Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” at the Museo del Prado
The germ of this thought comes from listening to an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, Thursday, November 12, recorded the day before, which would have been Wednesday, a week and a day since the still officially unresolved election, and at least two news cycles previous. I point it out using this commonplace gauge of cultural progress because it is also still current (or why would Terry risk the embarrassment of being out of touch?). To wit, I notice in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that President Trump – his aides are alleged to say – has no plan; he is merely getting himself however he can from news cycle to news cycle.
White house memo
Trump Floats Improbable Survival Scenarios as He Ponders His Future
There is no grand strategy. President Trump is simply trying to survive from one news cycle to the next.
The thought flits through my head that, maybe, he has at long last legitimately found his own bit of revelation and, as an endgame, turned to religion and a faith in miracles.
But nah. I can’t help but grab the seat of my pants and what’s left to palpate of my shrinking gluteal mass, and deduce from the condition of my hind parts that it’s the same old shit, just a different day. But it’s the implications of the ghoulish contemplations and deliberations on the possible, the probable, the unthinkable, and the preposterous that nag at me. It’s like a constant frigid flow of air from the left, a polar express of glacial horror originating from somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Yet it keeps nagging at me that I should just give in, and allow the temperature in my core to keep dropping, to the zone of absolutely no hope. It’s tempting, but I resist.
On Fresh Air, Terry’s guest was a dude touting some what is now considered durable, if not estimable, cred. His name is Garrett Graff, and he is the very model of the cyber-age journalist: former editor of Politico, a contributor to Wired, and the author of at least three books, one on Robert Mueller’s tenure as head of the FBI, a history of the bunkers built in secret to protect government leaders in case of nuclear attack, and an oral history of September 11 (which I am only guessing does not include President Trump’s notorious lies about witnessing people, which he averred were Muslims, dancing on rooftops and cheering from across the Hudson straits from Hoboken as the twin towers burned and finally tumbled).
The topic of their conversation is entitled, on the Fresh Air home page, as “Journalist Details ‘Potential Mischief’ of Trump’s Remaining Weeks in Office.” It consisted, in my hearing of it, of admittedly only speculative outcomes of the potentialities of the various “moves” and actions taken by the president in the past few days, and weeks, and, even going back months – with the unstated implication that every measure, every step, every vindictive or mean-spirited or sheer lunatic act was performed aforethought, and, conceivably… not saying it’s so, but this is how autocrats, authoritarians, totalitarians, dictators do things, have done things…
And I realized, not a new thought for me, but a refreshed set of impressions, that this is how a certain quarter among the news media has been reporting and commentating on the Trump presidency all along. To me, it constitutes a really unsettling superset of the stuff of dread-scrolling. For now I call it Paranoia Porn.
It amounts to imagining the worst outcomes of a regime that resists owning the qualities ascribed to it, beyond the malevolence and hatefulness embedded in the spirit of its worst aimless deconstruction of certain entities and systems necessary to the conduct of governance in the United States. These stories and conversations, these interviews and analyses, the stuff of a whole industry of media content engineering and manufacturing that has kept it going, and not just going but thriving – with the major companies, like The Times, reporting record levels of revenue and profits – in my view are the final throes of examining minutely what Trump has been doing, and then fantasized about by the far left media in the way of speculative horror scenarios based on incredibly complex conspiracies involving setting up a shadow government in the hollowed out shell of the existing legitimate infrastructure which has been performing the business of government for the entire history of the republic.
In fact, as far as I can tell, and anyone – from the lowliest whistle-blower to Carl Bernstein, from Mattis to Bolton, from Comey to Scaramucci – but anyone has been willing to make public, frankly and truthfully (by their own recognizance) has reported on every conceivable twist and turn, every u-turn and wrong turn, every impulse and miscue, there is only evidence of one large truth. Trump has proven repeatedly and consistently the incompetence and shallowness and shortsighted nature of nearly every one of his more far reaching initiatives and in four years, and continuing into this period of interregnum, when his aides tell the media that he has no endgame intended as a culmination of his current chaotically disruptive machinations, he has never betrayed the possession of anything resembling a strategy or plan.
Of course, as I like to say, I could be wrong, and I hope I’m not. But if I am, I am, and you are, no worse off than the doomsayers are perpetually hinting we may find ourselves to be. In which case, we will indeed be beyond help. But I am not sure I will regret (nor would I find solace in doing so) thinking this is all, as I say, a morbidly prurient fascination with yet a new form of pornography. It scares me to think of paranoia as a desirable state in which to seek ecstasy.
For far too much of my life so far, in far too many ways and moments, dealing with feelings has been no more and no less than an either/or proposition. Too often I have to decide consciously whether to let something pass by as simply as my teeming consciousness will allow, or do I allow myself to embroider intellectually along the same lines as some unbalanced intrusion of active thought about something, real or imagined, has propelled me. And even with this particular perfectly understandable state of mind expressed as I have, I do wonder, “am I kidding myself? do I have any control really over what I’m thinking and how? Is this where I concentrate on my breath and only the exhalations and inhalations until what I can only describe metaphorically as a “storm” passes—I’ll illustrate how these things work with this interpolation of an interruption of my interruption of my own thoughts: more specifically, speaking of storms, I’ve just learned of a cytokine storm, thanks to the deluge of information that’s surging unstoppably from every digital portal and orifice on the internet with regard to all facts Covidian, and I pay attention to such things, at least at this level of specificity because through no fault of my own, save the fault of voluntary longevity (understand I don’t mean I actively will myself to keep living, though it’s not far from that I suppose, or I could be persuaded, I mean simply that I am not voluntarily ending it – and come on, you know what “it” is – and therefore keep going until factors wholly beyond my control given the prevailing conditions that might and inevitably will obtain at the time determine otherwise—like a “cytokine storm,” which is not so much preventable, but with a few ounces of luck avoidable given an otherwise healthy prevailing set of conditions regardless of age, though, and here’s the point, someone my age is more susceptible to such a storm, which nature means to protect the organism in younger specimens, but if it runs away with itself, the prevention can be the instrument of danger, or the by now terribly worn trope of a “perfect storm,” which if it has anything of conceptual ideality about it, it’s not perfection the conditions embody so much as unmitigated chaos.
And the particular either/or I’ve had to deal with now for what is going on five years is what will inevitably come to be called in an institutional way (instead of the merely contingent media-driven facile rhetorical convenience it is, because we’re living it in what NASA taught us nearly 50 years ago to call “real time”) the Age of Trump, is the either/or of paying any attention whatsoever to what the news channels, in whatever medium, but for me, mainly digital media and mainly in the form of readable text on a screen, has determined should vie for my attention, trying to capture it for long enough to draw me in for engagement longer than can be measured in seconds or fractions of them.
I’m simply talking about the channels I have chosen to focus my attention on a regular basis. It’s a small number. So the phenomenon universally is compounded to some nearly incalculable number of occurrences of what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about, even merely on the web sites of the mainstream press, and being the cultural manifestation of my generation that I am, I have to face it, like it or not, this means The New York Times, The New Yorker, and to a lesser extent, The Washington Post and The Guardian (daily cancelling each other out, circling one another as they do, around a center to which one stands fixedly well to the left, and the other waveringly, but discernibly, on the right), are the daily doses of trying yet new angles—and usually failing to be new, but the attempts never cease—on the vagaries and failings of the personality known possibly to more of the first world than any other personality made manifest as a living person at any time in the past 50 years at this point.
There is a perpetual contest to dig up yet new ways to tally the shortcomings and failings of the behavior and character of Donald John Trump. It stopped being interesting four years ago. It stopped long since being anything but raw fuel, inherently pernicious for being spent in the production of the heat it produces—whatever the nominal benefit that heat was intended to provide; though it never does anything now but make things infernally hot—kind of like an endless supply of wood pellets for the furnace in the basement of our souls, for preserving a constant state of anxiety. Constancy being the quality, the only quality necessary, to define such a state as existential.
Rather than having such a defective human being become the nucleus of my inescapable inner sensation of dread, I avoid such “news” whenever I can. Further, I simply do not read anything labeled as “opinion” (and we are way past any jocular reference to the Dude’s mantra, as a way of lightening any notion that what one person, usually someone I’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear about, or want to, again says as “just your opinion, man”—which is to differentiate the non-entities from the media’s featured players who long since proved, and retired the evidence long since as irrefutable of the fact, of their idiocy or stupidity or thickness or dullness or opacity of mind by whatever trope you prefer: I mean of course the likes of David Brooks and his entire cadre… to these folks I stopped paying any attention whatsoever about two years ago, and the sight of their names in running text of any authorship, by way of allusion or reference, is a marker of text I should avoid, with a bookmark against the author of that text to watch for warily in the future, because why would I want to read what someone who has wasted their precious time being simply alive engaged in the reading of a syllable from the endless Brooksian stream of syllables, as in, to paraphrase Capote, “those aren’t thoughts at all, those are phonemes?”
But now, as would be predictable, it continues, even as we are in the midst of only just beginning to become sensible of the impact the prophylactic and preventative measures being imposed clearly with more of a sense of contingency—that is, as doable, rather than as a measure of their known efficacy, and hence compelling and necessary even to a moron—than of exigency (a status that China seems, we hope, to have begun to pass out of, and that Italy, woefully and tragically is fully immersed in) to mitigate not so much the present, but the future, the immediate future for sure, but the ongoing future as well, if we may permit ourselves even to speak of what will follow after some indeterminate date in the next few months as an assured “ongoing future” for everyone who comes out at the other end with a life that has not been extinguished. I mean literally, but in many other senses as well—there is a growing torrent of articles that are enumerating, analyzing, and dissecting all the ways, what are quickly becoming a practically uncountable number of ways, in which the Donald has fucked up, or demonstrated an incapacity for doing anything other than fucking up, or how his life is a summation, only discernible (fantastically “only”) at this point of consummation, here on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster of previously rarely, if ever, rivaled proportions.
How in god’s name (or God’s name, if you like; or anyone’s name; or how by any contrivance or invocation you like) is it going to make things better sooner and less catastrophic by even talking about what he does or doesn’t do about the Covid-19 threat as unsuitable?
Though in my opinion, which is not worth much, I’ll admit, in the larger scheme of things, beyond the locus of, say, the property I own in the world, which is maybe, in sum, about ⅓ of an acre, which symbolically is probably even less than the locus of the scheme of David Brooks’s opinion’s worth (if only by the scale of the income that dumb son of a bitch takes in for a living), we long since passed the point where what anyone has to say about the Donald is worth lingering for more than the time it takes to turn the page (figuratively on a digital device, or literally). Any attention he receives at this point is too much, and prolongs the agony of his monstrous impact on the lives of all the other humans on the planet. Surely talking about how his stupidity, cupidity, narcissism, or any of his myriad inadequacies are only making the possibility of improvement of the present global threat more difficult, because it’s a distraction that’s not beneficial, and in fact, compounds the agony, which by now we all know is inevitable pretty much for all of us, one way or another.
I’ve got nothing to prove here, and you have everything to gain.
Here’s what it is. I listen to more music than anybody I know. That’s not saying much, probably, given how much music some people listen to. But it’s a recursive universe and mine is particularly self-referential, because I don’t get out much.
The thing about what I listen to is, it’s all over the map, I mean the cultural qua musical map, because if it gets to my heart, or my soul, or simply into my head to my pleasure centers, I listen and I listen good. The same results for everyone are not guaranteed. I mean there’s even some rap and hip-hop I listen to. I like opera. If you catch my tune.
One of the pleasures I always get, or not so much “always” as more and more reliably more often, is listening to music that is the auditory version of comfort food. It hardly matters, except for context, but I am very comfortable with music I have been listening to my whole life, which is over 70 years, and some of it, a lot of it strictly speaking because I listen to so much so-called “classical” music and there is more of that written during the course of the modern era in western culture, that is, over the past five hundred years or so, than has been written in the time I’ve been alive.
But the greater comforts can be had as well with popular music that is, some of it, at least my age, and older, dating back to beginning of the 20th century. This is more or less co-extensive of certain kinds of music, genres distinguishable from their roots in ethnic sources that traverse continents and oceans. I am talking about, among other major musical art forms, jazz. But I am also talking about blues, and I am talking about rock and roll. All more or less a century old in their recognizable forms by those rubrics.
I love to share what I gives me so much sensate satisfaction (call it soul satisfying if you like; I won’t stop you, or even give you a fishy-eyed look). Usually this means something literally digestible, some kind of food, especially if there’s enough to go around, and particularly if I’ve prepared it myself. But music is a food. Evanescent, speaking to feeling as much as to anything, and in a certain respect impossible to get yourself filled up so you can’t take any more. Which can’t always be said of North Carolina style pulled pork.
But in a certain way, it’s easier to share something good to eat, if only because of its substance and immediacy. And I can immediately gauge the effects of consumption. And there’s an ease about how it’s here, and then, consumed, it’s gone. And if my guests don’t like it, no harm done, and my sense of pleasure isn’t compromised. Tomorrow is another day.
It’s easier to share food, because one can plan on a conjunction of heightened expectations, of preparing for a meal by abstinence, and with all the anticipatory, perhaps ritualistic appetite enhancers: the aromas from the cooking area, other palatal stimuli like drinks and a sincere air of conviviality. We build ourselves up for satisfaction.
With music it’s different. There is no amuse-geule that prepares the listener for a meal of savory straight jazz standards. There may be an opening act, but that’s only to build up a different form of anticipation, larded as it is too often, intentionally, with delay and the attendant impatience.
Of course, for that reason, and others, I avoid live performances. There’s the inconvenience, and there are all those other people.
I don’t need company, frankly, to enjoy a tune, and certainly not for a symphony or a suite.
So, in more ways than the singular and irreversible accident of the occasion of my birth in the continuum of technological progress, I am the happy beneficiary of the pleasures of recorded music. What I want to hear, when I want to hear it, or so I characterize so much of the back catalog of my musical preferences.
I look forward to new performers and new performances, experimental or tried-and-true, by old favorites.
And therefore, to cut to the chase, I love Spotify.
I have shared the occasional cut, even as I was listening to it, posting a link before a song or movement was even finished to share it with my friends on Facebook.
But for the duration I am eschewing Facebook, which loses its pitifully small benefice of being, still, a kind of threadbare means of maintaining social contact. Without belaboring it, it’s proving increasingly more fulfilling to me to provide access to what I have to offer my friends by way of sharing thoughts and cultural artifacts by the means that I have always preferred in the age of technologically enhanced connection.
So I present to you, as I will from time to time (or not, not if there’s not some kind of stir, some kind of acknowledgment, some indication that it’s welcome and useful, dare I say satisfying to you as well). If you like it, tell me.
Today was a day of reviving obscure, if not moribund, old standards. And don’t say melancholy. Say moody.
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.
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?”
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.
Two things I’ve seen online this morning prompt today’s meditation. Let me just say, though, that I am reminded above all, ignorance is bliss. Dangerous, but bliss.
One is a post in my newsfeed from a Facebook “friend,” someone who, it happens, is a published author and life-long journalist on political matters and foreign affairs. He tends to take a moderate view on many things, and is quite serious, if not wholly sober-minded about what it is that is appropriate for a professional press to cover—not only in terms of subject matter, but appropriate for tone, manner, POV, and the usual journalistic decorum as it’s been practiced in American media for, let us say, the past 75 or 80 years.
And the other is, I suppose, strictly to be categorized as an opinion piece, now largely the meat of the “fake media,” like the “Washington Post” and “The New York Times,” the two papers, along with two or three others, usually designated national papers of record. The “Post” and the “Times” have significantly ramped up the number of pieces they publish daily with a byline, and the clear differentiation of being, editorially, commentary or opinion. They do this even as they have strayed somewhat in their beat and investigative work from the strait-jacket of the protocols and style of serious news reporting in the United States of neutral, fair and balanced observation and analysis without interpretation.
Well, my friend (who will go unnamed), it’s natural for those of us with a more refined sense of what is appropriate for mature and serious adults to ponder in the give and take of world events to decry, not just the breach, but the rupture, of what has always been a somewhat fragile code of the protocols and public demeanor of not only the citizenry of a sovereign nation, but the consciously professional members of its fourth estate. And while we’re at it, we tend to bemoan the rude tastes and predilections of whole swathes of the American electorate, who seem to have a constant and robust appetite for the unsavory, if not the debased, if not the DMZ between civility and barbarity.
However, it’s not just we and whatever “class” we represent, it’s not just the more prudent members of an elite in our society comprised of those of all political stripes, and it’s not just the rank-and-file, the hoi-polloi, the salt of the earth, and the deplorables of the national array of citizens who are taking in the behavior of those in Washington and in the outposts of the apparatus of government. And I mean, as well, the modus operandi of those charged with monitoring that behavior with whatever ill-defined, if not unhinged, sense of mission they have—not the real journalists, but the pretenders: all the self-styled reporters, bloggers, podcasters, pundits, and colorful personalities. As I’m sure you know, there is also a whole world of official watchers; friends, enemies, allies, antagonists, and lurkers alike who hang on every word, every tweet, every gif, every snap, every youtube (snippet or full-length feature), that now issues from our seat of government. I am usually mindful of this qualifying point of view, but the WaPo Bakos “perspective” piece is a pointed reminder not to stop paying attention. And it’s because no one off our shores, the millions of people employed full-time by foreign powers to study us, ever take their eyes and ears off us.
So I don’t know about you, but I can tell you why I care, whether I personally really want to or not. The whole world is watching, and it redounds, wholly involuntarily and wholly unasked for, upon me, as well as in excess of three hundred million other souls. As well, I am too unknowing, if not stupefyingly ignorant, of how exactly—beyond one’s sense of spiritual malaise (which I can live with; I have so far, for several decades)—these seemingly inconsequential acts, so mean and debased and sometimes prurient, performed by people I would, in any other universe, not care about or pay attention to in the least, will someday redound on me in existential terms. If for no other reasons, I would say, I pay attention (at least to the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a few other still trustworthy news carriers—there is no reason to get on Twitter, watch MSNBC or its brethren), because I don’t like surprises.
I woke up on November 9, 2016, neither surprised nor defeated. Overwhelmed by the depth of my ignorance, but neither of the latter sensations. I didn’t like the result, but there is nothing I can do about what the actions of people who believe the unbelievable. And these folks do reinforce their beliefs, their sense of “truth,” by indulging in all that those spurious and unreliable outlets had brought about, despite both my best intentions and what actions, as an ordinary citizen, I can take. I still see no reason to believe that by ignoring these signs and pointers to portents that we cannot afford to allow to carry on unattended, that somehow there will be some different future outcome. I cannot pretend that the act of behaving as if these real occurrences had no connection to my life would mean they, in fact, do not. That’s a form of delusion—the first thing all of us decry in our tormentors.
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