The Poor Suit of Happiness

Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Science, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

maid

Buy more takeout and hire a maid. Reside
in a mansion and summer in the south of France.
Winter in Aspen. Take the foolish chance
of inheriting every single cent. Slide
giggling through life and take a towering pride
in benefitting from mere circumstance.
Never, ever let the poor advance.
Among your peers, deliberately elide
ability and wealth. Hog the best spots
at the most exclusive schools. Oppose at each
instance any opportunistic ploy
to materially improve the lives of world’s have-nots;
they should’ve been better born; instead they leach
from our locked reserves of unnecessary joy.

He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that owed it, he might have more diseases than he knew for

Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

One of the most telling features of our time is the habit of hailing as geniuses men whose time merely has come. That’s obviously true of our president, but it’s also true of the man many now credit and blame for his rise, the recently departed Roger Ailes. Encomiums to Ailes’s person have been mercifully few. George H.W. Bush called him a friend; fellow serial abuser and loudmouth Bill O’Reilly seems to have viewed him as a sort of beloved uncle, the guy who takes you to the ballgame when your own old man is too hung over to haul himself out of bed; the eminently embarrassing Tina Brown remembered him as a raconteur, indulging the common upper-class error of identifying as Falstaffian that which is simply gross. But even among his sharpest detractors, there’s a current of admiration: that Ailes wasn’t only bad and disgusting; he was, almost cinematically, a villain.

Yes, yes, Fox News ruined grandma. She was so nice when you were little, puttering in the garden and slipping you Werther’s when your mom wasn’t looking; now, in your twenties, you’re appalled to find her locked into the fixed belief that Barack Obama is an agent of Allah, who may well be the devil. Well maybe grandma was always a little mean to folks who weren’t her beloved grandchildren, and you just didn’t know what “colored people” meant, exactly, when you were nine. We can be rightly skeptical of the hypothesis that all the depredations of modern media are the result of the news flowing, dumb as water, into the empty basin of consumer demand without completely letting our, um, our preexisting conditions off the hook. The first major outlets to serve the public appetite for Clinton scandals back in the nineties were venerable outlets like The New York Times; Fox followed them in and turned up the volume. The strains of racism and paranoia that were Ailes’s bread and butter since he cut his teeth in Nixonian politics were already here: the Southern Strategy did not, after all, create the South, and Ailes didn’t create the strategies; he just produced them for TV.

Fox News hasn’t bestowed our terrible politics on us; it’s in the follow car with the camera. What’s given us the current derangement is, ironically, the competent political imago imagined as its opposite, the drip-down technocracy of social stagnation prettily papered over by the pretty lights of new gadgets. It is the abandonment of minority communities to the hucksters of for-profit education; it is the signing over of public utilities to take-over scammers; it is the abandonment of the Midwest to unchecked deindustrialization; it’s the drug war; it’s the rising cost of insurance; it’s the use of the public’s money and property as insurance for the failed bets of the financial industry; it’s trillions of dollars spent on war when we can’t keep bridges out of the rivers; it’s student debt; it’s the economy, stupid.  The governing consensus destroyed democratic politics—it told you that the prospect of future cost made any present program and any future progress irresponsible and impossible. All that was left was gesture, a commedia dell’arte of symbolic typologies: an entertainment. So it wasn’t Clintonian scandals that created Fox News; it was Clintonian politics.

The reason this genealogy is important is because there remains, on what passes for the left in America, a habit of organizing against monsters rather than against the conditions that created them. Ailes can rot, but he isn’t and never was the rot. Fox News is actually dropping in ratings, and it remains to be seen whether it can retain its potency with its stable of stars reduced to its morning Bachelorette cast and the backwards-aging face of the eternally petulant Tucker Carlson, who forever threatens to turn back into a bawling infant before our very eyes. Even if it went off the air tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter one whit. Some other dirty trickster will step into the gap; several are already nipping at Fox’s swollen heels. They’ll never go away unless we wrench politics back to the real concerns of the actually human.

The Poseidon Misadventure

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

I’ve said before that the Democratic Party isn’t really a political party at all, but rather something closer to a think tank—a kind of failed academic enterprise whose principal output is dubious research written in the style of a press release and the occasional bemusing and ineffectual appearance on the cable news. Although they endlessly carp that dastardly Republican gerrymandering has locked them ever out of real legislative power, in point of fact it’s the institution of the Democratic Party that’s benefited. The GOP gave birth to a feisty swamp monster of Tea-Party activism. Convince yourself all you want that this was the result of Koch-Bros astroturfing; in reality, it’s the Republican Party that’s been roiled by primary challenges to established teat-suckers; it’s the Republican Party that’s tossed out its goldfish-mouthed leadership in favor of a class of politicians really committed to exercising power. The Democratic leadership looks hardly different than it has for my entire adult life, a grim and aging collection of Clinton apparatchiks totally secure in their sinecures—all the more so because the only time the party ever does use what power it has, it’s to quash any discontent from its base or its leftward flank. It would be tempting to call it a zombie, but a zombie is living dead; a zombie is compelled by a lustful, powerful hunger. A zombie is all appetite—it is more than alive. The GOP is a zombie. The Democratic Party is a ghost—diaphanous, spooky, and utterly unable to interact with the actual world. At best, it can rattle the pots, or leave a little trail of slime.

The ACA, which may or may not die in the Senate, only ever made sense as an intermediate step toward a universal provision of health care. It was a big, ugly, ungainly, cobbled-together thing that, for all the partisan paeans to its wonderfulness and indispensability, never really worked very well. The part that did work was Medicaid expansion. In other words, the part that worked was the single-payer program that the Democrats so ardently refused—continue to refuse—to endorse. Supposedly the party of incremental progress, they seem to view each increment as the final end state of civilization and history. America Is Already Great, and all that. In order to sell progress as incremental, a series of steps in a journey of miles, there must be some destination in mind, a vision of a truly better society, an ideal. But the Democrats don’t have ideals; they just need you to be scared of Republicans.

Well, fair enough. Republicans are scary, though given the alacrity with which the Democrats rushed to praise Donald Trump for blowing up another little piece of Syria, you have to imagine that this relative terror is a matter of proximity, that the farther you get from the border, the more it appears that the American government moves with an awful unanimity of terrible, singular purpose. Anyway, the thing about the health care debate, such as it is, is that while every Democrat voted no, no one bothered to articulate a compelling alternate vision. Republicans want to kill you! Yes, yes—look, life is a conspiracy against itself; we’re all gonna die. You become inured to this sort of thing after a while. What we want to hear is not that the seas are rising (the Republicans!) and we’re gonna die alone (the Republicans!) and tumorous on the street because our chemo costs $50,000 every half hour and a hangnail is a preexisting condition (the Republicans!). What we want to hear is that there can be a better world, that through collective endeavor we can as a people feed our poor, care for our sick, and find at least some better balance between our rapacity and the health of our planet. Instead we get negation; we get Trump is a meanie and Paul Ryan wants to eat your kids, which does not get the 40% of people whose boss is a meanie and who can’t pay their deductibles to the polls.

The specter of Democrats literally singing in the halls of Congress because they imagine that more than a year from now they’ll reap some reward from the GOP’s pettiness and failure to construct any real alternative system is just despicable. Who are these people? Even if the bill dies in the Senate, even if they take the house in 2018 . . . Liberals accuse the GOP of forgetting about people, of sacrificing public good to the cruel idols of their idées fixes, but it’s the ostensibly liberal party that is actually abstracted from the human mass; it’s Nancy Pelosi for whom this whole thing is just a career. The Republican Party steers the ship of state toward an iceberg, and from below decks, Steny Hoyer gleefully cackles that this sure is gonna reflect badly on the captain. Grab your life vests people, though they may not save you, because the water’s real cold.

By the Way, Which One Is Pink?

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In one regard, I agree with former President Obama’s most zealous partisans: you can’t really blame the guy for cashing out. The pecuniary temptations of the post-presidency are unique; not even Silicon Valley offers so much no-strings cash for so very little actual work. Wall Street is awash in cash, and if some loony brokerage wants to part with roughly two weeks’ worth of its CEO’s annual compensation for the privilege of hearing a charming fellow mouth vague platitudes about the future of the present, then, well, as one of Obama’s twitter defenders put it, you can certainly imagine any number of far more awful things that they could do with the money. Ever since we declared George Washington a new Cincinnatus for his selfless decision to return to his mansion, his millions, and his slaves, Americans have vastly overestimated the moral rectitude and vastly under-accounted for the brazen tawdriness of our leaders. As one poorly-known novelist with whom I have a passing acquaintance once put it, “Never begrudge another man his successful scam.”

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama’s defenders on this account are stupid and immoral. Obama’s promise was never much more than a brand, but good brand managers are mindful of the value of its goodwill. Regardless of whether he does or does not give overcompensated speeches to Wall Street, the Obamas will live in magisterial splendor for the rest of their lives; his pension alone represents twelve years of minimum wage labor; his and Michelle’s book deal, reportedly worth upwards of $60 million, represents approximately 1,200 years of earnings at the median household income in America. What makes his for-pay, Wall-Street speechifying so ethically odious is not that he’s taking their money per se; rather, it’s that he doesn’t need to. The worst impropriety is the unnecessary one.

In a strange way, I think Obama will be remembered both as one of America’s better presidents—he wasn’t a letch, he wasn’t a moron, and he managed to keep the sub rosa hum of our endless imperial wars ever so slightly abstracted from the persona that occupied the office—and one of its most disappointing. While he could never have been the radical break with the recent past that he appeared to promise, there was some minor hope—I even held it weakly myself—that his judicious temperament and his rarely used but still welcome capacity to occasionally prick the swollen edifice of his office, to laugh at it, might mean that he was something very slightly different than we’d seen before. Well, his defenders say when you start bitching about the money from the bank, everyone else has done it. To which the obvious reply is: yes, exactly.

Euclidean Necrology

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While most of the news media will spend the day vacillating wildly between tumescent raptures that it can once again play at war—every Anderson Cooper is a half-baked Hemingway, crusty on the outside but raw dough within, bleating Hollywood military speak for a few hours on the teevee before wiping off the Situation Room drag and heading for those late reservations at Eleven Madison Park—and bootlessly speculating that this is some kind of semi-fictionalized flag operation designed to inoculate Trump against the various accusations that he is some sort of agent of Vladimir Putin and a Soviet Union that never really died, I suspect that Trump’s motivations are, as they always are, precisely what he claims. Whatever else you can say about the man, he is not complex. He saw the cable news pornographic exhibition of children dying in a foreign war and got mad. My grandma saw the same thing and got mad too. “So terrible,” she said. “Those poor people. Someone should do something.” Unlike her, Trump has a Navy, so the someone was him.

Trump is an evil man, but our culture has trained us to believe evil is necessarily a kind of satanic malevolence: not merely bad, but also clever, secretive, and in its way, genius. If it demonstrates human qualities, these must be the result of some scheme within a scheme—the idea that a Hitler could be kind to his secretaries and love his dog strikes us as wholly implausible. But evil isn’t a supra-human quality, and as we move down the spectrum from the vast terror of the Third Reich to the reality-show scheming of Trump’s bunga-bunga consumer fascism, the recognizably human intrudes ever more often. He is a man of feelings and appetites, which is why he is so easily baited and so often mad. As Robert Lowell said of Mussolini: one of us, only pure prose.

Washington, the marble-white skeletal metonym within the bloated body of America, which ruled so fecklessly and uselessly for so many years that a fat grandpa with a 35 handicap and a habit of yelling at the evening news could slip into the presidency while everyone was expecting an avatar of officialdom to squeeze past on a focus-grouped pitch not to change horses in midstream, is always eager for its dummies to cast off the petty concerns of governance and engage in some great martial hoo-dee-doo, so expect to hear plenty about Trump crowning himself in laurel and heading off to confront the Eastern menace. In the real reality, the insoluble situation in Syria is in large part the making of his predecessors, who were lauded whenever they decided to blow something up and harrumphed when they on very rare occasion demurred. By destroying Syria’s neighbor, they created many of the factions that infiltrated in the earliest days of the civil war, and by now, we’ve fought on every single side in a war whose proliferation of sides would make Euclid weep at the possibilities. We’ll go on doing the same, I predict, as Trump, who’s now smelt the napalm, will be eager to do more dealing of it, with Washington, CNN, and the New York Times riding along and hoping to catch a contact buzz.

We could, of course, withdraw completely and simply accept everyone and anyone fleeing the conflict into the US. But I don’t expect to hear those calls in Congress anytime soon.

McDowell County

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What do we mean when we say that Bernie would
have won? We mean that when the news laments
the politicization of capital collecting rents
on common properties and public goods,
while clutching pearls over punching guys in hoods,
though simultaneously dragging our senescent
fast-food addicted moron president
for some absurd point of decorum he’s stood
on its stupid head, what remains in West
Virginia are towns where everyone is dying
from the planned catastrophe of economic
disinvestment: franchised, but dispossessed,
they know it’s politics; he isn’t lying;
un-ratfucked, he would’ve beat the insult comic.

/pol/ite society

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This is the future that liberals want: a cool
return to norms after the tan excrescence
is excised. Peace? Well, purity of essence.
Articulate. Harvard Law or a comparable school.
Personally dedicated to the rule
of law. A paragon. A recrudescence
in an empire seemingly sunk in convalescence.
Judicious. Stylish. Not a raving fool.
Across an ocean in a dusty town a boy
who’s barely past a cracking voice is set
to marry a girl he’s only recently met.
He vacillates from morbid fear to joy.
He’s droned and bleeds to death at evening prayer.
The liberal president pretends to care.

Pilgrim’s Progressivism

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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.

Thrown on the Sure

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The past as precedent is overrated.
Even its angel gazing back across
the racked, wrecked pile of death and loss
can never turn to see what it’s created
now. The present is the wreck, abated
briefly; the past, a stone, but we are moss
fuzzing the surface, a broken pebble tossed
into a sea. A story often related
about the same sea is that a king
stood at its edge and ordered the tide to cease.
We’re told the moral has to do with pride.
In fact, Canute was warning: worshipping
a man’s short power and swiftly expiring lease
blasphemed. The waves went on. He ruled and died.

Resident Chumps

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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.