Month: December 2014

Orwell: the luminous fierceness or the fierce luminosity?

A few days ago I was plowing disheartened through the NYTimes 100 Notable Books of 2014 when I felt compelled to tweet my opinion that the two words now guaranteeing a review is bullshit are “luminous”  and “fierce.”  I was joking around, sort of. Many comments were exchanged. And then today — several days late, yes — I open the FT weekend arts email that I get every Friday night, and I find this: George Orwell’s luminous truths — The English writer is revealed in all his fierce integrity in a new collection of journalism.

It is particularly sad to see this coming from a British publication.  The British should understand Orwell’s adamant lack of luminosity; you can’t read him without feeling the English cold and damp, and really sitting with him, like ploughing with pleasure through the four volumes of his essays, reviews, and letters, as I once did, could actually give you a nasty head cold — the phrase “snot rag” is never far from one’s mind. To call him “luminous” is to sound, among other suspect conditions in an Orwell review, quite American. The Brits are not supposed to be so dimwitted: what have we done to them?

And of course fierce is not at all correct either. Neither for his mind nor his “integrity”. His integrity was the result of an intellect and a sensibility pulled together by deep and reliable sensitivities to literature and to politics. Integrity — oneness — is never really fierce. It is unassailable, impenetrable, unbreakable, unyielding.  But really they’re not talking about his integrity when they throw “fierce” out there like dead fish parts in the chum. What they mean is the quality of his mind: which is coherent and incisive, keen; perhaps at times lethally sharp. His  prose relied for its power not merely on its accuracy and intensity but its elegance, which was sturdy and unerring. Orwell moves on the page in the manner of a man whom you’d not expect to be a good dancer but who is.

Put another way, and the right way for Orwell: if you neither see nor feel the knife going in, your murder has not been fierce; it has been deft.

Screed (II): What blackness would you add to this blackness?

Icon - Ferguson MO Nov 28 2014

President Obama this afternoon made some remarks on the why-am-I-not-surprised-failure by the Staten Island grand jury investigating the chokehold death of Eric Garner to indict the police officer who killed him. On videotape. There were several striking features of Obama’s remarks: he refused to say, either in reference to the Staten Island case or to the Ferguson case, which he brought up several times, that anyone actually died. Was dead. Was not merely pining for the fjords. In the Staten Island case we got this: “a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officers [sic] who had interacted with an individual named Eric Garner in New York City.” They interacted indeed, and lo! Garner was dead on the ground. Of perhaps too much interacting.

The President expressed his concern for the decades-long problem faced by “minority communities that feel that bias is taking place.”  Further on the President referred to the “concern that many minor communities have that law enforcement is not working with them, dealing with them in a fair way.”

Oh, and I almost forgot, as will so many: there’s a Task Force. Those folks, as the President would call them, if they’d been tortured in US custody, are working on it. They’re going to report to him directly.

Such language of course is meant to, and does, drain these events of meaning, of color, of actual existence on the planet. Dead young men become a matter of feelings, of concerns, of fairness, the work of a task force. He concluded with his strongest remarks: “This is not a black problem, this is not a brown problem, this is not a Native American problem, this is an American problem, when anyone is not treated with equality under the law…”  That indeed was the clip circulating in my own social media circles, with words appended, such as “Thank you.”

Cut to Marilyn Monroe sewn into a dress and singing “Happy Birthday”.

This last “equality under the law” reference is perhaps most pernicious of all: it sounds good, it sounds resolute, it sounds wise and fair, but it denies (as Obama has over and over denied, for reasons both political and personal, I suspect) the specifically racial nature of the problem before us. Minority communities don’t “feel” there’s bias: they know there’s bias and they fear for their lives, most especially for the lives of their sons, a full quarter of whom are at any one moment in some form of contact with the criminal justice system, each one able to count himself lucky not to be dead.  Because such homicides as we’ve seen in Ferguson and on Staten Island  are not merely problems to be addressed under the 14th amendment’s stricture that everyone must be treated with equality under the law — a joke if you know anything of our state and federal justice systems — but a very specific problem seen all over the United States not of misapplied justice but of killing, with impunity, unarmed black men.  Killing. Dead. If equality under the law were the problem in these cases then all we’d have to do is instruct the cops to be sure to kill, with impunity, a comparable number of white people.

What Obama once knew but refuses to know any longer is that this country is built on intractable and quite vicious forms of racial inequality, institutionally begotten and institutionally enforced — all of it oriented toward the protection of privilege, wealth and power. The problem at hand in these cases is a racism so thorough and so intricately woven into daily experience we — meaning white people — hardly see it anymore, until someone captures on video a cop killing a black man who’d been selling cigarettes.

Loosies, they’re called, the cigarettes Garner was accused of peddling (he had done so before but it’s not clear he was actually doing so the day he died). Loosies at the bodegas, loosies on the street, because who in a poor community can afford a whole pack? Of course Barack would tell them: best if you quit smoking. He claims he did. The Obamas have an organic garden. They make their own ale. They have a task force.

american flag 2014 from twitterfeed of puchi at machucartier

A note on copyright of images: the two images accompanying this blog post were circulating on social media and were unattributed. I admire both and am not only willing but eager to credit them properly or, if requested, remove them. I’d much prefer the former…..

Screed (I): The Totally Fucked.

A very old friend writes to send me a job listing he’s come upon, director of communications for the Columbia University School of the Arts. It so happens I attended that school; and I’ve served as a director of communications for two universities in the past. So this is sensible and generous of him to do. I write back:

Dear M——-,
Thanks for this. I can’t do this kind of work now, I can’t make the high squeaky noises anymore nor feign the belief that it isn’t a waste of time and resources, i.e., total bullshit. But you were right, it’s exactly in my range of experience on paper and thank you for thinking of me. You’ll know what I mean when you’re turning 58, just biding your time until you’re on Soc Sec and buying cat food for your supper….. or the like. (I actually never understood the cat food trope with the elderly since there are eggs and beans to be had cheap. Plus you’re all decrepit and shit and so you can’t open the cans anymore anyway). 
Were you here in the East for Thanksgiving? I hear from the lads that a great time was had down at A—–‘s. I hope you and yours are well. 
Warm wishes

___________________

This friend is in his mid-40s with two kids and he’s out of work: he left a career in one devastated field, journalism, and went to law school. While he was there the law, once a step ladder for many into lives of modest prosperity, became another devastated field. Another culling of the herd of the upper middle classes.  He replies:

Ha ha. I’m in NYC doing a temporary doc review project. It’s wrapping up, so I’m on hiatus. A—– was a terrific host. Your kids have so much musical talent. I cannot get over how beautifully and quickly P— has learned to be a finger-pickin’ maestro. We brought a bunch of instruments and had fun.

 BTW – I’m not even eligible for that job that I contacted you about because a credit check revealed – surprise, after three years of law school! – that my debt-to-income ratio is too high. Go figure. If I had a job, of course, then that wouldn’t be such an issue….

_____________________

This last bit of news, him being classified ineligible for a job because his debt is high, when, if he got the job, he could and would lower it, set me off. It harmonized with stuff I’d been thinking about obsessively anyway. (For a long, long time, actually: see http://harpers.org/archive/1998/08/wholl-stop-the-drain-reflections-on-the-art-of-going-broke/ ) And it struck me as so plainly an aspect of American life that we no longer have the power to cure, not in my lifetime anyway, that as usually I got angry. At my keyboard. Here’s what I wrote back.

Your debt is high not merely because of your own circumstances but in a larger sense because of the longstanding policies of the same government that won’t hire you because your debt is too high. There is no way to hold down wages as long as we have, and grow as much as we have in terms of consumer spending, without making available a LOT of easy credit. To the point where you’re paying two percent a month to be alive. And now the credit check is the great arbiter of everything — whether you can have a job, get an apartment, etc. Of course it’s an instrument of exclusion and a further wedge between a small portion of the population and the roiling — nay, inert — masses.  A complete system that you can’t escape and that is designed to fuck you over. 

This is the kind of shit I heard about and read about when I was a kid — about the Soviet Union, about Germany before that, other places — the systematic and never-resistible disempowerment of the individual, a wearing down of one’s ability and will to fight back or even to feel autonomous as a human being, with full agency, or even partially immune to the mechanisms of power.  You can’t fight it of course because such would be like fighting with a sheet blowing in a high wind and then another and then another, the wind never relenting, the sheets never running out. The rise of the relentless modern bureaucracy. Kafka predicted it beautifully. 
It occurred to me today that there are essentially three classes of people in the US now: in the bulky middle are those who spend a spirit-crushing amount of time calling their insurance companies, their banks, their credit card companies, their children’s schools, the local officials, the state officials, federal offices, trying to straighten out endless problems, unjust late fees uncredited payments refusals of coverage the discovery that some privilege you know you’d paid for and been told you were paying for now, inexplicably, you are not eligible for — a constant grinding down of your skull by a system of automated directories and inapplicable instructions, phone limbo, shit you realize that the website, after it runs you in a circle a couple of times, doesn’t even hint at how to deal with. How could you possibly feel like a full agent of your own life in such circumstances? Every move against the bureaucracy is a reminder that you have no power. You know, for a fact, that this never happens to the senior executives of Halliburton or Raytheon or to any of the partners at Goldman Sachs. But who exactly you’d call to make sure it never happens to you is a mystery whose power goes if possible beyond even the power of religion. And that is the class above you, a priestly class, essentially: shamans of wealth.  Below you are the desperately poor indeed. They’re up against social welfare offices and the judicial systems, the departments of housing and health and education, they’re not fighting with PayPal or Chase but to keep their children fed and out of jail, housed if God is good, and forget educated. And you know very well that as rarely as you are able to solve a problem with your goddamned health insurance company, they, in fact never win, ever. They are the TF’s, for Totally Fucked. 
Anyway, there — I’m happy to get all THAT out of my system (and, okay, into yours).  I’m so glad about Thanksgiving.  Your [late] mother’s great gift, passed down through her children to her grandchildren, is that capacity for joy, especially in the presence of music. Nobody in my world ever had that and I often feel the lack…. Funny about P—. As a kid he had the least interest in his music lessons, getting him to do anything was like taking a whale for a walk in the park, but somehow over the last few years he’s turned into the most dedicated musician — or musical performer anyway, since J— composes a lot — of them all. I gave him the banjo you know (he bragged, stupidly). Got it offa eBay. 
Take care.