It All Comes Down to Words

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Greek icon, ca. 1700 of The Second Coming, public domain

As will surprise no one who knows me, I am firmly of the camp that says when all is – to tap one of the larger clichés – said and done, all of what we spend so much time contemplating, analyzing, and sending one another alerts to heed (replete with links to videos, audios, articles, tweets, re-tweets, comments, and every permutation of the mechanisms afforded by technology to transmit and preserve utterances of the moment) is about language. It’s about what differentiates us from the other apes, and most of the other mammals: verbal communication (I said most, because there are other vertebrates, at least, who do vocalize and about whom we are discovering there are underlying structures, with rules and, well, essentially, phonemes, not which can necessarily and strictly be called verbal, but are certainly the cognitive equivalent: so we have a larynx, other creatures have other physiological structures to emit sounds).

So, it’s not so surprising that, after all, after all the tallying of the various categories and intensities of false utterances by our president, not to mention the cadre supporting him, sometimes with more lies, sometimes with ingenious if tortuously convoluted assemblages of words that don’t exactly – just shy of forensically – constitute more mendacity, but which work just as well as a plausible, but unprovable, construction of words in a seemingly comprehensible assemblage that serves to settle the senses. Or, it so confounds the senses (at their most corrosive, they confound all the senses at once… what’s that smell?) to so confuse them as to demand the respite of a self-imposed mental abandonment, as in “fuggedaboudit,” because it’s too painful to try to deconstruct into reason. We are left with pinning a sentence on the chief perpetrator of obliteration of all well-being into a state of chaos and woe with no more evidence than his own words. And spinning tales, in all genres of formal and informal rhetoric: essays, documentaries, texts (and equilibrating and neutralizing counter-texts), and doubtless what will be a long, possibly unending stream of creative formulations – fictions, certainly, but inevitably, metafictions, and speculative fictions, and the whole spate of formal ironic counterpoint, satires and parodies, not the truth, but not really ever untrue.

However, for now, until the current major engines of substantive content: the movies and series and mini-series, the blockbusters, and streams, and likely even TikToks, not to mention the book-length treatments, the one-offs, the tell-alls, the multi-volume compendious and comprehensive authoritative scholarly accounts, with all the apparatus providing the mass and weight of relentlessly factual gravity, for indisputable credence, begin to grind out, as a sub-industry in and of itself, we must content ourselves with the mainly moralizing, alternatively finger-pointing or hand-wringing, “who-could-have-known” and “didn’t-I-tell-you-so” opinion mongering from the hordes of usual suspects, and the inexhaustible supply of others who, absent a platform, simply construct their own – with instant credibility, because what is a network and connectivity for, but self-anointment?

What inspires for me this, that is, my own not so extraordinary meditation on the power and the meaning of words, of, I can say by extension, without stretching the pertinence, the meaning of language constructed of verbal forms, is this piece by a duo of senior NYTimes reporters, that is, by the attached link to a NYTimes story, not so extraordinary assessment, on the eve of Trump’s departure from the center ring of the political circus that has been his tenure in office, are two things about this account, from the necessarily salient voice – who other than Maggie Haberman has served, sometimes precariously, as an avatar of the phenomenon that occurred in full view and yet in strict terms of mindful probity as it happened, and that is the transformation of what had been undeniably the closest thing to reliable for a source (“source,” from the French, *source,* that is a spring, spurting unimpeded, pure, uncontaminated, and always refreshing and, if need be, restorative) of truth, that is, in English, that is, in the United States, that is, The New York Times. Truth, like the Times, had, in ways that will require clever analysis indeed to disentangle the actual process – somewhat like a re-enactment of the discovery of DNA, but not for the code of life itself, but something as inchoate as it turns out, the code of unassailable truth (if sometimes requiring a correction or retraction or reconstruction) – truth, as I was saying, has become now the neglected step-child, ragged and dirty, unkempt and maybe even sniveling a bit, of belief, the beast that had been tamed it was thought, but was the veritable rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Aside: You can’t talk about this stuff without an allusion to the poem, The Second Coming, named for the imminence that has been the core of the doom anticipated throughout the 20th century, and prefigured the further spiritual decay of this present time; and what is what we fear most, but that for all of our sense that it can’t get any worse than this – the state of mind that prevailed through the course of major wars that have dominated our global history since September 1, 1939 (another reverberative poetic touchstone) and continue to do so, not to mention, the concomitant and co-extensive reign of terror, which has proven to be a weird melange of the sharp shocks arriving without warning and leaving ever greater masses of rubble and toxic clouds in the wake of explosive events mixed with the prevailing atmosphere of doom encased in the ruling rhetorics of state policy (buttressed with stockpiles of the apparatus of true universal annihilation).

But I was saying… two things, almost unnoticeable, surely innocuous, as are most banal verbal markers – surely meant to be no more than declarative, and possibly at least orientating, if not definitive. First, the NYTimes calls this article not reporting, and not opinion, but a “political memo.” A “memo?” I know who it’s from. To whom is it addressed though? For whom is it meant?

Second, buried in there is the very briefest phrase, applicable to the man himself, “functional self-delusion,” which I suddenly (even in the moment; nothing stealthy going on here) understood to be part of some new taxonomy about the behavior of paper tyrants (like Donald J. Trump), the kind that he invented, the first of its sort, seemingly familiar, but really never seen before, because of one fact (if it must be reducible to that, the form we Americans have come to prefer for our truths to go down, especially in the absence of sugar in the spoon), and that is, this tyrant had his finger amazingly, and unbelievably for four anxiety-dominated years, on the nuclear button.

So, I have to ask, what is “functional self-delusion?” Whose self-delusion? What, if there was something functioning, exactly was functioning? If this was “functional,” what’s dysfunction like?

And do we really want to know? Don’t waste any words telling me.

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Doomed to Work

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lunch Rush

I just read the Jill Lepore essay in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” It’s yet another semi-sweeping assessment of the sort I get to see and choose to read periodically about what has decayed about the relationship of Americans – ordinary Americans, the 99% – to work. The conclusion I reach is always the same.

We are doomed. Increasingly, moment to moment, day by day, and it’s been a fate imposed for some time now, at least a half century. It would appear from the way Ms. Lepore has structured the factual underpinnings of her thesis that 1970 or so is a watershed in the turning of a delicate balance between the rewards to management and owners of business off the sweat of their workers whose wages, and mixed ragged assortment of benefits, they paid, and the just compensation that the workers received in this transaction that permitted them to feel like they were supporting themselves, not just by way of scant and necessary sustenance, but in such a way that there was sufficient surplus that there was a basis for feeling like they were thriving, or at least leading productive and satisfying lives. I’ve avoided the use of the word “meaningful” for the reasons that Lepore examines, wherein during the history of radical deconstruction of the relationship of work to the sense of the quality of life enjoyed by the people, that is, the preponderance of the working population, who do the actual work. As here:

“Meaningful work” is an expression that had barely appeared in the English language before the early nineteen-seventies, as McCallum observes. “Once upon a time, it was assumed, to put it bluntly, that work sucked,” Sarah Jaffe writes in “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone” (Bold Type). That started to change in the nineteen-seventies, both McCallum and Jaffe argue, when, in their telling, managers began informing workers that they should expect to discover life’s purpose in work. “With dollar-compensation no longer the overwhelmingly most important factor in job motivation,” the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange wrote, “management must develop a better understanding of the more elusive, less tangible factors that add up to ‘job satisfaction.’ ” After a while, everyone was supposed to love work.

That is, there was a shift in the basis of perception and the value of work was transmuted into an assessment of how meaningful the work was to the person who performed it, with the suggestion that such a value transcended and superceded the actual emolument in material forms, such as wages and benefits to which a dollar value could be attached.

In other words, we are doomed because somehow a great grift was performed whereby the American worker was not merely in some blunt, if not brutish, way traduced, but subtly and slowly, to most people imperceptibly in real time, induced to accept – not to believe necessarily, but to accept as an ineluctable quality of the nature of work in the larger fabric of their day-to-day existence – an abstraction, hardly provable, and always elusive, dependent as it was on a too-often fleeting and evanescent sense of their internal state of well-being, as a substitute for the hard material reality of adequate compensation in the form of sufficient coin of the realm to meet their needs for subsistence, plus something else, also usually in the form of abstractions, that allowed them to feel that life is “worth living.”

We are doomed now, because we have systematically, if obliviously (which is a polite way of saying being willfully unheeding of what is as plain as the most stark quotidian realities, like whether the sun is shining, or the color of the sky overhead during daylight hours – probably not for the sake of plausible deniabiity, because there clearly are no penalties for the omissions, transgressions, and impositions put in place, each another brick in the wall, a small brick, always, but many of them, and relentlessly and unceasingly being laid which resulted in a barrier to the kind of former life enjoyed by workers, who had secure jobs, with regular and predictable hours, and whose wages were not some egregiously monstrously tiny fraction of the compensation of their bosses. One of the more repugnant testimonies provided, involuntarily, as a quote by Lepore of the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, whose compensation was doubled to over 10 million dollars a year, yet who called the proposed rise in minimum wage for salaried and hourly workers in the organization to $15 an hour, “outrageous” (easy for him to say, computing as it does, absent any other benefits, to an annual wage of just over $31,000, that is, 3/10 of one percent of his income for that same year).

These would seem to be inequities that will be hard, even over a long period of time, to bridge to a condition that approaches being called egalitarian by reasonable human beings, who might still posit some faith in the economics of capitalism in a true democracy. Not without punitive (and doubtless insupportable by the current crop of legislators, who would have to craft the political and legal and economic apparatus necessary to effect such a change, even incrementally) sanctioned measures to bring down the highest allowable income level of American executives (in the way that certain other Western democracies have instituted, especially in the Scandinavian countries), even while raising the minimal salaries, and other necessary paid benefits, like sick leave, universal health insurance, parental leave, and job stability (though I’m not sure what this would mean in a way that is conceivable in an economy now largely based on service-related jobs within the current management apparatus designed to provide predictable just-in-time efficiencies while also optimizing the level of profit potentially to be derived, that is, in a labor market that has been gutted of any structure that supports the needs of the workers, except in the form of what we now glibly, if not merely unthinkingly – see notes on “willfully unheeding” above – refer to as a “gig economy.” It always seemed to me long since that the more apt term would be a gag economy. In every sense: it’s a joke of universal proportions, and it’s designed to keep workers in a state of perpetually feeling like they’re just short of being choked to death.

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