Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

Zappa Plays Zappa opened last Sunday's show with this number, which they learned just for the Chicago crowd.

Projecting The Emptiness Within: Lasch And The Cult Of Celebrity

The tabloids are a lot of fun. They are also disturbing. When I saw a cover of one with the Gosselin's on it, I had to read the story to find out who they were and why I should care. It turns out that, other than having their lives filmed for reality television, I really shouldn't care all that much about them. I still don't. Whatever they are going through, the prurience of the tabloids has shown how easy it is to destroy what it creates.

The apotheosis of our celebrity culture is the viral spread of "reality television". Purporting to present "real life", it has been reduced to presenting images of "ordinary people" and not only offering a glimpse of their lives, but offering to all viewers the opportunity, by turns, to enjoy the spectacle and yearn for the opportunity as well.

In the first chapter of The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch writes the following on pp. 21-22:
The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame ad glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the "herd," and make it more and more difficult for him to accept the banality of everyday existence. Frank Gifford and the New York Giants, [Frederick] Exley writes, "sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible." Haunted and in his own view destroyed by "this awful dream of fame," this "illusion that I could escape the bleak anonymity of life," Exley depicts himself or his narrator - as usual, the distinction is unclear - as a yawning void, an insatiable hunger, an emptiness waiting to be filled with the rich experiences reserved for the chosen few.

As we reach the final, demented days of a culture no longer even pretending to insist on a distinction between public and private, personal and professional, or understanding that "fame" is quite a bit different from "renown", we are inundated with images from the lives of people who force themselves upon our attention precisely because they have no other resources that make their lives understandable, or even real.

What does it say about us, even as we face grim economic times and tough political choices, that our attention is seized by the personal problems of a couple who, it seems, have nothing to offer us but an object lesson in why fame and celebrity are not to be sought? What does it say about us that literally millions of dollars continue to be spent presenting us, the public, the lives of other people? Other than the related reactions of envy and desire - envy that we are not made as real as they; desire that we, too, can be made real this way - and the glee that always accompanies the destruction of artificial heroes (parents of eight children, it seems obvious that the Gosselins do not have the emotional maturity requisite for such responsibility).

Other than the very human reaction that I feel sorry for the children involved - not just that their parents are splitting up, but that they have to suffer such emotionally empty parents to begin with - I see the Gosselins more as an example of the decline of our culture than anything else. Again, to quote Lasch, on p. 22:
The modern propaganda of commodities and the good life has sanctioned impulse gratification and made it unnecessary for the id to apologize for its wishes or disguise their grandiose proportions. But this same propaganda has made failure an loss unsupportable. When it finally occurs to the the Narcissus that he can "live not only without fame but without self, live and die without ever having had one's fellows conscious of the microscopic space one occupies upon this planet," he experiences this discover not merely as a disappointment but as a shattering blow to his sense of selfhood.

What I find so powerful about Lasch's critique of celebrity is its prescience; he understood the end result of our narcissistic culture would be nothing more and nothing less than the projection of our collective psychic emptiness as an attempt to make "real" that which seems so unreal to us. We have become Narcissus, unable to tear ourselves away from our own projected beauty, never realizing that projection is unreal, the beauty a lie.

Friday, August 28, 2009


I'm just not sure what to do with this.
"To be honest with you, I have prayed for Obama to die. I'm not the only one, I'm just the only one with the spine to say it."

One thing I detest are people who simply write others out of the Christian faith over this or that little point of doctrine or practice.

But praying for the death of any human being . . . especially the President of the United States, regardless of party. . .

I'm saddened by this. I'm disgusted by this. I'm angered by this. I'm struggling to figure out how to respond to this.

Wolf in sheep's clothing, says part of me.

Testing positive for a spirit of hatred, says another part of me.

God is about life, and having it more abundantly; praying for death is antithetical to everything I profess God to be about. It is the opposite of my confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Savior.

I think more than angry, I am just hurt right now. This is a blight on all Christians. God, forgive my anger and sadness.

The Setting

The Preface to The Culture of Narcissism describes in broad strokes what Lasch calls "the current malaise" facing late-20th century America. The issue that Lasch attempts to face squarely is the intellectual and moral and social bankruptcy of liberalism, as a practice in the United States.

It is important to remember what he means by "liberalism". He is not using the word to refer to the squishy left-leaning politics of late-70's Democrats. Rather, he is referring to the liberal tradition, which exists in two related strains throughout US history. What we typically call "conservative" is actually just a variety of classical liberalism, far closer to the libertarianism of John Stuart Mill mixed with the classical economics of David Ricardo, rather than true conservative thought such as one reads in Burke or Russell Kirk. The flip side, the mild statism of "liberal Democrats" is more reminiscent of 19th century British liberalism, or perhaps if slightly more "radical" version embodied in Britain in David Lloyd George, rather than a true ideology of the left. With only one true leftist in the US Congress (Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a Social Democrat), the left is far less represented in American mainstream politics than the right, which has most of the Republican Party.

These two sides of liberalism, void of any meaningful content to move the American public, or even to hold it together, waged a fierce struggle throughout the decade of the 1970's. The reaction against the radicalism of the late-1960's - itself very much an admixture of strains of traditional liberalism, rather than a substantive truly radical social critique based in Marxist, or neo-Marxist thought - resulted not in a higher synthesis, but rather a resurgence of reactionary corporatism, an unveiled attempt to reverse multiple social gains of the working class. That one of the central critiques of the radical movement of the 1960's - the state is corrupt and evil; do not trust it - was echoed by Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address ("government is the problem") - should have clued people in to the reality that the distance between "liberal" and "conservative" thought in the United States was quite short indeed. It should also have made people aware that each was equally vapid, and quite wrong.

Lasch also points out in the preface that what many observers saw as a retreat from politics might have been a good thing. Low voter turnout and a persistent drop in party identification may have been indications not that the American people are dumb or don't care; rather, he argues, this political distancing may have been a sign of incipient revolt, a refusal to accept the terms of our common life as presented to us by a system far too vested in modes of thought and discourse that they correctly perceive as morally bankrupt.

It should also be noted that the corruption at the heart of American culture, a corruption to which Lasch assigns the term "narcissism" to describe the depth of the psychic emptiness once filled by social, cultural, and civic institutions whose very hearts have been eviscerated by the self-immolation of liberalism, is a corruption first and foremost among elites; then, of course, there is bourgeois culture and its American inheritors, those heady pursuers of personal fulfillment, excessive personal decadence at the expense of delayed gratification.

It is interesting to consider how, at this point, the American right - the rump of all that is left of that decade of fire - has nothing to offer the American people but fear, paranoia, and glittering distractions as a way of staving off the possibility of its own demise. That it might bring down the whole system, and us with it, matters little. Void of any sense of self, these last stragglers from the age of narcissism fear only the annihilation of their own, empty selves. We stand on the brink, and there is no way to be sure who will win the struggle between the nihilist inheritors of the legacy of Reagan and the coming age of possibility and hope, tempered by an understanding of limit and the acceptance of failure on a social and political as well as personal level.

One thing for sure. Lasch's thirty year old book is a great program to the match.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reaching An End

In an attempt to comprehend why we are where we are, socially, culturally, politically, I am going back in time in my own search for clarity. While it's nearly a generation old, Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations is as relevant, if not more, than ever. Expect quotes and commentary over the next week or so.

Because It Keeps An Awareness Of The Spirit

The devil does not stay where music is.
- Martin Luther


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What This Has To Do With Anything, I'm Still Not Sure

I ran across a reference or two to this op-ed from the Times but have only now had time to glance at it.

Taking a step back for a moment, I wonder just how "grand" a bargain this is. In the first place, as a stakeholder in this debate - I'm a Christian, and someone who sees no conflict between my religious beliefs and the scientific explanation for the diversity of life - there seems no place for me. Second, atheists are asked to surrender their atheism and get . . . what, exactly, in return? Those fundamentalist Christians who refuse to accept the findings of science also surrender their beliefs and receive a patronizing pat on the head.

The thinking behind this, if I could hazard a guess, is that there is actually a way via some kind of public policy to offer a seat at the table to two groups that are at odds. The problem with this view is that it supposes the issue is one that can be accommodated through compromise. It cannot. This isn't a public policy issue, nor is it one amenable to social or cultural compromise. The worst part of this "grand bargain" is it sounds good, but it's really nothing but a confession by the author that he has no idea what he's talking about.

News From Home

This story lightens my heart quite a bit. My family's legacy with the LVRR - my grandfather spent his life working for them, including driving trains, especially troop trains during the Second World War - keeps a string tied to the railroad.

Any good histories of the railroad and its social and cultural impact on the US out there, I'm taking requests for titles.

In the photo, Robert Crocker, the gentleman at the far left, was my youth leader at church. Far too long since he and his wife Valerie and I have sat and talked and laughed. . .

The Dearest Kennedy

There was some irony in Edward M. Kennedy's life. Of the four boys Joseph Kennedy and his wife bore, he was the last to be considered for an office of public trust. First, Joe, Jr. was the great hope, but he death on the battlefield opened an opportunity for "Jack", who had no such aspirations. Yet, the second son did well, if also with some of what me might call tabloid flamboyance - marrying a beautiful, intelligent debutante, engaging in many lurid affairs, having a public record of negligible consequence - that ended in a bloody mess on the streets of Dallas. John Fitzgerald Kennedy's closest confidant, his brother Robert, took upon his shoulders the mantle of heir-apparent, even as Republicans and Democrats managed together to agree that never again should a President appoint a close family member to his Cabinet, never mind that as Attorney General, and previous as special counsel to a Senate committee, Robert Kennedy had served not only well, but showed a greater grasp of the rough and tumble of politics than his older brother.

Again, an assassin's bullet brought to a screeching halt the hopes of another Kennedy in the White House. Edward seemed outclassed in every way by his now-deceased older brothers. Not long after the loss of Bobby, Teddy found himself embroiled in scandal, driving his car off a bridge, an accident that took the life of Sarah Jo Kopeckni who may or may not have been pregnant.

The 1970's were an ordeal for Kennedy. By most accounts, he squandered the main chance between booze and women. His quarrel with President Carter over many issues - Kennedy was far more liberal than the conservative southerner in the White House - played a major role in Carter's defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (I remember the day Carter was quoted, before the primaries, as saying that if Kennedy ran, Carter would "kick his ass"; he did, a lot of good it did him). Kennedy thought about running in 1984, but bowed out, yet he gave a great, rousing speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, a year of such events.

In 1992, he helped Bill Clinton out, again at the Democratic convention, by intoning again and again, "George Herbert HOOVER Bush", a great line indeed. In his final appearance at a Democratic convention, last year, he offered his help and support to Barack Obama.

Yet, there was more to Kennedy than his relationship to his older brothers and great speechifying. He was a master legislator, helping to craft many pieces on health care, labor rights, and other issues over the years. He was the first Senator to come forward, after a careful and close reading of both the opinions and writings of federal Judge Robert Bork, and announce his intent to vote against his confirmation to the US Supreme Court.

He was vilified by the right, caricatured by Tom Clancy as a drunken serial rapist, and his personal demons were the fodder for intrusive photographers (I once saw a photo that purported to be Kennedy, naked atop a young woman, sporting in a small boat tied alongside another larger boat off the coast somewhere) and gossip mongers. While such behavior is unseemly, it had little relevance to his public career. He fought the good liberal fight even as it went out of fashion. He ran against a sitting President of his own party on principle. He offered his aid to many politicians. His Senate staff, by all accounts, was one of the brightest, most thorough, and most efficient.

This marks the end of an era in US history, and we should all mourn with all the Kennedys and their various straggling relations. We should also uphold his legacy by doing what we can to make this country a little bit better, a little more compassionate, and dedicated to public service for its own sake, as not just a privilege but a duty as free people.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Answering A Really Dumb Comment

Here it is.

In order to make my point abundantly clear, I am going to violate an unspoken rule I have - I try not to quote fiction as an illustration, especially science fiction. Yet, reading the back-and-forth among Ambinder and his critics put me in mind of an early chapter of one of the rare bits of sci-fi I enjoy, Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. The mayor of the Foundation encounters a "diplomat" from the Empire, and they have a discussion on the "origin" question (a fun bit Asimov plops in, considering we readers know the answer). What the mayor brings away from the discussion is that there is a discouraging lack of understanding concerning what constitutes "science". The diplomat seems to believe it is nothing more than weighing the evidence and authority of a variety of sources on a topic and forming a conclusion based on one's perception of the reliability of these sources. This serves well as a plot point in the story; it also serves as an illustration of the basic complaint Krugman was making about Ambinder's position, briefly stated that even though Bush-critics were correct in their conclusions regarding the lack of any reliability of the Administration, yet because they were loud, profane, and seemed almost reflexive in their distrust of any Bush Administration pronouncements, they were, themselves, not credible sources for information.

Krugman's complaint is similar to the mayor's complaint in Foundation. All any of the Bush-era critics wanted was for journalists to do some follow-through, comparing Administration rhetoric to action, the evidence provided justifying various Administration actions and its reliability, and the record of a consistent lack of facts behind most of the Administration's rhetoric. Ambinder's complaint seems to be that the Bush critics didn't play the game by some set of arbitrary rules that he and other journalists seemed to hold dear; Krugman's rejoinder is that was never the issue. Check out what the critics actually said, rather than the way they said it. Check their sources. Check out the actual record of the Bush Administration. That's all. A little homework is all it might take.

That's part of my own complaint, although I add the observation that there seems to be this desire, or need, or something, to get as much information as possible out to the public in very raw form. Thus, we have Chuck Grassley quoted about killing granny without any note that this might be a wee bit over the top. Or Chris Wallace's egregious conduct on Fox News Sunday, interviewing someone who claims the VA wants to kill disabled vets, when in fact he really wants to sell the VA his own booklet.

There is nothing ideological about these complaints. It's all about doing some homework, checking out what person "A" says happens against reports of what happened; checking out whether there is some kind of correspondence between what an official statement may say, and what actions actually occur. It isn't that hard, really.

Of course, maybe I'm wrong in my perception; I'm not a journalist, and perhaps I have too high, or overly idealized view, of what journalists do, or perhaps should do. Yet, at the very least, the record of the Bush years should be a test case of what happens when a group of people practice a deference to power at the expense of our national welfare.

Surprise! Neil Is Spreading Lies

I know. Shocking. Check it out.

What a great Christian he is.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Point Of Clarification For A Friend

ER often chastises me for going after "journalists" as a group. He is correct to do so. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good folk doing the basic grunt-work of journalism out there, from local weeklies and dailies to the big national and international papers like the New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. My complaints are focused on what some bloggers call "the Village" (a term of art I avoid using because it smacks of the same kind of insiderism that is under a critical eye). Those Washington-based national journalists - the White House Press Corps, national correspondents, Washington-based pundits whose mugs appear far too often on the television, and of course our TV newsers - far too often exist in an odd, somewhat sick-making co-dependency with their sources. This situation, described without any hint of self-consciousness as to the inherent dangers of it, became the source of a spat among Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, Glenn Greenwald (whose position on journalism I actually take with a grain of salt), Paul Krugman, and FireDogLake blogger emptywheel.

While this little internet dust-up is fun to watch, I think there are other ways to look at the question of journalistic responsibility, especially in the face of very real questions of accountability and journalistic ethics. Related to these questions is the ongoing "death of the newspaper" and the increasing lack of credibility many of our journalistic organs are undergoing. This situation was highlighted today in a post at TAPPED by Tim Fernholz:
The next time some wild misinformation spreads about a public-policy issue, Kurtz will wring his hands about how no one trusts the press, and that's because the press is content to trust liars.

It is one thing to argue that something said by someone in the public eye, or in a position of public responsibility is potentially worthy of citation. It is another thing altogether actually to cite it; and to do so without any note that the statement might actually be factually inaccurate.

Now, obviously, this lies behind the spat amongst Ambinder, Krugman, et. al., but also behind Kurtz' nonsensical bewilderment at our general national distrust of the press. Yet, I think there is more than simple asymmetry of information at work. When I read Ambinder's original piece (linked above), what I find is not just a willingness to trust his "official" sources", but an almost religious commitment to getting information to the public without context. The entire journalistic enterprise, at least at an elite level, seems less about getting the "who, what, where, and when" of an event, and more about ensuring the public has access to as much information as possible as quickly as possible. From the welter of quotes, official statements, press releases, Congressional studies and testimonies, and whatnot else that appears, it seems that it is up to us as readers to weigh all this in the balance, all of it being of equal import, and come to our own conclusions.

Except without any sort of context, without any sort of vetting, without any sort of actual work done by our information gate-keepers, this is impossible. How is it possible for an individual to discern that, for example, a person appearing on a Sunday news talk show may be spreading lies for no other reason than he has a vested interest in the success of those lies? How is it possible to conclude that a United States Senator is talking out of his ass when he says a bill before Congress includes a provision for euthanasia? He's a Senator on the panel responsible for writing the thing, so he should know what he's talking about, right?

When Chris Matthews gets all hot and sweaty over the thought that bloggers might be a source of news because bloggers don't fact check, and can be called on it quite easily, I say it is time to start thinking seriously about this issue in a new, different way. The credibility gap between what journalists, at least our elite print and television journalists, provide as news to us and the actual contextual worthiness of that news has to be narrowed. This is not just about fact checking; it is about providing a narrative format, in some limited way, that helps us make sense of the sheer mass of words that floods over us each and every day.

When a right-wing radio talk show host claims that Pres. Obama is a racist, or is leading the country down the path to socialism, or is a liar, each of these statements can be checked easily enough. While that checking is, indeed, done (Media Matters for America, while certainly progressive in its intent, is thoroughly fact-based in its content-analysis), it is not available immediately alongside these reports. When Sen. Grassley says that health care reform includes a proposal to "pull the plug on grandma," it might be nice to note, not the next day, or within a week, but immediately, that this is false.

It might also be a good idea not only to call these folks on their nonsense. Accountability might include not inviting Grassley on any more Sunday chat shows; or Newt Gingrich (whose history of fabulism is both deep and wide); or Sarah Palin. Accountability might also include noting that many Americans are wary of tea-baggers bringing guns to those town halls because there is a long history, right up to the present day, of politically-inspired violence in the United States.

Finally, it might be nice to hear an elite journalist admit, in public, that they aren't trusted because they aren't trustworthy.

Music For Your Monday

In honor of the first day of school here in the North Boone School District . . .

How could I have forgotten this? Forgive me.

Bad Morals, Bad Economics

In the middle of this wonderful column yesterday on a possible public option for health care insurance, Krugman writes the following on the persistence of bad ideas in our public discourse on economics and public policy:
The debate over the public option has, as I said, been depressing in its inanity. . . .

But it’s much the same on other fronts. Efforts to strengthen bank regulation appear to be losing steam, as opponents of reform declare that more regulation would lead to less financial innovation — this just months after the wonders of innovation brought our financial system to the edge of collapse, a collapse that was averted only with huge infusions of taxpayer funds.

As he has over the past couple weeks, Krugman put the onus squarely on the shoulders of Pres. Obama who "hasn’t used the bully pulpit to confront government-is-bad fundamentalism." Except, of course, why should he? It isn't the public that needs to be convinced, at least according to recent polling data. Even some Blue Dogs seem to be working against their constituents express interests, as for example this piece from Think Progress notes on conservative Democrat Jim Cooper from Tennessee.

It is precisely those members of Congress - the Blue Dogs in the House and a few Senate Democrats like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson - who need to be convinced, and the bully pulpit will not work with them because (at least in the case of Baucus and Nelson) it isn't about sweet persuasion. It's about filthy luchre (as, again, Krugman notes).

In the midst of the very inconvenient reality that, once again, proves that unfettered capitalism of the kind advocated by conservatives, free-marketers, Friedman disciples, and business and banking lobbyists is ultimately self-destructive, that we are still debating whether or not to put back in place regulations to prevent another disaster should be embarrassing. When Republicans and others stand up and insist that regulating the markets may destroy them, it might be a nice idea to point out that stripping regulation actually did destroy them; it was government that saved them. While there was innovation in "financial instruments" and "investment products", most of them were nothing more than variations on Ponzi schemes that created what atrios called Jenga, that great kids game where you pull blocks out of a tower and pile the ones on the bottom up on top until the whole thing becomes unstable and falls over. With no one around to say, "Hey, guys, wait a minute, is this a good idea?", shrewd manipulators and insiders managed to get rich fairly quickly, then leave the structure to its own, inevitable, conclusion.

Regulating our financial sector should be a no-brainer. It allows for confidence among investors that the market will not hit some glitch that will not just trip it up, but bring it down; it also assures the rest of us that this sector of our society is answerable to our demand for stability and confidence over unfettered and unchecked privateering. The whole thing exists not only at the behest of all of American society, but for our benefit; there is no reason in the world why we should not reign in the ability of some individuals and groups to profit outrageously when such profit endangers the rest of us. To answer the tired question of what is too much profit - too much profit is the point at which that profit becomes a danger to the society that ensures the individual and corporation making that profit can still exist in safety and security. We reached that tipping point, and will be paying the price for it for years to come. The least we can do is put back in place some of the structures that prevented this kind of thing for decades.

Virtual Tin Cup

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