There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.
Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.
It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).
In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.
In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.
Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.
I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.
With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.
But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.
My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
Most of us believe the United States intelligence apparatus, regardless of precisely however many separate agencies it comprises, manages to identify not only Russian hacking of our public communications networks and our process for swaying public political opinion, but can identify specific individuals, in Russia, as among the perpetrators, with sufficient evidence to justify a formal indictment of twelve suspects. Further, we believe it is already well established, thanks to leaks and whistle-blowers, that the most secretive of our national security apparatus has the means to monitor not some, but all, communications among Americans, not to mention a significant percentage of foreign nationals, both within our borders and within the confines of their own nations; they can monitor phone conversations, text messages, and emails, and record and store all of these data streams for further, more prolonged, and deeper analysis. They can identify the individuals and the roles they play within foreign diplomatic delegations, whatever their formally declared as well as their covert assignments while operating within our borders, and, furthermore, identify them even on foreign soil, including their native countries. We can identify them and, if need be by way of sanctions, deport any number or all of them from our country. We can and do indict them in our own country, as already mentioned.
We have had these capabilities, and performed these and similar actions for years. In many cases the power to do so has been possible and has been deployed in actual practice for decades. If anything, with the passage of time, we have become more proficient and adept and sophisticated in the development of the capabilities of these technologies and their application for purposes of what is generally labeled as something like “national security.”
Further, we apparently have the capability of covertly gathering information in the multifarious forms of analyzable data from deep within the operational apparatus of foreign governments – both among our allies and our more hostile economic and geopolitical rivals (including former and potential future enemies of our state). We are capable of, and have committed acts in the past of, disrupting or in other ways influencing the internal politics as well as the governance by duly appointed, in many instances democratically elected, state officials and functionaries. We have insinuated ourselves into the affairs of sovereign nations, and implicated ourselves in the overthrow of legitimate representational as well as despotic usurping governments.
Admittedly capable of and actually perpetrating all of these actions, our government has done and will undoubtedly continue to do so. That is, they will, short of self-imposed internal political constraints. For example, as we have seen in the past 17 years, the Congress can and will pass enabling legislation permitting the president to take executive action in the pursuit of protecting our national security. As we have seen in the past 19 months, conversely, Congress could but won’t merely constrain a president in order to proscribe undesired acts, like firing his own officials, in the execution of his office. Nevertheless, repeatedly our government has demonstrated the successful implementation of strategies in pursuit of national objectives using such intelligence capabilities paid for by American taxpayers nominally in their interests.
All that is said and done. Now we have as President an individual positioned by dint of his public prominence in the worlds of national and global commerce, as a recognized and readily recognizable public figure in the realm of entertainment, with well-publicized personal views on matters of national and international political significance, of avowed, if not merely self-declared, great financial stature, with personal and corporate ties and obligations – long since documented and well-known through dissemination by national and international news organizations – to banks, governments, and private funding sources throughout the world, with sufficient resources and persistent media attention to declare his candidacy for office who has managed in two years with no prior record as an elected official to catapult himself, in a single national election, to the office of arguably the most powerful governing executive in the world.
Are we to believe that if the American intelligence apparatus has any information about this individual that supports further investigation for evidence of indictable criminal behavior within the scope of the entire aggregate criminal code of the 50 states and the federal government, it was not already known, recognized as such, and being analyzed for the appropriate venue and charges to be prosecuted? And furthermore, if such information exists, even short of constituting evidence suitable for the consideration of a grand jury in any localized or federal jurisdiction, it would not already have been leaked, reported on, and the subject of ongoing and rigorous journalistic inquiry?
High intelligence, let alone Machiavellian skills at deviousness, and the mastery of a brilliant intelligence agent, on the order of a Kim Philby or a Colonel Abel, are not requirements for the office of President of the United States. In any event, there was never a demonstration of such qualities in Donald Trump up to the day of his inauguration in that office. If anything, since that day, all evidence, readily observable in plain sight, whatever your news source, points to the absence of even a scintilla of such qualities.
Are we to believe he is positioned, and qualified, to be an agent of the Russian government? Are we to believe he even is susceptible to recruitment as a willing and compliant “asset” (a concept about which, apparently, millions of Americans are suddenly expert) of that government – or would be attractive to that government in such a role (I used the descriptors “willing” and “compliant” deliberately)? Are we to believe that the Russian government, keeping in mind the entirety of its prior 27 year history starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was in a position to recruit such an asset because of a rational expectation that he was credibly capable of attaining the office he now has at any time prior to three years ago when he declared his candidacy?
I don’t believe any of it. I do believe that in his avaricious, amoral, egomaniacal pursuit of real wealth (instead of the sleight-of-hand appearance of it) and power, and a pathological need for public attention on a grand scale beyond the insulating buffer of an inner circle of enablers and sycophants, he became an ideal dupe – cluelessly and involuntarily collaborating, not only with the true “deep state” of the 1/10 of 1% who own as much of American wealth as the bottom 90% and who wish not only to preserve it, but have it grow, but collaborating as well, equally clueless, with the geopolitical aims of a Russian autocrat, the center of a ring of oligarchs who wish to see the resurrection of their country as an influential, implacable superpower, which has been their ultimate aim at least since Putin first served as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
In 1999, looking forward to 2000, there was talk of Donald Trump running for President, as a possible candidate of the Reform Party. And his preferred running mate, he said… None other than Oprah Winfrey. But the country wasn’t ready for Trump. Nor did they need him. They had George W. Bush.
How have the people who believe the increasingly ludicrous things they do come to do so? Unrelieved grief and despair will do that. All the more reason not to lose one’s head.
Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.
What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.
In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.
In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.
Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.
Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?
The New York Times today reports this:
“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”
What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.
from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left
So, given the vagaries of surfing on the web (yes, I’ve been doing it that long that I still call it that… I started doing it in 1994; when did you start?) I ended up reading filtered accounts of the new Michael Wolff sensation of a book. I am speaking, of course, of Fire and Fury, just published, filled with “insider” revelations of the true tenor of life not only in the Trump White House, but the inner workings of his campaign leading up to the election. I’m not here to flog those confidences, though. There’s enough of that still going on.
I’m not even here to flog the reputation and working methods of Michael Wolff, whose reputation as a professional journalist among those who know his work long precedes him apparently. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his work. However, his reputation is not so great, especially among his presumptive colleagues, one would gather in the cataractous light of hindsight. His fellow scribblers had pretty much been keeping mum about his flagrant breaches of decorum, to hear them tell it, until he, in effect, opened his mouth with what is turning out to be a red-hot bestseller—no thanks to them and their overwrought efforts to subdue their anguish, especially once the president’s Tweets hit the fan. American journalists are particularly adept at not sounding like they’re choking, as they contort themselves into strangulated postures to retain their air of restrained dispassion. What they love to call the hard won perspective of “objectivity.”
Even as Wolff has been branded now variously a “liar,” “unprofessional,” “devious,” “mendacious,” etc. etc., there is a still barely audible counterpoint, call it a trickle of true neutral observation, that one must accept that book, having come through the apparatus of established publishing protocols by a reputed, if not an esteemed, publisher, has been vetted as far as a rushed account can be (it is still, after all, less than a year, if only barely, since the inauguration of our 45th chief executive). Presumably, and no doubt as will turn out reliably, it has been largely fact checked, gone over for the legal niceties that publishers – especially – worry about, and edited as well as a substantial book of nonfiction, 335 pages of it, can be in what is relatively short order, especially given its topicality and even more given the slipperiness, shall we say, of the sources.
Rather, my subject, as little attention as it deserves in this specific instance, is the attitude evinced by that aforementioned establishment press, especially in Washington, and in particular the so-called White House press corps – let’s face it, the heart of the monster that Trump has anointed with the epithet, used as much as an abstract noun as anything more precise, of “fake news.” Let me just observe for a moment here that, in the latest figures I can find from what I am satisfied is a more than reasonably reliable source, the U.S. adult public, with regard to the information they get, wrings this level of trust out of themselves for “national news organizations” as determined in a survey by the Pew Research Center in March, 2017 by political affiliation:
It should only be noted, and I add this significant detail somewhat bemusedly, that the question posited the level of trust being queried as “a lot.” There was no indication of what amount a “lot” is in either relative or absolute terms. The only sources that fared worse on this question of trusting the information to be derived “a lot” were “friends, family, and acquaintances” and “social networking sites.”
It is clear enough from the remarks I have seen in the casual conversation pits that form on Facebook of working journalists, past and still working, including many who worked national and international beats, including the Washington DC bureaus of their organizations, with a sprinkling assigned to the White House itself (I have not personally seen any remarks from present members of the Washington press corps) that Wolff has evoked a lot of feeling among his putative colleagues. Not a few people, and most of them are men, have had not merely exposure to the dispatches of Michael Wolff in the past, and not merely immersion in the gossip and scuttlebutt about his work, his methods, and the arc of his career, but had some acquaintance, most of it nodding or purely transitory, with the man himself. And very little of the first person accounts of any of the substance of these points of contact with either the person himself, or merely his work, and certainly of the unsubstantiated remarks shared about his character or his modus operandi, indeed possibly none, were what I would characterize as commendatory.
Few of these critics, as there’s nothing else to call them, have anything really revelatory to say that would represent a concrete argument for refuting the assertions of the book, as they’ve been reported in summary in the first news reports from leaked copies or as the actual text quoted in the usual places online or in print, sometimes at length. Rather, the remarks hint vaguely, I would call them rumblings of disquiet clearly meant to discredit without actually venturing into the territory of bald accusation and condemnation. His would-be censors apparently feel free to call him a “known liar,” but stop way short of calling any of what is in the book outright fabrication. Whereas, of course, the president himself and his usual corps of defenders have no problem concentrating their wrath on the veracity of the published accounts, rather than worrying the character of the author of them. Curiously, of course, and this is duly noted by the “fake news” sources, very few, possibly none, of the sources quoted in Wolff’s book have denied what was said.
The New York Times published one account that opined there was nothing particularly original about either the book or its purport – suggesting that it conforms readily to a genre of political confession that is not new, except to the extent that one would expect such embarrassing revelations to see print years after the first inauguration of a sitting president. In the case of George Bush one such book by an insider in his White House was published not too far into his second term. Thereby such books, meant to provoke readers at least to the level of fueling significant sales figures, but not to stir its most invested publics up to the pitch of kicking a hornets’ nest. Hence, Wolff has not so much created a new game, as he’s moved the goal posts – however one might state the objectives, beyond the realm of moving the book into the status of bestseller strictly for the financial rewards entailed – a lot lot closer.
However obscure the objectives of Mr. Wolff, his agent, his publisher, et alia, it is more fun, though admittedly no less unexplained, to speculate on the state of mind, at least, of his apparent detractors.
They all don the tone and demeanor, as I hope I’ve suggested, of the sang-froid for which the most trusted newscasters and reporters of our cultural past as a nation were always praised. Through blitzes (literally), through battle, through disasters, through political debacles, American reporters and the later phenomenon of the news anchor (who came to prove his –usually “his” – or her mettle by unchaining from the news center desk and going into the field, even unto the mouth of hell) were always expected in a stalwart way to appear imperturbable. Further, in a way that is uniquely American in terms of the canons of neutrality and objectivity that are the core of curricula in professional schools of journalism, at least through the 20th century, that imperturbability extended to an ethos of never revealing either a bias, never mind an opinion. I, never bound by such constraints, am willing to venture the observation that it was not until the advent of a Trump presidency, first in prospect as his candidacy became legitimate and then in fact, as it became, well, a fact, one that cannot be denied by a sane person, that any visible cracks appeared in the cloak of neutrality donned most steadfastly by the foremost adherents of the papers of record—it has always been papers, specifically newspapers, the only surviving artifacts of our national cultural history that constitute their own fully anachronistic existence. Something cracked, for sure, when the grimly determined policies enrobing the grey lady were loosened sufficiently that the most exalted of poobahs of the press, the editors, permitted in print (and, for sure, in pixels) and not merely buried below interior “folds,” but emblazoned in headlines on the front page, that the lies of our president be labelled as such.
It is in the same spirit of impartiality that, in time, rendered the practitioners of this noble craft (to paraphrase Fielding, one may say that the professional pursuit of truth fills a person with nobility, and it does, as long as it’s filling a noble person… it’s an ocean away, but we should remember that Grub Street is readily the counterpart to Times Square) susceptible to a tendency to tendentiousness, and hence, given any bona fides as a reliable practitioner, being halfway there, an inclination to suffer the pangs of sanctimony. It’s a danger in those of weak character, in that it becomes sometimes impossible to keep mum about one’s own purity, if not piety—which leads to the intriguing possibility, which I will just hang out here and move on, that perhaps, like conjoined twins, perfecting the pose of utter neutrality can so easily be mistaken for having attained to a purely pious nature.
I say all this, because I am reminded of nothing so much as what follows below when I read the twisted impostures of writing with utter coolness and a disinterested air – a hard thing to do in the cramped confines of a Facebook comment, which, after all, has an optimum length, short enough, for effective impact – even clearly while seething with contempt, and stewing in the juices of sanctimoniousness.
I am left with no other impression than this: on two counts, Wolff has made myriad enemies among his brethren (again, I have to say, though without trying to be definitive or absolute, that it seems mainly to be men; men of a certain age, some retired, some about to be, some still in harness, so to speak, with equally notable but unremarkable careers until now). First he has, to use the lingo, scooped a great many people trying to report, and somewhat fitfully and fragmentarily so, dating from the beginning of the Trump tenure, about the internal mayhem of the administration. Second, he has done so, clearly, by winning the trust of those whose mouths should have never opened in his presence, especially given the presumed tenor of his prior reputation—assuming you accept that he is nothing but a mountebank himself, a sensationalist, and a liar, and no journalist. Even as he presents no outward signs, in any event, of the same piety, if not sanctimony, in which they have wrapped themselves, like judicial or academic or liturgical robes (is there any other gowned profession I am forgetting whose stature is so entwined with its relation to defining the nature of truth?).
What I am finally reminded of – to tell the truth, and now that I’ve introduced the clergy to the discussion, however slyly – is the satirical rage of a hero of the Age of Narcissus, specifically of the 60s in the United States, Alexander Portnoy, created by a master vocalist of satire and rage in virtuoso recitals, Philip Roth. At a certain point, stuck on the hypocrisy of his boyhood rabbi, Warshaw, who shepherded our hero through his triumph (to hear him tell it) of a bar mitzvah, as a first step on a path to the glory of exalting justice and truth in a career in law, Portnoy lets loose. I hope my pulling together so many seeming disparate strands here is not irrelevant to what I have chosen to comment on, from here in the bleachers, looking down on the spectacle occurring at this moment with such topicality – and whose freshness is no doubt as fragile and evanescent as a perfectly ripe berry. I am sure what I’m trying to convey here concerns a fruit of somewhat greater longevity, paradoxically durable, given that it’s borne by the trees of one of the orchards we call knowledge.
I am no less passionate about not abandoning the quest for truth in our very misshapen times, even as the pathways to it become more twisted and convoluted, than Portnoy is about he has discovered in his tortured dismay—that surrendering to anxiety or wallowing in a narcissistic pool are no means of shelter. Finally, I’ll leave you with this anguished, if comic, condemnation in absentia of the rabbi, from Portnoy’s prolonged monolog to the ever silent Dr. Spielvogel. Read it slowly, as it’s filled with resonant allusion to matters that are proving, minute by minute literally, in these first few days of the new year to be the stuff that will prove, ultimately, to be either some kind of dreadful apocalypse or of some kind of redemptive salvation:
Ah-hah, I knew it. It’s no Devil in the proper sense, it’s Fat Warshaw, the Reb. My stout and pompous spiritual leader! He of the sumptuous enunciation and the Pall Mall breath! Rabbi Re-ver-ed! It is the occasion of my bar mitzvah, and I stand shyly at his side, sopping it up like gravy, getting quite a little kick out of being sanctified, I’ll tell you. Alexander Portnoy-this and Alexander Portnoy-that, and to tell you the absolute truth, that he talks in syllables, and turns little words into big ones, and big ones into whole sentences by themselves, to be frank, it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it would ordinarily. Oh, the sunny Saturday morning meanders slowly along as he lists my virtues and accomplishments to the assembled relatives and friends, syllable by syllable. Lay it on them, Warshaw, blow my horn, don’t hurry yourself on my account, please. I’m young, I can stand here all day, if that’s what has to be. “… devoted son, loving brother, fantastic honor student, avid newspaper reader (up on every current event, knows the full names of each and every Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, also the minority and majority leaders of both Houses of Congress, also the chairmen of the important Congressional committees), entered Weequahic High School this boy at the age of twelve, an I.Q. on him of 158, one hunder-ed and-a fif-a-ty eight-a, and now,” he tells the awed and beaming multitude, whose adoration I feel palpitating upward and enveloping me there on the altar—why, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he’s finished they don’t pick me up and carry me around the synagogue like the Torah itself, bear me gravely up and down the aisles while the congregants struggle to touch their lips to some part of my new blue Ohrbach’s suit, while the old men press forward to touch their tallises to my sparkling London Character shoes. “Let me through! Let me touch!” and when I am world-renowned, they will say to their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there, I was in attendance at the bar mitzvah of Chief Justice Portnoy—“an ambassador,” says Rabbi Warshaw, “now our ambassador extraordinary—” Only the tune has changed! And how! “Now,” he says to me, “with the mentality of a pimp! With the human values of a race-horse jockey! What is to him the heights of human experience? Walking into a restaurant with a long-legged kurveh on his arm! An easy lay in a body stocking!” “Oh, please, Re-ver-ed, I’m a big boy now—so you can knock off the rabbinical righteousness. It turns out to be a little laughable at this stage of the game. I happened to prefer beautiful and sexy to ugly and icy, so what’s the tragedy? Why dress me up like a Las Vegas hood? Why chain me to a toilet bowl for eternity? For loving a saucy girl?”
Forget Walter Cronkite. The best we’re going to do these days about truth from behind the curtain are Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon.
We all look to heroes in the form of truth-tellers when our lives seem imperilled, especially by the larger, the more global, forms of threat. When mired in the disorder and chaos of war, or epidemic, or the greater natural catastrophes, we have always found in their words a kind of anchor for our fading sense of security and some glimmer of a chance at survival – if it’s not existential continuity that is jeopardized, too often the threat is to our apprehension of the decay of any hope of the feeling, vague, surely inchoate, but always real, of well-being. This notion that life, despite its hiccups and glitches, its disappoints and frustrations, will somehow overall be OK is possibly as essential to our will to go on as is being free of real and immediate palpable dangers to our lives.
In the past, especially during what is now effectively a two-hundred year epoch of accessible mass communications, first with pamphlets and broadsheets printed cheaply on paper, and more lately with instantaneous digital emissions that appear in the cold glow of our portable screens, we’re turned to those who somehow establish for themselves a quality that goes by various labels, but all of these amounting to some warrant of credibility and trust. With the shaming and exposure of the last crop of avatars of a semblance of truth, maybe better understood as “brands” of what passes for truth – hoist on their own petards of randiness and an arrogance of power; in case I am being too allusive here, I am speaking of the ruined careers of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose (not to show any political bias in pointing at skullduggers) – we are losing even the sense of some remnant of the kind of trust that not too many decades ago we placed in the hands and velvet delivery of such seemingly noble individuals as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Not only have we been steadily trading down in what we find acceptable to label as “truth,” with some of us exercising even lower standards, and lesser indices, than others of us. Concommitantly we have obviously demanded less and less of our public seers and glorified towncriers, even as we’ve rewarded them with higher and higher emoluments for their ability to draw and keep a loyal, and preferably unquestioning, but certainly not taxing audience of followers and adherents. What we’ve lost with the downfall of this last crop of exposed sexual predators is not so much a reliable source of truth, sometimes not comforting to hear, but reassuring for its show of courage in the form of veracity. We’ve mainly lost the comfort of a familiar and expected face. In the end, I suspect, it may be no worse than the adjustments required of us when death strikes a celebrated and popular figure prematurely, not to mention unexpectedly.
Some of us may feel there’s not much lost at all. The greater loss is something more abstract. It’s the loss akin to the loss of reason. Even as reason and logic are thrashed, as a manifestation of the age, along with their greater, if more abstract, sibling truth. I’ve long since convinced myself that the result is that even greater loss: a reluctance to accept the truth in whatever unexpected form we find it, perhaps sealed in a shipping carton, like an Amazon reward, or perhaps a bomb, or perhaps merely a load of horse manure right on our front steps when we open the front door of a morning.
What I’m getting at with all this is that we must cling to whatever shreds of truth we discern whatever the source. We may have to credit that source with whatever tatters of humanity necessary to honor in them as a sign, indeed, of some vestigial humanity of their own. It’s a bestowal of recognition we may be reluctant to extend, for any number of arguably good and justifiable reasons given their apparent characters and past behaviors. There is something to be credited though, if there is any hope of America (and Americans) for survival as a respectable political entity in a world where this is still the first best way of establishing bona fides in the commmunity of nations.
It’s possible that one unseen benefit, an artifact of some still nascent healing process, will be to tune our instruments for eliciting compassion and empathy by conveying the smallest necessary bit of credibility – as I say, where we can find it – on those whom otherwise we might cast utterly into a state of non-existence simply because they are not so much evil as hideously inconvenient to our own possibly too rigid sense of the proper constituency of an acceptable world order. We are all fragile vessels, and perhaps it is true that in the language of such a trope their fragility is greater than ours, but we must acquiesce I’m afraid, if there is to be any real hope of progress, in the recognition that even these are humans after all.
And of course, there is that sought-after solace, and that comforting sense of security, and that hope, however vague and evanescent it seems at the moment, in accepting that, despite the messenger, there simply is a certain stubborn immutable truth in the pronouncements of Rex Tillerson, a few months ago (concerning the effective cerebral competence of our president), or of Steve Bannon, just yesterday (concerning the dire insinuation of incompetence, and worse, into the administration in the characters of the president’s own offspring).
I personally am reassured in persuading myself there is sufficient credibility to build on, and see these provocative pronouncements as more than transitory, possibly even involuntary, utterances of a kind of rueful humor. As merely that, they get us nowhere.
I may dip as far down into my being as I care to and come up with the solid sense that what I feel is what must be the right way to feel. It is. For me. That’s not to say I doubt my beliefs and interpretation of how to go about life and get around the world I inhabit. I’m thoughtful and analytical, and prudent and careful. I can be punctilious, and, even more, scrupulous in my choices. I am rarely rash. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself that what I think is right is not necessarily what everyone who is right-thinking in their own minds believes as well. As of this morning, the clash between North Korea and the United States has taken an incremental change to the status of personal feud, between two tyrannical egomaniacs—both small change when it comes to their worth as moral and ethical leaders, but each with his fingers on very lethal nuclear buttons.
It occurs to me, as I ponder the possible outcomes, that at least part of the analysis of what strategy will work in terms of neutralizing a rogue threat—lest there be any mistake, I am talking about Kim Jung Un and his small but deadly arsenal—now must take into account matters of character, role-playing, and the myths we all cherish about heroes and champions, and how the latter are supposed to behave in times of peril. No matter how bellicose in many other regards, especially behind the faceless abstractions of military strategies implemented on a grand scale with talk of “forces” and “troops” and “armies” and “civilians,” that is, always plural and mass nouns (so there is no incentive for the ordinary citizen to think, even for a minute, that in actuality we are talking about the actions of individual combatants, ordinary men and women like ourselves, under orders, or merely about the individual victims of execution of a particular order of battle, the dead and wounded of bombings, errant drones, missiles, and small arms fire), American presidents and then down the chain of command, pretty much without exception, tend to try to appear to be grave, serious, sober, rational, and above all cautious, so as not to make it a contest of individual wills or personalities. They work mightily not to have it appear personal, for sure, but they also work mightily to wear the mantle of responsibilty for the actions of the mightiest military force that has ever existed. They pay a price for proceeding cautiously, at the hands of critics who, at least philosophically, embrace a posture of displaying greater strength and the ultimate ability to crush virtually any enemy—short of bullying, of course, though there are those voices, always, in the halls of government, and among the rabble, who believe that the label “champion” is synonymous with “tough guy.” And tough guys talk tough.
Trump certainly talks tough, and it repulses me, more than anything else. But I sit in my zero-gravity chair (there is enough tension in my life, in the personal sphere and in the global sphere, that I don’t want to put any more strain on my back than I have to, on top of ingesting unpleasant news about the state of the world) reading today’s New York Times with its account of the exchange of school yard taunts traveling around half the world between Washington and Pyongyang and I am left to ponder what’s going on—to examine the meta-text so to speak, and compare my spontaneous reactions to what I imagine are the responses of others, especially those unlike myself. First, the shot across the bow, while Trump stands defiant and bristling with menace on the deck of the good ship United Nations: “dotard,” that now rare, vaguely British and hence vaguely charming and formal epithet—and, so, given the source, vaguely comic and yet apt… would that we all had the presence of mind, the nous (that Greek philosophical term, with its overlay as a quality of intellect: that determining affect of “gumption”) to call Trump what he is, among other things, and that is just another alter kacker. And, with his enfeebled and meager arsenal of taunts and insults—with which he is admittedly quite effective, there’s something to be said for a limited range of weapons, used repeatedly and in volume—Trump counters with “madman,” quickly abandoning the actually jaunty (and probably mistaken) provocation of “rocket man,” well intended, but in a different way than Kim’s use of an archaism to belittle he who is, indeed, an ancient one, falling comically into the swirl of spent cultural memes.
If only we needed to look forward merely to a battle of words. I’ll put the latter-day masters of the language that gave us Wilde and W.S. Gilbert, Shaw and Joyce, Orwell, the Python, and leaping across the ocean to our shores, also gave us Twain, Mencken, Parker, Kauffman, Perlman, and Marx (and I don’t mean Karl) up against a post-adolescent who nevertheless does throw across some incisive verbal weaponry, albeit with the added burden of having to work in a language other than his own, for the sake of the larger audience (and because he doesn’t have to work very hard to shore up his constituency, which he has, for the time being, let us concede, largely by the short hairs). But there is always the risk, as there has been on the Korean peninsula since the ascendancy of the Communist Chinese on the mainland in 1949, that it will become a very hot war of deadly weapons.
And what I wonder, after a lifetime, mine, of living with such a threat, which flows and ebbs like the proverbial tide, over us from so far away in the world, how many people—sick, perhaps, of the dread, of the nameless anxiety, at once ridiculous and real, fomented by a backward country of 25 million subjugated people who have withstood possible annihilation in the form of hot war, cold war, famine, and the ravages of capitulating to the demands of a regime, now three generations old, whose sole reasons for being are to be venerated (for whatever complex set of reasons) and to be self-perpetuating—are thinking and feeling the same thing, opposite those feelings of nausea and repulsion of mine. “Yeah, it’s about time.”
“Who are they to push us around?”
“We need to talk tough, and stand tall, and not take any guff [use whatever other euphemism you like here].”
“Thank god. Trump will show them! And teach them a lesson.”
At this stage, it little matters what the actual consequences will be of “talking tough” in a way that materially is no different than the resistance, cajolery, diplomacy (both visible and behind the scenes), and cautious but prudent policies we have exercised for over 60 years, while two armies of Koreans eye each other across no man’s land. That there are now significant rhetorical differences is clear*, but even these have consequences, which will not become clear until we learn exactly what Trump thinks he is doing, beyond imposing on as many people as he can at once with the mere tactics of swagger and braggadocio (and I don’t pretend to believe for a moment that he is unaware of exactly what maneuvers he has at his disposal to deploy—and even taking into account that he is also likely aware by now, eight months into his fragile tenure, that in Kim he is no longer dealing with a business adversary akin to those he faced while trying to build a hotel in a Middle East oasis). He does not do well with humiliation—which he is courting, if he actually has no desire to act like the monster he would be if he attempted to unleash our forces, in any way that exceeds a token show that somehow manages to be effective in humiliating his adversary, the scion of a tradition that has its own monstrous ways of neutralizing much smaller incidents of being humbled.
* One problem is that political discourse has become coarsened, and generally less civil, as a result of the past five cycles of presidential politics—with all of the more localized interstitial contests increasing the opportunities for vulgarizing and debasing not only the vocabulary, but the general rhetorical tenor. Now, with the most proficient perpetrator ever of applying the vernacular to the previously fairly elevated, if not polite, stage of addressing opponents, adversaries, and even colleagues and allies, with some degree of tacitly accepted decorum on a world stage, it is that much harder to assess the impact—never mind the underlying significance, at least in terms of degree, if not force of influence—of street language that could as easily be bluster as it is mere verbal prelude to mortal physical engagement. Parley is an art that was invented in the days of leather and steel armor, when potential combatants rode on horseback. It is an art, I am afraid, that has had its methods and techniques fade and wither. Today, the battle is usually for people’s “minds,” that is, the inclination, hopefully favorable, to those who are the authors of the utterances. But the effect of Trump’s words—the ability to differentiate real intent from figurative manipulation of popular sentiment is beyond me, and as far as I can tell, beyond every commentator, interpreter, analyst, pundit, you name the expert, that I have seen—must, at some point, do more than keep an entire population in thrall. At some point, actions will occur. And it is what they may be that I dread, far more than the largely inept usages he deploys.
At the behest of a good friend, who asked me on Facebook what I thought of the following article on the Web, I read the article. I tried to read it twice, to assist in getting past a significant number of potholes and bumps in the text, but I simply could not muster the initiative to get past that first reading, which left my friend feeling with regard to Mr. Kay’s narrative, “he goes over my head a few times.” I felt, conversely, that my friend was being charmingly polite and self-effacing. As you will see, I can’t manage these otherwise authentic sentiments and remain credible in what would be in me my feigned sincerity.
Here is the link to the “Fast Company” Web page with the article in question. You can read it before or after reading what I have to say. Or, if you have sufficient self-regard, you can skip it altogether. If you have an overabundance of self-regard, it’s possible you’ll elect to stop reading me right here.
Undoubtedly Alan Kay has always been a smart cookie. It’s not entirely clear that he is able to articulate intelligibly and clearly what goes on in that head of his, not from this Fast Company interview. It’s been filtered through the mindset of a typical Fast Company contributor, which is to say, one of a huge team of well-educated millennial ax-grinders. Whatever Kay actually said remains, likely irretrievable, in the silicon pathways of Brian Merchant’s digital recording device.
That’s the first problem with extracting anything of meaning, never mind of value, from this deliberate, cozy, but still reverential brush with the greatness of late 20th century cybernetic science pioneers. The second problem is that, despite the first fact, I think, but cannot be sure, it’s possible to extract some hints of motive in the various expostulations of Mr. Kay, though these may have been colored by the mission of young Mr. Merchant (as evidenced in his selective contributions to the “conversation” documented here). It sounds like there’s more than a bit of the product designer manqué in Kay, and despite his generous assessment of Steve Jobs’s marketing genius, it seems clear that the deficiencies he delineates in the progress of the product concepts he envisioned with his collaborators more than 50 years ago now are more of a marketing nature, than of a failure in the evolution of the underlying technology, which he hardly touches on (possibly because the lede here should have been not that Mr. Kay is not impressed—this seems to be a fragmentary memoir of his history of insufficient esteem for the accomplishments of Mr. Jobs, with whom Mr. Kay seems to imply a collaborative bond—but that Mr. Kay would have loved to have introduced products to a market that had the same demonstrable, indeed monstrous, success as those that Apple actually did present so successfully, going back to the iMac).
Further, and this is the third and possibly the biggest of the problems I have reading this feature story from “Fast Company,” it is not at all clear that errors in navigation, so to speak, for the great ship of Human Knowledge (with its fleet of support vessels, which entail the means of not merely furthering its course, but how it will continue to sail the endless seas of the universe), at least since the advent of products that further what I’ll call the market for consumer computing, are attributable to the products being offered so much as the applications to which the market asserts its preferences. In short, it’s never been my perception that Apple envisioned the design and production engineering of a product that would optimally enable spending hours playing the wholly hermetic self-involvement of a game called “Candy Crush.” Along these lines, and more in an abstract sphere, Kay had occasion to allude to the great, if not culturally cataclysmic, aperçu of Professor Marshall McLuhan concerning the impact of certain specific mechanical technologies on not only human societies, but on human nature. I think it’s unfortunate that Kay, I am sure unwittingly and unintentionally (but who knows?) perpetuates the perception that McLuhan was a philosopher (and maybe possibly an evolutionary psychologist) when he was, in fact, mainly a literary qua cultural critic.
I can’t be sure of this, though, because, ironically (which Merchant and Kay make clear is the touchstone communicative mode of the zeitgeist), albeit Kay lavishes praise on the rhetorical skills of such as Neil Postman, or even further back to Bertrand Russell (“that bastard”) being capable of writing “like a dream,” Mr. Kay is not capable, at least he doesn’t talk like a dream… All of this suggests, and punctuates the perceptible fact in the form of this published interview, that unlike them Mr. Kay is not capable of being either clear, first and foremost, and thereby persuasive—especially of facts, it’s suggested, not otherwise palatable to the recipient of the argument. But then, this is a heavily edited and manipulated interview on the heels of a major product introduction by the world’s largest company in terms of market capitalization. And it appears in Fast Company—a tarted up business magazine that has what seems to be an inalterable mission. Its agent, in this case, the aggressive journalist bent on positioning himself as the resident historian of the development and impact of the Apple iPhone, states his professional purpose (on his LinkedIn site profile) as follows:
Today, he spends most of his time investigating the myriad ways humanity is attempting to survive itself.
Talking of high-minded purposeful solipsism.
Instead of McLuhan, it seems as if Kay, and his self-appointed henchman Merchant, should have dug a bit more into the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, and in particular that of the noösphere. It’s a concept that has been kicking around (though it’s hardly a popular lively topic) since the 1930s, and thereby lends a certain estimable patina to the already comfortably burnished ideas that issued from the labs of not only Xerox (the company that never got over not becoming what Apple has proven itself to be, though it showed every promise of doing so; it just could never get over the hump of being utterly incapable of conceptualizing and developing products that could be marketed and sold successfully to the mass consumer market… something that Sony, Apple, and for a long while (until it lost its technological grip) Polaroid, among many others, had proven themselves to be), but of a great number of academic laboratories and whole departments in the applied and theoretical sciences.
The notion that there is a concurrent, coextensive, and (insofar as I can understand some complex and possibly arcane theory) commingled developmental human capacity keeping pace with, if not finally and now (should I say NOW!) exceeding the excrescences of evolution, usually understood in terms of natural selection is, in short, not a new idea. That there is a superceding (what I will provocatively call) ontological development in the evolution of human epistemology—please IM me if that “human” is redundant, and I’m just sounding like a fool—remains to be proven, however. But a lot of people seem to sure want to think so. And a lot of very smart people are counting on the insinuation of certain largely 20th century technologies (starting with the Turing engine—in the form of the still barely modern digital computer—and continuing through the accretive accumulation of a wide range of programming languages, including so-called object-oriented ones, but not stopping with them, as well as mimetic architectures for computer engine design (with their tightly bound software|hardware manifestations) with neural networks the most prominent as an example in my mind) in the gestation of some new kind of what I’ll call consciousness, and which Kay here, very clumsily and slightly incoherently calls “another level of thought.” There is, possibly, some suggestion, and this would be particularly in keeping with the thinking of the theorists of noöspheric structure, that this presumably extranumerary level of thought is, in fact, a wholly new level of thought—somehow, again mysteriously and incomprehensibly (here) aided and abetted, if not stimulated, with some vague suggestion of insemination, by the great potential computing advances envisioned in Palo Alto, and other places. That, the aiding, abetting, the, uh, stimulation, the, erm, insemination, which is to say, the enabling of some new dawn of thinking would occur if only we would let it. Except we are bent on watching serially, or with sporadic binging, entire seasons of the alleged comedy series “Bojack Horseman.” All that potential enlightenment down the omniverous black hole of popular culture.
Having said all that, allow me to say, just briefly, because I am afraid that I have already taken up too much of your time to leave you comfortable, even at the risk of seeming suddenly to change the subject. I’m not. I’m just doing what every creative nonfiction writer in this day and age does, worth his or her rhetorical salt, and that is, I am making it personal, because the mission of deconstructing and then deriding the suspect emissions of a noteworthy brilliant computer scientist is always a dead end. Unlike Mr. Merchant, who by familiar conversational postures and ploys suggests he is, I am not by any means Mr. Kay’s peer (though, to play the age card, I am far closer chronologically than Mr. Merchant can ever be while Mr. Kay lives—and thereby have my own memories of the very same periods of the development of computer products and the underlying science and engineering).
Nevertheless, I have no problem stating that I am not at all unimpressed by Apple’s latest product announcements, and especially in the light of what small lights went off in my mind (kind of premonitory LEDs) as I watched the Apple Event on September 12, the extended product commercial, wherein they announced the much anticipated new line of iPhones. First let me say, and I must offer the caveat that I am not an inveterate watcher of these fanboy events—I’ve never watched one from beginning to end, as I did this one, before. Something told me, and I can’t say what (nor do I wish to devote the time and emotional energy to figuring out what “told” me; I’ll just say, I have a lot of faith in intuition), to watch.
After consciously noting and filtering out that tsunami of ejaculations (I am speaking entirely of rhetorical phenomena) from the mouths of the parade of Apple executives delegated to announce the products and their attendant features, consisting essentially of the words, “beautiful” and “magic,” I realized that two things struck me as particularly compelling. I don’t pretend to be an exhaustive reviewer of popular media, or even the self-consciously nominal intellectual fare of which I am a significant consumer. But little attention was paid to two facts about the new products, one a functional capability of the newly announced Apple Watch Series 3 and the other a facet of the underlying enabling computer design of the new crown jewel of smartphones, the iPhone X.
First, we were told that in addition to the liberating capability of being able to don a watch that would leave us coupled, with an available signal of sufficient power, to the nation’s grid of cellular transmitters, the watch, with forthcoming software revisions, will be capable of monitoring cardiac arrhythmias. This is very big. It’s big, no doubt, in terms of a significant potential advance in diagnosis and prevention of debilitating, if not fatal, cardiac and cerebral anomalies. Without belaboring this (this is not the place, and I don’t have the time, even if you do) this can have a significant impact on ensuring well-being and greater healthy longevity for humans, and I would suggest, tantalizingly, that this has implications for how we will be able to think about the nature of mortality, and all the attendant epistemological matters pertaining. Talk about a new “level of thought.”
Second, and this could be even bigger, but I can’t say, because I don’t have the bona fides for even thinking about potential applications, the new iPhone X, embedded in the Face ID engine of the product, has a computing advance—with clear, proven, highly affordable manifestations, albeit as a consumer product the vendor is hard-pressed to describe to an avid public in any language other than to use the ridiculous word, “magic.” It’s not magic, but it is incredibly powerful, and it will fit in anyone’s pocket. I am speaking of the architecture of the new A11 Bionic Neural Network chip in the iPhone X. This was conceivable, but, if you will, unthinkable in a consumer product, back in the 1980s (for perspective, the Macintosh, which Mr. Kay considered the first personal computer “worth criticizing,” was introduced in 1984; it was capable of facilitating, but in what in hindsight was only in the most primitive way, the graphic user interface, with the ability to “draw” on the screen of a cathode-ray tube… and, frankly, not much else worth noting, except the use of a new “input” device charmingly called a mouse, and all of which were envisioned by Mr. Kay and his cohort at Xerox PARC labs, back in the 60s and early 70s—which is to say, it took, let us say, 10 or 15 years to see realized in a consumer product). It has, for practical purposes, taken 30 years for a true neural network architecture to see realization as a viable product.
I’ll just say, to conclude, that it’s too bad, to note only one major benefit at least as Apple presented it. I mean this aside from the vaguely engaging (not sufficiently to justify replacing my perfectly fine current iPhone 7+ model, less than a year old, outmoded as its technology suddenly has become; I will just have to live with the humiliation) application of highly secure three-dimensional facial recognition to permit use of the phone. It’s really too bad, in fact, that Apple in their considerable wisdom (borne of incredibly successful and undoubted marketing acumen—certainly Mr. Kay attests to it) chose to put enormous emphasis on what I can only describe as the colossally trivial ability to animate cartoon characters with a simulacrum of basic emotive expressions, and all that anthropomorphically at best.
You’d think, and I hope in a small way, that Mr. Kay would be in concurrence, if this is not precisely what he was trying to say, and would have without the interference of Mr. Merchant, the world has enough smiling, grimacing, gesticulating cartoon panda bears.
I could add that, once you have an iPhone X, unless you can use it to solve some significant complex problem that has eluded very serious invesigators and researchers for years (which I fully intend to do with mine), I would suggest you put down the phone making sure it’s on its self-charging wireless Qi pad, and go play with a dog. Salutary for all aspects of the brain chemistry. But I won’t add that, because it would be snotty.
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