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Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged
The official blurb runs something like this: A group of young, liberal graduate students in Iowa have a formal, sit down dinner once a week, to which they like to invite a stranger – to spice up conversation. Their ivory tower serenity is disturbed, however, when their latest guest, Zach (played in the 1995 movie by Bill Paxton!), turns out to be a redneck, pedophilic, murderous, Holocaust denier. Zach taunts the tolerant liberals, saying that they don’t have the balls to stand up for themselves, and pulls a knife on Marc, the resident Jewish artist. Zach is distracted for a moment while breaking the arm of Peter, another sissy liberal, and Marc seizes the opportunity to stab Zach in the back with his own knife. Existential angst ensues as the “liberals” try to justify their aggression. They rationalize it so well that they decide to recreate the scenario every week with a new flavor of conservative crazy. Their preferred method of execution? Poison in the chardonnay.
You may not guess it from the picture of the handsome man above, but Lefty is a leftist, a commie, a red — and not in the Texas “Red Meat” way. You might think of this guy as a Lefty for The Great Recession — cool, hip, possibly living in a palatial squat in Buffalo, refusing to use currency or pay for food.
And yet, it was not always thus.
The enduring strength of Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty is its focus on character rather than identity. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one that traces the success and failure of the labor movement in the USA from Odets’s time to ours. Odets’s characters are honest, working people who strive for a measure of human dignity and are systematically deprived of it by the Bosses, the Owners, and the unsympathetic, pampered, and callous Elites. Odets builds his characters through their struggles: they are dynamic, not static. But in the intervening three quarters of a century since this play was first produced “identity” as a pillar of capitalist ideology has dominated and marginalized character so thoroughly that the didactic purpose of this play, what Brecht would have called a lehrstück, is easy to miss. Waiting for Lefty is the greatest work of American agitprop theater because it attempts to dramatize how a person learns courage in an act of character building, rather than appealing to the audience’s fear and pity.
What does a world without hope look like? Is it a bleak moonscape — black sky, cold sun, gray hills? Or is it the too perfect world of American suburbia, where the sun — and the smiles — shine a little too bright; where too-green, cultivated lawns lead to soothing interiors, painted in shades named “Ocean Side”, “Interactive Cream”, and “Moderate White”; where real freedom is banished to the gritty, marginal, blind spots of ubiquitous surveillance cameras?
The Realm, running from now until April 18th at The Wild Project in the East Village, is a futuristic dystopia in the tradition of American post-apocalyptic dystopias like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog (remember that one? Don Johnson starred in the movie!), and, closer to our time, Urinetown. The time is the not-too-distant future. After an unnamed cataclysm, humanity has been forced underground. Natural resources are scarce — especially water. Human beings have learned how to live spare, lean lives, stripped of all superfluity — and fun. And, for that matter, freedom. Water is rationed, life is rationed, even words are rationed.
It seemed appropriate to be waiting on two self-described Southern belles to get into Streetcar at BAM last week. Nothing says “Southern” like being late to your own party. We were four, and at least three of us hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line, or as another of my Southern friends likes to call it the “Manson-Nixon” line. Ah the South! Home of pecan pie, obsessions with purity (mostly sexual), vowels longer than a summer sunset, religious revivals held in circus tents, Wal-Mart superstores, and — these days especially — widespread dependence on food stamps.
These tents were set up on Columbia’s campus as extra housing for incoming students. They also look a bit like a Hooverville, though probably not intentionally. The New York Times is reporting today that the teenage jobless rate is the highest it has been since they started keeping records in the 40s, three times the unemployment rate of the rest of the country. So to you 18-year-olds whose parents can afford it, back to school!
Who is laughing now?
Just five years ago some Americans were painting their Hummers in the stars and stripes, confident that the “liberation” of Iraq would bring global peace and low, low gas prices. The Hummer symbolized American strength, wealth, and frontier attitude. Now all those cowboys who thought they were starring in an Old West flick have been told “Go East young man!” as the Hummer brand is sold to a Chinese company.
It’s too easy to say that their jingoistic hubris is the root cause of this national humiliation. Instead I’ll point out that passing the baton of overweening douche-baggery to the Chinese might be exactly what saves our republic.
Yay! Obama announced a plan to invest $8 billion in high speed and existing rail projects! This is a welcome change from the plan of the past administration to strangle Amtrak and throw it in a tub to drown it. Build it, and they will come. Please lord, let the economically stimulating effect of mass transit in New York City show the Feds and the villains in the New York State senate that mass transit is a priority, not a privilege.
There’s plenty of uncertainty on what the future holds, but one thing is for sure, the 21st century will not be like the 20th.
While Obama and Gordron Brown try to convince the Europeans not to take away our capitalism toys, the Chinese are making exactly the kinds of massive public investments in the future that Krugman and others have argued the US must make in order to stay relevant. The money isn’t the problem. Excluding some rightwing nutters in Congress, our country has signed on to the idea that something must be done (other than cut taxes) to ameliorate this economic crisis. But why isn’t any of that money going to beef up Amtrak or the MTA? The answer: no one in power in America, either Democrat or Republican, has a 21st century vision.
But the Chinese have it.
What’s the news on NYC’s slice of the stimulus money? I hear complaints from conservatives that the money isn’t going to “shovel ready projects,” and then I hear complaints from liberals that the money that IS going to “shovel ready projects” is paying for thousands of miles of new highway in the fly-over. Ahem, but, NYC has billions of dollars of shovel ready projects ready to go. Second avenue subway anyone?
Paul Krugman hit the nail on the head today with his Op-Ed. It reminds me why I like him in the first place. For those of you too lazy to click through to the essay and read it, I’ll give you a summary. Krugman says that our policy makers continue to be blinded by the mythology developed by Milton Friedman and others and popularized by Reagan. They think the financial system is fundamentally sound, and the recent collapse is wholly due to public misperception. That is why the Summers/Geithner plan rings hollow in a progressive’s ears. A progressive knows we have to move past the culture of greed and bonus, of growing wealth disparity and opt-out attitudes, but Summers and Geithner don’t get it.
Jake Desantis’s (public) letter to Edward Liddy in today’s New York Times is just one more attempt by the the real media elites — the conservatives of both parties — to quash public outcry over the legacy and abuses of Reaganomics.
UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE!!!
I know the readers of Cultural Capitol are probably sick of hearing me rant on this subject, and for your sake this will be my last post on the topic. The Editor has counseled moderation, and I know in my heart of hearts he’s right. But I can’t leave it without saying just this one more thing about the “popular” reaction to A. I. G.’s bonuses.
The story in the Times today trying to defend Geitner puts the blame for his bad judgment (really, a complete lack of political common sense) on faceless “government lawyers” who told the Treasury secretary exactly what he wanted to hear:
On Tuesday last week, as he prepared for a meeting in London of the finance ministers of the Group of 20 nations, Mr. Geithner learned that A.I.G. by Sunday would send out the bonuses to employees at its financial products unit, which developed the risky derivatives now blamed for the global credit crisis.
With few senior political appointees on hand, the word came from one of the numerous career civil servants who keep the Treasury functioning through changes of administration, according to an official.
Mr. Geithner consulted lawyers. They told him the government could not override the contracts that the insurance conglomerate had signed in early 2008, when its financial products unit was fast losing money.
The Times piece tries hard to justify Geiter’s naivete, blaming his lapse on his “crushing workload,” and telling us he is “shouldering more crises on his slight frame than most Treasury secretaries ever have.” But that’s no excuse — either for him or for Obama. Geitner, whose instincts as the Times says “are that government should not dictate compensation issues to businesses,” suffers from the same free market fundamentalist dementia as a recent respondent to my earlier post. Let’s look at this pathology more closely in order to better understand it.
I was going to write an angry piece on the AIG bonuses, the kind that uses a flamethrower to incinerate the subjects of my wrath. Then I took a walk down to AIG headquarters on Pine St. in Lower Manhattan. Unlike the offices in Greenwich, CT where the financial products guys reportedly work, an office which was receiving death threats, the main office downtown didn’t have any gawkers or thrill seekers (other than me).
I find this surprising. After all, to hear the internets tell it, people are spitting mad over the legalized Madoff make-off with tax payer money. (MoveOn cites the NY Times to estimate the AIG bailout is $500 from every tax payer in the USA.) And yet no one was storming the castle in downtown Manhattan. If anything, the corner of Wall and Broad, the place where a statue of Washington looks out on the NYSE, was buzzing with happy tourists.
He looks so serene.
The New York Times is reporting that some banks are balking over the strings attached to their bailout cash.
Good! That is the right response, and it shows that the Obama policies are right on. This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue — it’s a good government issue. If the banks are willing to take on the risk of failure in order to maintain the possibility of future, outsized profits, let them do it. If they fail, they do so on their own merits. On the other hand, if a bank wants money to stay alive, they have to know they are entering a period of indentured servitude to the American people. They will not be free until they have paid their debt to society, and in this case that debt comes in an easily recognizable dollar amount.
Hypocrites like John Boehner and Richard Shelby argue that some banks should fail because that’s good fiscal discipline, confusing once again the role of markets and the role of government. Markets reflect the sentiment of its local population (i.e. whoever comes to the market). Government has the power to coerce or incentivize behavior when necessary. In times of crisis markets should not be allowed to make decisions because they will make panic driven, emotional decisions. In those cases it is the government’s job to set parameters for acceptible behavior. In this case it means righting financial malfeasance while containing the damage inflicted on the innocent by the crime. No-government Republicans would have the innocent pay along with the guilty. Strings on a bank bailout make sure that the innocent are protected while the guilty work off their guilt.
As any of you who are my consistent readers know, I think Paul Farrell over at Marketwatch.com is a hoot. His recent essay on the 13 tipping points that will lead to Great Depression II is a fun read.
When the economy was on the way up, up, up! we couldn’t get enough stories about how technology was going to change our lives for the better, and Utopia was finally just around the corner. Think of Francis Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian “End of History” thesis, free market globalizers from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, and lefty internet entrepreneurs who assured us hyperlinks would cure cancer. (Ok, I exaggerated that one a bit.) My favorite send up of this idealistic nonsense is from that gem of a movie Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby (played by Will Farrell) is reprimanded by Lucius, his crew chief, for criminally reckless driving:
Lucius: Ricky Bobby! You can’t drive like that! You’re not going to live forever you know.
Ricky Bobby: I know. But with the way medical science is going, and my level of income … I figure three, four hundred years.
The DJIA dropped perilously close to 7,000 this afternoon after Chris Dodd said the government might have to nationalize the banks. David Brooks wrote in his NY Times editorial today what is probably the Obama administration line, that we might have to bite the bullet and give the idiots who got us into this mess lots of money to get us out again. He says:
…sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we’re all in this together. If their lives don’t stabilize, then our lives don’t stabilize.
I suppose that’s all good and well, though if you happen to live in the same place as “the idiots” (i.e. New York City), and you see them holding their heads up high, riding in new cars with new wives who are wearing massive sparkly rocks on their fingers because the bankers got their bonuses in January, you might worry more about political stabilization than economic stabilization.
The markets took a dive because Dodd raised the specter of state control over the financial industry. But isn’t that exactly what’s called for in this situation? The culture of free markets failed, and now the culture of civic responsibility — which can only be manifested through the institution of government — has to pick up the slack.
Obama’s men — Geithner and Summers — are freemarketeers and have good reason to be scared out of their wits by populist posturing from Dodd and others. But is Obama a freemarketeer? Is he a populist?
My first instinct is to say he’s a savvy operator who knows the congressional Dems are right (and that the right needs to be ideologically disillusioned). The Obama of my imagination will play the aloof leader and let the Dems do the necessary dirty work that undoes the damage of anti-social freemarket puritanism inflicted on us since Reagan.
My fear is that he has no convictions outside of a personal messianic conviction, and that he thinks economic justice is no more or less important that religiously unfettered economic activity.
The markets bounced back because they think Obama’s a covert freemarketeer. I hope they’re wrong. I hope Obama is willing to split the issue with the congressional Dems, and let leaders like Dodd do the work of justice while Obama tells us all not to panic.
This was taken last week downtown. Where is the New Depression is headed?!
I kind of forgot how bad the bad old days of the late 80s / early 90s were until the DJIA hit 7750 and the unbroken chilly gloom of February made pedestrians look like frosty denizens of an Edward Hopper painting. Then I went for a walk in Battery Park and saw the Postive Brothers doing their show, and I remembered how good it was to see guys performing acrobatics in the old fountain at Washington Square Park, telling me my monetary contribution was keeping my home safe from burglary later that night.
The show is much the same as it was back then: witty chatter, tension-diffusing racial jokes, break dancing, and some crazy acrobatics, usually concluded with a spectacular leap over the heads of six or seven terrified audince members. But these guys make it new every time with their good humor and positive vibes. If you’re feeling down with the market, unemployment, and empty pockets, go down to Battery Park on a sunny day and check out their show. Throw a dollar in the hat if you have it. They also accept enthusiastic applause for payment.
Tim Geithner — Really? I mean, is it really possible to live in this country after 8 years of Bush, 6 months of financial apocalypse, and still not have the smallest clue? Macroeconomics as a discipline developed in the 30s because that global financial meltdown was precipitating a global political meltdown. Doesn’t anyone remember Nazis vs. Commies in the streets of Berlin and Munich? No, not in this country. If you want a perfect example of the triumphalist myopia of the free market fundamentalists take a look at the documentary The Commanding Heights by Greg Barker and William Cran. The one good observation made in the documentary is that both J. M. Keynes and Friedrich Von Hayek thought economic collapse would lead to political anarchy.
Now these yahoos working from a mix of free market fundamentalist ideology and naked, corporate self-interest, are opening up a political firestorm by crippling a real fiscial stimulus package with useless tax breaks and spending cuts for states while at the same time handing over hefty cash gifts to their friends the oligarchs on Wall St. (For my personal experience of the humiliation of this see my earlier post.) In the words of Stephen Labaton and Edmund Andrews:
Mr. Geithner, who will announce the broad outlines of the plan on Tuesday, successfully fought against more severe limits on executive pay for companies receiving government aid.
He resisted those who wanted to dictate how banks would spend their rescue money. And he prevailed over top administration aides who wanted to replace bank executives and wipe out shareholders at institutions receiving aid.
Obama is spending his good name out in America to enable a couple of bumbling, Ivy educated fools to destroy any trust Americans have left in their government.
I am truly in Hell. The only work I have managed to get is in the comic book convention world. Which, judging by the sold-out numbers of people at the Javits for the New York Comic Con, is still kinda recession-proof. I fell into the work, really. I don’t even read comic books* (Get the whole story here). And I definitely don’t “get” comic book geeks. I mean, they’re sweet enough, in their own, special, pasty, basement-dwelling way, but I mean, puh-lease. You weren’t all home-schooled, were you? There has to be an ounce of social skills somewhere in that cranium, right??? Whatever the case may be, these skills were not on display (yet again) at this year’s New York Comic Con. Actual snippet of overheard conversation on the crosstown bus on the way to the Javits:
Geek Girl1: So when I finally saw X-Men 3…
Geek 2: Oh you didn’t! It was HORRIBLE.
GG1: I didn’t think it was so bad, at first, you know, just taking it at face value, but then they explained to me how it was totally in opposition to the art and color scheme by so-and-so and blahdy-blahdy-geek-blah…
… and this drivel went on the ENTIRE CROSSTOWN RIDE. Nightmare. How do I get myself into these situations? Anyway, I was working a booth for my new semi-F/T gig with the longest running independent comic book convention in NYC. I have biz cards and everything! I am officially one of THEM. O.M.F.G.
And I work for one of the top guys in the comic book collecting world. Somehow he’s one of them and not one of them at the same time. He knows them all, but he used to ski with the beautiful people at Studio 54. High and low, as it were. Anyway, scads of people come by his booth and I get to people watch them all. I could go on and on about the various freaks and geeks**, but the ones who really caught my eye were the Gothic Lolitas: you know, Asian girls in a mix of goth and maid uniforms, with a Lolita twist.
Essentially, these girls are walking manga. I was Goth, bitd, but this is a Japanese twist on an old classic. I talked with one self-professed Gothic Lolita, 18 year old Kana from Manhattan. She said she first got into the look 8 years ago after seeing J Rock artists on TV (example here). She saw the fans of that style of music and wanted to dress like them. It’s a very cute world with which to identify. As opposed to Cosplay fans at the Comic Con, Kana said this is her normal style of dress. She likes bands like Plastic Tree, and she and her friends get together for karaoke parties. She seemed really well-adjusted. It was refreshing, in this land of make-believe.
So I am officially an insider in this crazy comic book world. But I guess now I can finally finish my Sandman collection. I’m only missing #2 and #43. Christ. Kill me now.
*Except Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in the 90′s. Brilliant. Oh, and the occasional Betty and Veronica when I was little. Can you say cat fight? Me-ow!
**New rule: Guys, if you’re wearing spandex, will you PLEASE wear a cup?!?!?!? I am still scrubbing those lumpy images from my brain.
Hey kids, if you’re looking for trouble on a Friday night, but the Recession has put 24 hour raves off your to-do list, why not check out Brian Newman After Dark at Duane Park?
I work downtown, near Wall Street. It’s cold today, somewhere in the mid-twenties, and I decided to get some soup from the Hale and Hearty Soup place over on Beaver. The soup place is close enough to the NYSE to hear the moans of traders still recovering from yesterday’s bloodletting.
Over the last week we have discovered that the banks are in worse shape than ever, and the government doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fix it. The New York Times is reporting that even the Obama people, who we hope are smarter than the newly ousted Bush people, aren’t sure about what to do. I think the market fell yesterday – led by bank stocks – because it knows banks are still hiding losses. If they’re hiding something it’s because they want to secure their own fortunes before the shareholders – and the country – figure out they’re bankrupt. Or as the last sentence in the times piece says, “Banks may not want that kind of openness, because accurately valuing the toxic assets could force many to book big losses, admit their insolvency and shut down.”
What kind of kool-aid is Nancy Pelosi drinking? CNN reports that Pelosi has said she thinks the Bush tax cuts should be repealed immediately, and that Congress should press forward with an investigation over whether Bush et al. pressured their people at the Justice Department to make illegal hiring decisions based on politics and ideology. President Obama — of course — wants to take a middle road, let the tax cuts expire on their own, and is against any investigation of the Bush administration.
In the first place, we know that the imperative to hire RTAs (right thinking Americans) at the Justice Dept. came from the highest levels of the Bush government. <cough, Dick Cheney, cough> It’s not a matter for investigation. In the second place, there are a lot more important crimes to investigate, like the illegal wiretapping program, the infiltration of protest groups by government spies, no bid contracts to war profiteers, and the lies (told with malicious intent and knowledge of wrong doing) that led us to wage war in Iraq. Finally, raising taxes on the obscenely wealthy isn’t nearly as important as stripping out the ridiculous and worthless tax breaks to businesses included in the Obama plan. Paul Krugman puts the case as succinctly as possible here and here.
You may have thought the kool-aid I referred to in the title of this post is the kool-aid of liberal revenge. Oh no! This country swung so far to the right at the end of the 20th century that to get back to the middle we’re going to go pretty far left. Militarism, free market fundamentalism, and the cult of the individual (with its attendant cult of personality) reached a fever pitch under Bush, and the residual effects of that “conservative” kool-aid are obviously still infecting Obama and the Congressional Democrats. Disaffected whites and greedy globalizers united to turn this country into a banana republic — and not the good kind where you can find urban professional clothing at reasonable prices. No, they wanted a country where the rich are a law to themselves, the Constitution has been replaced by the Articles of Confederation, and the Southern Gentleman planter (complete with an economy run on the brown backs of a institutionalized underclass) replaces the middle class citizen.
I think there may be one bright spot in the disturbing political timidity shown so far by both the Congressional leadership and Obama. If Obama choses to be the uniter we didn’t get eight years ago, counseling peace and reconciliation, the Congressional Dems might be given the opportunity to play the bad cops and put the nastiest Bush aparatchiks into jail. And if that plays well (as it might if the recession gets really bad) hopefully Congress will remember that it does not have to be the political punching bag it has become in recent years. It might grow a pair and become what it was intended to be — the primary branch of government; the voice of the people; the genius of democracy. Only when Congress asserts its constitutional rights will we get the government Lincoln promised us: of the people, for the people, and by the people.
I can hear the hater chorus already saying that Congress under Gingrich asserted itself, and look where that got us. To you I say this: Gingrich was (like Cheney) a member of Congress but not of it. He asserted the power of Congress because Clinton as president was too weak for his taste. He was really paving the way for Bush’s “unitary executive”, a.k.a. king. A representative legislature is the soul of liberal democracy. Let the new Congress take up the mantle of freedom, and prove their mettle. In the process they just might save the Union.
Dubai is a palace of excess and contradition. It is a mushroom that paradoxically bloomed under the whithering rays of the sun. But the leadership of the UAE is a lot smarter than anyone in America today. From today’s New York Times:
[The UAE's] new investment [in renewable energy] aims to maintain the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing. But if the United States and the European Union have set energy independence from the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the party.
The irony that the most wasteful and oil dependent part of the globe should be on the cutting edge of green energy is unremarkable next to the ambition — characteristic of the Gulf states — to go all the way all at once. Consider Masdar City, a planned community outside of Abu Dhabi that claims it will have a zero-carbon footprint. Even though skeptics doubt this claim, it is notable not for its complete success in execution, but for its audacity.
According to the Times article, Qatar has invested $225 million into a British research fund, and Saudi Arabia has invested untold millions into American universities, including $25 million for Michael McGehee an associate professor at Stanford, to develop cutting edge technologies. That is fifty times the amount invested by Western governments or industry.
Finally, the Times tells us Masdar City “goes beyond creating new materials and is in fact exploring a new model for urban life.” To wit: “The city will have no cars; people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning will be solar powered.” As a New Yorker I take exception to this. After all, we also have subterranean electric cars that move people around. It’s called the subway. If only the city, state, and federal government could get their posteriors and capitals wired together they could see that a massive investment in the New York City subway is a necessary good faith effort to putting America into the 21st century.
We all knew Obama was no Nader when we voted for him. But it still comes as a shock to this New Yorker to be reminded of exactly how conservative the traditional “Liberal” media is. And it is disappointing to see Obama waste his political capital and his mandate by falling into bad old Democrat habits. How many times do we have to say it? Do not pander to self-identifying conservatives!
From the CNN news desk:
“As a public official, I expect criticism and I expect to be held accountable for how I govern,” Palin said in a statement released by her office Friday. “But the personal, salacious nature of recent reporting, and often the refusal of the media to correct obvious mistakes, unfortunately discredits too many in journalism today, making it difficult for many Americans to believe what they see in the media” (emphasis mine). Yeah! Salacious! When did she pick that one up? Surely not studying for the SATs. I’m glad she’s gone to the trouble to hire a vocabulary coach. Sadly, she’s about twenty years too late.
Mama Grizzly also said she got up on her hind legs when Tina Fey made a crack on her daughter. I say amen. Tina Fey almost single-handedly saved the republic by exposing Palin’s idiocy — and in the process the idiocy of American conservatives.
Speaking of which, check out Sam’s comment on this CNN blog post: “Why do we need Congress anyway? When the Constitution was written, people needed others to represent them in making policy decisions. Now we have the technology to vote and represent ourselves directly.”
OMG. I know that some secretly bad stuff lurks in the hearts of men, but I didn’t think anyone would have the bad judgment to expose himself in public as a monarchist. That’s right people. If you enjoy your liberty, you better stand up with Harry Reid and the Congress, and say we want government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Congress — a legislature — is the only way to have such a government. If Sam’s plan were implemented, and we all voted individually for every piece of legislation that was proposed (by whom?) — as if government were like American Idol — first there would be deadlock, then there would be a breakdown of government, then the executive would assert him/herself to become a king.
I blame the miserable state of American education for comments like this. No one who has studied history, government, or politics would say such a perniciously stupid thing.