Monthly Archives: January 2013

People-Watching On a Lazy Afternoon

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and there are, oh, twenty young hip people in here ­— mostly behind their screens, like me — and maybe a few conversations. None of them seems to have a day job. What do they do for a living? (Wobbly tables are terrible.) Two more stepped in now. A girl to my left is talking to a guy who says he was briefly home-schooled about how bad her childhood was. “What are the outcomes…” mutters someone else in the far corner. Two guys in front of me are talking money. Large pictures hang on the wall. Out of the window lies the elevated train tracks and, under it, the long sweep of Broadway. (There is now a puddle of coffee because of this damn wobbly table.) “You could advertise…” the first girl offers the man without a sense of direction, like me, although I wasn’t home-schooled. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a different path.

Speaking of which, what is mine? Where am I going? Is my life simply coasting along like those trains above the street, screeching and sliding through, day in and day out? A girl wearing a neon-green kaffiyeh stepped in and walked to the counter. A lot of folks seem to like “hobo gloves,” where the fingertips are cut off, which seems to defeat the purpose of wearing gloves. A loud white dude with dreadlocks is at the counter near the window and he’s talking about someone named Candy and that he’s in the neighborhood and that someone “went heavy on the white wine last night.” Directly across from my table is a photo of a solitary figure standing alone, on top of a cliff, facing toward hazy hills ahead. Dreadlock man drops something about his security deposit. “Gotta take the computer in first,” he laughs. “Hey, I don’t wanna deal with this haha. Hey, bro…”

To my right, near the door, red hoodie sweater earbuds guy fiddles with his music player.

Leopard-print barbershop chair sits to my left; it’s old and busted. There must be a dozen different kinds of seaturies in this place. Suppose that one type for everyone would be, well, too mainstream. Looking up, a row of simple chandeliers do nothing to light up the high-ceilinged salon. Bright light pours in through the window, casting angular shadows. “They’ll email the confirmation, right?” professional girl in the far corner facing into the glare through massive eyeshades says as her friend or partner or colleague or whomever looks over her shoulder. They must have serious work to do, but who knows.

The B54 rolls by like a zephyr. A very tall man enters wearing impossibly thin jeans. “It’s a step along the process,” mentor woman tells home-schooled. “Hopefully I’ll keep getting better and better at that if I continue to do it.” The key is to observe and not to judge. It’s not really in the nature of this observer to judge in any case, because according to the Myers-Briggs diagnostic, you’re reading from an E.N.T.P. That explains why the lack of conversation seems so disturbing. Not to say no one is talking. Caffeine will find a way. Back to the scene: a mention of dog-walking. We are the perma-temp generation. Dreadlock-man is packing up to leave. A baldish gentleman says that their old place “is getting exterminated for rats on the second floor.” They shake hands. Dreadlock is out. The train rumbles down. A curly-haired chick stows away her laptop, shoots me a smile. She keeps looking at me. Then she leaves.

I’ll keep getting better and better if I continue to do it. Good advice.

“Another day,” says a new arrival at the coffee counter. Indeed it is.

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Guerrilla War and Our Founders: A Patriotic Digression

In today’s New York Times book review of Max Boot’s new book on guerrilla warfare, Mazower notes, “In 1926, French artillery shelled the center of Damascus. It was in this context that Elbridge Colby, an American Army captain, wrote an article, ‘How to Fight Savage Tribes,’ in order to educate his countrymen and challenge what he saw as their naïve faith in international law.”

That article appeared in the American Journal of International Law, a year following the French attack on Syria. Capt. Colby records: “In Afghanistan, in May, 1919, explosives dropped from planes ‘inflicted heavy losses on civil population and army’ in and about Jalalabad.” Furthermore,

In the same year in October intensive aërial bombardments were undertaken against the recalcitrant tribes of Tochi Wazirs and Mahsuds. All of this was simply a more modernized and more effective version of prior British bombardments with field artillery against native Asian villages, a casual type of incident against native tribes in the story of British colonial enterprise and mastery.

Mazower, a historian at Columbia University, refers to Colby whereas the subject of his book review, Max Boot, the aptly-named military strategist who wrote about guerrilla armies, does not. The reviewer brings his arguments about Boot’s book to a close by saying, “I think Elbridge Colby would have approved.” So let us return to the captain.

“The long list of Indian wars in which the troopers of the United States have defended and pushed westwards the frontiers of America bear eloquent testimony to the unified tribal action in war, and to the almost universal brutality of the red-skinned fighters,” Colby wrote. “With these, there can be little thought of international law.” One of the lines in our Declaration of Independence from the British empire framed the annihilation of the natives in a similar fashion: King George III, that redcoat bastard, “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French visitor whose book Democracy in America captured antebellum political life in the free states very well, marveled how the United States had succeeded where Spain had failed. Tocqueville wrote,

The Spainards, despite acts of unparalleled monstrousness that left them indelibly covered with shame, were unable to exterminate the Indian race or even prevent the Indians from sharing their rights. The Americans of the United States achieved both results with marvelous ease, quietly, legally, philanthropically, without bloodshed, without violating a single one of the great principles of morality in the eyes of the world. To destroy human beings with greater respect for the laws of humanity would be impossible. [Volume I, part 2, chapter 10; emphasis added]

Tocqueville, a man of his time, proceeds to discuss the ticking time bomb of slavery in a way that used to be considered enlightened. “Wherever Whites have been more powerful to date,” he wrote, “they have kept Negroes in degradation and slavery. Wherever Negroes have been stronger, they have destroyed Whites. Such is the only reckoning that exists between the two races.”

“Thus in the United States,” he concludes, “the prejudice against Negroes seems to increase in proportion to their emancipation, and inequality is enshrined in mores as it disappears from laws.” Tocqueville deduces from this state of affairs that never will “the white race and the black race … live anywhere on a footing of equality.” That was similar to Abraham Lincoln’s judgement in 1854, less than a decade before emancipation: “Let it not be said that I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks,” Honest Abe declared.

Two years later, at the first state convention of the newly-formed Republican Party, Lincoln decried the evils of the institution of slavery and remarked,

In Kentucky — my state — in 1849, on a test vote, the mighty influence of Henry Clay and many other good men there could not get a symptom of expression in favor of gradual emancipation on a plain issue of marching toward the light of civilization with Ohio and Illinois; but the state of Boone and Hardin and Henry Clay, with a nigger under each arm, took the black trail toward the deadly swamps of barbarism. Is there — can there be — any doubt about this thing? And is there any doubt that we must all lay aside our prejudices and march, shoulder to shoulder, in the great army of Freedom? [italics in original]

The convention then broke into applause, according to the note-taker William Whitney. The antebellum version of the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis was not featured, for the obvious reason that we have a strong need to lionize leaders, or exalt them as our Fathers. There is certainly a lot that the founders, and Lincoln, said that we can proud of quoting, but ignoring the underside does our reckoning with the past no favors, and stunts the ability of ourselves as a self-conscious people to evolve.

Quite the contrary; it is seen as “unpatriotic” to accurately report the real sentiments of the people we cast as demigods, instead of seen as being faithful to history and addressing present guilt without fear. Needless to say, the nation’s schoolchildren learn about the Lincoln-Douglas debates without knowing that the above passage was one of Lincoln’s “talking points.” Nor, for that matter, will they get past the preamble to the Declaration. Or actually read Tocqueville in depth. And it’s a shame.

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On the Prospect of “Simultaneous Uprisings” in Israel-Palestine

Matan Kaminer writes about this entity called “the ruling class,” which sounds vague but evocative enough, that has

an amazing capacity to use crisis situations to further profits and consolidate power… But the phoenix-like ability of capital to rise from its own ashes has a limit, which can be defined precisely as the revolutionary situation. [emphasis mine]

Kaminer applies the idea of a threshold beyond which the prospect of a real uprising is no longer academic and situates it on the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean: “the most obvious answer would be a Palestinian uprising — a Third Intifada.” Yet he adds that such an answer would be fruitless. However, the occupied territories “are not completely quiescent.” Kaminer explains,

Villages impacted by the Separation Wall [called the security fence by Israeli officials] have mounted a patient, intelligent and ethically disciplined struggle and have drawn sustained solidarity activity from Israeli and international activist groups. Over the last year, sporadic demonstrations have been held against the PA [Palestinian Authority] in the West Bank, protesting corruption and President Abbas’ collusion with the occupation. Most recently, Palestinian activists founded the “outpost” of Bab Al-Shams [Gate of the Sun] in a creative response to Netanyahu’s declared intention to build in the E1 area to the east of Jerusalem. The winds of liberation are still blowing across the Middle East, veterans of the First Intifada are still alive and active, and the establishment would be wise not to rule out the possibility of a large-scale popular uprising. [italics and interpolations mine]

Hopefully, the tactics of the Second Intifada, such as the hideous suicide bombings of civilian targets, will not be repeated. Not only were such methods immoral, they were politically stupid. The so-called international community is on the side of Palestinians up until the point that militants go on buses and blow them up or detonate themselves in cafés. Kaminer’s omission of the “veterans of the [Second]” uprising is instructive: they are all dead or in prison. In that light, given the balance of forces, any uprising would be totally crushed even if it were non-violent.

But when we look at the internal social dynamics of Israeli Jewish society, Kaminer finds another answer: the Mizrachi population, which forms “the bulk of Israel’s working class.” A full fifth of the total population is Arab, and the “Arab Jews” have more in common with them than either would like to admit, at least at present.

The widespread waves of public demonstrations that rocked the country in 2011 were hopeful, Kaminer adds: “At its best and most dangerous, the protest movement offers an opportunity for the consolidation of a cross-class coalition including both a contingent of young, middle-class people facing the possibility of impoverishment and those who are already staring poverty and homelessness in the face.”

The larger situation with the Palestinian nation is always the rub. “Israelis are still wired to close ranks whenever a ‘security threat’ looms,” he writes. And with a Palestinian minority within the pre-1967 borders that is ambivalent at best and disenfranchised at worst with respect to being citizens of a state that describes itself as Jewish, and not Israeli, this could be a bridge too far. “Are the chances [of revolution] slim?” Kaminer asks. He answers himself: “Very. Would the Israeli state know how to defuse such a situation if it were to come about? Quite probably.” Even with those critical qualifications, it is not impossible to imagine a joint Mizrachi-Palestinian movement that could spark something larger.

As always, what that something becomes is not yet foreseeable.

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Adam Smith, Radical Socialist

The Adam Smith of popular myth is a figure of Reagan-like proportions. The truth is he was quite the egalitarian, perhaps socialistic by the deranged standards of today. Here are some things that this economist actually said in his 1776 masterwork, The Wealth of Nations (1776):

The commodities of Europe were almost all new to America, and many of those of America were new to Europe. A new set of exchanges, therefore, began to take place which had never been thought of before, and which should naturally have proved as advantageous to the new, as it certainly did to the old continent. The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries.

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. … But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless Government takes some pains to prevent it.

Men may live together in society with some tolerable degree of security, though there is no civil magistrate to protect them from the injustice of those passions. But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property — passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it.

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Salon Hour on the Monoculture

The following is a selected transcript of a recent conversation with two of my colleagues, “Adam” and “Melissa,” at some point this month.

(Key: I am italicized, Adam is set regularly, and Melissa is emboldened.)

What do you mean by ‘human agency’?

The ability of human individuals and groups to self-determine and to self-actualize.

I think that that’s done.

It’s all done?

We’ve come to a point where people no longer think for themselves.

Without remembering its source, what is called the Monoculture has somehow memetically infested my consciousness. The idea, where apparent patterns of social sameness reflect an imposition of a uniform culture, keeps clinging.

The pieces of the discussion that are presented here represent, in an inherently subjective sense, the executive summary of what we tried to establish as The Problem.

Now that we’re talking about everyone being clustered—what was your phrase, Pushed into…?

Put into their corners.

Does that conflict with the idea of the monoculture? Is there a monoculture? Can there be both?

The last moment that somebody is connected, the moment that that is there, I think that has to be the game over. You’re going to see people fight back as individuals or you’re going to see people come together and become one large voice. And when that large voice happens, there has to be some effect. It can be very large in the sense that it could be an implosion of earth or it could be the moment that society finally speaks with one voice and maybe somebody’s god comes back.

[laughs]

It has to be something big. I think that the moment that everybody can come together in some way.

But how the hell are we gonna get the atheists to think that shit?

Was Herman Melville right? There’s really ‘nothing new under the sun’?

Yeah.

He wrote that over 150 years ago. That’s one of the issues I have with creating new ideas, writing original content. I don’t know how much is really new. Anytime I hear about something, it’s already played out.

I have trouble with the same thing visually, the same exact thing with visual creation. Nothing is new. It’s post-modern, you’re just recycling everything.

Endless recycling. I keep thinking about things as loops, infinite recursion. A retweet is an example.

It’s a fucking diagram, start to finish. It’s a sales process. It’s that same fucking diagram, it has your steps, back to start.

Back to the next quarter.

It’s about the perspective.

We have a perception economy. I mean economy in the looser sense, not specifically dollars and cents.

Social currency.

A social economy, or a political economy. The currency of that economy is what people like, what people are talking about. And if it becomes just an endless loop, and there’s less and less that’s really from the hearts and minds of individuals, but more about is it coming from this cluster of people—this clubby clique, whatever you want to call it—then I think that all kind of taps into this monoculture idea.

Is monoculture the new subculture?

Well it’s more of a supraculture.

Is that the one that in 10 years’ time could become the norm? Because we don’t know the new subculture.

There’s still a lot I don’t know about this, which is why I’m still trying to hash it out.

The subculture is the alternative.

But it is the alternative now, right?

I feel like maybe in our Brooklyn world it’s the alternative, but in Middle America do you think that our world is the norm?

Things went a bit off of the rails toward the end. For the record, I am agnostic on the question of biometric chips, though it is a long-standing sci-fi staple. My interlocutor is less sanguine. The future, if the term means anything, remains precisely what we are going to have to make of it…

Twitter has this feature called “discover” where it will “tailor” things for you, and that bothers me on a number of levels. One of them is it seems to know who you are, and know what you like.

I told you last year that facebook and twitter profiles are close enough with A.I. to be able to be real people. We are finally getting close to that. We’re not there yet. I’m a little early on some of my stuff, but it is getting to that point. The more that you get a sample pool, any basic understanding of statistics will tell you—

The bigger the sample…

The more we’re able to define it. Exactly what you’re gonna do at any moment. Okay. This is a natural by-product. What happens when small businesses are no longer able to put a product in front of you as a consumer. That interchange has changed. We had a phonebook, we had national yellow pages, and the like. This is all a product of that. It’s no longer about getting something to you to make a choice. The way that we are doing ads, the way we are able to help somebody get their information, it’s all being challenged in this garbled world of social. Who’s gonna be the largest brands, who has a larger presence online?

Another element is the decline of trust in institutions, or trust in “experts.” Because if everyone’s an expert…

Pundits.

As we were saying earlier, if everyone’s a private [investigator] or everyone’s an expert or everyone’s an authority, then you’re not gonna trust the established authorities, or any establishments.

But isn’t that exactly what the [White House] press corps has become now? So eventually people no longer trust them.

You were mentioning products, that reminded me of those old ads—they changed the wording. At first it was tell your doctor about this designer drug that will probably kill you but may or may not solve your problem, but then they changed it to ask your doctor, but that’s still problematic because the doctor used to tell you on his educated knowledge of medicine and your patient-doctor relationship what you should take, but now he’s sponsored and you ask your doctor.

The relationship with your doctor has also changed. There’s no longer the family doctor.

That makes house calls.

Or had your history or knew who you were. Now it’s pop[ping] into a different city and can I get it on my insurance or not…

Someday they’ll be able to plug something into the back of your head and get a read-out of all your information.

Soon. It’ll be in your lifetime.

It’s at least 50 years away.

Chips. They do it in animals.

But people will put up some resistance…

What’s the alternative?

Ostracized?

Inability to travel? To participate in society?

You won’t be able to get a job?

You won’t be able to leave the country…

Or get housing.

Pay your rent.

“Chip? Everyone has a chip.” Tyranny of the majority.

This is how you pay your money, scan it in. There’s going to be pockets of resistance that are created in society.

If I live long enough to see that world, I’m gonna say right now…

And play this back to the future you!

I hope I’m part of that resistance, because otherwise I’ll have betrayed everything I believe in if I’m not. I can’t imagine being part of a world where I’m literally another cog in a machine that any particular cog has no control over.

But for some people…

And I don’t believe it’s inevitable, that monoculture has to lead to that. There is still a chance, there’s still plenty of opportunity for people to either collectively or individually rise up and say, ‘We’re not gonna live that way,’ and create other modes of being and living. I don’t know what those are yet.

It is about the megaphone, because it’s about the idea that to be able to get to an audience, it used to be very expensive. And this is everything. It didn’t matter if you were an artist, if you were a writer, or a photographer. To get your product out to a large amount of people required an interchange that usually you didn’t have access to or cost you a lot of money. There were outside factors that also controlled that, government, institutions…

Now there are no more barriers to entry.

Religion used to suppress books, governments used to suppress these ideas of freethinkers. Now that doesn’t take place. The power of what happens when someone becomes such a big megaphone that there has to be a point where when somebody finally gets 50 million followers, they can say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to pay taxes anymore, and I don’t think you should pay taxes, either.’ Now it’s not just one person saying that, now it could be a very big group.

What happens—and this is a complete hypothetical—what happens in four years’ time, how fast things move, that all of a sudden Obama has six billion twitter followers and he just says, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to run again, and if you don’t like it that’s just too bad. I don’t care if it’s against the constitution, because you know what, I answer to a larger voice now than the American people.’

[laughs]

Get it, Obama!

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Power Systems and the Left-Right Dichotomy

People are not powerless, but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of state and corporate authorities and institutions. Systems of any kind are in the business of rational self-interest, at least in theory. Bureaucracies, whether of the “public” or “private” flavor, are operationally sentient, meaning that their actions are somehow motivated toward self-preservation or growth. No system is going to undermine itself.

Unlike individuals of living, breathing humans, state/corporate wealth and power is based on a kind of legal fiction that found its best expression from the G.O.P. challenger last year: “Corporations are people, my friend.” Perhaps forty-seven percent of the voting public agreed.* Or, alternatively, about half of the electorate jibed with this sentiment: “Trickle-down government has never worked here, has never worked anywhere.”

The game of right-wing rhetoric was revealed to be boiled down to a principle of inversion: engage with what is real, for the sake of expediency, and then dutifully flip it over, only to end up accusing “the other side” of distortion. What passes for a left wing in public discussion of issues too often succumbs to the false equivalency of Two Sides Battling It Out (On TV!), each endowed with an equal dose of legitimacy.

(*The figure of 47% retains significance due to the irony of this proportion supporting a candidate who condemned nearly half the populace for being moochers.)

The division between Left and Right was explained well by Gidon Sa’ar, the Israeli education minister, who said, as reported in Ha’aretz by Eva Illouz,

The right is strong because we can forget our differences and get together around a single vision. The left is fragmented, because everyone there is fighting for his own self-interest.

The original dichotomy between left-wing and right-wing derives from the seating arrangements of the French national assembly of the old regime, in which those to the right side of the Monarch defended the aristocracy, the clergy, in short all of the status quo institutions that maintained social order. And those on the left side were the representatives of the rest of the population and their myriad visions, goals, and interests.

The right, using this model, speaks for the National Interest, as refracted through the lens of royal, religious, and military prerogatives, while the irrelevant public becomes a circular firing squad at worst and, at best, a hindrance to state and corporate interests. What is called the left, theoretically those critical of the Powers That Be, seems to have a preternatural fear of organizing. The right knows how to organize and defend itself, but its counterpart oftentimes does not.

Without challenge from below, institutions and policies in the public and private sectors — namely the preferences of corporate elites and their public servants — will act in their own amoral universe. Note that I do not say immoral: only human societies can have moral agency. States and corporations are not moral entities. The attitude that essentially says “corporations are evil” is asinine and short-sighted, as is the posture among self-described anarchists that dismantling “the state,” whatever that means, is desirable, realistic, or not guaranteed to mean suffering and misery for millions of people.

Oppression has to be overcome, which is fine enough to say, but the question of what that means and to what end overcoming it would be for society must be addressed or else it is not serious to spout slogans that sound salutary and simple.

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A Note on the Deal Between Al Jazeera and Current TV

The Newspaper of Record pointed out an observation with regard to the Current-Jazeera deal that this observaporter had not heard before: “[Al] Gore, one of the best-known proponents for action to combat global warming” decided to sell his struggling network “to a Middle Eastern monarch built with oil wealth.” For obvious reasons, some seized on that and cried hypocrisy. The simple fact that al Jazeera, an excellent news outlet, is wholly owned by a king and his family appears no more illegitimate than corporate ownership of media in our country. Reasonable people can disagree, but to me it is clear that neither our Free Press nor the most popular and respected TV station in the Arab world are really independent. A large chunk of the New York Times is owned by a Mexican mogul named Carlos Slím. The old gray lady is no more likely to run an exposé on him than Jazeera is going to investigate al-Thani, the Qatari royal. The principle is transnational: Do not bite the hand that feeds you.

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