Adventures In Funemployment

Since the start of the year, maybe it was sometime in January when walking across the two-mile span of the Golden Gate Bridge, dodging flocks of tourists wielding camera-attached narcissticks, and noting the signs telling me that jumping off would be not only fatal but tragic, I have not been “working” at a “job.” The purpose of the quote-marks is to show that I am no longer bound to an office or to a boss, and although I need income because this city is like a money hoover connected to your pocket, for the most part I am now a free agent. Since sometime in January, many applications have been sent out to various employers, so far amounting to nil — apparently it never gets easier to write a cover letter, especially for a job you really want. There have been a few interviews, and as far as projects go I have been working on more book reviews, the latest two (not yet out) have to do with revolution. One deals on the American Revolution, and the other calls for a sexual revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, an entire swath of the globe acronymized as MENA.

One of the things I do is follow the news. Here is an item that just came in: the Senate has confirmed the first Native American woman to be a federal judge. Change happens very slowly on a national scale. Trying to get into journalism school, at CUNY; the other week at the interview one question was, Where do you get your news? Difficult to answer that, since sources are now so various, like pluripotent cells that keep on subdividing. At this moment, near 20 tabs are vying for my attention. A backlog of reading continually piles up. A friend of mine tells me to enjoy the freedom of not being tied to a desk every weekday, staring at a screen. True, but then the issue of money comes back. Not exactly living large these days, but living is not cheap. Anyway, enough of that. The late David Carr — rest in peace, good sir — once said that the cure for writer’s block to start typing, and that’s true as far as it goes. Start clacking and no slacking. Rhyming is not going to be my talent but damn it, why not?

Looking forward — how I despise that phrase, particularly because it is also so useful — to the new version of the New York Times magazine, which has been completely overhauled. How long will it be until nothing gets printed? (Were our eyes meant to absorb pixels? Were human beings meant to sit in cubicles, to borrow a question from a certain cult film classic?) Tangents do not bother me, folks. But it is time to check for the track from which this departed, and loop back to where it was going… yes, adventures in funemployment, which was the first headline that came to mind. Even though the ever-present temptation is to sink into a posture of cynicism and snark, often remind myself to count the blessings, especially everything you take for granted. Otherwise there goes the path to obliviousness, the defensive crouch of a wandering soul who is not aware of how good things are even if there is no “career prospect” waiting around the corner. Not yet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Remembering the War in Iraq

Happy New Year. Remember Iraq? If you are not or were not counted among the “other one percent” of the country that served in the Armed Forces, it is likely forgotten and sent down the memory hole, like the archipelago of off-the-books torture chambers throughout the former Soviet sphere to which suspected terrorists had been abducted from various worldwide locations in the “War On Terror” dragnet, in the name of an atrocity on domestic soil blamed — at least subconsciously — on a paranoid tinpot tyrant and former client named Saddam Hussein.

In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the national security analyst Max Boot observes that the Second Gulf War (2003-2011, 2014-?) was an “investment” from which “the returns look meager.” The returns for Iraqis are substantial, but they don’t matter. The war in Iraq, according to the reviewer Michiko Kakutani, had in fact been “a misguided enterprise,” one which involved “cherry-picked intelligence, bungled decision making in Washington and a dysfunctional occupation” — and for the soldiers who fought the campaign, “anger and regret … swirled around it.”

US Marines Fighting Insurgents In Fallujah, 2004 (photo c. Lynsey Addario)

US Marines Fighting Insurgents In Fallujah, 2004 (photo c. Lynsey Addario)

Kakutani quotes Roy Scranton, “an artilleryman in the Army from 2002 to 2006,” as saying Washington “let loose a grisly pandemonium in Iraq, then walked away and tried to wash our hands of the whole affair.” Scranton’s observation seems accurate; few know that better than Iraqis themselves. Iraqi writers, Kakutani continues, such as “Hassan Blasim (‘The Corpse Exhibition’) and Ahmed Saadawi (‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’) … have used Kafka-esque scenarios and magic realism to convey just how surreal and nightmarish day-to-day life for Iraqis has become — [and] are gaining recognition in the West.” Boot, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, added that the “one thing that the U.S. public won’t tolerate is making sacrifices for a losing cause.”

“In Iraq,” Boot concluded, “the United States had all but won by 2011, when U.S. troops had to leave because Obama failed to negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement, in part because he never made it a priority.” Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and “a Senior Adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011,” observed that President Obama “had declared an end to the war in Iraq, but the Iraqis hadn’t gotten the memo.”

He and “his national security team fail[ed] to reach an agreement with the government of Iraq that would have allowed a residual U.S. force to remain there temporarily, and also fail[ed] to establish a strategy for how to leave Iraq in a manner that would secure the gains made there during those years.” Further on, Brennan records that a “number of commentators have concluded that the Obama administration was negotiating [with Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister] in bad faith, making an offer that it knew would be politically toxic in Iraq.”

Nevertheless, Washington wanted out. One of the American authors of the Iraq war experience, Phil Klay, mentions “a military chaplain who thinks that even with all he’s witnessed in Iraq, it is somehow ‘holier’ than ‘gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults.’” That is his judgement, of course, but there may be some truth in such a solemn declaration. Then again, like 99 percent of my fellow countrymen, I’ve never been to Iraq.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

No Peace, No Justice

“I’m 58 years old,” he said, shaking his head at the media circus one block away, standing near a bodega on Tompkins and Vernon Avenues, indignant that the murder of two police officers last Saturday afternoon had become “a kind of 9/11.” He remembers seeing two cops getting killed not too far away, on Willoughby and Throop, in 1974. He was 20 years old, ducking behind a car amid the fusillade of bullets. “It happens,” he said. “Move on.”

What irked him is that the killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, didn’t come from the nearby projects, swarmed with news vans and a makeshift memorial next to Mike’s Pizza, but from Baltimore, where Brinsley earlier that day had shot his ex-girlfriend. “I’ve been around this muthafucka,” the man said, resentful that people like him are likely to feel the weight of an increased police presence. Not that there wasn’t already what is effectively a military-esque occupation of the neighborhood (and every other public housing project) for years, with large bright lights flooding the streets at night and constant patrols. Something like this, as terrible as it is for the families of the slain officers and the city at large, seemed bound to happen.

The way that this incident is being portrayed is not the way things appear a few blocks away from the scene of the crime. There is no celebration here of dead cops, only the stagnant atmosphere of dread that the murders will be exploited by those who seek to further oppress minority communities instead of embrace the urgent need for national police reform, so that events like the Liu-Ramos slaying — in cold-blooded summary execution — never happen again. Instead, what we are being told from the news media is that we are a nation divided.

“The horrifying killings of two police officers in Brooklyn on Saturday shock the soul of the city and require us all to stop to honor the dead, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. … There is no evidence” that Brinsley, 28, “had any connection to the recent months of peaceful protests for police reform. But he linked those earlier tragedies [or crimes, but no one will know because there will be no trials] to his hateful words and unspeakable act, fatally coloring [that’s subtle] how others will perceive it.” The mayor “cannot allow it to fracture into opposing camps of those who support outraged protesters and those who stand with aggrieved cops.”

This was made all the worse by the flamethrowing words of the police union chief Patrick Lynch, who all but blamed Mayor De Blasio for the attack. “Officers Ramos and Liu were patrolling in Brooklyn not to oppress but to serve and protect,” the NYT editorial board concluded. However noble, that sentiment misses the point that was wisely put forward by the #BlackLivesMatter movement: do not miss the forest for the trees. Good trees can exist in a broken forest. On the same day, an editorial in the Wall St. Journal deliberately sowed divisions and seemed to pander to a fearful white readership. The officers “had been marked for death near a high-crime housing project they were trying to protect against criminal predators. … America is full of Brinsleys who no longer abide the norms of civilized behavior, if they even know what those norms are. They need but the slightest excuse to take justice into their own hands and go on a rampage. Especially in urban America, the police walk that line between civilization and mayhem every day.”

A mentally-ill homeless man in Milwaukee, Dontre Hamilton, was killed by a police officer on Apr. 30, another man in a long list of unarmed American citizens whose lives were taken by law enforcement officers for the crime of being poor and black and seen through a prism of fear, and yet again a grand jury chose not to indict the officer on Dec. 22. Protests there and in other places are ongoing.

Charles Blow succintly captured the tenor of the movement and the moment: “All lives are valuable — those of the public and the police. We can and must condemn the deranged suicidal cop killer (who also shot his former girlfriend [in the stomach]) as well as the cops who kill. There is no contradiction there. Humanity is the common thread.” This is America’s problem. We are one country, and as one country we must all take a share in the responsibility of fixing it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Requiem for a Nightmare

On Saturday, Dec. 20, at around 3pm, the sound of police helicopters roared over my block. Three blocks away, a man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to a parked squad car at the corner of Myrtle and Tompkins, drew his semiautomatic weapon, and fired into the car execution-style. One cop was dead instantly and the other passed at the nearby Woodhull Hospital, where by the evening a phalanx of NYPD vehicles were sitting up and down the street. News vans parked nearby. The air was tense.

The killer announced via the Instagram feed of his ex-girlfriend, who he shot in the stomach in Baltimore early that morning before fleeing to New York, that his intention was to put “wings on pigs.” He wanted to avenge the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the most twisted way possible: by murdering two police officers who had nothing to do with their deaths. And so, not only is this crime horrible in its own right, but it only feeds the fire of those who from the very start thought that police brutality is not a problem or a nationwide scourge worth addressing. The injustice is compounded on top of injustice.

No one cheered the deaths of Liu and Ramos, who were murdered in the street for no reason. The family of Michael Brown condemned the attack, and so did Al Sharpton. Violence against cops does not do a damn thing to bring back the lives of fallen citizens who were the victims of brutality. Violence against the police only serves to give ammunition to supporters of the status quo, in addition to the fact that killing ought to be condemned as a general rule. No more carnage. Regardless of your skin color, blood runs the same.

Rest in peace, Michael Brown. Rest in peace, Eric Garner. Rest in peace, Wenjian Liu. Rest in peace, Rafael Ramos.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Who Will Survive In America?

Thousands rallied in DC and other cities on Dec. 13 under the banner “Justice For All” (c. Reuters via BoingBoing)

Thousands rallied on Dec. 13 under the banner “Justice For All” (Reuters via BoingBoing)

In the Dec. 14 issue of the NY Times, Mark Bittman summarized several maladies that afflict the United States of America:

The police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

Happy Holidays! Nothing to see here, folks; keep minding your own business and please keep shopping. Bittman may be told to “stay in your lane,” but as he persuasively concludes, “Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters. A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.”

Spot on, sir. The interconnected and interdependent movements against injustice and exploitation — respectively embodied by the growing pressure to reform the nation’s police and to lift the working poor with a living wage — are sparking a conflagration of consciousness. If America is going to be a light unto the world, its people must not remain benighted by fear, division, and ignorance. Our civic creed has atrophied for too long. We fellow Americans are waking up, and it does not seem hyperbolic to say that the tide of a see-no-evil doctrine has begun to turn at last. Of course, activists have struggled to improve the country for a long time, but their efforts, for the most part, were relegated to a noisy but ineffective fringe of the body politic. What is different now is how popular and mainstream movements for social and economic justice have become.

There is a gulf between politics and policy, however. And it is beyond obvious that street demonstrators do not make policy. Yet with more and more of the populace in revolt, predominantly in a nonviolent fashion — in stark contrast to the violent reaction from agents of the state — policymakers cannot fail to remain unaffected. Legislators, these are your people. You serve them. They may not contribute campaign donations, but they are your real bosses. People feel alienated from power because powerful interests, namely the prison-industrial complex and the national security state on one end and an engorged financial class and obese agribusiness on the other (to denote only a few), do not care about the general population.

Anything that benefits the bulk of the people — whether it be health-care reform or radical concepts like fair pay — must be ardently opposed in the name of freedom and democracy. Right now, as Bittman observed, “we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique.” It is impossible that these can be ignored. Taking to the streets may not be enough, although it is admirable. Whether power can concede substantive change, with popular demand, remains to be seen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Triumph of the Plutocratic Status Quo

Last night, Dec. 11, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill (known as #CRomnibus), $1.1 trillion from the American taxpayer to go fund itself for the next fiscal year. Many are presenting the imbroglio as a tacit alliance between “Tea Party” Republicans and “progressive” Democrats to hold up the bill and risk a government shutdown for the second year in a row. Hasn’t happened. The Senate is currently debating the “cromnibus,” and one of the chief objections made to the budget is a blatant giveaway to the big banks, whose lobbyists inserted language on derivatives that only benefits themselves — the greater risk of another crisis be damned. Yet it mischaracterizes the reality to assert that there’s a partisan divide between the political parties, because what matters more is the division lies across both parties.

In other words, the two rival camps are not Republicans and Democrats: the two major coalitions are comprised of Establishment versus Insurgent posturings, in which technocratic politicians with an “R” or a “D” next to their names square off against ideological politicians with an “R” or a “D” next to their names. Most of the population is not as polarized as the political class itself, and where that polarization seems to be happening in a new status quo. The spectrum of debate has shifted more and more rightward over the last generation. Meanwhile, the financial sector has captured an increasing share of the levers of the political process. These observations are by now almost axiomatic. The good news is there won’t be another shutdown; the bad news is that we live in a plutocracy. Citizens expect overt extortion from powerful vested interests — i.e. special interests — as the cost of the public business. Let the technocrats and ideologues fight it out and quit the charade.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Denuded Republic

Welcome to the brave new world of vertically-integrated digital media, whatever that is. Seriously, what does it mean? People witnessed an example of the power of buzzwords to make masthead earthquakes late last week, when a shakeup at the centenarian Beltway institution and opinion journal The New Republic, a political commentary magazine that has been on the racks of Washington salons since Theodore Roosevelt, led to the exodus of nearly all of its editorial staff, totaling 55 people. The next issue will not be published until early February.

Ex-Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, 30, took over TNR and brought on Guy Vidra, a business strategist formerly with Yahoo, as CEO. Vidra’s memo, in part, triggered the walkout, with boilerplate corpro-speak like “making significant investments in creating a more effective and efficient newsroom as well as improved products across all platforms [italics mine]. This will require a recalibration of our resources in order to deliver the best product possible.” Also, they’re cutting the number of issues per year in half and moving the whole shop to New York, where the main nexus of news seems to be concentrated. Reduced to the status of an app, TNR has excoriated itself. And one year after Newsweek came back from its own near-death experience, are there more dominoes to fall? Magazine publishing has never appeared more dynamic and dysfunctional.

“Vertical integration usually means controlling the production arc from resource acquisition all the way through final sales,” wrote Ed Morrissey in the blog Hot Air. As another product in the marketplace of ideas, TNR would turn into a more streamlined editorial-delivery system. Naturally, this change of policy and values appalled nearly all of the senior staff. Lloyd Grove, a top editor at the Daily Beast, reported that “multiple sources” told him that Hughes “came to think of his writers and editors as ‘spoiled brats.’” Vidra was “said to have complained to [former longtime editor Franklin] Foer that the magazine was boring and that he couldn’t bring himself to read past the first 500 words of an article,” Grove wrote.

Julia Ioffe, a former senior editor at TNR, was quoted by Ravi Somaiya in the New York Times that Vidra’s verbage was “Silicon Valley mumbo jumbo buzzwords that don’t mean anything.” In another example of buzzwords that don’t mean anything, Somaiya also quoted Hughes as describing TNR as a “core differentiator” because of its history in the Washington backyard providing a center-liberal perspective on officialdom. Someday soon newsrooms across the land will see an internal memo for the editorial desk to “optimize the flowshare, monetize the linkgrabs, and chartify the intangibles,” and interpret sheer flabbergasted nonsense as forward-thinking visionary leadership in changing times. Ioffe, reached for comment, is a Russia expert, and presumably familiar with brazen bureaucratic blustering. What seemed to break the proverbial camel’s back was a vow Vidra made in front of an all-staff meeting that the new goal is to “break shit,” evoking what Mark Zuckerberg felt was the chief goal of any worthy enterprise.

“Breaking shit” is another way of describing the idea of what’s called disruptive innovation, which is another tech-sector neologism. No doubt that magazines, like all print in general, need to cut through the current stasis of an over-fragmented media sphere spinning so fast that people do not have the requisite time to read long-form articles, even though, across the spectrum, readers acknowledge that as a society we need “long-form content” — to use the fashionable term of entrepreneur-cognoscenti who most likely have stopped reading this sometime after the phrase “media sphere,” if they are reading this at all. The conundrum of commodifying commentary cannot concern the New Republic alone. What Vidra, the new boss at TNR, described as the “media landscape” is, in fact, very fraught with danger as well as opportunity. How this plays out is anyone’s guess. Michael Rusch, the night editor at BuzzFeed, concisely summarized what is going on: “White men mad at other white men,” he wrote to me. “Kind of sad and funny all at the same time.” When reached for comment, Nina Fortuna, director of the Association of Magazine Media, wrote, “I cannot comment.”

Evgeny Morozov, one of the very few senior editors whose name has not yet departed from the masthead, told me that “these SV guys are full of themselves (and other things),” also adding that he “had problems with TNR even before this week so I was mostly a goner anyway.” Morozov could not comment on their “internal politics” as he “spent no time in their office.” Meanwhile, the opiner Ross Douthat quoted Ezra Klein as saying “the eulogy that needs to be written” is for the “‘ambitious policy magazine,’ whether on the left or right, that once set the terms of Washington’s debates.” Douthat described publications like TNR as one “that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art,” a magazine that “never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life.”

It is true that not all facets of life are comprised of “policy inputs and social outcomes.” People are not simply data processors. The role of opinion journals is to reflect, amplify, deflect, and challenge the Conventional Wisdom. The news is getting restructured. But what shape will it take? and who is paying attention? Outlets that set the terms of debate. Magazines of opinion. These are not sustainable only within a venture capital context that sees them as ontological oddities like “core differentiators,” a non-phrase only a little less risible than the nothingful pseudo-profundity of “value-adds” and “leverage.” The word soup emblematic in Vidra’s memo is a microcosm of a larger issue: selling ideas — whether they relate to politics, culture, or anything else — as widgets that go down the supply chain from originator to user. Every schoolchild grows up to provide content that creates engagement and leads to frictionless sharing. We were born to optimize the flowshare. Forget about influencing the powerful for worse or better: monetize the linkgrabs. Are you a team player? Let’s disrupt the info-space.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized