In Medio Facebook

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

I tend to think about my life these days in terms of a cultural phenomenon I have, at best, ambivalent feelings about. There is a strong trend, as we like to say on the Internet, to loathing. I am talking about Facebook, of course. Life tends to divide, thinking about it from the vantage of now, among pre-Facebook, and being in the midst of it, and what I hope I will be able to label as post-Facebook. I am in the middle of withdrawal.

It’s not the first time. I subscribed to Facebook, though I contributed in an insignificant way at the beginning: from the time of its inception as a public forum on the web. It was in 2007. I became more and more active, and increasingly vociferous about my discomfort participating, starting in 2009. The record, or partially so, of all this is recorded here on 1StandardDeviation.com. Included in the archive (you won’t find it on Facebook because I deleted my first account in 2012 for a period of about eight months) is a farewell to Facebook—also here.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to search. I am not encouraging you to read it, given my recidivism. I rejoined Facebook that same year, and have been quite active, with a voluminous output mainly in the form of lengthy posts, largely (to my mind) in the form of an extended and fractionated apologia. There were also many many links posted, with what I hoped always were evocative or enlightened or, possibly, provocative introductory comments. Most of these were, from the evidence of the overall responsiveness of a closed readership, either ignored, or not too inspiring, or (what I believe is most likely) never seen because of Facebook management’s strange protocols and algorithms for distributing posts even to one’s own manageable friends’ list. I rarely, if ever, posted publicly (because of a distaste for engaging with potential trolls—the mere day-to-day of absorbing the less-than-determinative mix of elements I was exposed to on the famous newsfeed, and responding in a measured, rational, and well-meaning way, as much as possible with good will and humor is enough of a challenge). I have just a little over 100 well-chosen and considered individuals on my list of Facebook friends.

I accepted long since, because I don’t have the desire to “follow” each of them persistently, if not doggedly and grudgingly, that it was probably also true about each of them with regard to my choices as to what to lay at their doorsill for review, if not perusal. Hence, likely as not, the chief reason they didn’t respond in any way—the preponderance of them with not even a “like”—was because they didn’t even see a post, which is not to dismiss the possibility they saw none. Ever.

I am someone who gets on a social medium for the sociability of it—the only reason for the connection is the connection, the sense of having ties and to take advantage of the opportunity to converse, however etiolated the connection. I do and have always appreciated the band of “regulars” I seemed to have cultivated. The usual roundup of Renaultean “suspects” were the people I could count on to offer a comment and thereby, often enough, start a conversation. Stilted as it may have been—a phenomenon attributable solely to me, because I was mindful, likely overly so, that private as the space may seem on Facebook, someone is always monitoring and filtering. It is a public space, no matter what alterations to the policy statement, especially that regarding our so-called “privacy,” the jejune and profit-grubbing commissariat of Facebook might testify otherwise periodically.

The pleasure of connecting with friends was valuable, and in a good way, measured in the spirit of the exchanges, incalculable. However nothing about it was unique to Facebook. The only thing unique is the peculiar condition of seeming round-the-clock access one has to one’s friends. Not all of one’s friends, for sure. At least in my case, a significant number of friends forbore and either never joined Facebook or had the greater strength than I could muster, but that one time, and removed themselves, pretty well for good. I maintain contact with them in the “old” ways, which still work, of course.

One of the deficits to Facebook, in order to glean what measured and titrated pleasures it affords, is the amount of time one must devote to it to exact those pleasures as a kind of reward. I don’t need Facebook for any other purpose to which people put a whole arsenal of means of contact together. Indeed, some methods, like good old-fashioned email, are still better, given a certain mix of demographic characteristics in any segment of one’s social set. Our neighbors—literally the people who live in a state of propinquity in our town—still best confer for whatever communal purpose by email. Only one of our neighbors, and she is one of my valued, staunch, and consistent “usual suspects” among the tiny number, really, of reliable correspondents, is on Facebook.

The overall deficiency of Facebook is determined not only by the disproportion of desired opportunities for substantive contact with other human beings, balanced against exposure to the clichéd booming buzzing chaos of society at large in the myriad forms this disorder takes on Facebook, inescapably, and is colored, indeed overshadowed emotionally by the dark view I get of humanity at large thereby. It may all be me. But if so, it’s a problem I’d rather deal with by removing myself from the provocation.

In all events, I find myself, once again, feeling, at best (and it’s a deteriorating condition) ambivalent about this social boon, which at latest count (according to Statistica) stands at over 1.85 billion people around the world subscribing and, theoretically at least, potentially online all at the same time. It’s more a testament to the triumph of the technology necessary, and the cleverness exercised at developing and managing that technology in real time—reliably and transparently, indeed oiling the mechanism to make it seem effortless—that allows the possibility. It is not a testament to the wish of any sane person to want to have contact with any representative sampling of humanity, never mind fully one-quarter of mankind inhabiting the planet all at once.

In all events, it’s my sanity that I feel is being tested. More my equanimity and sense of well-being, with a realistic sense of my worth, and the worth of my time, best spent in productive pursuits as I define them than my ability to be rational. But these are times where rationality must be not merely clinged to, as a life preserver, but stood behind as a bulwark to help keep the vessel afloat and on course. Increasingly, as we all confront the swells of the waves, and the tempests that rise up to stir up and electrify the whole atmosphere, it’s more important to see to the fitness of the vessel than merely to worry about survival by finding diversions and distractions. There are plenty of each of these on Facebook. And I needn’t do more than mention, never mind even think of belaboring, the inadequacy of the channel called Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is working with desperate ingenuity to turn into a medium that will serve all purposes, no matter how ill-suited it is to inform without bias, and to provide safe harbor from hysteria.

All of what I’ve said in the foregoing is prelude and prologue to writing I have done, and am continuing to write, about the phenomenon of Facebook, especially insofar as one person, myself, has experienced it, and spent far too much time in one regard pondering that experience and trying to elicit some sense. In the hopes that I have begun to delineate that sense and it’s a sense that may prove useful to others trying to understand, if not merely decipher, one of the major phenomena of our time that is bound to define at least this episode, now ten years in duration and promising to continue, in the formation of the culture, the living culture, in which we all are a part.


What’s past is prolog; Facebook as reality distortion—a foreword

One difference between pre- and post-FB behavior is the loss of that restraint that allowed us to keep thoughts to ourselves, reserving judgment on whether it’s appropriate even to say things to the few people for whom they are truly intended. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to say things publicly that, if we thought about it, will give offense to somebody and beyond that, even if truly innocuous, is of fleeting interest to most.

Mindy Kaling, one of the great comic sages of our time (yes this is sarcasm) had a great aperçu—undoubtedly an accident, but then she tweets all the time, so statistics are on her side—and that is, “People take things at face value on social media. Earnestness is the assumption.” Better that, I suppose than having to craft an apology, as in the old days, when you spoke out of turn, or unwisely hit the “send” button. However, this is merely the largest of the ineluctable consequences of making all personal communications accessible through public channels (yes, I’m being ornery and contrary; FB is not a medium—paint is a medium, pen and ink is a medium—it’s a channel, you know?, a conduit, a canal or, if you prefer, a sewer). We’ve lost nuance. I’d suggest we’ve also lost perspective.

The highest grossing movies, at least within the generation of Judd Apatow—the current Socrates and Aristophanes rolled into one of our era, at least in America—are rife with what pass for jokes, mainly about reproductive and excretory body parts, acts of coitus and oral/sexual contact, and put-downs. Yet all of these, plus sarcasm (which is irony, an absolutely useless mode on social media, without the benefit of your higher brain function) and slapstick, are strictly prohibited on Facebook. Try them, see how fast your “friends” shut you down.

As a consequence, we spend some part of each day on a virtual version of Soma (Google or Wiki it, look under Aldous Huxley and his novel Brave New World), assuming we have fallen prey to the need to stay in touch via Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune, if not wholly ill-adjusted, notions of what constitutes the proper means of maintaining meaningful personal relations with other humans whose contact we value. That these relations are eviscerated by the unspoken and unwritten etiquette of Facebook contact (unless it is wholly private—sending messages one-on-one does beg the question of whether Facebook is the best vehicle for communication in this form) goes without saying. We “speak” to one another in a different way than we do in person (persuade yourself otherwise if you like; if you are truly mindful of what you are saying and to whom, and at the same time mindful that there is likely a larger audience, you will say it, whatever it happens to be, with, shall I say, a little less juice—otherwise consider the possibility that you have a need to demonstrate to others just how caring, sweet, and civilized you are).

You may be completely in control of the various channels of communication you have open to you, depending on the audience, and more power to you. There’s no doubt Facebook serves some need. Even as significant a cynic as I am cannot argue with an overall membership of over one-and-a-half billion people, who use Facebook daily a half-billion at a time. Whatever the need, Facebook fills it. I note with some rue that Zuckerberg has organized a consortium of like-minded enterprises to extend the fundamental benefits of Facebook to the other five billion people in the world. The initiative (with several B-players in supporting roles, and a giant called Samsung also on board) is called internet.org [http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9241768/Facebook_s_Zuckerberg_wants_to_connect_the_rest_of_the_world]. However, the insidious effects of Facebook are not to be denied, and the results have only started to come in from research that substantiates just what social impact this particular channel of networking on a grand scale has.

A recent study, that received some (but, in my opinion, not enough) attention from the University of Michigan concentrated on the effect of Facebook use on college-age adults. In brief, here is the abstract of that study:

“Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook. Yet, whether Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time is unknown. We addressed this issue using experience-sampling, the most reliable method for measuring in-vivo behavior and psychological experience. We text-messaged people five times per day for two-weeks to examine how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Interacting with other people ‘‘directly’’ did not predict these negative outcomes. They were also not moderated by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

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Trump, the Democrats and the Khans / Bush and Sheehan

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity

There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.

The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.

The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.

It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.

One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.

There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.

I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.

There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.

We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.

The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.

He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.

“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969

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Counternarrative—Modes of Facebook Hypocrisy

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.

When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.

There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.

According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.

We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…

One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.

Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.

What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.

What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.

I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.

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Trumping the Greatest Man in the World

Approximate Reading Time: 17 minutes
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The "New Yorker," 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961.
Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.

We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.

What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”

If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.

But (yet again…) wait!

Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?

However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.

Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).

Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.

Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.

We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.

And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.

By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.

What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.

By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.

My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.

These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.

The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.

The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.

…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.

The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”

In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.

“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.

“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.

We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.

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Smart Bitches

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Today, I had the slightly unusual and, admittedly, slightly queasy-making experience of seeing my name set aside in print (if we can call a blog, “print”) for praise, I guess, in a review of the book I have touted here over the past nine months, the collection of food related writing called Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal. It features, among many other contributions, a poem of mine called “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich.” This poem follows a brief reminiscence by the fabled food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, which ends with her aunt’s fried egg sandwich recipe (the exact opposite of mine as it is, as she admits, unchewable and indigestible). The reviewer happened to like Ms. Fisher’s effort, as who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, she attributed it to me. Several commentators chose to add their thoughts, including one who admitted never having heard of me, and several much sharper readers than the blogger noticed striking similarities to what was described as my effort, to the work, justifiably and correctly, of Ms. Fisher.

Whatever the consequences of that, it’s hardly important. But I did find one thing mildly striking. The name of the blog is “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” and is meant, I think, to be resonant with a certain spirit of the age to convey, ironically, an exactly opposite set of sentiments. The women, of course, aren’t bitches, and the books, singled out for praise, are hardly trash. It does leave me wondering yet again what exactly is it that induces women to refer to themselves, to one another, and generically and universally, and I think with an air of bravado, defiance, and rueful humor as “bitches,” whereas any such usage by men—and it is usually so in far more mean-spirited, if not downright misogynistic contexts—is excoriated and faulted to an inch of its life and rightfully. Yet, there’s that usage by women themselves, without the slightest hint that the user of the epithet is aware that this can only encourage it further.

I suggest that the sensibility intent on being hip and au courant sufficient to refer to her sisters in spirit as bitches, as a truculent badge of honor, inviting challenge, has lost its attention sufficiently to make the kind of error, inconsequential as it is, that confused the work of a male poet for an iconic female writer of deathless prose, now considered part of the canon.

I am both bemused and, yet, hmmm, I just don’t get it. Nice review though, full of solecisms as it is.

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/books-that-cook-the-making-of-a-literary-meal-by-jennifer-cognard-black-and-melissa-a-goldwaite/

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A Response to Paul Krugman on the Apple Watch

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk

First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.

I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.

Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?

He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.

In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).

I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.

The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.

I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.

What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.

Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.

It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?

Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.

If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…

And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?

Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.

However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.

The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”

As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.

I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.

Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.

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Curt Schilling

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

What disturbs me about the current Curt Schilling brouhaha that’s, as the au courant term puts it, “trending” is not that he took the bull by the horns and decided to leap… No great risk for him as he’s clearly of the John Wayne “Searchers” school of vigilantism. It’s not that he loves his daughter, is proud of her, laudatory, and, as is now obvious, protective just short of a fault. I hope it’s short. In fact, one way of looking at what I find disturbing is a kind of falling short in the protective department.

He is, by his own characterization (and it reads like a pre-emptive rationale, to those who might question the rigor with which he pursued his daughter’s tormentors), a public figure. To many people, especially Red Sox fans, and to the electorate of a more conservative persuasion politically who take any notice, he’s a hero. He is clearly outspoken, and possibly even brazen in his stated willingness to confront all comers mano a mano.

He has been using personal computers, he says, since 1981 (quite possible; the IBM PC was introduced that year. Of course, he was 15 in 1981, and possibly it was with some hobbyist version of the PC that he became acquainted with the technology. No matter. I know it was possible even to have begun to have some acquaintance with connectivity, as there were communication networks for the public, accessible using personal computers, that predate the Internet going back at least as far as 1981. Whatever the case, he portrays himself as a man well versed in the ways of the social media.

He makes a great case for being a man, now mature and responsible for his actions, taken prudently and thoughtfully, and before that, a fairly typical teenager, reckless and daring, and more than willing to do regrettable stupid things. He says he understands the impulses of men in groups, having been one for most of his professional career in sports, certainly in the Major Leagues of baseball and in other leagues as prelude to that. He knows the braggadocio, the manly preening, the boasts and the longings and the lusts.

After congratulating his 17 year old daughter, whom he names in the post, on Twitter, for having been accepted at Salve Regina College, both as a freshman and as a member of their varsity softball team, he was, he claims, non-plussed by the less than kindly well-wishes of what grew to be a mob of scurrilous cyber-bullies, and would-be sexual predators, stating explicit sexual assaults intended for Mr. Schilling’s teenage daughter.

I have no quarrel with his vehement and aggressive stand against such behavior. I have what may or may not be a quarrel with his tactics (though not his motives—which are understandable; even not being a father, one can understand his sense of protectiveness) in outing and setting up her would-be assailants and threat-mongers for retribution through perfectly legal channels. By bringing their behavior to the attention of their managers, bosses, coaches, et al., Mr. Schilling instigated the dismissal, firing, and expulsion of many of these transgressors from their appointments to college and professional athletic teams, from their jobs, and so forth. In the end, I guess—again my feelings are not sorted out, and hence are kind of equivocal, if not ambivalent altogether—justice has been meted out, and, in addition to the immediate punishment inherent in their loss of status, or even of a livelihood, they face the possibly life-long prospect of having been branded as offenders as one of the most reviled sort in this country.

But for all that, here’s what’s bothering me. Mr. Schilling, by all accounts, but especially his own, a responsible adult, taking very seriously his role as provider and protector of his family and, in particular, any female offspring, was not sufficiently mindful from the start, or not, in my book, as he might have considered being. I don’t mean with his original proud innocuous “tweet” congratulating his daughter. But before that, when he took it upon himself to have a public presence, presumably for his fans, as well as actual personal friends and family, on the most visible of social media. On Twitter, in particular, which has become a vetted conduit for fast-breaking news, among whatever other more frivolous uses to which it is put, he has 122,000 followers. We can’t expect that he knows all these people personally. We can’t imagine, when it comes down to cases, that he would consider it a comfortable proposition that they be privy to all matters concerning his personal life, not to mention those of his family, and greatest of all those of his children.

Many other public figures go to great lengths to preserve their privacy and shield their loved ones, despite the exertions and no-expense-spared tactics employed by the world at large, not only the media, but all self-styled media, including commentators, hangers-on, and those, in the case of celebrities, who consider themselves somehow colleagues, if not peers, because they are engaged in the same business (other athletes in the case of Mr. Schilling, from junior high on up through college; in the case of the performing arts, all those who are studying those arts, or performing them, even at the amateur and community level). People do want to feel that kinship with those who have proven themselves, especially if they have received accolades and the world’s recognition. In practice, people still have to earn trust though, one-by-one and on a personal level.

Some public figures go to unusual lengths, expatriating themselves, or living behind ultra-secured gates, and enrolling their children in private institutions that have been dedicated to do everything possible to protect their privacy. Perhaps the parents are fair game—that’s the way of the world for public figures of global recognition and stature—but I have yet to hear an argument, except from people who are clearly tainted with perverse interpretations of appropriate ethical and moral standards by which to live, that the family and children of public figures are equally fair game.

Many public figures also go to great lengths not to make other members of their families, especially those under legal age, also a member of the professional act, so to speak. I’m not talking about the “stars” of reality media, who are largely famous for being famous, and being famous and making as many blood relatives, or those tied by marriage, famous in the bargain.

Curt Schilling, I don’t believe, is part of this latter category. He is, nevertheless, a genuine sports hero and icon to many.

If anything, I would argue, he has a greater responsibility to be mindful of what he shares about himself and his life—but in particular his personal life—with the world outside of what amounts to a small circle of friends and family, as is true for anyone. Anyone. He is entitled to be as proud as he can stand to feel about the accomplishments of his children. He is entitled to feel all the positive feelings any normal person has regarding loved ones, and those held dear, by blood or friendship.

I am not sure he is entitled to expose them, if he can help it, to the attention of the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, to the wanton, lurid and often perverse, sick and criminal curiosities and fantasies of some small portion of a public as large as theirs is likely to be, and as large as Curt Schilling’s demonstrably is.

I don’t think he owes one word of apology to anyone who, through his or her actions directed at Mr. Schilling’s daughter, jeopardized their participation in a normative way with the rest of society. They have made themselves pariahs, and they must find their own strategies for extricating themselves from that status, if that’s even possible.

What I do think Mr. Schilling is obligated to do, is to think, or to think again (assuming he gave thought to these matters in the past; he is clearly outspoken, and just as clearly an intelligent thinking man who arrives at his point of view only after due consideration), about the repercussions of offering up what should be private communications intended for the bosom of his group of nearest and dearest, and keeping those offers of his, of praise, or whatever else, out of the eyesight and earshot of the rest of his world of admirers. They are simply bright flames to countless moths who never stop coming.

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John Kerry’s Goofy Diplomacy

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.

In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.

My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.

Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.

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Our Country: Redefining Hypocrisy as a Global Standard

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

The View From Where I Sit

View from here-_DSC0006

Our government, representing us as a nation, is quick to chastise, sometimes menacingly, other countries against some strict moral standard. Occasionally the merest hint of an encroachment on the civil rights of citizens in some far-flung place and we speak out (though usually it’s not just a hint, but the latest in several rounds of continual flagrant violation—sometimes it takes us awhile to decide to rise up on our hind legs) expressing, often in sanctified tones, our indignation and disgruntlement. We are particularly disposed to do this with countries outside the sphere of de facto white majority nations and the ecosystem models of Western democracies. Moreover we are not timid about threatening or actually applying the sanctions of throttling the economies of these miscreant countries, quizzically, at times, our own trading partners or, more critically, the chief resource of cheap manufacturing labor for American branded goods. We exploit the citizenry while threatening that country’s government with measures that will, in fact, mainly cause harm to the same individuals whose labors we are exploiting to our profit. Leaders, except for their reputations internationally, go unscathed. Tyrants persist, not only staying in power, but often acquiring more. With an exquisite sense of where it will be most judiciously applied, as measured in self-interested vectors on the axes of geopolitical hegemony and financial leverage, we actually impose those sanctions, especially if we can inveigle our equally sanctimonious partners—the usual suspects, numbering seven very rich and powerful countries or, in a different grouping, 20, a mixed bag of very rich and not so much, depending on which economic cabal we call upon—in an exercise of the powers of democratic rectitude. Usually the worst sufferers of such economic strangulation—choking, but never quite killing, the victim—are the citizens of the miscreant nations. Yet these rogue governments stay in place, the world spins, and we move on to monitoring for the next outrage. And in the meantime, people die, one by one, or en masse, by degrees, or, in the language of Gilbert & Sullivan describing (comically) a beheading, with a “short sharp shock.”

As is typical of a world view borne of over three centuries of military and political domination of the entire planet, we white nations are contemptuous of the culture and mores of these countries we throttle—some of them far larger than us in geographic size, and certainly far more numerous. Some of them, of course, are the contemporary manifestation of civilizations that predate ours by millennia. We browbeat, lambaste, or outright bully countries as diverse and geographically widespread as Egypt, China, or Sudan, though the list is far longer. China is never far from being astray, by our measure, in navigating a world defined by our superior moral compass.

In the extreme we withdraw diplomatic representation to these countries, rendering any opportunity for diplomatic leverage impossible, while forcing continuing (and conveniently deniable) negotiations into the backrooms of clandestine contexts and venues. One other consequence often is to drive the offending individuals and their governments that represent threats to the moral stature of mankind further into the arms of opposing groups—alliances of the perverse—truly renegade and often stateless: our redoubtable enemies, upon whom we are disposed to anoint whole peoples with the morally charged titles of opprobrium speechwriters delight in fabricating, like Axis of Evil, who immediately demonstrate they are far less scrupulous than we in putting stakes in the ground of civilized nations. Indeed, if anything, there is a greater consistency in the behavior of those nations we brand as outcasts, or threaten to so brand, than in the company of the league of morally righteous countries we represent.

Far better to adhere to the tenets of our code, spelled out emphatically at the first sign of transgression, when the civil rights of a potentially rogue nation’s citizens are in peril. It matters not to us, smug in our uplifting prosperity, that theirs is a way of life—good or bad, by whatever standard—and their struggle often merely a recapitulation of a process that history has shown is not only repeated, over and over, as mankind seeks painfully to acquire the virtue of the imposition of civilization on its savage heart, but recursive. Sometimes nations now in the grip of misrule, chaos and violence were, in the past, the model of some now ancient world order of how civil societies should behave.

The United States is now the preeminent avatar of that elusive concept: the world’s best hope for imposing peace, order, tranquility, civility, and fairness (above all) as a doctrine the entire world can embrace. The land of the free and home of the brave being the rhetorical touchstones to which even well-meaning immigrants, or first- and second-generation children of immigrants, invoke, just before casting aspersions on the real life on the American streets that belie this shining dream: yes, on the one hand America is great, because it’s the land of the free, but, let me tell me how I’m actually treated in my (job, town, college…).

We are careful in broadcast messages—sometimes merely stern, sometimes homiletic—however, in holding up as a standard our own moral codes, not to draw any attention to the ways in which, almost on a daily basis, anyone following the news in what remnant there is of an organized free press, assisted by the growing ranks of ad hoc witnesses and reporters of injustice in our own country’s streets and byways and broadcast on a still free Internet of communications and information outlets, can see reported transgressions equal to, if not exceeding, the guidelines for behavior informed by such codes. It’s like a parade where huge banners with inspiring slogans are carried by platoons of authentic defenders of our principles, whether in uniform in the obscure and dangerous mountain passes and wadis of the unsettled Middle East, or on the streets of our major cities, in honest civil protests, while at the back of the march anti-protestors are beleaguering the ordinary common citizens demonstrating their sense of common cause, with hate speech, or possibly even bringing down fists and hard blunt instruments on their heads.

The metaphor does not address the alternative, and prevailing reality that it is as likely that a different uniformed, increasingly militarized force, I mean the police of our fair cities and towns of course, are dispatched to quell civil protest, which is otherwise perfectly lawful, but represents a menace to the larger order, the real world order of the tiny set of corporate interests and uber-rich individuals whose hegemony is in some inchoate way threatened. That the threat never gathers force in a concentrated way, or never confronts the powers that be with violence (unlike criminals, terrorists, and society’s alienated emotionally disturbed youth, who actually do act, and are barely contained) represents the anguished reality that any veteran of an Occupied action, as one example of many, can attest.

Other countries, after whatever form of what we call due process, indict, try, and convict perpetrators of crimes under their codes of justice. They often do so, even in this universally troubled world, in an entirely orderly way, holding court, swearing witnesses, prosecuting guilt, and dispensing justice, not by our lights, but theirs, for sure. Nevertheless they do it with order, and not in some summary way.

We don’t like the usually swift meting out of justice, sometimes Biblical in its severity, mercilessness, and inhumanity: worse than beheadings (which are the current benchmark for barbarism and perverse justice, the justice of evil intent; yet, a fact easily forgotten, the state means of ending a life in France until all forms of capital punishment were ended, as recently as 1981), worse than hanging, which, after all, was still the standard of execution in the United Kingdom, only 50 or 60 years ago, there is stoning, which horrifies even devout Christians, who daily read the manual, I speak of the Bible, for such a mode of punishment appropriate to the class of transgression congruent to its application.

We prefer to prolong the agony of prisoners—including growing numbers proving to have been wrongfully indicted, prosecuted and convicted—by drawing out the appeals process or delaying parole as we debate the moral niceties of the differences between punishment and rehabilitation (with no regard whatsoever for analyzing the incongruent nature of policies and methodologies, never mind facilities, for carrying out the one vs. the other) or allowing the lopsidedness of American justice (blind in theory, including the tenet of that particular form known as color-blind vs. the de facto condition that finds six times the number of African-Americans imprisoned against the number of whites, even though, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, whites outnumber African-Americans in the U.S. general population nearly by the inverse of that ratio). In plain language, there are just shy of six times as many whites as African-Americans, yet there are six times as many African-American men incarcerated in this country as there are whites incarcerated.

Clearly grand juries and juries are busy with the grim business of finding African-American men guilty of crimes calling for imprisonment, i.e., the most serious crimes in our criminal code of justice. They certainly are not, and never have been busy holding the police, from the precinct to the state level, accountable for their violence against civilians not actively engaged in criminal behavior, never mind already in custody, unarmed, or behaving obediently and in a civil and non-violent manner. Like our penal system, there is a lop-sided ratio of victims of police violence in terms of skin color. Rarely is a white-skinned individual murdered, or even merely injured, though there is no differentiation by skin color, ethnicity or race when it comes to quelling non-violent protests, especially those conducted en masse.

There is no apparent line of connection between the actions of our Federal executive branches and state or local law enforcement, between the Departments of State and Justice, and the lower echelon jurisdictions of prosecution and jurisprudence. Never mind conscious and interactive lines of communication between these entities; nor would I call for them. The lofty posturing of the one, like the dignity always accorded high office, whether in the Senate or the White House, is in marked contrast with some grittier reality. The police no doubt are the first to say, along with the demonstrators, their hands bound in temporary nylon ties that cut into their wrists, “you have no idea what it’s really like.” And surely, those who espouse, surely those who merely mouth, the pious platitudes that invoke, over and over, the high principles on which our country was founded, as the words condemn the actions of those far away and from another country, about whom we truly have no idea what it’s really like, are unconscious of the active hypocrisy of their words when weighed against the preponderant, no, the overwhelming, and mounting evidence of the injustices and disparities of actual life in our own streets, as it belies every syllable, every phrase and even the merest, most insignificant, mark of punctuation.

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The Philadelphia Irk List: Part 1 of no doubt many

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Having enjoyed the privilege of a brief—brief to me, but probably an incredibly luxurious hiatus for most people—period of rustication, first in the wilds of Provence, and then in the wilds of Grafton County, NH, virtually on top of the Vermont border, it has been a strange awakening to arrive back in Philadelphia. There was a bracing, very brief interval, between trips to the bosky dells of two continents—mainly I think to get our temporal sea legs to regain their normal status—but not sufficient to be a reminder of what we have escaped during our annual summer run.

But goodbye to that, alas. We are back in the thick of it. The main and prevailing thickness is the swampy weather that for some reason the founding fathers found so congenial here in the Middle Atlantic wedge of the great jaded northeast of the U.S. But there is another thickness, palpable enough, a dimension of the quotidian here in the urban milieu, though wholly invisible. I speak of the thickness between the ears of the collective inhabitants of the region.

In plain language, my friends and fellow commiserators, there’s a reason for that famous apocryphal epitaph of W.C. Fields, and, considering the alternative, which I am wont too often to do (and I don’t mean the Côte d’Azur), I unhappily agree. That is, I do, until, say, I sit behind the wheel of our car, which has taken us through thousands of miles in the north country in safe, largely imperturbable bliss, except for Route 84 in Connecticut. What I have been quickly reminded of are the only too predictable and thoroughly irksome habits of Pennsylvanians, or maybe it’s just Philadelphians, but they do a pretty good job of it in the suburbs as well. So here’s the beginning of an irk list. I am sure, in the fullness of time, as my brain further congeals and grows a defensive barrier, I will dispassionately add to this list in installments.

1. The car horns from the car behind you:

  • the horn for sitting a nanosecond too long at a traffic light just turned green, before flooring the accelerator for one of those quick Philadelphia Grand Prix starts from a dead stop
  • the horn for waiting, with your turn signal deployed, to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass safely on your left, before executing a left hand turn removing you from the path of the blower [that would be the horn blaster] who is, of course, tailgating you
  • the horn in the cramped parking lots, which are legion in the overpopulated suburbs, where life as we know it cannot exist without a strip mall every 1/5 of a mile on major thoroughfares, from the speeding vehicle racing for the exit, as you slowly, gingerly, and most of all anxiously, pull out of your parking space, watching, seemingly simultaneously somehow, the side mirrors, the rear view mirror, the rear camera screen on the dash, and the view through the rear window and side vents, keeping in mind always the deadly blind spots
  • the horn for actually coming to a dead stop at a Stop sign, instead of simply continuing your forward momentum, with or without the assistance of the use of the accelerator of your vehicle, at whatever speed happens to suit your own sense of urgency at the moment, executing, in effect, the maneuver, formerly known as The Boston Roll, called The Philadelphia Roll [cross reference here: Stop sign behaviors]

2. The car horns from oncoming vehicles, proceeding from either the right or left, and more often than not, both, even with traffic islands, separating traffic, because the Philadelphia driver is nothing if not anticipatory of what’s happening on the other side of the road that could potentially (with a .025% chance of probability) impede their progress, occurring usually at at least 20% in excess of the speed limit

  • the horn for standing, as a pedestrian, less than a yard (or meter, whichever is longer; just to demonstrate that I have no biases, I mean, the person behind the wheel invisible behind the tinted windscreen, could be British, or Canadian, or European, and also, at the same time, berserk) from the curbstone, especially with no intervening zone of parked vehicles, waiting for the traffic to abate so you can cross [cross reference here: irks for the less than brilliant road and street engineers of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, it appears, must park their brains along with their vehicles as they report for work to design the highways and byways, the streets, avenues, roadways, boulevards, and alleyways of our fair cities, towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and unincorporated IPCs (important population centers)]
  • the horn for daring to anticipate making a left hand turn across oncoming lane(s) of traffic at an intersection with a traffic control signal, and your own turn signal indicator deployed, by actually stopping the forward motion of your vehicle well short of the trajectory of said oncoming vehicles; special mention for the anticipatory horn blast as the blower approaches from behind you, but is still ¼ mile away from you, and extra special mention for the prolonged blast from the blower, especially after you have, in fact, executed your turn, and are exiting the intersection, thereby removing yourself from the blower’s vector without materially impeding their velocity, not that these people slow down for much anyway; this type of horn blast is always an excellent demonstration of the Doppler effect, in case you have any young students of the Principles of Classic Physics in the car.

I thought I could make this first installment a fairly good introduction to the subject, by making a fairly substantive list of perhaps a half-dozen to ten items in just the automobile horn category, but, I am sorry dear reader, I have to lie down now and rest for awhile.

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