very timely, given all the excitement caused by the emerging Occupy movement.  Seems like as a species we're all embarking on a collective experiment in consensus building.

Your responses were fascinating.  The pattern of your answers demonstrated a very sophisticated rationale and complex analysis.  I can't really parse the thread of each individual's thought process -- the questionnaire format I used was far too simplistic.  But the overall pattern is pretty clear:  You don't quite believe that others have your same clarity about the wrongfulness of Geithner's actions.  For example:

I apologize for the poor legibility of this pics.  Full data and charts for all questions is available here for better viewing.

Still, 2 things probably stand out as readily to you as they did to me: 

1.) Almost complete unanimity that the failure (to date) to harshly punish Geithner's actions constituted some serious violation of moral consistency;

2.) Almost 2/3 of you believed that the public at large are indifferent to that inconsistency and its implications for American democracy.

Why do you figure that's so?  True enough, this poll's design left a lot to be desired.  This thing could be torn to shreds on any number of methodological grounds: leading questions, confusing, wordy format, inappropriate or incomplete choices offered, etc., etc.  But my real suspicion is that 2 main phenomena underly these trends:

1.)  Self-selection bias.  The forums I submitted this thing likely guaranteed that the only people taking the questionnaire were people who already outraged by Geithner and very cynical about mainstream media interpretations.

2.)  Things may not be quite as bad as you thought.  Few of us, those of us who've been paying attention, anyhow, have been willing to indulge in the "H-word" since 2009.  Even if our gloomiest, most alienated prognostications turn out to be correct about the denoument of this particular issue, there does seem to be a strong chance that there are more intelligent, vigillant and right-thinking people out there than you think.  After all, nearly 100% of you agreed that Geithner's continued presence in the administration is a moral outrage.

Maybe we just have to spend more time talking about these things out loud, demonstrate the high level of latent consensus that's already out there.

Flouncing Fathers: Tea Party Edition

"Eek!  A black man!"

From an AOL story recounting the latest trumped-up conflict in the phony culture wars.

Aside from this funny photo, I couldn't really give a rat's ass about that bullsh*t.  When I saw this I laughed so hard that I simultaneously snorted, choked, farted and spouted milk out me nose with the convulsions.  Not pleasant.  Believe me, it's not something you'd wish on your worst enemy--to fart through a milk-drenched nose.

Yes, it's a shame that Hank had to go there--I actually like a lot of his music.  But as Hunter S. Thompson once said, " Buy the ticket, take the ride."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An Undifferentiated Mass of Human Dignity

It's an anti-capitalism thing.  No, it's an anti-war thing.  No, it's a civil rights thing.  No, it's a desert topping.  No, it's a floor wax.

Occupy:  Social Supernova?
Ever since the Occupy movement began garnering mainstream media attention there has been an energetic, maybe even desperate, debate to define the significance of thousands of people from all over the nation spontaneously gathering in America's large urban centres, decrying the rapacious criminality of the establishment--all sans identifiable figureheads or fixed policy programmes.

Yes, from the start it was clear that, in its broadest outlines at least, this thing was a passionate rebuke to parasitic Wall Street types.  Whatever that may mean in actual practice, it's definitely not a formulation consistent with laissez faire economics a la the Koch brothers' Tea Party.  So not surprising that most right wing analyses approached the topic with a dismissive laziness.  They've crafted fear into a formidable electoral weapon and are well familiar with the coward's first law of dealing with Truly Scary Things:  avoid real contact.

That general approach, however, is hardly the exclusive resort of the right wing.  It is, in fact, the universal reaction of all establishment types accross the board.  Witness the White House's statement about the Occupy movement.

And that is the point most interesting to me, as a recovering Obama zombie.  Not so much that His Zero-ness is not even trying to swim with the raw, powerful populist currents churning within Occupy, but that those on the institutional left are not doing a helluva lot better.[1]

Analyses during the early, pre-mainstream exposure pretty much focused around the creeping sense of unease felt by veteran activists when confronted with the informal, unpolished and unfocused demeanor of some demonstrators. 

While I've only become really engaged with public affairs recently, I identify most closely with this group of commentators.  They may have much more extensive pedigrees of activist involvement than I, but we all share one key characteristic:  a relatively simplistic linear model of the world. Something akin to a cold, impersonal, mathematical dogma bound by a rigid series of theorems and acceptable logic that is fatally dependant upon the artificially constricted environment of 2-dimensional Euclidian space.  Just as where A+B=C and C=2A, then A=B, when social outcomes are a function of the implementation of policy programmes by formal authorities, all movements seeking to affect social change must have designated leaders and a fixed platform of specific policies.

Elegant notion, that, no?  Makes a man feel superior.  Powerful.  Easy able to comprehend the vast workings of the society around him and have a decisive impact.  'Cept it don't quite work that way in the real world.

We live in a world of at least 4 dimensions (height, depth, width and time) and certainly more, if you're able to contemplate the inescapable yet ineffable fact of human subjectivity.  Within certain specialized domains, the objective statistics of a person's height, weight, eye color and age may be crucial, but are totally inadequate to evaluating that person's tangible impact on his family and co-workers.  Is he smart or stupid?  Funny or morose?  Energetic or slothful?  Handsome or hideous?  Generous or niggardly?  We ultimately care a lot more about these questions than we do whether he's 5'10 1/2" or 6' or his eyes are most accurately described as green or hazel.

But what exactly is intelligence?  Humor?  Vitality?  Attractiveness?  Generosity?  Those are philosophical or religious questions that the mathematicians, myself included, have utterly failed to acknowledge, let alone resolve.

This is exactly what Occupy is or should be teaching us.  How to come together as people and articulate a clear consensus of values that actually work.  It is no longer acceptable to passively trust the dithering buffoons formally charged with interpreting received wisdom, quite simply because that "wisdom" does not work and has not worked for quite some time.  Occupy is about morality, not politics.  It is most definitely a type of activism, but one more concerned with developing a shared moral vision of society's priorities than in establishing yet another corruptible "leader" or co-optable policy programme.

Until Occupy, America's been kind of winging this one.  Lost in almost completely unchartered territory.  True, there are ample historical precedents for crumbling superpowers undermined by a feedback loop of dysfunctional entrenched interests and incompetent leadership.  But never in the context of a society philosophically on autopilot, almost completely indifferent to actual engagement about the moral content of its choices.

Let's not screw this one up again, America.  Let's not insist on Occupy being a closed-ended event, smashed viciously into the unforgiving mold of our stupid personal prejudices.  Let's accept this beautiful gift for what it is on it's own terms--a process, not an event.

[1]  Obama's motivation in avoiding the thing is obvious.  He's a cack-handed snake oil salesman who will say anything to avoid true conflict and achieve short-term electoral advantage.  His deal with the Devil in defunding Social Security through extended payroll tax holidays sapped, quite rightly, Democratic support for a jobs bill that contained many otherwise useful provisions such as a rebalancing of income tax policy.  Obama finds himself hoplessly cornered by Republican demands that, in exchange for bringing the bill up for consideration in the House, he submit for approval a job-killing "free trade" agreement that he negotiated with South Korea.  No where for Obama to go on this one; Old Nick's coming to collect his due now.  This jobs bill, at least its potentially helpful bits, is dead.

So it's more than a little disappointing to me that organized labor has been a little slow in seeing the light.  Earlier this year, in conjunction with the events surrounding Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's attempts to crush public workers unions, heavy hitters like Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, were making encouraging noises about a renewed vision of the labor movement independent of compromised empty suits like Obama.  Yet once again they swallowed hard when Obama handed them this sh*t sandwhich of a jobs bill too small and too reliant upon long-disproven free market tropes like the Laffer curve and regulatory disincentive hyptothesis.

I'm glad that unions have started to make solid, practical contributions toward the Occupy movement--like the New York Transit Workers Union's refusal to be co-opted into busing NYPD detainees.  But if they want to make a true difference, display some deeper understanding of Occupy's significance, they're going to have to directly confront Obama.  Either with a primary challenger, as proposed by Cornell West and Ralph Nader, or a potential third party candidacy, as Dylan Ratigan is reported to be mulling.