December 2008

Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Terrible people

            Since 1995, there have been four politicians so horrifying that I have singled them out for a disproportionate amount of coverage in the Spectacle—people I like to feel I contributed to driving from public life in some tiny way—or that at least I was on the right side of history where each was concerned.

            Without false modesty, I believe I do not hate easily—“nothing human is alien to me”. But these four were all people I detested and feared.

            They all had some combination of several of the following attributes: arrogance, ideology, vindictiveness, and low moral standards.

            They were: Newt Gingrich (all of the above factors), Rudy Giuliani (all except ideology), George W. Bush and Sarah Palin (both manifesting all of these factors and stupidity as well).

            I feel pretty completely vindicated by the outcomes for Gingrich, Giuliani and Bush. What the outcome will be for Palin, it is too soon to tell; but I hope, as sincerely as I have ever wished for anything, that by 2012 she will be nothing more than a trivia question (“what was the name of McCain’s wacky running mate in 2008?”)

            The post-election mudslinging, with various campaign insiders now free to dish dirt on Palin, has been delightful. I completely believe that the $150,000 she spent on clothes was the result of a giddy, narcissistic novice  on a delighted shopping spree; and that she thought Africa was a country, not a continent (which she hasn’t even really denied as she goes on the attack against the critics).

            Shame on McCain for picking her. Among the many fatal mistakes he made in the campaign was selecting someone to cement the base (which had no choice but to vote for him anyway) while alienating the independent swing vote he so desperately needed. How could anyone who doesn’t buy the core Republican promotion of ignorance, jingoism and fundamentalism ever stomach her in the government?

Recession and language

            Its quite remarkable how otherwise intelligent journalists and politicians continue to hesitate to use the word “recession” for a financial crisis which has produced bank runs and failures, the destruction or merger of most of the prominent Wall Street investment banks, the bankruptcy (or impending failure) of major manufacturers and retailers, and the insolvency of entire countries.  This is an example of magical thinking about language, that rather than being a recognition or mirror of reality, language magically causes the worst to occur. As if its not a recession until we’ve used the word.

Run over

            Here is a passage from Thoreau I have quoted at least six previous times in the Spectacle, because (like Gibbon’s quote about the nature of history) it beautifully encapsulates all human effort in a few scathing words:

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over,--and it will be called, and will be, “A melancholy accident.”

            Here is the world of adjustable rate mortgages with balloon payments for the over-extended, of mortgage-backed securities, of credit default swaps, of securitization and deregulation and the rest of the mess. It’s the libertarian paradise, with most of us—the run over—as collateral damage. You can’t have a libertarian paradise without collateral damage, after all. Its just the way of things.

            Life, as some wag said, is a revolution of diminished expectations.  Over the years, instead of expecting presidents to rock my world, I have come mainly to want them to leave me alone: not actually to come over to my house and break stuff. George W. Bush, who I now elevate to the level of Worst American President Ever, couldn’t even refrain from doing that.

            I didn’t invite the breakage. I have no debt to speak of, no credit cards, no mortgage. I didn’t accept his invitation to get over-extended, take on leverage I couldn’t afford,  live in a wild and crazy way, issue or buy securities I didn’t understand. I certainly did not support his deregulation of Wall Street.

            I saved my money conservatively. I was in mutual funds mostly, didn’t play the market. Now I am watching my net worth plummet because the president,, after fucking the country on Iraq, Katrina and numerous other issues peripheral to many of us, finally found a way, as he exited the scene, to fuck most of the rest of us. Where we live.

The Howling Miller

            It is quite delightful once in a while to discover a book or movie without preconceptions—to experience a work one has never heard of, never read a review, which accordingly surprises and exhilarates by its freshness. 

            In the Sanibel library last week, I picked out Arto Paasilinna’s The Howling Miller on the strength of its title alone.  This is a novel from Finland, published in 1981, translated into English for the first time.

            One more proof if we needed it that short novels can deliver all of the nuance and punch of their thousand page brethren, the Miller, combining naturalism, humor and elements of folk tale, concerns a man who just doesn’t fit into local society, though he provides a vital function of milling the villagers’ grain. His manic depressive personality first makes him popular, as he entertains the locals in his manic moments, but soon after causes him to become an outcast, as his manic pranks and nighttime howling alienate everyone.

            The rest of this wonderful novel is the story of the lengths to which humans will go to destroy those they have marked out as being different. The protagonist is committed to a mental institution, his mill and other assets are seized. When he escapes and lives in the woods, he is able to exact some small but enjoyable acts of revenge. Denied the ability (because he has been placed under guardianship) to withdraw his own savings from the local bank, he returns with a shotgun, robbing the bank of his own money.  In the local town, mostly united against him, there are two people working equally hard to save him—a woman who loves him and his friend, the local constable. Soon the town postman, a drunk, joins their small team.

            As the novel approaches its final life or death confrontation between the opposing forces, the novelist takes an elegant and unexpected tangent, elevating his hero to the level of myth rather than killing him.

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

            This remarkable 1962 film, directed by Tony Richardson, sets you up to think it will be an inspirational “underdog rises’  epic until the stunning last moments. (Note: my reviews will almost always contain spoilers.)

            We follow the rough life of Colin, whose working class father died young, and whose mother then took up with a “fancy man” who dislikes Colin. Intelligent, charming, unmotivated and rootless, Colin slides into crime, with his final descent triggered when his harsh mother throws him out and tells him to come back when he has money.

            Colin and his best friend commit a petty burglary at a neighborhood bakery, which the police investigate with startling doggedness and efficiency (very different with the American urban experience where you can’t even convince cops to fingerprint your house after it has been ransacked).  Colin is sent to a reform school, where he is soon identified as being a star athlete, and assigned the task of winning the long distance race at a competition against a boys’ private school. A key, moving moment comes when the strict but understanding governor of the reform school trusts Colin to leave the grounds by himself on training runs. Colin returns, proving himself worthy of the trust.

            On the day of the match, the well-written film avoids the cheap drama of heightened competition between the two sides, as the schoolboys behave with friendship and decency and the more hardened reform school population responds with cautious respect. Colin is soon far out in front in the race. Then, in the homestretch, in a well-edited series of short takes, the whole weight of his life crashes in on him—the burden of others’ assumptions and expectations, his serial characterizations as a bad child and then as an exemplary athlete and hero at the school. In the end, he appears simply not to want to dance to anyone else’s music as he stands still, lets the competitor pass him, and throws the race. In a heart-breaking, momentary coda, we see him back in the school’s gas mask factory, a job from which he had been released early in the movie as the governor began to groom him for stardom. Colin has sullenly exercised his will to be nobody, nothing more than a member of genpop.

            In some ways, the film is an anachronism. The kids in reform school are all white and relatively nonviolent. Nothing worse than a fist fight happens between them; there is no rape, no stabbing. Nobody lifts weights, no one is ideological, there are no gangs.

            The moment when Colin throws the race elevates the film, until then apparently a stirring feel good tale, to greatness.

            Tony Richardson, a remarkable director, was also responsible for Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, and Charge of the Light Brigade, all powerful movies in their own right (the last one of the best films ever made about the absurdity of war).

Scams

The news that the McCain adviser who reported Palin’s geographical ignorance, does not actually exist, was quite disturbing. Apparently, two writers created an imaginary McCain advisor and issued a series of off-the-record assertions about McCain and Palin which the press uncritically picked up and accepted as true.

            There is a type of infantile intellectual whose intelligence is unlinked to any moral sense.  This type of person believes that being smarter than everyone else grants a license to make others feel stupid.  Of course, a lot of the time, these people are not as smart as they think they are.

            There is a revealing example of such a scam in Dave Eggers’ autobiographical novel, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. The protagonist and his friends, trying to save their faltering magazine, convince a minor celebrity to cooperate in faking his own death.  The result: the mainstream media, which can’t find a death certificate or get any confirmation from local police, immediately detects the lie, and everyone involved looks extremely lame.  Eggers’ own status as the highly driven and ambitious self-proclaimed smartest kid in the room is poignantly revealed by the title he chose for his novel, which pretends to be self mocking but is not—and is at the same time a pathetic exaggeration for a modestly well-executed feel good story without much weight to it.

            The fact that a scammer is not planning to trick anyone into giving money does not make a fraud acceptable. In fact, these kinds of scams are still capable of doing tremendous damage. At a minimum, they waste everyone’s time, and slander the person they are aimed at (nobody deserves to be slandered). At worst, people who printed the lie may lose their jobs, or lose the trust of their employers.

            If you think getting hurried or careless journalists fired is a noble endeavor, try to state the moral difference between what you are doing and the NRA arranging for people to be mugged in order to get them to recognize they need guns for self defense.

            In order to know where I stand in the world, I need reliable information. Tricking the press into reporting false information personally undermines me. There is no noble result of such a scam. It is not reasonable to say, “ Because of my lie there will be more truth”—and it wouldn’t be a justification anyway. There seems to be no subtext of such a scam other than, “I am a hell of a fellow! Look what I put over on everyone!”

            However, it was an interesting follow on to the story that Sarah Palin herself seemed to believe it was true. Her response to the story, was not really a denial, and is worth quoting at length, for what it reveals about her brain and syntax:

“So we discussed what was going on in Africa. And never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or is it a continent. I just don't know about this issue. So I don't know how they took our one discussion on Africa and turned that into what they turned it into…..

 

“I don't know, because I remember the discussion about Africa, my concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that

 issue, as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska's investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars, I wanted to make sure that that didn't happen anymore.”

 

Prices

I dropped economics in college in order to avoid a definite C. When I read lay descriptions of economic theory, it is a similar experience to reading similar pieces about quantum physics. Something is happening, but I sure don’t know what it is. Call me Mr. Jones.

However, you don’t need to be an economist to understand something is badly out of whack when a handful of apples and a single bag of grapes ring up at almost eighteen dollars, as happened to me in a Publix supermarket in Lee County, Florida last week.  Lee County leads Florida in both unemployment (almost ten percent) and home foreclosure rates, stats which in fact put it right up there among the most distressed counties in the nation. I can’t imagine a more toxic economic environment than one in which people are losing their jobs, their investments and their retirement savings while the cost of food soars. I remember the $1.25 chicken salad sandwich, and for much of my adult life, sandwich prices hovered around $3.50 to $5. Now its impossible to get a sandwich for less than eight bucks or so.

            Even bananas, the famously subsidized cheap fruit, are nearing a buck apiece on convenience store counters.

            Intellectually, I recognize the dangers of deflation to the economy, as manufacturers and growers faced by declining demand lower prices, lay off workers, and go out of business entirely. Nonetheless, a drop in prices will bring welcome relief (as happened radically in the last few weeks for gasoline; I am filling my tank again for under $35, something which hadn’t been the case in a few years).  Bad times demand cheap food.

Phil Gramm

            The Times for November 17 had a long “where are they now” type piece about former Senator Phil Gramm, who did more than anybody during the 90’s to ensure that the post-Depression-era firewall between investment and commercial banking would come down, and that there would be no effective government oversight of  subprime mortgages or complex derivative contracts such as credit default swaps.

            Remarkably, the man has no remorse today, and continues to insist that a lack of regulation is not the problem. But one quote from his glory days more than any other should guarantee Gramm a place in the Hall of Shame.

            His phrase for those who got conned into taking adjustable rate mortgages they thought had fixed rates, who couldn’t make the balloon payments they didn’t even know were coming: “Predatory borrowers”.

              If the borrower is the predator, I assume the bank or mortgage broker is the victim, in Gramm’s reversed world? Perhaps what we really need is legislation to protect lenders against homeowners? But I suppose the fact that they are all losing their homes is its own punishment.

            The Times article also reminds us that Bill Clinton went along, more or less eagerly, with deregulation. He was a centrist Democrat forced to appeal to the right to get anything accomplished. But its still shameful.

The idea of progress

            J.B. Bury’s book of that name was an eye-opener when I read it in my twenties. Up to then, I had always uncritically assumed, as everything in my education encouraged me to do, that the world gets better (safer, cleaner, healthier, peaceful, more rational)  over time. Bury set me on the path of clarity, analyzing progress as an idea which was not even invented until the Renaissance. Today I believe that human history is cyclical at best, at worst has no more pattern than the random flight of a sparrow from a tree branch to the grass, to a stump and back again.

            Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how history is driven by the loss of knowledge, and how willful that loss often is.  Arrogance plays a big role in it.

            The so-called dark ages came when barbarians over-threw the western Roman Empire in 476 AD and there was a loss of knowledge lasting centuries of technology, the arts, philosophical and religious discussion and other matters which then needed to be rediscovered or reinvented later. Some of the most poignant stories involve the destruction of knowledge never to be regained (Byzantine purple, Greek fire, the loss of irrecoverable literary treasures in the fire at Alexandria) and the stories of the skin-of-the-teeth survival of literary works (hidden by Irish monks, buried beneath sand for later excavation by twentieth century archeologists, especially stories of works which survived in a single manuscript copy).

            Some years after I left the company where I was CEO half a decade, I met the new operations manager for coffee and he told me about a knotty internal debate about the issue of whether the firm was really a product or service entity. I told him we had broken our backs seven years before solving that very question. While the information would not have been definitive to him, it should at least have been of great interest. But he had no idea we had ever even faced the same question, because the information wasn’t retained anywhere he could access it.  (The question of corporate knowledge and how to retain it was dealt with in an amusingly titled book of the ‘90’s: “How Do We Know What We Know?”)

            During my years in the business world, I also met arrogant executives who assumed they were inventing the world anew every moment, and who did not think any prior cogitation or experience could possibly be useful to them.

            I think Phil Gramm (see above) is one of these. It’s a remarkable argument that Depression-era conditions could not possibly apply any more, that the greed which caused banks to take reckless risks in the 1920’s had somehow transmuted into a Good Thing, a guarantor of freedom and progress today.

            Some things are damn hard to spin. From the day in 1999 that Glass-Steagal (the Depression-era bank firewall law) was finally repealed (a pet Gramm project), to the dawn of the new grievous era of bank failures, less than a decade elapsed.

            We are a damned stupid species, and much of the intelligence we have is wasted by our arrogance.

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" is one of the two best novels I read this year (the other was David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”).

The story over a fifteen year time span of two extremely minor Mexican poets and their Bohemian coterie, it is structured as a series of interviews book-ended by the diary of a seventeen year old acolyte of the then 24 year old poets. The book has tremendous range, from Mexico City to Spain, France, and Liberia (in the midst of the Civil War) and with characters who include all kinds of literati and journalists, prostitutes, pinps, schizophrenics and even a female body-builder. Bolano makes them all sympathetic and interesting and has tremendous command of the details of ll of their lives (he knows what magazines the body-builder reads as well as who is fighting the Liberian civil war). He also plays some interesting games with granting and withholding information (we never see any of their poetry or know if the two poets at the center are talented or not). The interview format guarantees that the actual arc of the two central characters is viewed through a multiplicity of lenses, in a highly fragmented way— but the multiple denouements (in 1976 and the 1990’s) are highly satisfying.

Highly recommended.