By the Way, Which One Is Pink?

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

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.

Rainbow of Fruits

Art, Conspiracy and the Occult, Economy, Media, Poetry, Science, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-
pressed juice. Much more. The value is in how easy
it is for a frazzled dad to knock the queasy
edge off the half case of Coors Extra Gold
he drank last night because his ex-wife told
him that he’d never keep them. The kids. Her breezy
iPhone alto happy. Remarried a cheesy
real-estate asshole with a Beemer and a billfold.
Fuck you, Kim. “Hey Daddy,” Jaiylyn calls,
“we’re gonna miss the bus.” He sighs and hits
the button. Nothing. The pouch, it seems, is one
day beyond the best-if-used. It all
becomes quite clear. He chews two aspirin, grits
his teeth, and goes to the closet to get his gun.

Even Hitler Didn’t

Art, Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Leave the seat up. Put the coffee grinds
in the sink. Use the water glass instead
of the wine glass. Leave just a heel of bread.
His secretaries thought him very kind.
His taste in music really was sublime.
His taste in art was lousy, and he mostly read
trash, but it’s true he’d fought well and bled
for his country. He loved his dog. In short, combined
a number of admirable qualities with those
few regrettable decisions that he made;
well, wouldn’t all of us, if forced to choose
between the genteel poverty that goes
with shitty painting and with global war, obey
the sentimental tug, and kill the Jews?

for Sean Spicer

Euclidean Necrology

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

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.

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.

Thrown on the Sure

Culture, Education, Justice, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, War and Politics

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

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.

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?

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.