Thursday, April 25, 2019

Biden Time?

photo of Joe Biden by David Lienemann
When Bernie Sanders was running in 2016, there was the theory that he could never win. You might not like Hillary but you would vote for her since she was the candidate who would coalesce Democratic voters. Now the same argument is being made about Biden. You might like Beto or Buttigieg, but why not vote for Biden who for starters is definitely going to take Pennsylvania and will probably give Trump a run for the money in some other rust belt states too? Despite some recent #MeToo problems which Biden will probably be able to survive, the former vice president looks to be heading the pack. What could go wrong? His treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings? His abortion stance which includes his once voting to let states challenge Roe v. Wade? The delay in his actually announcing his candidacy? His age? The whole question of who to vote for is a little like the Bill of Rights which favors individual considerations over the will of the majority. What if you choose to vote for Kamala Harris or Hickenlooper because you like them? Must all voting be strategic? Is the point of the election, not belief, but simply unseating a particularly odious incumbent? Does the means, ie the repression of one’s political standards, justify the ends that would be electing the lesser of two evils? Ever hear of “creative destruction,” the principal advocated by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter? What if it’s anarchy and everyone votes for Democratic or progressive candidates who all take votes away from the front runner? What if Trump is reelected for four more years? Could it be possible that politically speaking the pain would edge the country forward to real change or is it best to vote for Biden and stop Trump in his tracks? Biden, biding or buying time?

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Final Solution: A Chicken in Every Plot

Louis XIV and Moliere (Jean-Leon Gerome)
Moliere would have had a party with our current political climate. Right, left and center huge smoke stacks of afflatus bilge out on a 24-hour basis like the factories filled with child workers during the  the industrial revolution. Speaking of children, a child has been conscripted and lionized as an example of all that's good. Here is the speech of the 16 year old Greta Thunberg to the EU Parliament, Out of the mouths of babes. Trump makes you vomit, but then you have to endure the sideshow of liberal do-gooders, promising the world the world. Listen for instance to potential Democratic nominees at the recent CNN town hall. Elizabeth Warren is going to forgive student debt. Great idea, but what about the cost of single payer healthcare, would that to become part of the Democratic platform? When you roll out 16 year olds with pigtails evangellically intoning "if our house was falling apart," isn't anyone reminded of Nixon’s “Checkers Speech? First of all it's "if our house were." Secondly employing juggernauts of repetition is a form of noise pollution that will drive people who are sensitive to these kinds of linguistic abuses nuts. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned cynicism as a platform? Why can’t someone make a similar point to young Thunberg, by embracing greenhouse gases as the wave of the future. Remember Swift's A Modest Proposal? How refreshing to read a broadsheet about combatting famine by eating babies! Why isn’t there a candidate who will reply to questions about gun control by showing off his or her new bump stock? Human beings are imperfect. A humorist like Mark Twain reflected the values of an earlier age. The only hope seems to lie in the Ukraine, where a comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky, (whose only experience in politics is that he played the role of president on TV) overwhelmingly beat the incumbent president Petro Poronshenko.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Professor Oblivion

You naturally have your butcher, your baker, your candlestick maker, but certain professions become passé. Remember the old-fashioned knife sharpeners and the strange apparatuses they sometimes wheeled around on wooden carts. Then there’s the case of the critic, once a vibrant part of the intellectual life of the nation, but now relegated to a relatively minor position in the culture, primarily due to the death of newsprint. And what about those critics who have a second career as clowns—earning their pay by jumping up and down and bilging out tendentious nonsense rather than rendering judgments in a spirit of equanimity? Remember the humiliating fate of Professor Rath played by Emil Jannings in Von Sternberg’s Blue AngelThese are the creatures who have replaced the Edmund Wilsons, Mary McCarthys  and Elizabeth Hardwicks of another age. Sometimes its modernity that's responsible for the disappearance of certain vocations. For instance, self-service resulted in the disappearance of the elevator man who was a familiar figure in the metropolitan landscape from the 20’s right through the early 60’s. And what about blacksmiths? The need for horseshoes continues to dwindle now that horse drawn carriages are under attack--at least in New York. You can still get an operator if you are willing to wait, but now most phone companies depend on computer generated voices that in turn produce a simulated response. Similarly few receptionists are there to greet you anywhere and don’t expect to find information booths, another obsolete item. Just follow the prompts. In a few years Amazon will have finally killed off the last of the retail stores. Books, like home runs, are going going gone and that means there will be no need for printers, binders or paper for that matter. And then there’s Tom Lehrer’s "The Old Dope Peddler"who's still doing a thriving business in Fentanyl.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy

Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy,which just completed a run at Park Avenue Armory, is an elegant juxtaposition between the industrial revolution and theatrical innovation. As directed by Sam Mendes, it’s a family drama about the emblematic decline of capitalism (as manifested in the demise of famous financial dynasty) narrated in a glass box that redounds with everything from story theater style narration to epic visual spectacles like Robert Wilson's The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. Both the economic and historical analysis and the theatricality are polished and neatly contained. It’s an old-fashioned piece bien fait, a well-made-play, in the form of a groundbreaking piece of theatrical art. These criticisms not withstanding the production creates many trenchant moments that remain with you—in particular the fact that the dramatic conclusion is never is far from the viewer’s consciousness, with the dissolution of the firm during the financial crisis of 2008 memorialized by the packing cartons which are on stage from beginning to end. There are three other historical crises which constitute important elements. An enormous fire destroying many plantations at or near Montgomery, Alabama where they had settled would facilitate, the Lehman Brothers terming themselves "middlemen" in the cotton industry. The Civil War and Black Thursday, 1929 complete the evolution to becoming that form of financial institution now known as an investment bank (at one point one of the brothers says “this is how our recipe works; the flour is money”).With several minor exceptions only three actors occupy the stage. Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley) and Emanuel (Ben Miles) play the original Jewish immigrants and their successors. Multiple role-playing of this kind is powerful and haunting but also leads to some degree of homogenization. And if there's a moral dimension to the drama (after all ambition and exploitation are subsidiary themes), it’s hard to really identify a sense of good or evil as it plays out in what's essentially a value-free scenario. 

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Miracle Worker

Moses famously parted the Red Sea and then there was the Burning Bush. His modern day counterpart might be someone embarking on the kind of "search" Walker Percy's Binx Bolling undertook in The Moviegoer. The first line of the book is the following quote from Kierkegaard, "the specific quality of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." Today Moses might be someone leading his people out of a state of spiritual malaise. If you’re talking about biblical narratives of course the creation of the world in six days is the most famous, but let’s not forget the ram appearing at the Binding of Isaac. For children these stories are very real; even adults who are believers tend to interpret them within the context of a certain level of verisimilitude. What's a day in prelapsarian time? But this brings up the question of miracles. People often wish for miracles to occur when they’re in tough situations. It’s called foxhole praying. However the bible is a retrospectroscope. Hindsight is 20/20 and the very point of all these stories is there's no quid pro quo. No appeal is being answered with a sign from God. Miracles may happen, but without the intervention of a celestial operator fielding emergency calls. In this regard, the modern skepticism about the miraculous may relate to the question of human agency. Scientism has produced what Max Weber termed as “disenchantment” with the metaphysical. If you take the notion that laws the three laws of thermodynamics, relativity and quantum mechanics explain the universe then there’s little room left for the imagination. However, perhaps it’s definitional. Does it make sense to say a miracle is a serendipitous happening defying reason of which humans are the beneficiaries but not the cause?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Old-fashioned Pleasures of Getting and Giving Good Phone

Bell System Telephone Switchboard (1943)
Giving good phone is an increasingly rarified ability in this age computer generated voices like Siri. It’s a little like cursive writing, another ability which has bitten the dust in a world where no one writes hand-written letters anymore. But as nice as simulated responses can be, there’s no replacing the real thing. Google Maps may be very gentle in saying “recalculating route,” instead of screaming “Herman, what are you doing?” when you’ve made a wrong turn. Yet try to imagine your iphone occupying the chair opposite you at Chez Moi #Aussi. It’s not that giving good phone doesn’t pose it’s own set of problems. For instance computer generated systems are programmed to be nice, but when a flesh and blood human being is particularly attractive and seductive over the phone you begin to wonder about the basis for their pleasant behavior. They barely know you yet you feel that they regard you as a potential lover and start to wonder if there’s any sense in entertaining fantasies of a life together. Are they talking sweetly to you because they like you? Even though they don't know you? Tantalizing experiences over the phone are a little like the buildup that accompanies some blind dates. You’ve heard all about this great guy who's rich, ripped and totally into affirmative consent and then you meet him. Similarly the voice on the other end can be like the Sirens that lured Odysseus to his death. Once you wake up from the trance you may come to your senses and start to question the nature of the personality behind the beguiling words.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Animal Farm

first edition of Animal Farm
People have all kinds of relationships with their pets that often are a mirror of the kinds of societies they inhabit. For instance benevolent despotism seems to be a common relationship between a dog and his master—and it’s reflective of the kind of governance in which relatively little faith is placed in the autonomy of the citizen. You’ve heard of the divine right of kings with its corollary assumption that the masses of subjects have little or no—divine rights that is. Frederick the Great was the epitome of the benevolent despot. In modern times you had Tito who kept Yugoslavia together. When he died, chaos reigned and there were wars in which centuries of historical baggage played out in bloody slaughters at Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Tito was the pater familias of a raucous and divisive family that would become murderously dysfunctional. In any case it turns out that Frederick was buried next his favorite greyhounds. Now in terms of democracy there are dog owners whose relationships reflect Jeffersonian ideals and cats whose litters are shrines to the Federalist papers. Athenian democracy is another form of government that's reflected in animal maintenance and care of a beneficent kind. And, of course, you can see isolationism in the concept of the goldfish bowl. Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Everyone always thinks of it as a political allegory, but it’s also an excellent handbook for pet lovers.