Monday, April 30, 2012

Its Not Just for Pagans Anymore


Reflections on May Day

I think I know the happiest May Day.  Today is the anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the liberation of Vietnam from foreign domination and from capitalism.  You know the majority of Vietnamese, north and south, had a great May Day that year after hearing that the last U.S. helicopter had flown off the roof of the embassy in Saigon.  Whup, whup, whup, whup … goodbye.

 Swedish Social Democrats march on Mayday.

May Day is tomorrow, and it’s changing here in the States.  Originally I celebrated May Day in a sea of red flags as our group of hundreds or thousands of reds marched through astonished neighborhoods in Detroit, Chicago, Boston or New York.  Few in those days in the '70s took May Day seriously.   In Chicago in the 80s, the unions also marched, while the reds stayed in back – but they were still all on the same street, heading towards the foundation of it all, Haymarket Square.  I still have a tiny red flag my daughter carried, waving behind my house, from those Chicago marches.   This might have been one of the few places that labor and radicals marched together in the U.S., if not the only place.  Of course, we might have Frank Rosen of the Chicago UE to thank for that. 

Here in the U.S., anti-communist union leaders started Labor Day because they believed they were also part of the rich man’s club, and could sit at their table.  Today’s labor leaders are not so sure.  That is why some unions endorsed the march tomorrow, starting at Lake & Nicollet.  MNA, SEIU, UTU, HERE Local 17, AFSCME Council 5, and AFSCME Local 3800 have endorsed.  Never have so many unions in Minnesota at least formally endorsed Mayday – with Occupy, the anarchists, the socialists, the progressives, and most of all, the immigrants.  May Day’s official alternative, Labor Day, has shrunk from a parade to a picnic, to a marginal event at the state fair grounds, presided over by a defensive and geriatric white labor leadership.  In 2007, I think it was, they canceled the Harriet Island picnic to avoid having immigrants and leftists join them.  The balance of these two events seems to reflect certain glacial changes in the American labor movement. 

We can credit a new wave of immigrant workers – Latinos – for invigorating May Day with their “Day without a Mexican” in 2006, when hundreds of thousands mobilized in Los Angeles and Chicago, and many in Minneapolis.  Even in 2010, many Latino workers marched.  Latinos have provided the muscle at most May Day events since then. 

However, at last year’s cold Mayday at the State Capitol, the Catholic Church, which pretends to fight poverty, shepherded their flock away from the radicals. Many Latinos were ordered onto buses, and away from the speeches, after the march terminated at the Capitol.  Given the present high profile of the Catholic Church in a reactionary crusade with the Republican Party, we can see the church plays the role of ‘guard dog’ against the forces of radicalization.  Their fight against poverty is moralistic and based on charity – not social change.  The Office of the Inquisition, lead by the present pope, purged Liberationist theology proponents from the Church many years ago, and even today they are engaged in clean-up operations.  Witness the present case of Catholic nuns who have been accused by the hierarchy of spending too much time dealing with poverty, not abortion or gay marriage.  The Church is an obvious prop for the class system and the rich.  May the church suffer the same fate as befell it under Zapata and Villa. 

If you can, please get off work or leave work, home or school and march with the 'precariat.'  Become a "European" or actually a world citizen, a world worker, and march.  Join the May Day Immigrants Rights and Labor Rights march at Nicollet and Lake Street at 3:30 PM on May Day.

(PS - on the 2012 Mayday, the Catholic Church did not show up.  Nor did the Star-Tribune, the corporate 'paper of record' here in Minneapolis.  They did publish an AP piece about Mayday events in OTHER cities.  CBS covered only one protest, in downtown, and seemed oblivious to the march on Lake Street. After all, 2,000 people marching against capitalism or its excesses is not newsworthy.)

Red Frog
April 30, 2012. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bonfire of Inanities

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Local Rich Suburbanite Runs Over Thai Cook with Mercedes SUV

She thought he was only a construction cone.  She had gotten lost and couldn’t pick up the kids from the Katy Perry concert at the Excel.  Figures her kids would be at a Katy Perry concert, doesn’t it?  So she was driving around, saying she was lost, even driving by the ramp on which she hit the ‘cone’ again.  Odd?  She called her husband to make the concert pickup instead.  She had been on her cell phone at the time of the accident, according to police.  An empty bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade was in the car seat.  The next day, her daughter testified she would tell the police if her mom didn’t come forward and admit she might have hit this Thai cook.  So Amy Senser did, after getting a lawyer.  Her husband believes her when she told him she hit a construction cone.  Witnesses say the cones were past the location where the accident happened.  The Thai cook had his flashers on. 

Shades of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which a rich hedge fund broker in a luxury car runs over a poor black kid on a freeway ramp in New York, and speeds away. 

Unfortunately, this whole thing has the air of a cover-your-ass lie from a cute-looking rich suburban housewife with high-paid attorneys.  Who will be believed?  Certainly not the dead man. May she go to jail.

May 3, Senser Verdict.  Convicted on two of three charges - not reporting an accident, and leaving the scene of an accident, but not negligence.   This is a 'split the baby' verdict.  She got off on a charge she should have been convicted on.  Take a look at the diagram of the accident site:

http://www.startribune.com/newsgraphics/148764555.html

The victim was thrown 25 feet in front of his car.  The 'construction cones' were another 25 or 30 feet after that spot.  To confuse their location is disingenuous.  The disabled car was pulled far to the right with its blinkers on.  She was driving 55 mph on an 'off'' ramp!  To hit a guy changing his tire, you'd have to be far to the right on the exit ramp - not even in the middle of the ramp, let alone on the left.  Senser also attended the Katy Perry concert (an adult going to a pop-tart concert for teenagers and young adults!)  Did she drink there?  Get high?  She left the concert without picking up her kids, who were also there, who she'd promised to drive home.  Why?  Then she changes her mind 5 miles later driving west on 94, gets off at Riverside, and ... the black hole starts.  Amy disappears.  To hit this guy, you'd have to be careless, distracted, inattentive, something. Looking at this diagram, there is no other conclusion. 

Red Frog
April 25, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare Some Time?


“Griftopia – a Story of Bankers, Politicians and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History” – by Matt Taibbi, 2011

Taibbi, a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, writes like he’s trying to rip the head off a cash-addled zombie.  Due to his efforts here, the head regularly rolls free, to our delight.  Taibbi, smoking the ashes of Hunter Thompson without inhaling, regularly nails various corporate criminals throughout this book.  ‘Grift’ is Taibbi’s meme, criminality his theme.  The capital markets banking industry is his ripest target, but he’s added the health insurance industry and commodities speculation to his list.  This book includes an expanded version of his famous Rolling Stone takedown of Goldman Sachs – the ‘great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.’  In the paperback version he’s also included two more bonus Rolling Stone articles on the mortgage industry’s paperwork fraud and the Wall Street-induced bankruptcy of Birmingham, AL, an event similar to what happened in Greece

The recent explosion of books on the state of the capitalist economy, especially the FIRE sector, and its government, all lead to one conclusion at the very least. These people operate criminal enterprises, not shoe stores.  Why has no one been jailed?  As Nader pointed out long ago, the government could yank the corporate licenses of these enterprises, as most are based on public charters.  However, Taibbi explains:  The powers-that-be want, “half the country lined up like the Tea Partiers against overweening government power, and the other half, the Huffington Post crowd, railing against corporate excess.  But don’t let the two sides start thinking about the bigger picture and wondering if the real problem might be a combination of the two.” 

Because that explains why charters never get yanked, and no one gets jailed.  It is sort of like the guy in the Porsche who pays his $200 speeding ticket, then heads on down the highway with $100,000 in coke in his trunk. 

I’m going to just quote Taibbi from each chapter to give you a flavor, as he is attempting to combat the ignorance which he feels is at the heart of Wall Street’s ability to skate.  I’d say he is the best liberal/leftist polemicist in the U.S. at this moment.  His pages are a laugh-o-rama – that is if you are not a Wall Street banker or acolyte.  However, he’s also a believer in ‘regulated’ capitalism, so much of this can smack of the outrage of the deceived. 

From the chapter ‘Grifter Archipelago,’ centered on the Tea Party: 
“There are really two Americas, one for the grifter class and one for everybody else.  In everybody-else land, the world of small businesses and wage earning employees, the government is something to be avoided, an overwhelming, all-powerful entity whose attentions usually presage some kind of financial set-back, if not complete ruin.  In the grifter world, however, government is a slavish lapdog that the financial companies that will be the major players in this book use as a tool for making money.”

From the chapter ‘Biggest Asshole in the Universe,’ about Greenspan: 
“Greenspan’s rise is instead a tale of a gerbilish mirror-gazer who flattered and bullshitted his way up the Matterhorn of American power and then, once he got to the top, feverishly jacked himself off to the attentions of Wall Street for twenty consecutive years …”

From the chapter, “Hot Potato,” about the mortgage industry scam: 
“It was a game of hot potato in which money was invented out of thin air in the form of a transparently bogus credit scheme, converted through the magic of modern financial innovation into highly combustible, soon-to-explode securities, and then quickly passed up the chain with lighting speed – from the lender to the securitizer to the major investment banks to AIG, with each party passing it off as quickly as possible, knowing it was too hot to hold.  In the end that potato would come to rest, sizzling away, in the hand of the Federal Reserve Bank.”
That is us, folks.

From the chapter, “Blowout,” on the commodities (primarily oil) speculation bubble of 2008: 
“Both candidates (in 2008) were selling the public a storyline that had nothing to do with the truth.  Gas prices were going up…" because “...Wall Street had opened up a new table in its casino.  The new gaming table was called commodity index investing.” 
It was not about ‘supply and demand” even then and it is still occurring now.  Taibbi points out that unregulated speculation on commodities was made legal in the ‘90s, under Clinton, even for large institutional investors like pension funds. 

From the chapter, “The Outsourced Highway,” on the selling of the public American infrastructure: 
America is quite literally for sale, at rock-bottom prices, and the buyers increasingly are the very people who scored big in the oil bubble … Qatar Investment Authority, the Libyan Investment Authority, Saudi Arabia’s SAMA Foreign Holdings, and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.” 
Most notable is Richie Daley selling the parking meters of Chicago for 75 years (along with the Chicago Skyway and a series of Chicago parking garages in other deals) to a sovereign wealth fund in Abu Dhabi.  Daley is not some rube from Alabama, but now every two-party politician is a rube.

From the chapter, “Trillion Dollar Band-Aid,” about the passage of ‘Obamacare’: 
“Obamacare had been designed as a coldly cynical political deal:  massive giveaways to Big Pharma in the form of monster subsidies, and an equally lucrative handout to big insurance in the form of an individual mandate granting a few already-wealthy companies 25-30 million new customers who would be forced to buy their products at artificially inflated, federally-protected prices” in exchange for political support from those same companies.
From that same chapter, On Rahm Emanuel:
“The admittedly ingenious plan (was) devised by our freshman president and his indomitable chief of staff – an overconfident and immensely unlikable neo-Svengali named Rahm Emanuel, who resembled Karl Rove, only more driven, with better hair, and without the distantly validating sense of humor …”

From the chapter, “The Great American Bubble Machine,” on Goldman Sachs:
“Blankfein (head of Goldman at the time) stood up in the Senate and actually said, out loud, that he didn’t think his company was obligated to tell his customers that they were being sold a defective product.  ‘I don’t think there is a disclosure requirement,’ Blankfein said, looking incredulous that the question was even being asked.”  
This same shitbag later told a London audience that he was ‘doing God’s work’ by making money. 

So we have a rogues gallery of finance and government chieftains and thieftains – Blankfein, Fuld, Greenspan, Santelli, Paulson, Rubin, Madoff, Summers, Mozilo, Geithner, Thiel, Bernanke, Corazine, Thain, etc. – completely intermixed.  No one goes to jail because they are all on the same side.  Taibbi feels that power has now been put in the hands of a new class of financial parasites. 

Of course, revolutionaries have felt this is true for years, not just since 2008.  But even if Taibbi is correct, then ordinary party politics, ordinary ‘regulatory’ efforts and ordinary ‘good government’ pansy cluelessness is not going to root out this criminal group.  It takes a massive working class movement intent on ripping power from their grasp – whether you thought this happened in 2008 or happened long before that.  And power might mean eliminating the very existence of private criminal entities like Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and others.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 22, 2012




Monday, April 16, 2012

A Supporter of the ‘Common Man’

“All Art is Propaganda,” by George Orwell, Collected 2008.

The title of this book should be refined in the way Orwell does in these essays, which cover a period from 1940 – 1949. All art is also propaganda. Orwell is not a crude observer of art – the latter meaning a way with words or images or music or any artistic skill. He can consider these characteristics separately from the political import or subtext of any story or painting. And yet the latter is there. Stubbornly there. We American “moderns’ tend to be blind to the propaganda of the TV program or the painting at the local gallery. After all, isn’t what we are after merely escape or decoration? What does it matter? Who cares?

It is useful to compare Orwell’s essays with David Foster Wallace’s essays. (see “Consider the Lobster,” reviewed below.) One has well-formed opinions, while the other is still groping towards some kind of a belief outside of the perceptive hipster-liberal. They are products of their times, and unfortunately, that does not reflect well for Wallace. Both, however, agree that the ‘truth’ is what they are after. This search killed Wallace. It did not kill Orwell, who was made of sterner stuff.

In these essays, Orwell focuses most of all on the ‘common man’ of England. Orwell takes each subject - language, polemics, crime novels, boy’s magazines, Kipling, socialist literature – and talks about it from the that perspective – though being ‘common’ is a slippery title. Orwell could not help but be class-conscious, no matter his reputation. He observes how bloody and brutal English copies of ‘yank mags’ were at that time. Orwell would not believe current movie conventions, in which the worship of power through barbaric violence is celebrated constantly – after all, the main character on American television is a .45 handgun. His de-construction of bad academic or political writing is hilarious, and useful to anyone who practices either. Here is a sample comment: “Successful speakers will stick to the working-class pronunciation, even if it is wrong.’ On describing utopia: “Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia – though Hell, it is worth noting, occupies a respectable place in literature…”

The best part of these essays are his portraits of Tolstoy, Dali, Gandhi, TS Eliot, Swift, HG Wells, Dickens and Graham Greene. He calmly and fairly takes apart every one of them. Here are some choice comments - Orwell on Dali: “He is as anti-social as a flea.” And yet a ‘great draftsman.’ On Swift: “He is a Tory anarchist.” On Gandhi: Because they are “incompatible …one must choose between God and Man.” Orwell felt Gandhi had chosen the former. In the end he praises Gandhi for not soaking the world in blood, but ridicules his pacifism nevertheless. Gandhi was reported to have advised the Jews of Europe to commit suicide to protest anti-Semitism, and advised non-violent resistance against the invasion of China by Japan.

The real tension running through these writings is his opposition to the majority of English leftists, who supported the USSR thoughtlessly, through every twist and turn – before, during and after the war. Did he, then, become an apologist for capital, a Solzhenitsyn, an Irving Howe, so repulsed by Stalinism that he traded sides? There is little evidence of that here. He consistently opposes capitalism, but questions the easy answers many leftists give to certain un-spoken quandaries. He does lump the whole left together so many times that he does become during this period the iconoclastic voice, the individual ‘truth-teller,’ separate from any organized group.

The one word that dominates these essays is ‘totalitarianism’ – whether of fascism or so-called ‘socialism.’ This is why he says, ‘in this age, art cannot be non-political.’ Has that age ended? I do not think so, though the sharp ideological atmosphere of 1940s England are a distant memory, as is the USSR. Of today, Orwell would feel that American cultural products consisting only of escapism or decoration are symptoms of the ‘spotless mind,' so desirable to the mandarins. Take Johnny Depp, who has become an odd clown for the recession generation. Orwell would note the fake commodification of dissent represented by the ‘escape into wickedness,’ as he describes Dali. Neo-liberal world capitalism and religious fundamentalism are the new shapes of totalitarianism. I think Orwell would have no problem pointing this out.

I got the book at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 16, 2012

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dystopia Comes to the Young

Film: “The Hunger Games,” 2012

Roman Coliseum, Lord of the Flies, the Emerald City, a Nuremberg Rally, a reality show, a high-tech surveillance society, Versailles. Bullet trains, hovering air ships. Chariots on fire. Rich sponsors swilling champagne that must ‘like you.’ Apples in pigs mouths – shades of William Tell. Knives, axes, pikes, swords and bows – all circa Rome. White, helmeted Star Wars soldiers with visors to guard them all, like cops from the RNC. Filmed in Asheville, North Carolina in Transylvania County – near the Appalachian Trail. Young Mayan sacrifices. Prior films have dealt with this scenario, especially a Japanese film called “Battle Royale” in 2000. Combination of high-tech and archaic social relations, typical of American science fiction, which is incapable of getting beyond capitalism and barbarism as twins. America is an adolescent society, so it is important what true adolescents think.

Alleged teenager Katniss Everdeen of District 12 volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as one of the ‘tributes’ to the ruling 'Capitol' in a yearly sacrifice ceremony, saving her sister’s life in the process. Katniss is tough, has archery and woods survival skills, and has been able to hunt for years. She is a Diana of the Hunt. The Districts 'owe' these sacrifices to the Capitol as payment for engaging in a civil war - or a class war - on the Capitol.

Working-class districts for the most part, where starvation and hunger rule. District 12 is Appalachian miners. In a flashback, Katniss’ father was killed in a mine explosion, her mother is emotionally catatonic. District 11 looks like older industrial workers, lots of black people. One District produces fish. Several Districts in the higher numbers, (#1, #2) train their children as ‘fighters’ and ‘killers’ from early on, so some Districts are closer to the ruling Capitol and its ‘game’ than others. These wealthier Districts looks like they represent the 9% of the population closely attached to the 1% of Panem. The ‘jock’ and ‘rich kid’ equivalents come from these Districts, and are of course called “Careers.” The Capitol itself is full of superficial, well-dressed, evidently well-fed and wealthy people who enjoy good entertainment. They really enjoy the spectacle! No bread, just circuses, circa the future.

Katniss and the boy from District 12, Peeta, put on a love story for the cameras – or at least Katniss does. She plays along to save the life of Peeta. Some of the contestants are ethical, and don’t want to kill, and will only kill to defend themselves. Katniss herself just wants to get out of the combat area. Yet the logic of ‘one winner takes all’ enforces brutality. Capitalist individualism in blood writ large. Only one can live – and it is breaking this compulsion that threatens the whole Game. Yet the “Careers’ mysteriously work together in a group to hunt Katniss – and somehow Peeta from District 12 is included in their group. (His motivation? Most likely a trick.) This is based on the “Survivor” mentality, where ‘tribes’ work together, only to cut each others throats later. Katniss is the most dangerous player, after all.

Clothes are the meta-language of class and power in the Hunger Games. TV demands ‘good looking clothing’ and actually, costumes, on show. There is a bizarre contrast between the bloody point of this exercise and the ridiculous dresses and outfits the 'soon-to-be-dead' are paraded around in. The main Hunger Games host is likable, friendly and absolutely charming – even more so than Ryan Seacrest. Another host looks like he is the mayor of the Munchkin City. President Snow – Donald Sutherland – says, “We need their raw materials and products. You see the underdogs in the Districts, you won’t like the underdogs.” Of course, all the Districts are full of underdogs. The Capitol, by extension, are the ‘over-dogs.’ Rebellion breaks out in District 11 after one black character is killed. And Snow is concerned.

Hip lefties Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz help Jennifer Lawrence (“Katniss”) to ‘win’ the contest. Lawrence was the young female lead of last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” a great film about surviving in the Ozark mountains among deadly meth tweekers and real estate rip-off artists.

A lot of top bands orchestrated by T Bone Burnett (of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and “Raising Sand” with Robert Plant) – Arcade Fire, Decemberists, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, Neko Case, the Civil Wars, Maroon Five - are on the sound-track.

A meme from liberal Christians has developed around this film, finding ‘Christ’ in Katniss’s sacrifice for her sister and others. This film actually undermines that understanding. Suffering and sacrifice are not exclusive to an alleged Christ, as the film demonstrates. Human parents, sisters, brothers and even strangers sacrifice themselves on a regular basis for other people, in this film and out. If anything, through these actions, humanity has become Christ – and not just in “Christian’ countries. In this process, Christ as a religious figure actually disappears. Humanity has taken his place. Or in this case, a girl.

The best explanation of this film is that it is a feminist, anti-government, anti-rich people’s film. Of course, movies are prisms, depending on what angle you hold the prism. This one is not political enough, given the circumstances (civil/class war about what!?), but then, we are watching a mass-market movie. The causes of the civil war can only be guessed as economic. I have been told the next two books (and the films based on them) will be far more political. This is not a ‘post-apocalyptic’ film, as some reviewers comment – this film is after another American civil war.

The real issue is why children, pre-teens, teenagers and ‘young adults’ are now interested in some kind of a dystopian future – as are some older people already. This is the really significant question. I think it can only be because they see society, nature and humanity heading for extremely dark times, and this is now penetrating into the younger population too.

Red Frog
April 7, 2012

Assaying Essays

“Consider the Lobster and Other Essays,” by David Foster Wallace, 2006

Wallace is the author of “Infinite Jest,” a book hailed as a modern masterpiece; a friend of another prominent author, Jonathan Franzen (author of “Freedom,” reviewed below) a famous 2008 suicide (think a literary Kurt Cobain) and also a reporter and essayist. “Lobster” is a collection of non-fiction work from 1994 to 2005. Some people prefer Wallace’s essays to his fiction and there is a reason for that. From a review of these 10 essays, even they are limited by the non-political culture of the U.S. during this period. I call this ‘writings of the sensitive liberal academic at the beginning of something.’

Wallace starts off with a hilarious look at the 1998 Adult Video Awards show in Las Vegas at Cesar’s Palace (where else?). Pornography is the massive bastard stepchild of Hollywood, for many years raking in more money than the mainstream movie industry. Even now, hotel corporations have become their best customers. However, with the growth of free Internet porn and amateur porn done by drunk college students, exhibitionists, strip clubs, prostitutes and sex advertisers, the long-form ‘filmic’ part of the industry is no longer the cash cow it was in 1998. Chris Hedges also wrote about this industry later (in “Empire of Illusion,” reviewed below) and made far more politically astute comments than Wallace. In essence Wallace sees the whole thing as an enormous and only partly sad, joke. Hedges probably had the benefit of reading Wallace’s prior reporting about an industry that is never mentioned in polite society – or establishment journalism - but that is all.

As a literature professor, Wallace normally writes about other writers. In his essay on Updike the phrase ‘great male narcissists’ makes its first appearance. This phrase was later used by Alexander Nazrayan (my commentary below, “Follow-up to a Smack-Down”) to describe the middle-class, self-centered fiction favored by Masters of Fine Arts programs (“MFA”), and why Americans fail to win Nobel prizes. As Wallace puts it about Updike, his ‘rise … established him as the voice of probably the most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” In writing about Kafka, Wallace bemoans American college students inability to get the humor in Kafka, as Americans are trained to think of humor as only entertainment, not about the gallows, or tragedy. Wallace’s third literature essay is on Dostoevsky. Wallace understands that Dostoevsky, for all his macabre plots, was essentially an ideological writer. He admires him as a genius, even given Dostoevsky’s essentially conservative and Christian point of view, because he actually believes in something, and he actually writes about serious topics. Wallace thinks the post-modern fiction he’s surrounded by believes in nothing. Of course, bourgeois fiction does not need to believe in anything, since ‘this is the best of all possible worlds.’ Is this why Wallace committed suicide …because he was no Dostoevsky? His coverage of a young, injured tennis-pro, Tracy Austin, also smacks of a kind of genius worship.

Certainly Wallace’s coverage of the 2000 McCain campaign in this book is no Hunter Thompson screed. Thompson was a believer, not a reporter. Wallace ends up respecting McCain for being trapped in a north Vietnamese prison for years – the standard ‘respectful’ image of McCain - and nothing much more. In this essay for Rolling Stone, the story was so long they had to cut it by one half or more. And this is the sub-text of DF Wallace. Like Dickens, he engages in exhaustive detail on issues that are not that relevant – except to a compulsive.

The last and latest essay in this collection shows this ‘Achilles heel’ in all its glory. “Host” is about right-wing talk radio in Southern California. You learn details down to the types of mics and receivers the talk jockeys are using. While making basic points about how these entertainers will say anything that results in ratings (and hence profits), the article is constructed in such a way to make it almost unreadable. Inserted text boxes and arrow lines going around corners pack the pages, while useless, multi-faceted, microscopic details abound. And this, folks, is also what marred “Infinite Jest.” It is like eating many, many bowls of porridge.

The essay, “Authority and American Usage,” is a classic however. It basically takes apart the two approaches to the English language today, subtly embracing the good points of each, but coming down on the side of the ‘prescriptivists’ against the ‘descriptivists.’ If you don’t know what this means, and you are interested in the politics of language and semantics, find out.

The most famous of these essays is “Consider the Lobster” itself. It is a chronicle of Wallace’s visit to the Maine Lobster Festival one summer. After describing the congested event tents, tiny food samples, high prices, crowds, traffic and general unpleasantness, he focuses on the lobsters themselves. How they are caught, crammed in tanks, their pincers bound, then dropped in boiling water while alive, or after one of their nerve pathways is ineffectually skewered. While protesting any similarity to PETA’s opposition to lobster boiling, Wallace, in spite of himself, begins to make vegetarian arguments. He knows it is only the egoism of the eaters that argues for the continued pain and death of animals. And in this essay, he, again, is timidly is searching for a path other than the conventional.

Wallace would have benefited by not committing suicide. I don’t say this as a joke – he might have come into his own as a writer, who actually believed in something, and who actually wrote about significant topics in a way that mattered – if he had lived through the 2008 crash and taken it to heart, as so many other non-fiction writers have done. He might have become our left-wing Dostoevsky, or the Hunter Thompson of detail. But he did not, and collections like this only show what could have been.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog,
April 7, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

No, Someone Did Not

“Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?” by Slavoj Zizek, 2001

Zizek has written another book that only indirectly relates to the title or concise back-cover description. For socialists the main ideological issue preventing the re-spreading of Marxist and socialist ideas is, of course, the identification of socialism with ‘totalitarianism’ or ‘terrorism.’ In the conventional American discourse, once pronounced a ‘totalitarian,’ all argument is at an end. That, ostensibly, was the purpose of the writing this book – as part of that ideological combat.

Zizek has written an excellent introduction to Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism,” decrying the domestication of some Trotskyists in comparison to their inspiration (and indirectly, many other Marxists and ‘socialists’), proving that he does not shy away from hard questions. So one might expect this volume to be as clear and forceful as Trotsky on the issue of totalitarianism. Quite the opposite.

Zizek starts this 5 chapter book on totalitarianism with a long section on Lacanian dialectics and theatrical tragedy. As impenetrable as always, I can only refer to David Foster Wallace and George Orwell’s discussions of academic ‘dialect’ as being transferable to these almost useless pages of culture philosophy dialect (Kulturkampf Kriticizm?):
“I regard academic English not as a dialectal variant of Standard Written English, but as a gross debasement.,,” - David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage.”
Academic English is ‘a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ in which ‘it is common to come across long passages which are almost completely devoid of meaning.’ - George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
And Wallace again, “the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed … by opaque abstraction …Etc. (“Authority and American Usage”)

Or perhaps Lacan made him do it. This chapter contains a lengthy defense of Christianity as a religion in which Christ broke the ‘chain of payment’ by dying for love of humanity – an Act ostensibly outside history, and thus unlike any other religion. Including some handy arguments against Gnosticism and paganism, which Zizek opposes as philosophically conservative religious traditions, he nevertheless is less than convincing. Much less. I think Zizek is preparing here for more help on the issue of voluntarism and the Revolutionary Act.

Chapter 2 is a short inquiry into fascism, one of the traditional forms of totalitarianism. Zizek’s analysis ends with the support of laughter in the face of the holocaust. This inspiring idea comes from several movies that Zizek watched.

Chapter 3 is a longer inquiry into the Stalinist period, especially the 1930s. Zizek clearly opposes Stalinism and bureaucratism, but seems to only have an ethical response to it. Zizek tiptoes around Trotsky – endorsing Trotsky’s supposed view that the nomenklatura would be overthrown by the workers, or the bureaucracy would end up owning the means of production in a new phase of capitalism. The latter is what actually happened in those countries suffering counter-revolution. He really focuses on Bukharin’s groveling before Stalin during the show trials, assuredly for the psychological ‘frisson’ that generates.

As Zizek puts it, the Party ‘committed suicide’ in 1937. I would say it was murdered. As even he details, 79 of 82 District Party secretaries were shot ... not to mention the overwhelming majority of the Central Committee. On the theoretical level, Zizek endorses Lukac’s criticism of Stalinism, as a ‘stagist’, ‘objectivist’ deformation of revolutionary Marxism. (But not Trotsky’s analysis, which was similar. Again, can you hear the tip-toeing?) He also favorably compares Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia in this period. Zizek asserts this is because ‘everyone’ in Germany never became a suspect, unlike the situation in 1938 Russia. Even Yezhov, Stalin’s master butcher, was arrested, as were many other loyal Stalinists. A ‘war of all against all’ was initiated, because, according to Zizek, ‘rhetoric was insufficient’ for the Stalin clique to retain power. He also has an interesting section on Shostakovich, who was arrested and nearly shot, and the contradictory idea of a ‘closet dissident.’

Chapter 4 discusses melancholy. In which Zizek compares the Pope favorably to the Dalai Lama. In which Zizek opposes ‘post-secular’ thought, and makes a plea for a ‘materialist creationism.’ And in which melancholy is the true heartache of good capitalists everywhere. And one without melancholy is accused of being a totalitarian. Did you know that melancholy was even an issue? Now you do!

Chapter 5 is an ‘inside the philosophy department’ discussion of Cultural Studies, Social Democratic ‘Third Way’ politics, cognitivism, deconstructionist evolutionism, cognitivist Buddhism, religious scientism, etc. The most interesting aspect here (other than an introduction to some minor philosophic movements) is the focus on Cultural Studies, which is essentially a name for PC multi-culturalism. It has been accused of being ‘totalitarian’ by right-wingers. Zizek discusses both its reactionary aspects and its progressive side using a maddeningly ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ method, eventually coming out against it from a class point of view. He also clearly attacks Social Democracy as the logical twin of right-wing populism, as it is Social Democracy that has brought right-wing populism forward due to its failure to really represent working class interests. This is a word for word description of the politics of the neo-liberal Democratic Party.

Zizek is a Lacanian in this book, if you count his non-existent objections to any idea Lacan every had. However, Zizek makes objections to another way of thinking. Nearly every time he mentions some Marxist idea he adds some negative adjective to accompany it - ‘hoary’ or ‘old fashioned’ or ‘ancient.’ In one somewhat astonishing paragraph, he says:
“… reasserting the authentic spirit of the Marxist tradition means leaving behind its letter, (Marx’s particular analysis and proposed revolutionary measures, which are irreducibly tainted by the tradition of ontology) in order to save from the ashes the authentic Messianic promise of emancipatory liberation. The Marxian heritage('s) … essential core is redeemed through the very overcoming/renouncing its particular historical shape.” (page 153-154)
This, I think, could be seen as a plea for modernizing Marxism by a ‘kind’ reader, but a more accurate reading is that ‘Messianic promises of emancipatory liberation’ are not exclusive to Marxism. And that some ‘letters’ of Marx might still be relevant. This is perhaps why you never hear Zizek talk about the working class or economics in any concrete detail.

A book about how to turn the totalitarian logic inside out, about how the liberal totalitarians of today’s Capital are really the problem, i.e. the New Totalitarians? Not here. Someone else will have to write that book ... not Professor Zizek.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 2, 2012