Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, October 16, 2017

a prick in the prick system

When O. was president, I often wrote bitterly critical things about what his administration was doing and what was happening in America. But to use the metaphore du jour, I was not entirely woke.

 Trump is a wake up machine. He is, as well, an outgrowth of processes that have been at work in the U.S. since well before the age of Reagan. I think of these processes as the counter-civil rights revolution, not dissimilar to the inertial backwardness that allowed the Jim Crow system to spring up after the Civil War. That took a hundred years to dissolve. Do we have that much time left?

One of the areas where the counter-revolution has succeeded in driving us “back” not to the 1920s, but to, oh, the 15th century under Henry 8, is in the court system.

If Amnesty International weren’t a puppet of the U.S. and the E.U., it would have to mark down the court system in the U.S. as something akin to the court system in Uzbekistan.

Currently, the vast vast majority of criminal cases are never brought to jury trial. There’s a simple reason for this. Although Americans have a formal right to a trial, in reality, that right is abrogated by the threat, which is entirely legal, that maintaining that right will add years to your sentence. We’ve watched prosecutors do this, and judges approve it, without ever questioning it. When your “right” to a trial is loaded down with such vicious punitive consequences, and the prosecution has financial resources far outstripping those of most defendents, what you have is a kangaroo court.

Kangaroo courts depend, lopsidedly, on the vulnerability of the defendents. Thus, when the defendant isn’t vulnerable, when the defendant has money, the system rolls over. The disgusting stuff about Cy Vance, who let Harvey Weinstein pass but whose office routinely jails thousands of poorer offenders for lesser offences, has popped up in the news like some chancre. TheNYT prides itself on covering this, but in fact, the NYT should have shameshame shame for never revealing the way the prosecutor’s office works untilthey have celebrity meat in their mouth. 

You can read the story for its appalling sexism. Or you can also read it as a blueprint for the impunity culture that is the direct result of losing our justice system. It is, in fact, a natural result. The justice system, without justice, becomes a tool of predation. What happened, or didn’t happen, with Weinstein, should be paired with what we know happened, and happens, on a daily basis in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police and the courts essentially mafia the population, and turn working class indigence into lifetimes of misery, one by one, hundred by hundred, thousand by thousand.

“Mr. Weinstein, meanwhile, appeared determined to stay as far away from court as possible. He denied any wrongdoing and quickly retained Elkan Abramowitz, a former law partner of Mr. Vance, as well as Daniel S. Connolly, another former prosecutor turned white-collar defense lawyer.

Linda Fairstein, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor who had once written an article in Vanity Fair about her dream of doing a movie deal with Mr. Weinstein, agreed to consult. She was a close friend of Martha Bashford, head of the district attorney’s sex crimes bureau, and facilitated an introduction for Mr. Abramowitz. It was, she said, the type of thing she does for fellow lawyers. “Calling Ms. Bashford to tell her who Elkan was and to ask her to consider meeting with him is the kind of thing I do four to six times every year,” said Ms. Fairstein, who said she had determined Ms. Battilana’s complaint was unfounded. Ms. Bashford declined a request for an interview.”

This is utterly unsurprising. We’ve heard from Weinstein’s victims mostly because they are stars. I think there are probably non-stars – maids, secretaries, etc. – who also have stories, but we will never hear from them.

Cy Vance, Jr. is egregious. When Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s friend, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, was sent to prison for basically pimping and raping under-age girls. This was in Florida. He’s operated with impunity for years. If his earnings had been those of your standard pimp’s, he’d be inprison for thirty some years. Since he was a billionaire, he served 13 monthsin a Palm Beach jail. However, he was labelled a sex offender. 

 This is the kind of thing that happens to small fry. So when he got out and moved back to Florida, he petitioned not to be labelled a sex offender.

At a sex offender registration hearing in 2011, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney shocked a Manhattan judge by recommending that Epstein be classified as a Level One offender — the lowest on the sex fiend scale.

“I have to tell you I am a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” Justice Ruth Pickholz said, according to records. “I have done many (sex offender registration hearings) much less troubling than this one where the (prosecutor) would never make a downward argument like this.”

Gaffney justified asking for the lower level because Florida federal officials had allowed Epstein to plead guilty to just one count — even though Palm Beach police said there were multiple victims.”

Vance’s office changed their tune when the spotlight was played on this particular quid pro quo-bee. The judge made him a class three offender – which, astonishingly, Vance’s department appealed.
It’s Manhattan, Jake. Cy Vance’s job title should be reconstituted. Maybe District Attorney for the Successful. If you are rich, Cy's by your side. 

But though the man is obviously a prick, he’s a prick in a prick system. One that was given away in my lifetime.

Hard to explain this to the future.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

distance effects

I don’t believe that conservatives or Trumpkins suffer, for the most part, from some empathy disorder. There's a discussion of  Corey Robin's book up at Crooked Timber in which there are many mentions, among the commentariat, that the Right is just a mass of moral failure, built on a deeper emotional deficiency. I don't think this is true, or, more to the point, that there is any evidence for it. 

So what makes for the visible lack of empathy among conservative groups for certain groups?  I would look for the way empathy gets into our social action more than for how our neurons work, here. A neural interpretation of ideology might seem real scientific, but it is no more scientific than, say, an atomic view of ideology. It is reductionism in a void - the void being our vast, vast ignorance about how evidence of our neural processes actually work on the higher level of personal and social interaction. Instead, we read backwards, from those interactions to the neural maps. What seems like science is actually slight of hand - the kind of thing that impresses New York Times op ed editors.  

I'd propose, more modestly, that there is a difference in the way distance is interpreted. There’s a famous essay by Carlos Ginzburg, Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance, in which he explores the background to a famous scene in Pere Goriot – the one in which Vautrin proposes (in a sort of colonialist koan} to Rastignac the following thought experiment. Ginzburg If you could gain a fortune just by wishing the death (a wish that would be effective) of a Chinese mandarin half way around the world, would you do it? The point is that distance – and the way we make distances, geographically, ethnically, economically, sexually, etc. – has a global effect on our moral sentiments. I would say that the distance making in the Trumpian era of conservatism is going back to an earlier form of it, at least in the U.S., which last became this virulent after WWI. 

Interestingly, the symbol that Trump wrapped his campaign around is the “wall”, this mythical distance fixer that would forever separate white “authentic” America from Mexico (the brown mixed America, I guess).

It isn’t as if liberal culture doesn’t deal in distance as well. When HRC (and I voted for her, in spite of this) ran as a vaguely feminist politician, she never spoke at all about why, then, she would have ended her days in the state department signing off on appallingly large arm sales to the Saudis. Imagine a politician in the 80s running as a civil rights candidate and at the same time offering major support for the Apartheid South African state. But I think this was another case of distance – both geographical and cultural – that simply excluded Saudi women from the moral consideration that one would give American women.

I’m not sure anybody is a master of the moral distances we exist among. I’m not. So I am not saying I understand how to counter distance effects. I’m just saying that they have to be read into the narrative of our political ideologies in order to understand them.

Monday, October 09, 2017

a free woman

Hugh Kenner defined the stoic attitude in terms that the historian of Greek philosophy might dispute, or at least modify, but that I find definitionally elegant: “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.”  
It strikes me that I can discern a sort of feminist stoic style in the work of certain twentieth century artists: Christina Stead, Nina Berberova, and Elizabeth Hardwick come to mind. They are feminist in having a strong self-consciousness of themselves as women, and, more extensively, of having an idea of the destinies allotted to women in societies filled with destructive male power; they are stoic, however, in having a certain dryness of perception with regard to the sentimental education by which female collaboration is extracted.  In other words, they, too often for some tastes, sacrifice the bonds of solidarity to the distance required by intelligence. Sometimes this distance asserts itself by denying any feminism at all, as happens in the case of Christina Stead.  
I’ve been reading Nina Berberova’s great autobiography, The italics are mine – the French translation is, I do the underlining – and thinking how tough this woman was. Here  literary career, as far as the metropoles of publishing are concerned, occurred when she was eighty, when her stories and novellas and autobiography came out.
She lived the life of a “free woman”, in Doris Lessing’s phrase. There’s a subtle tonal shift from liberated woman – for to be liberated is to be the subject of emancipation, to be freed – to undergo that passive tense – while Berberova, and Lessing, thought of themselves as existing outside of that passive tense. They were in privileged positions – but the privilege was internal. Certainly that was the case with Berberova, who endured starvation in Soviet Russia, and crushing poverty in Paris, and the Nazi occupation, all without questioning her joy in energy, her own energy.
I’m going to write about her again.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

a visit to the Musee de l'homme

It looked like Adam would like La Musee de l’homme.

Adam likes mummies. He horrified some of his classmates in room 5 in Santa Monica by bringing a book about “buried treasure” to share day that had a chapter on Pompeii with photographs of various lava encrusted victims – a dog, a child, three people. As well, this book had pictures of mummies excavated from a site in South Egypt, in the desert. It was quickly decided among Adam and his friends that mummification follows lack of water.  Dehydration, variously pronounced.
So in Paris, we went to the Egyptian section of the Louvre and Adam saw his first real live mummy. Adam knows that mummy’s are dead. He knows that they are only alive in cartoons and movies that “aren’t real.” However, he knows this fact like an uncertain atheist knows that God is dead. It is a fact that could spring a leak. This makes mummies all the more fascinating.
When we looked on the site for the Museum of Mankind, it bragged that the Museum held more than sixty mummies. It had pictures. Leathery bodies. Leathery faces in that decayed agony, toothless mouths gaping, hands up, as though in a scream, that Adam finds scary and interesting. It is partly bluff, Adam’s way of not “being a baby”. Baby has becomes, somewhere, an insult. This makes me sad, and I reason with him, but there’s no reasoning a boy on the brink of five out of the supposed insult of acting younger than he is.
We got on the bus at Hotel de Ville, and we went to the back so that we could all three sit, and Adam could look at the various buildings rushing by in the October gloom. There’s the Louvre. There’s the obelisk. See the tower? The Eiffel tower he immediately recognizes. It was a flattening day, though, and everything looked smaller and meaner. Until we got off at Trocadero and the Eiffel tower decided to stretch up, up, before our eyes. Up, then, to the Musee, with A. and I thinking, a crepe would be nice right now.
I liked the Museum as soon as we entered the main exhibition space. There was a satisfactory number of skulls – even a superfluity of them. The skulls of chimpanzees. The skulls of Neandrathals. The skull ladder that leads up to Homo Sapiens. I’ve read enough Stephen Gould to know that the ladder image is wrong, but the Museum of Mankind, with its beginnings in the 19th century, hasn’t quite shaken that off. The mummies on the ground were few – but the one on display had also been on display in Adam’s book of mummies. It was disinterred in Peru and shipped here who knows how many years ago. The hands, with long fingers, cradle the face, as though in woe. We, with our living skeletons, bring the memento mori to the skeletons, and to this gray remains of a face. Who really know if the mummy’s owner really did die in horror – in some scene of sacrifice of the kind conjured up by century’s of orientalism.
We went through the first and second floor, marveling, Adam coursing ahead of us like an unleashed dog, on the trail of the next skeleton, the next fossil. As the broad humanid sweep narrows to modern times, one can’t help feeling some decrease in the grandeur of it all. Electricity and plastic may be nice, but they are exhibited, here, as parts of the way human being change their environment. And that change seems, well, trivializing, as compared to cave paintings and mysterious migrations.
Then we ate, with the Tower bulging outside the window. It was good! Tart, sandwhich, salad. Cheap for museum grub. Then we paused, A. and I. The feeling of having walked a long way, although we really hadn’t.

On the way out, we bought things for Adam, including a kit we later regretted, which consisted of a sandy ball in which some shark teeth were embedded. To get them out, you had to file away on the ball. This morning, we are still finding sandy dust around the apartment. Plus, two supposed shark teeth float in the glass we usually use for rinsing in the bathroom.   

Thursday, October 05, 2017

reflections on killing

The rhetoric around killing is always full of euphemisms. Soldiers, in the euphemistic parlance, “protect us”. Drone bombings “target terrorists”. If you crash two jets into the World Center, you’ve committed a massive act of “terrorism”, and if you carelessly evacuate Fallujah and go street by street wiping out armed insurgents, you have “pacified” it.
All involve dancing around putting holes in human beings, burning them alive, crushing their vertebrae, smashing their internal organs, chopping off their limbs, and otherwise butchering them with less surgical precision than is brought, normally, to the butchering of a calf for veal.
So the struggle to define what Stephan Paddock did goes on without questioning the dressing we put around butchery. Nobody wants to say that any nation that bombs another nation in a display of “Shock and Awe” is definitely and explicitly engaging in terrorism. Or that terrorism is the logical, pathological effect of any attempt to sheer off parts of a human being, perforate them, explode them, boil them, incinerate them, poison them, and otherwise operate on what we know about human pain centers.
This has long been noticed by the best observers. When the King of Italy was assassinated by anarchists in the 1890s, Tolstoy wrote a level headed little essay about the moral condemnation allotted to the assassin and withheld from the King, and all the rulers of Europe, and of the U.S., when they directed mass murder as public policy.
Here’s Tolstoy: “When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.” 
The cut rate go to guy for cutting through the bullshit in modern times has been Orwell – but Orwell’s truth speaking pulls up well short of Tolstoy’s. In fact, one of Orwell’s most interesting essays is about the problem of Tolstoy. But that would take us too far afield.
One thing that was different about Tolstoy’s time was that the technology of murder – beautiful beautiful weapons – and the aesthetics of representation had not merged quite so much. Theater in the nineteenth century was operating at the same time as the quantum leaps in weaponry, but theater did not fall in love with it. It did not feature the Gatling gun. It did not feature the bomb.
Cinema, though, from early on, embraced the weapon as its coeval. There was, perhaps, a recognition that montage and the firing of the machine gun shared a certain sequential form. The bullet was the movies in their most concentrated form. Or at least this is true of certain cinemas – mainly, the American one. From the Tommy guns of the gangster to the truckload of weaponry hoisted about in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, the art of killing has been filmed with undeniable love. Love’s a very powerful thing – according to Lucretius, it is love, not free will, that moves the nations and keeps the universe going. And that love has been absorbed by the populace it was aimed at – mainly masculine, mainly primed, by thousands of suggestions and hints, for violence. And yet, that love didn’t spill over, until the seventies, into weapon sales. In Hong Kong films, where the sequence of pistol, shot, and perforated human body is equally prominent, the “civilian” audience did not take the cue that this was a form of product placement. Not only does Hong Kong have an extraordinarily low homicide rate, which has kept falling even as the violence in HK films went ballistic, but it kept falling after the abolition of capital punishment. Criminologists (who do not recognize, normally, capital punishment as murder – Tolstoy would disagree) often compare Singapore, which has the highest capital punishment rate in the world, with Hong Kong, due to the similarity of their city-nation statuses. Both experienced huge drops in the murder rate in the 90s.
So, too, did the U.S. The difference is, of course, that the U.S. has always had a much higher murder rate than any of its peers. And it still does.
So: why is it that the beauty of weaponry has such a hold on the American heart that we try the weapons out on each other? I don’t have a clue about that. Like the motives for Stephen Paddock’s mass murder, the threads lead, I guess, to everything we hold to be normal – the work defined life, the grim trudging after money purely for the sake of money, the emptiness. Some answer floats there, I think. But this might be a jaundiced view.

Monday, October 02, 2017

We can make mass killings a win-win

Yes, as people from other cultures often say, Americans lack a reverence for life. The mass killing incidents prove it. 8 there in Fort Worth, 49 there in Orlando, 59 and counting in Vegas - on and on and on and on.
But what nobody can deny is that Americans have a sense of fun!
This is why we need to make these mass killing incidents more like the holidays they are.
What I'm proposing is that the NRA, in conjunction with the GOP and maybe Hallmark, come up with the appropriate card for Mass Killing day. Which definitely comes more than once a year! With the line, obviously, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to ...." It will be your city or township soon, don't worry!
Also popular would be, say, "it is too soon to politicize a human tragedy!" GOP politicos would be a big market for a card like that.
But the cards only handle a part of the mass killing event. How about a mascot?
What makes Christmas Christmas? Santa Claus. And what makes it better than Easter? Christmas has a more exciting mascot.
Which means that the mass killing mascot - Sparky is a good name - should be something we can identify with. I'm thinking a skunk with a machine gun. A cute skunk! The mascot, if it catches on, would be just the thing to explain the mass killing holiday to kids, who might otherwise think that their American parents are psychotic and evil for tolerating and encouraging mass killings with mass weaponry. Kids have fears, doctors say. Like the fear of being in a public place, like an elementary school, and being gunned down by someone with legally aquired semi-automatic rifles. But that only happens every once in a while!
So, if we can't make banning semi-automatic and automatic weapons into a reality - and we really really can't! - let's make it more fun.
Now all rise as I play the star spangled banner, please.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

notes on the wheelbarrow


In my family, since time immemorial – which I date back to my fourth year, when I became vaguely conscious of the world – there was always a wheelbarrow. This was because, back then, my dad was a carpenter, or rather housebuilder – he not only did the framing but poured the foundation and did the wiring and put on the roof, etc. – and a wheelbarrow was an essential tool of the trade. Even when he stopped being a carpenter, he kept a wheelbarrow handy for household tasks, or for planting, etc. This meant that a wheelbarrow was always propped up somewhere around the house – in the garage, in a storage hut or greenhouse, under the porch.
There were different wheelbarrows, but the one I remember best was painted a deep blue. It had a pleasing number of dints in the metal part of it. I have nice memories of Dad mixing concrete in this wheelbarrow. The bags would be compact, and yellow, with a string along the top that you could tug to open it. But mostly what you did was plop the bag in the wheelbarrow, and, using a sharp pointed shovel, rip open the belly of the bag. The metal of the shovel would make a nice crunching sound going through the paper and into the dry concrete mix, and a little gray cloud would float up. Then  you’d pull away the sacking and you’d put another bag in, and another, until you had enough, at which point you’d take a hose and add water. Stirring the mixture into concrete was done with the shovel too. As the consistency of the thing approached what you wanted, you would be able to cut pancakes of the concrete from the whole mix and flapjack them one on the other. Finally the mix would be right, and you’d unsteadily lift up on the handles and trot the wheelbarrow to where it was needed.
So I do understand, to an extent, what depends on a wheelbarrow, as per WCW:

so much depends 

a red wheel 

glazed with rain 

beside the white 

For instance, I know that Dad wouldn’t allow the wheelbarrow to just stand out there in the rain, nor would anyone who had to use wheelbarrows daily. That is because the rain would rust the metal of it, and probably be bad for the wooden handles as well. At the very least, you’d put sheeting over the wheelbarrow.

On the other hand, I’m no carpenter. I’d be as apt as any drunken Jersey chicken farmer to leave the wheelbarrow out in the rain. It is one of my major sins, which is not counted in the Bible, a book too much concerned with idols and not with objects – this neglectful attitude towards the thins of the world, this existential sloppiness.  I’m just the kind of guy who’d let his chickens shit in the wheelbarrow as it rusts. That’s no good.