Monday, October 31, 2016

Looking Out For Number One Only?

Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds
Capitalism is predicated on the idea of individual initiative. The most obvious economic manifestation of that is entrepreneurship, a talent that’s touted on the television show Shark Tank, a kind of American Idol for those with an acumen for business. But the greatest capitalist of them all Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, which did for capitalism what Das Kapital would for revolution, also wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which human empathy was the subject. Talk about Originalism, what a different attitude early proto-conservatives like Smith and Edmund Burke had in comparison to our right wing Tea Party firebrands, latter day Social Darwinists, advocating the dog eat dog vision of human society propounded by Herbert Spencer. In their view man is no different from the animal on the veldt competing for scarce resources, with the strongest, the pythons, the hyenas triumphing over more docile species. Advocates of this laissez faire view envision a society freed from entitlements and  over constitutionalized with protections for those who may not be strong enough to defend themselves. The fact is that the ancestors of man may have been apes, but why throw the baby out with the bathwater? If individual liberty is at stake, why don’t those who virulently argue for the free market, and less government intrusions, use their heads. Without the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment there would be no democracy to defend. Robert Ringer wrote the bestseller, Looking Out For Number One. But is that all there is?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Capitalism and Pleasure

Adam Smith (Scottish National Gallery, given by J.H. Romanes l945)
Is capitalism based on the deferral of pleasure? This was an issue that Max Weber was dealing with in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. If you believe in predestination which was one of the tenets of Protestantism than the difference between the saved and the damned would be demonstrated by their adherence to values of frugality and saving. But forget the religion, if you're a true capitalist you expend effort in order to build your wealth. Those who believe in seizing the day (carpe diem) indulge the pleasure principle at the expense of their principal. While the sybarite might, with his or her Dionysian spirit, delight in wine, woman and song, the capitalist who's more reason bound and Apollonian, to invoke Nietzsche’s famous duality, actually experiences pain at the loss of his potential wealth. The outflow of capital registers as a diminution of spirit. The anorexia of Kafka’s Hungerkunstler (Hunger Artist) is a perversion of the Protestant ethic. It’s capitalism in extremis to the extent that self-deprivation eventually leads to suicide. The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin pointed out that self-sacrifice is no longer a form of good if it results in doing harm to the self. So it is with the emetic notion of grace. A true capitalist is not an anorexic since his deferral of pleasure is predicated on the notion of future bliss. While the capitalist defers pleasure, he or she does so in the spirit of anticipation. However, the pleasure that results is more like gestation to the extent that by saving he or she derives satisfaction not from the possibilities of enjoying what money can buy, but in seeing his or her nest egg grow.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What's a Scumbag?

foam and wastewater in the New River (CNRC)
Is there such a thing as a scumbag? And if so what factors go into turning a person into one? First of all the dictionary defines scumbag as a “contemptible or objectionable person.” But so is a jerk, an idiot, a ne’er-do-well, a crook, a liar. What differentiates the word scumbag from other terms for people who aren’t appealing is the conjunction of the two nouns scum and bag. Scum is defined as “extraneous matter or impurities risen to or formed on the surface of a liquid often as a foul filmy covering” and bag is a “usually flexible container that may be closed for holding.” So in a literal sense the compound word amounts to a vessel filled with waste—something which is tantamount to a toilet. If you call someone a scumbag then you're saying that like a toilet they breathe the kind of toxic effluents that also tend to stink. Are there people whose personalities can be said to be so compromised that they're literally repositories of all that is bad and awful to intake? For instance are dictators and those responsible for genocide scumbags, or could they be described as misguided individuals, whose sometimes purely held conceptions, are merely the result of an inability to conjoin ideas with reality? For instance for all the pain he caused it’s hard to call the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, a scumbag when there are so many people who're more qualified for the appellation. You know scumbags, they’re too selfish to be interested in ethnic cleansing. By definition scumbags lack a mission. They’re too busy sitting in their own shit to care about anyone else. They take in enormous quantities of alcohol, food and drugs and end up puking over everyone around them. You’ve read about the hit and run drivers, who're usually intoxicated and leave their victims to die in the streets. These are examples of the kind of people who can rightfully hold the title of scum bag. (“Bronx cyclist killed by hit-and-run driver during deadly weekend," The New York Daily News, 6/12/16)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Pornosophy: The Trojan War

photo: XF Law
Two interesting sounding books were recently reviewed in the venerable TLS under the title “Human action within, Digging up the Ancient Greek sex trade”: Athenian Prostitution: The Business of Sex by Edward E. Cohen and Houses of Ill Repute: The Archeology of Brothels, Houses and Taverns in the Greek World by Allison Glazebrook and Barbara Tsakirgis. With all the talk about political correctness in universities it’s nice to know that there's a bastion of calm amongst classics scholars who are not worried about students being triggered by things that happened 2500 years ago. Of course, discussions of Sophocles Oedipus Rex have provoked complaints from some who have found the material too provocative. Barbara Graziosi, who wrote the essay/review, comments “Xenarchus, writing in the fourth century BC, claims that prostitutes are displayed to the public ‘naked in a row, drawn up in battle line’ and that ‘from them it is possible to find one that is pleasing--whether slim, fat, curvy, tall, short, young, old, middle-aged or just ripe’. Both male and female prostitutes are typically described as ‘sitting in cubicles’, in full view of potential customers." Actually Graziosi’s citation of Xenarchus brings back the old Times Square peep shows that were part of long gone classical era of cosmopolitan debauchery when Manhattan was a flesh pot. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. But reading about the whores of antiquity makes one realize that Trojans is a perfect name for a brand of prophylactics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Diasporic Dining XXXXIII: The Running Footman

Somewhere in the December 14, 1970 edition of New York Magazine, mention is made of a restaurant called The Running Footman, located at 133 East 61, only a few blocks from Bloomingdale's. In the same issue you can read pieces like “RFK Freshly Remembered” (Interviews by Jean Stein, edited by George Plimpton) and “Confessions of a Youth Marketeer” by Andrew Tobias. There are reviews of restaurants by Gael Greene, of theater by John Simon and an advertisement for Rober Grimsby and Bill Beutel on Eyewitness News and one for a lost Catskills Institution called The Corcord which reads “Do Your Christmas Shopping Early at the Singles Weekend.”  Farrah, Straus and Giroux advertises Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers for $5.95. The Running Footman was a creature of its times, a clubby restaurant, with an English hunt scene theme. It occupied a long narrow room presided over by a maitre d' who met you at the top of a small set of stairs which descended into the main dining room. It was the kind of place that was filled with people who looked vaguely familiar and had achieved something short of celebrity status, affluent people who were more prone to being known and respected by those in the industries in which they worked than to the general public. The Running Footman was the vestige of an age in which income inequality of the kind we see today (where middle and upper middle class diners are almost poor compare to hedge fund managers) hadn’t yet reared its ugly head. Thomas Piketty the author of Capital in the 21st Century wasn’t even born. You might have found readers of Vance Packard's The Status Seekers, at The Running Footman. There was a driver named Tiny who was actually huge and fat and who was popular with patrons of The Running Footman. His stretch limo added to the atmosphere of aristocratic entitlement that made the restaurant popular on the Upper East Side of its time.