Pilgrim’s Progressivism

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

The leaks are real. The news is fake. The sky
is blue. Love always lasts. The dead return
to life at night. The fire will not burn
the true believer’s flesh. The pig can fly.
Use whiskey when a teething baby cries.
No matter what good wages workers earn
they can no longer save enough; they yearn
only for the slightest ease, which we deny
them, spouting instead our stupid incantations:
be enterprising; learn new skills; a man
no longer works to live, he loves his work
and works unto his soul’s attenuation;
pays tax to keep the drones in distant lands;
becomes, faute de mieux, at last, a jerk.

We Defile Augury

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

capture

I call my own shots, largely based
on the pigeons that my priests release, observed
through a single narrow window as they turn and swerve.
The world we think is ours is interlaced
with the realer world of the bored, immortal race
of gods, who’ve little else to do but serve
each other fruit, and get on each other’s nerves.
Yet their gestures do create all time and space.
Why the bird thing works, we cannot know,
though I am assured it can inerrantly
predict a harvest’s weight or revenues
from tax, a war’s conclusion, how much snow
will clog a pass. All popularity
depends upon the augurs that you use.

Resident Chumps

Culture, Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

What I felt when Donald Trump won the presidential election last night was weirdly akin to what I felt on 9/11—yes, that 9/11: not terror at a catastrophe whose suddenness and magnitude were unprecedented in the history of the world, but rather sad, weary recognition of a smaller, more acute disaster whose antecedents and precedents were all too obvious, an inevitable result—I won’t hesitate to use that word—of a long series of choices that we’d made. I didn’t predict the hour, and I was very, very surprised when it arrived. But I wasn’t shocked.

We are in for a long and unproductive argument about whether or not Trump’s victory represents the revenge of the economically forgotten against the managerial political class or the petit-bourgeois revolt of classic fascism or some stinking eructation of the perpetual sin of American racism. I think it is at once all and none of these things. All of them are symptoms of the deliberate disorder of an unequal society in which the power, wealth, and influence—the real power, wealth, and influence—accrue endlessly to the same tiny sliver of the population, leaving hollow communities in the wake. Even people who are doing well by American standards—I am personally doing very well by American standards—are mostly doing so at greater personal expense to themselves and their families, their friends, and their communities.

This isn’t meant to be a defense of racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other sins against identity, which are evil and wrong. But just as we recognize that terrorism, which is evil and wrong, has roots in the deliberate policies of the American government, so are we obligated to recognize that the persistence of prejudice, even as it tilts into violence, is not the result of some inexplicable defect in the innate character of human beings, but the savage, misdirected lashing out against nearer, vulnerable targets when the real enemy is so impossibly powerful and distant. Wrongs have explanations; they even have reasons.

I didn’t know Trump was coming, but I knew a Trump was coming when I saw the response to the financial crisis. There are plenty of other ills of the American empire, but that was so viciously unjust and so close to home. (I anticipated a Trump as long ago as high school, when I saw what America had done to the old coal town where I grew up, but that was just an inchoate dread that turned me into some kind of political radical.) Sooner or later, I thought, all the useless pablum about everyone getting a bachelor’s and learning to code while the Blankfeins of the world walked free, prospered even more than before, would bring this upon us. It was like a magic spell. It was a misdirected prayer to a trickster god, and here we are living in the accidental fulfillment of our vain rulers’ stupid wish.

Sure Trump was lying—bullshitting is probably a better word, since I don’t suspect he tells untruths instrumentally; he just lives in a collapsed distinction between true and false. But he acknowledged the material circumstances of the country out there, all those people, poor and middle-class alike, who are outside of the communion. Is their rage pathological? Yes. But he had the wherewithal to diagnose it and turn the endemic into a contagion. It got him just enough bodies. Meanwhile, a vaccine existed. The mildest—I mean, the mildest—sort of redistribution would have done it. Instead, we said: go be a programmer, as if everyone could, as if that would do anything for the people who’d still remain in Uniontown, PA.

I happen to believe our civilization will survive this. The Romans managed plenty of crises without collapsing; we focus on the ending only because it appears in retrospect the most spectacular. (In fact, it was slow and almost imperceptible to those who lived it.) Inertia is a powerful thing. I guess I counsel something like a cautious vigilance. I do however think we should stop pretending it’s all malice without cause. It’s shameful; it’s embarrassing; it will be dangerous, and we should be prepared. But no matter who they are, let’s not collapse on the old canard that they simply hate our freedom.

We Didn’t Start, We’re Fired

Culture, Economy, Education, Media, Poetry, Science, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

 

soap

Blame millennials for the missing bar of soap.
But blame their parents for the rest of it:
the postwar settlement they turned to shit;
the rising seas; the flattening and declining slope
of income growth; the OD rate for dope;
George Bush invading Baghdad in a snit;
“prestige” TV; Armstrong’s hematocrit;
Fox News, CNN, the man from Hope.
Even the awful form of this complaint
is accidentally due to Billy Joel,
another boomer bastard: they’ve destroyed
the world in increments, but now they faint
at the minor foibles of the kids today, a whole
generation dad left unemployed.

Children and Air Conditioning

Culture, Economy, Media, Poetry, Science, Uncategorized

His moral arguments are all consumer
choices he’s deliberately confused
with ethical dilemmas; he has used
the self-superior lifestyle choices of the boomer
generation, lame attempted humor,
and made-up anecdotes to disabuse
you of a non-position he’s infused
with the acute import of mortality, a tumor
grown suddenly huge, malignant, pressing on
the brain: it must be excised lest we find
the psychosoma is the journalist
projecting. Hey, dude. Get off my lawn.
The world’s an abattoir. Each day’s a grind.
Your job is not the reason we exist.

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Culture, Economy, Education, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Mark Twain, like an twitter journalist claiming their child wondered how we could entrust the nuclear codes to a man who doesn’t understand the Triad, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the now-famous saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But I tend to take a less charitable view of the misapplication of statistical evidence in the pursuit of Trend Journalism. I am in the Harry G. Frankfurt school on this; I consider it less a lie than a more pernicious type of bullshit. The liar uses untruth intentionally and instrumentally, but she recognizes the difference between the lie and the truth—in fact, a precise appreciation of truth is necessary for a good lie. But the bullshitter makes no categorical distinction; the bullshitter collapses the categories. The bullshitter is a sort of sub-Nietzschian superman, beyond truth or fiction.

So we find in this recent Times piece, where a few grumbling, mostly older male alumni of certain exceedingly selective and prestigious undergraduate institutions have told our reporter that they will no longer give generously to their alma maters where, as I’m sure you can already imagine, they are shocked and horrified by a benighted culture of political correctness.

Students are too wrapped up in racial and identity politics. They are allowed to take too many frivolous courses. They have repudiated the heroes and traditions of the past by judging them by today’s standards rather than in the context of their times. Fraternities are being unfairly maligned, and men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations. And university administrations have been too meek in addressing protesters whose messages have seemed to fly in the face of free speech.

College protest is as old as college, and whatever you think of the apparently extreme sensitivities of today’s students—I tend to be amused rather than threatened—by and large, it’s salutary for students to flex their new political muscles over topics that, while silly to us old folk, are deeply meaningful to them. Student housing, campus dining, the content and delivery of course material—these are at least as important, as fundamentally life-altering, to a third-year undergrad than, say, the carried interest tax exemption to a hedge fund manager. Speaking of which:

“I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that,” said [Scott C.] Johnston, a founder of an internet start-up and a former hedge fund manager. “This is not your daddy’s liberalism.”

The that that Mr. Johnson is referring to here is the much-publicized and briefly infamous “Yale student who was videotaped screaming at a professor, Nicholas Christakis, that he had failed ‘to create a place of comfort and home’ for students in his capacity as the head of a residential college.” But I’m more interested in Your Daddy’s Liberalism. Mr. Johnson “graduated from Yale in 1982,” placing his birth date at roughly 1960, meaning that the Daddy Liberalism these-kids-today have viciously traduced with their signs and chants is no more or less than the precise political values of one Mr. Scott C. Johnson himself. What did we used to say at my prestigious, selective, not-at-all-representative-of-the-vast-majority-of-institutions-of-higher-learning institution of higher learning? The personal is the political? Huh.

Having discovered a small band of wandering anecdotes, the reporter must fence them in with empirical evidence, and this is where the 1-year variations in annual giving and participation are carefully deployed to suggest struggles where none really exist.

At Princeton, where protesters unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 percent from a record high the year before, and participation dropped 1.9 percentage points, according to the university’s website. A Princeton spokesman, John Cramer, said there was no evidence the drop was connected to campus protests.

So. A one-time drop from a “record high” with no prior period information to contextualize the multi-year and multi-decade trends is correlated by implication with a campus protest to which in the same paragraph we are told that there is no evidence of a connection. Oh by the way, in 2015, Princeton’s overall endowment earned 12.7% or $1.7 billion dollars, to reach an overall value of $22.7 billion. Yale, Mr. Johnson’s struggling little scrapper, runs what may be the world’s most successful venture capital fund and has an overall endowment of $25.57 billion.

Not every college is Yale, but even at poor, grotty little Amherst we find an almost identical story:

At Amherst, the amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points, to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975, when the college began admitting women, according to the college. The amount raised from big donors decreased significantly. Some of the decline was because of a falloff after two large reunion gifts last year, according to Pete Mackey, a spokesman for Amherst.

You do have to love an article that unironically notes that dudes once stopped giving because they let in the chicks and now will stop giving because “men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations.” But once again, I’m more focused on the figures. Once again, we see a sharp but single-year decline coming off a big reunion year: reunion-year giving always spikes high. What is the 10-year-trend? Who knows?

This story is bullshit in the true, philosophical sense of the term: utterly unconcerned with truth. There may or may not be an interesting story about alumni giving at elite institutions, but you couldn’t tell either way from this farrago of bad information and missing context. And as I’ve observed before and will surely observe again, there’s a small shame and a big shame here. The small shame is that some reporter wrote this. The larger shame is that an editorial staff approved it and permitted its publication.

Cody

Culture, Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

The children aren’t the future; they are now.
My five-year-old, for instance, is concerned
that five-year-olds in China will have learned
integral calculus while he learns the cow
goes moo. Father, he asked, how can we allow
declines in public spending when it earns
broad wage-multipliers as returns?
Is Xi reformist, or is he a Mao?
And can we win the war on terror with
a formal legal apparatus that
constrains our agencies and binds their hands?
Do coastal elites represent a fifth
column? Is the Bible a samizdat?
Will I have to share the boys room with a trans?

From Russia, with Love

Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Economy, Media, Poetry, Uncategorized, War and Politics

WASHINGTON — An unusual question is capturing the attention of cyberspecialists, Russia experts and Democratic Party leaders in Philadelphia: Is Vladimir V. Putin trying to meddle in the American presidential election?

The New York Times

Out on the summer-melted steppe a cloud
of hungry, black and biting flies now hovers
over the brief wetlands like a lovers’
humming lips at your burning ear, loud
because he’s near to you, because you’ve allowed
yourself to press against him under the warm covers.
But the flies are actually all the whispering others
to whom you—meaning it—also avowed
to be faithful, love and cherish: you promised to keep
his secrets while between you there were no
secrets at all. And then, too soon, the fall
creeps back and the lengthening night brings a deep
and freezing chill, and the flies mate and go
to lay eggs and die. None of them ever call.

The Reign of Error

Culture, Economy, Justice, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

What went through Loretta Lynch’s mind when Bill Clinton buttonholed her in that airport? I imagine her like one of those poor robots in an Asimov story, thrown into a fugue of helpless malfunction as the indelible rules etched into the very fabric of her mind looped back on themselves in unresolved contradiction. The people who arrive in these positions of appointed, administrative authority don’t arrive through some exercise of uncompromising brilliance, but through the application of the sort of subtle, anticipatory empathy—business schools like to call it “emotional intelligence”—that mark the climbers in any organization, a quality that used to mark a successful courtier before our democratic pretensions overran our good sense of what, exactly, our Secretaries and ministers really are and were.

On the one hand, her brain must have rebelled at the discordant vibrations of the appearance of impropriety; on the other, well, here is a former two-term president and Grand Poobah of the Democratic Party that appointed her, not to mention husband to that party’s current presumptive Presidential nominee—in other words, the actual archetype of the person from whom she is constitutionally, professionally inclined to curry favor. What was Clinton thinking? For all the nefarious theories out there, I suspect he just wasn’t. If there is a through-line, a plot thread to the bizarre picaresque of Clintonian scandals, it is, in the ironically apt words of G-Man James Comey, extreme carelessness. If the Clintons were once in a sense arrivistes (“He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place,” said David Broder in a moment of accidental honesty), their successful elevation to the highest order of the American aristocracy came in no small part because they so successfully affected the aristocrats’ most singular characteristic of simply not giving a shit about the consequences that should not—and would not—apply to them.

So when Comey processed before the cameras to pronounce Hillary merely a venial sinner, no one was really surprised—least of all, I suspect, Loretta Lynch, who would never have tethered her career to even a slight chance that she’d have to prosecute a potential US President. If she’d thought for one instance that the FBI might recommend an indictment, she’d have recused herself and tossed the job and the decision to some poor career prosecutor whose real intelligence and competence consigned him forever to the middle ranks. But as Comey uttered the magical incantation, “no reasonable prosecutor,” my own mind fled immediately to different moment, back in November of 2014, when St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCollough announced that a Grand Jury had “determined that no probable cause exists to file any charges against Officer Wilson and returned a ‘no true bill’ on each of the five indictments” after that same Officer Wilson, that August, had killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.

Lynch’s decision to abrogate prosecutorial discretion and leave the question to the purportedly independent judgment of an investigatory body had the eerie echo of a DA trying to appear above the fray as he quietly works to avoid punishing a killer cop. Running the State Department out of a server closet in your basement and shooting an unarmed black youth are separated by a moral gulf as well as a difference of scale, but they are nevertheless bridged by a connection of a ubiquitous, official corruption that is both bland and deadly. It permits the murder of black men by agents of the state; it permits the un-FOIA-able (attempted, anyway) planning for mad wars and drone assassinations. Clinton defenders have seized on the data that numerous other high-ranking State and DOD officials have also conducted their business via private email; they imagine this is exculpatory, but it’s actually systemically damning. They’re all, it turns out, immune.

Our application of the law is exactly backwards; it applies with unfaltering severity to the least powerful and with increasing leniency the farther up the social and economic ladder you go. A black man can be murdered for having a broken tail-light; the official who murdered him gets “paid administrative leave.” A Private gets 35 years in prison for leaking a trove of war documents that—officials rushed to assure us—didn’t show anything we didn’t already know, while a former Secretary of State can blitz around the world with a password password and be reminded that she was a bad girl for not using 2-factor before successfully becoming the President of the United States. You can go to jail for running an online sports betting site, but Jamie Dimon…

I’m basically a pacifist and live in mortal terror of wars and revolutions, but it’s getting ever harder to look at the state of society without hearing the distant but swiftly approaching swish of the guillotines.

Peter Thiel Sues Gawker

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Every night, lonely and scared, a Crassus
retires to a private screening room to view
a phony gladiator in a natty do-
rag fuck a forum-screamer’s wife. He passes
a hand across his lap and wipes his glasses.
Aroused, confused, he hates and loves these few
pornographic pleasures and the voyeurs who
provided them; the fortune he amasses
endlessly cannot touch him, cannot keep
his bed warm or the plebs beyond the walls
from peering through the keyhole at the sad rich wreck
who can’t decide to masturbate or weep
when the show ends and the grim shadow falls:
death’s debit, unpayable by cash or check.