Book jacket of re-issued essay collection, first published in 1969.
Having myself always been an inveterate notebook keeper, but with no substantive knowledge of the habits of other notebook keepers, whom I’ve known in a meaningful way since I was in college, I have no idea why others do so. Or, consequently, what they take notes of, how they take them, of what they consist rhetorically, or why they think they keep a notebook in the first place. This is not true of Joan Didion.
There’s this essay (which I am sure I read back when it was published in the late 1960s, but of which I have no recollection) from the redoubtable Ms. Didion. What’s clear are two things, one not very important, because it’s personal, and the other which seems to point to maybe a significant insight.
The unimportant thing is, it’s clear that Joan Didion and I have different feelings on the subject, and different motivations. It’s not as clear that she is solid on recognizing that maybe her natural note-taking instincts are not universal ones.
The more important thing is what seems to emerge, from her generalized thoughts about the specific kinds of notes Joan Didion takes and why she thinks she takes them (because there’s not much here demonstrating the content of specific notes; and what there is, as she indicates is true even for her, is that sometimes notes can be so vague as to require massive reconstruction as to the factual underpinnings, the actual event that may have inspired taking a note, and the probative value in other contexts, like a deposition, of the documentation). What seems to emerge, specifically for me, is that maybe there is the foundation of some kind of taxonomy here.
Maybe, I’m thinking, there are those of us more subconsciously led by an urge eventually (and only speculatively and provisionally) to be writers of what has come to be called creative nonfiction. And there are those equally internally disposed, but with different objectives in mind, if only vaguely and possibly wholly inchoate, to write what is called fiction. I’ll only interject here, as some are coming to believe (and why would we expect otherwise in this age of things becoming indeterminate and not so distinct, or, if you prefer the term, queer – presumably as opposed to definitive, precise, replicable, evidentiary, and “normal”): as if there really is a difference ultimately (and that qualification is _so_ important) between creative nonfiction and fiction.
Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. …
Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. …
So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.
I would tell you what I do, but I am not Joan Didion, who had ample reason I surmise in retrospect even then to believe that there were people who cared to know, separate and apart from what issued from those notes she kept.
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.
I tend to think about my life these days in terms of a cultural phenomenon I have, at best, ambivalent feelings about. There is a strong trend, as we like to say on the Internet, to loathing. I am talking about Facebook, of course. Life tends to divide, thinking about it from the vantage of now, among pre-Facebook, and being in the midst of it, and what I hope I will be able to label as post-Facebook. I am in the middle of withdrawal.
It’s not the first time. I subscribed to Facebook, though I contributed in an insignificant way at the beginning: from the time of its inception as a public forum on the web. It was in 2007. I became more and more active, and increasingly vociferous about my discomfort participating, starting in 2009. The record, or partially so, of all this is recorded here on 1StandardDeviation.com. Included in the archive (you won’t find it on Facebook because I deleted my first account in 2012 for a period of about eight months) is a farewell to Facebook—also here.
I’m sorry, you’ll have to search. I am not encouraging you to read it, given my recidivism. I rejoined Facebook that same year, and have been quite active, with a voluminous output mainly in the form of lengthy posts, largely (to my mind) in the form of an extended and fractionated apologia. There were also many many links posted, with what I hoped always were evocative or enlightened or, possibly, provocative introductory comments. Most of these were, from the evidence of the overall responsiveness of a closed readership, either ignored, or not too inspiring, or (what I believe is most likely) never seen because of Facebook management’s strange protocols and algorithms for distributing posts even to one’s own manageable friends’ list. I rarely, if ever, posted publicly (because of a distaste for engaging with potential trolls—the mere day-to-day of absorbing the less-than-determinative mix of elements I was exposed to on the famous newsfeed, and responding in a measured, rational, and well-meaning way, as much as possible with good will and humor is enough of a challenge). I have just a little over 100 well-chosen and considered individuals on my list of Facebook friends.
I accepted long since, because I don’t have the desire to “follow” each of them persistently, if not doggedly and grudgingly, that it was probably also true about each of them with regard to my choices as to what to lay at their doorsill for review, if not perusal. Hence, likely as not, the chief reason they didn’t respond in any way—the preponderance of them with not even a “like”—was because they didn’t even see a post, which is not to dismiss the possibility they saw none. Ever.
I am someone who gets on a social medium for the sociability of it—the only reason for the connection is the connection, the sense of having ties and to take advantage of the opportunity to converse, however etiolated the connection. I do and have always appreciated the band of “regulars” I seemed to have cultivated. The usual roundup of Renaultean “suspects” were the people I could count on to offer a comment and thereby, often enough, start a conversation. Stilted as it may have been—a phenomenon attributable solely to me, because I was mindful, likely overly so, that private as the space may seem on Facebook, someone is always monitoring and filtering. It is a public space, no matter what alterations to the policy statement, especially that regarding our so-called “privacy,” the jejune and profit-grubbing commissariat of Facebook might testify otherwise periodically.
The pleasure of connecting with friends was valuable, and in a good way, measured in the spirit of the exchanges, incalculable. However nothing about it was unique to Facebook. The only thing unique is the peculiar condition of seeming round-the-clock access one has to one’s friends. Not all of one’s friends, for sure. At least in my case, a significant number of friends forbore and either never joined Facebook or had the greater strength than I could muster, but that one time, and removed themselves, pretty well for good. I maintain contact with them in the “old” ways, which still work, of course.
One of the deficits to Facebook, in order to glean what measured and titrated pleasures it affords, is the amount of time one must devote to it to exact those pleasures as a kind of reward. I don’t need Facebook for any other purpose to which people put a whole arsenal of means of contact together. Indeed, some methods, like good old-fashioned email, are still better, given a certain mix of demographic characteristics in any segment of one’s social set. Our neighbors—literally the people who live in a state of propinquity in our town—still best confer for whatever communal purpose by email. Only one of our neighbors, and she is one of my valued, staunch, and consistent “usual suspects” among the tiny number, really, of reliable correspondents, is on Facebook.
The overall deficiency of Facebook is determined not only by the disproportion of desired opportunities for substantive contact with other human beings, balanced against exposure to the clichéd booming buzzing chaos of society at large in the myriad forms this disorder takes on Facebook, inescapably, and is colored, indeed overshadowed emotionally by the dark view I get of humanity at large thereby. It may all be me. But if so, it’s a problem I’d rather deal with by removing myself from the provocation.
In all events, I find myself, once again, feeling, at best (and it’s a deteriorating condition) ambivalent about this social boon, which at latest count (according to Statistica) stands at over 1.85 billion people around the world subscribing and, theoretically at least, potentially online all at the same time. It’s more a testament to the triumph of the technology necessary, and the cleverness exercised at developing and managing that technology in real time—reliably and transparently, indeed oiling the mechanism to make it seem effortless—that allows the possibility. It is not a testament to the wish of any sane person to want to have contact with any representative sampling of humanity, never mind fully one-quarter of mankind inhabiting the planet all at once.
In all events, it’s my sanity that I feel is being tested. More my equanimity and sense of well-being, with a realistic sense of my worth, and the worth of my time, best spent in productive pursuits as I define them than my ability to be rational. But these are times where rationality must be not merely clinged to, as a life preserver, but stood behind as a bulwark to help keep the vessel afloat and on course. Increasingly, as we all confront the swells of the waves, and the tempests that rise up to stir up and electrify the whole atmosphere, it’s more important to see to the fitness of the vessel than merely to worry about survival by finding diversions and distractions. There are plenty of each of these on Facebook. And I needn’t do more than mention, never mind even think of belaboring, the inadequacy of the channel called Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is working with desperate ingenuity to turn into a medium that will serve all purposes, no matter how ill-suited it is to inform without bias, and to provide safe harbor from hysteria.
All of what I’ve said in the foregoing is prelude and prologue to writing I have done, and am continuing to write, about the phenomenon of Facebook, especially insofar as one person, myself, has experienced it, and spent far too much time in one regard pondering that experience and trying to elicit some sense. In the hopes that I have begun to delineate that sense and it’s a sense that may prove useful to others trying to understand, if not merely decipher, one of the major phenomena of our time that is bound to define at least this episode, now ten years in duration and promising to continue, in the formation of the culture, the living culture, in which we all are a part.
What’s past is prolog; Facebook as reality distortion—a foreword
One difference between pre- and post-FB behavior is the loss of that restraint that allowed us to keep thoughts to ourselves, reserving judgment on whether it’s appropriate even to say things to the few people for whom they are truly intended. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to say things publicly that, if we thought about it, will give offense to somebody and beyond that, even if truly innocuous, is of fleeting interest to most.
Mindy Kaling, one of the great comic sages of our time (yes this is sarcasm) had a great aperçu—undoubtedly an accident, but then she tweets all the time, so statistics are on her side—and that is, “People take things at face value on social media. Earnestness is the assumption.” Better that, I suppose than having to craft an apology, as in the old days, when you spoke out of turn, or unwisely hit the “send” button. However, this is merely the largest of the ineluctable consequences of making all personal communications accessible through public channels (yes, I’m being ornery and contrary; FB is not a medium—paint is a medium, pen and ink is a medium—it’s a channel, you know?, a conduit, a canal or, if you prefer, a sewer). We’ve lost nuance. I’d suggest we’ve also lost perspective.
The highest grossing movies, at least within the generation of Judd Apatow—the current Socrates and Aristophanes rolled into one of our era, at least in America—are rife with what pass for jokes, mainly about reproductive and excretory body parts, acts of coitus and oral/sexual contact, and put-downs. Yet all of these, plus sarcasm (which is irony, an absolutely useless mode on social media, without the benefit of your higher brain function) and slapstick, are strictly prohibited on Facebook. Try them, see how fast your “friends” shut you down.
As a consequence, we spend some part of each day on a virtual version of Soma (Google or Wiki it, look under Aldous Huxley and his novel Brave New World), assuming we have fallen prey to the need to stay in touch via Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune, if not wholly ill-adjusted, notions of what constitutes the proper means of maintaining meaningful personal relations with other humans whose contact we value. That these relations are eviscerated by the unspoken and unwritten etiquette of Facebook contact (unless it is wholly private—sending messages one-on-one does beg the question of whether Facebook is the best vehicle for communication in this form) goes without saying. We “speak” to one another in a different way than we do in person (persuade yourself otherwise if you like; if you are truly mindful of what you are saying and to whom, and at the same time mindful that there is likely a larger audience, you will say it, whatever it happens to be, with, shall I say, a little less juice—otherwise consider the possibility that you have a need to demonstrate to others just how caring, sweet, and civilized you are).
You may be completely in control of the various channels of communication you have open to you, depending on the audience, and more power to you. There’s no doubt Facebook serves some need. Even as significant a cynic as I am cannot argue with an overall membership of over one-and-a-half billion people, who use Facebook daily a half-billion at a time. Whatever the need, Facebook fills it. I note with some rue that Zuckerberg has organized a consortium of like-minded enterprises to extend the fundamental benefits of Facebook to the other five billion people in the world. The initiative (with several B-players in supporting roles, and a giant called Samsung also on board) is called internet.org [http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9241768/Facebook_s_Zuckerberg_wants_to_connect_the_rest_of_the_world]. However, the insidious effects of Facebook are not to be denied, and the results have only started to come in from research that substantiates just what social impact this particular channel of networking on a grand scale has.
A recent study, that received some (but, in my opinion, not enough) attention from the University of Michigan concentrated on the effect of Facebook use on college-age adults. In brief, here is the abstract of that study:
“Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook. Yet, whether Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time is unknown. We addressed this issue using experience-sampling, the most reliable method for measuring in-vivo behavior and psychological experience. We text-messaged people five times per day for two-weeks to examine how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Interacting with other people ‘‘directly’’ did not predict these negative outcomes. They were also not moderated by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”
Julian Assange, captured in the wild, By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) via Wikimedia Commons
I found myself this morning in a place I have been before. I was casting about for an appropriate trope, some metaphor, or analogy perhaps, that could most economically sum up a thought on the tip of my tongue and at the verge of my mind.
I had just perused a screenful of Google finds, having searched on Julian Assange and Bernie Sanders. Having been informed that something dire about the latter had been hinted at by the former, I found there was to be no satisfaction as is often the case (with the former) perusing the usual at least vaguely reliable sources—what we’ve come to refer to with a faint air of noble disdain as “the mainstream press.” No matter that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and let’s say The Guardian (the Anglophone’s “Libération”) have been doing a creditable job, at least since the Republican National Convention, of quietly, but still forcibly, holding Trump’s feet to the fire. Most of the stories are, alas, not of the headline grabbing sort where the gist of the story is, in fact, solely in the headline: “Trump Insults God—Where Will He Go Now?” Rather they are of the sort that requires digging, genuine hard-nosed investigative journalism research in the basement files and news morgues and tax filings of the past 40 or more years. But dig up stuff they do.
We can only hope the effect on the electorate, at least around the edges known as undecided voters, will be accretive. In the meantime however, the real juice still flows on sites that largely are self-accredited news organizations. These reside, at the bottom, being bottom-feeders, on the left and right. Indeed, if they checked into the same three-star tourist hotel on the Riviera for the weekend they’d readily get one of those suites consisting of two bedrooms sharing a bath, with a doorway between them that is supplied with a lock, but whose key was lost long since.
The latest news, if it’s to be called that: apparently the somewhat cryptic and amorphous factoid hinted at by Julian Assange back in August (and reported via the same sources, and then either discredited or patently ignored) has been revived in the last 24 hours by way of a timely interview that M. Assange granted to an Austrian news source. He hints, but hints only, saying only that all will be revealed in due course, that, indeed, it’s true that Bernie Sanders was “threatened” in early July sufficiently convincingly by the Clinton campaign that he ended his candidacy, as demanded. The threat is not, of course, clear. One version of the story holds that his wife was threatened with physical harm.
The theme, not a sub-text, but the real topic here, is that this, as Assange has warned us repeatedly, is how the Clinton organization of goons and thugs rolls. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party is apparently, to use a phrase Trump has come to embrace, “a criminal enterprise.” [speaking out of the side of one’s mouth, lit cigar held at the corner of the lips, Groucho-style: “and he oughta’ know…”]
With no shame in the admission, I have to say, once again, I didn’t know what to make of this. However, it did occur to me that there has been perhaps an incremental elevation in what I will call Assange’s mysterious pernicious temperament toward certain targets. His hatred of the Clintons, which he doesn’t deny, is now, if not well documented, at least accepted universally as de facto truth—the sort that will be still only partially uncovered in history texts, using to-be-recently-in-the-future discovered primary sources, of the 22nd century.
So there I was, as I say, on a weekday morning with the day’s non-story, from the paranoia newswires that never stop clattering, puzzled, yet again, with a persistent repetitive topic, the maleficent sheer hatred of one celebrity for another. That it involves global issues of political and economic significance only means that it’s to be pondered with a portion or two of more grave concern than the latest dispatch about the Kimwe/Swift Feud.
Fortunately, my episode of matitudinal puzzlement of the day coincided with my usual duty every other weekday, of assuming stewardship of the dog’s first walk. The blessed imposition of this pleasant duty provided exactly the mental respite I needed to have it come to me, even as I tugged Artemis along, coaxing her, now that she had delivered the first of her excretory performances, to achieve the more, shall I say, solid of these discharges. I wish I could say that my thought arrived simultaneous with her visible relief, but it preceded it, and possibly with even less strain.
I’ve struggled not merely to categorize, not merely to characterize, but to personify the role Julian Assange plays in our lives, I mean beyond the obvious ways the news is free to describe his presence on the world stage: accused rapist, purloiner of secret documents, unrepentant publisher of unfiltered government papers, fugitive on a global scale immured, with a kind of cosmic and comic irony, in the embassy/sanctuary of a former banana republic. No matter what he is accused of: of almost equal unimportance is what, ultimately, he may be found guilty of. These are matters, especially at this point (he’s been living ignominiously in the London Ecuadorean embassy for over four years now), of far greater moment surely to him than, well, at least, to me. What’s more important is the role he plays, insofar as someone like him still can capriciously and, apparently with seeming ease, continually play and have an impact on matters that will, potentially, affect our lives: the quality of them at least, in abstract terms, such as the ethos that pervades.
And then I had my thought as it plopped into my consciousness. Julian Assange is our J. Edgar Hoover.
Same tactics, same tendentious attitude, same presumption of moral superiority (hollow, as it turned out, and always seemed to be: the morality of a hypocrite), the same willingness to destroy reputations, never mind lives, with innuendo and with lies impossible to disprove—access, gained illegally, to “evidence” of the mischief of others, and used more as leverage than as concrete probative facts beyond a shadow of a doubt. The same implacable and undeviating mission to project an essentially paranoiac’s fantasy of a world beset with corruption and evil.
Camille Paglia broke on the national public scene with the publication of her magnum opus Sexual Personae back in 1990. It was originally her weighty and quite serious doctoral thesis, at Yale University, some 20 years previously. Since its commercial release, I have had the guarded ambiguity-laden relationship with her we all like to place under the heading of “love/hate.” Ever wary of Paglia’s inevitably brash, seemingly liberal pronunciamentos, always to my ear, as well, vaguely self-congratulatory, what I brace for, always, are crypto-fascist eruptions.
These days she seems to have found at least one rhetorical nesting place in which to opine regularly, that is, with the National Enquirer of the proto-progressive left, “Salon.” Indeed, she falls well into line, as she puts it, with her “perspective as a fervent supporter of the ruggedly honest and principled Bernie Sanders.” Unhappily (in the French sense), she says so even as she steps without a skosh of trepidation and embarassment away from her prior position towards Donald Trump. He was a “carnival barker.” Now, she thrusts toward a much more accommodating stance, in a paroxysm of self-revision (perhaps in fear—and I say this knowing that la bohème de l’académie springs with predatory zeal when so accused—of not having gotten on board soon enough to embrace the inexorability of The Donald’s earth-scorching march on Philadelphia this summer). It seems now, conversely to mere weeks ago, he (or should we be considering any reference or adversion with an upper case pronoun, usually reserved for kings, God, and Jesus or Mohammed, and call Him “He?”… I would prefer Trump, or His Trumpness, or Trumper, or El Trumperino) is to be viewed differently. According to a reassuring la Paglia, as she informs her public that “[his] fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea….Trump is his own man, with a steely ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude.” And she does so with an equal insouciance to the appearance of a public reversal, like any seasoned pol intent on righting the meaning of truth.
However, I am not here to challenge her on what was, indeed, a refreshing and validating expression of opinion by she who must be heard in the very same column in today’s Salon (I Was Wrong About Donald Trump). Though, briefly I have to admit it is inviting to point out the myriad aspects of Trump’s public persona that are signifiers of a wholly insupportable inhumane tendency—qualities the foremost diva of the academy elects to overlook in her 180-degree reassessment.
Lena Dunham, by David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19316880
Rather I am here to take what is to me a godsend of an opportunity to quote her on another curious phenomenon in this day of grotesque judgments by the establishment as to what constitutes newsworthiness. Never mind as to what constitutes worth of any sort that is substantiated by reality, and validated by any kind of rigororous epistemological scrutiny. I speak of one of my personal bêtes noires, Ms. Lena Dunham.
Quite simply, let me quote Camille without comment. I could not have said it better. Having observed that Ms. Paglia has seemed to have overlooked Ms. Dunham while doing a “superb job of analyzing contemporary figures,” one of the professor’s admirers ask her point blank for her “thoughts on this young woman who fancies herself The Voice of her generation:”
On the one hand, I believe that each generation has the unchallengeable right to create its own aesthetic and to carve its own idols. On the other hand, as Gwendolen Fairfax darkly remarks to Cecily Cardew in the great tea-table confrontation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.”
Lena Dunham belongs to the exhibitionistic Andrea Dworkin school of banner-waving neurotic masochism. The body is the enemy, a tainted lump whose limitations and afflictions the public must be forced to contemplate in grisly detail. We must also witness, like hapless medieval bystanders at a procession of flagellants, just how unappetizingly pallid Caucasian flesh can be made to be without cracking the camera lens. The torpid banality of Dunham’s utterances (reverently accorded scriptural status by the New York Times) is yet another matter. I am woman–hear me kvetch!
[Please note the date on this entry to my journal of several years. In a month, it will be eight years that I wrote this. How much has changed in the passage of the preponderance of two presidential terms. Barack Obama did go on to win the nomination of the Democrats and proceeded to win in the general election. He cannot, alas, run again. As it has always been in the nature of these things, some things, as much as they change, remain the same. A lot of the other faces have changed, but not so in the case of one famous face, that of Hillary Clinton. She faces yet again, with the same air at once wistful and challenging of inevitability, another contest for the nomination, with the added weight of potential historic precedence the greater stake (in many ways—the present contest, as fraught as it is with aspects of surreality, is really not of significantly different historical import; there have been despots and demagogues, barons and brigands aplenty in our political history). I cannot say I’d make exactly the same arguments now I would have made with my aggressive friends back then, as described here, and I certainly don’t wish it to be inferred that what I said then constitutes my personal endorsement—given the worth of that, I can’t make too much of this; better to make nothing of it at all—of any other candidate now.
For me this passage of roiling thoughts has, as I hope it has for you as well, mainly historical interest, and gives not so much perspective as a tiny tiny insight into human nature.]
2008April04 11:28 AM
It is now a few weeks ago, over dinner at Casablanca [a now defunct Harvard Square restaurant/bar and an institution] after a matinee at the A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater, on the Harvard campus], when the conversation inevitably, and regrettably, turned to the ongoing campaign for the Democratic Party candidacy for President. We were a party of eight, waiting for a ninth, and nevertheless into our appetizers when an inevitable, and regrettable, chorus arose from the rest of the party—ostensibly, or at least apparently, all liberal of mind, if not merely Democrat of mind. The only solidarity seemed to be an understood antipathy for and opposition to the presumptive Republican candidate, Mr. John McCain.
Most of the party, save for my wife [now deceased—she died six weeks after the dinner party described here], are my elders I believe. I know that my two dearest friends among them, 68 and 72 respectively, are. The relevance of this slight difference in age may be non-existent. I do know that what was shared, and ultimately articulated as the discussion progressed, was that all members of the party, save for my wife, was a vocal and adamant belief, that, whether for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama regardless, any individual (and presumably this would include as well any absent representative advocates for the candidacy of McCain) in the United States, if not the world, must accept the existence of an innate misogyny. It was neither clear, nor necessary to delineate, the importance of the gender of any such individual. There seemed to be a tacit assumption that the propensity towards such an anti-female bias would be stronger in the male, but the relevance of this, too, is likely non-consequential.
My opposition to, nay, my repugnance for, as opposition is too neutral a descriptor, has been vociferous whenever the occasion has arisen. My predisposition is well known to my friends, as, indeed, the most heated discussions on this very subject—my repugnance and consequent opposition, for cause, to her candidacy—have occurred among us, usually on social occasions. Three times, at three other meals, as it happens (two breakfasts, in the kitchen of my house in Provence, and a dinner, in their dining room) the topic, which seems inescapable of late in their company, erupted into a rare heated argument.
In short order, it became clear that the wife of this couple of friends felt I was being not just unfair, but without cause entirely. Indeed, the argument was that, being a man, I found it repugnant to consider that a woman was fit to govern in the highest office. Nothing being further from the truth, indeed, I do wonder sometimes that we’d be better off with the lopsided balance of power, in terms of gender of our lawmakers and those who execute those laws, tipped entirely in the other direction—with a significant majority among the women of our society.
To put it most simply, I just can’t stand Hillary Clinton’s politics, wihch are of the order of opportunism and casuistry. She is inveterately a politician. This is, in itself, not a deficiency, as all those who run for office must practice politics, which to state it as simply as I can, consists in the ability to reconcile a statutory advantage in seeking to gain office with the will of the people being governed in the larger context of some mutually agreeable ethical framework. It is when politics becomes an end in itself, politics being the means of effecting good governance, usually through the imposition of rules that are not onerous or inhumane, and the enforcement of those rules, and leaving politics strictly to the process of shaping those means—through laws and rules and mandates and statutes and imposts—and not using politics as a lever for aggrandizement, material gain, or entitlement of those in the vocation of the exercise of poitical activities. At some point, even the most canny, wily or even-handed of successful politicians should put the process aside, and attend to the legislation of the codes that govern us, or to the execution of one’s duties in a post to which one has been elected or appointed—with no prejudice or favoritism determined by one’s personal ideological bent, especially not with the objective in mind of the attainment of wealth or power or privilege in excess of any existing societal mandate.
And again, quite simply, I am not sure and have never been that Hillary Clinton (or her husband for that matter, to bring up an operative irrelevancy) is sufficiently pure in this admittedly flawless conceptualization of what politics is about. I am not sure, indeed, that she is anything approaching purity as a political creature. For me politics is about winning, but without shedding the prior mantle of one’s humanity. It is winning, but not at any cost, or by any means.
Yet, it would seem, her gender trumps any inherent argument based merely on what is accessible in the public record and in the archives of the news of public media. There seems to be an argument based solely on the presumption that for women we are long past some appointed hour wherein, in the words of a song by Stephem Sondheim, “It’s our time, breathe it in/Worlds to change and worlds to win./Our turn, we’re what’s new,/Me and you, pal,/Me and you!” It’s a kind of expectant feminist manifest destiny, sometimes with little or no regard for the character of those who will enact the transition to the better future envisioned. Rather, I get the sense, even among the most realistic critics of seemingly gender-tainted opponents of this particular woman for this particular nomination, that gender trumps all other criteria, including ethics, and purely on the grounds of it’s being “our time” it’s better to have a woman than a man if there is otherwise no other discernible difference in their political character.
Naturally, I repudiate such an assumption, and see any critique not as sound argument, but an attack, and it is of the order, in this case, with the indictment ringingly (sometimes—if there are enough empty wine glasses on the table) delivered in mixed company, of a variation of a classic interrogative, the question impossible to answer convincingly in a court of law, “Oh! So when did you stop beating Hillary Clinton?”
Never, of course, is the answer, because I never started. It is for her opponent to beat her, strictly speaking, in the political arena. And with any luck, he will.
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.
I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.
We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.
What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”
If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.
But (yet again…) wait!
Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?
However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.
Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).
Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.
Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.
Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.
We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.
And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.
By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.
What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.
By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.
My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.
These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.
The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.
The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.
…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.
The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”
In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.
“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.
“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.
We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.
more often than not what you read on this blog is inspired, though I tend to think of it as provoked, by something I’ve heard or seen or read, especially on the Internet. the link below is the provocation in this case
We had dinner at our house for guests the other night. One couple were 30-somethings, well along in establishing their careers, with graduate school behind them, but not so far that it’s a dim memory. The other couple were 20-something, one of them just 23, and just recently out of college, with the elder of the two about to start law school. My wife teaches at a local university, and just started the new semester’s classes, with students from freshman year through graduate school. At one point, the conversation turned to the volatile nature of the vernacular, especially as used by those even younger than our guests, both in spoken conversations and texting. Even the youngest of our guests said it’s simply impossible to keep up with the vocabulary that is au courant.
It’s clear to me, being a student of language for onto 40 years, and often cited by others for the expansiveness of my vocabulary (which is, alas, wholly deficient in the current slang of the moment, of the locality, of the region, of my country, never mind of France in any part of it, urban or rural), that the agency of all this, if not the enabler, is the Internet. Not because of some innate linguistic voodoo, or because of some social emollient (though it’s easier to say anything even to strangers, because, famously, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog), but because of the rapidity of the spread of anything, be it a meme, or a joke, a cartoon, a photographic image, or a newly coined buzz word.
In the early 90s it was stock brokers who were the medium for the rapid spread of the latest jokes, simply because they were the only workers, cross country, who were interconnected for business reasons, and who universally had computers and email accounts. A joke could make it from New York to LA by lunchtime on the east coast. I suspect the delay is even shorter today for the traffic in what passes for the content of communications, because there are so many more people intereconnected, because connections occur in real time, just like a voice phone call, and the devices are all mobile and wireless.
It’s not prescient in the least to expect that the impact of youth and the ways they use language and the ever shrinking dimensions of the virtual globe on which we all reside is changing how ordinary people convey a message or a greeting. Writers have long anticipated it, and even tried to prefigure how the vernacular might go, getting the flavor of the phenomenon, if not the actual mutations as languages meld. The best example I can think of immediately is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a novel that was published in 1962. And of course, there was George Orwell in the 1940s, with his “discovery” of Newspeak, and the specialized languages he invented in his dystopian novels.
At this point in the increasingly extruded presidential campaigns (they used to be a year, more or less, and now are two, making lame ducks even lamer), I think less about who I am “for”—I’m never earnestly in favor of anyone, and never have been; I gave money generously to Obama in 2008 to help ensure his run against Clinton for the nomination, and then against McCain/Palin… but no candidate ever aligns perfectly with my views, which is the way the phenomenon should occur, I think, that is, it’s the candidates who should be taking quizzes to see what percentage of my views they agree with. I think about those whose policies I can best embrace.
I don’t think about viablity, not as an index of my likely potential vote, not this early. I don’t think about all the non-salient factors that seem to motivate so many other people, on the full political spectrum, from left to right, all supporters act almost exactly the same way. I can’t say they are genuinely intellectually engaged; almost nobody is sufficiently articulate and certainly not on Facebook, let’s say, to assess when someone is making an intelligent informed decision. On the social media everyone appears to be emotionally driven, and as much by antipathy for the other, as by enthusiasm for my man or woman. It’s clear though that a lot of people are about as animated as my classmates used to get when selecting the prom king and queen (I never attended a prom; never wanted to, and couldn’t have cared less… I was defective in this regard even then). Some people, regarding their candidate of choice even froth a bit at the lips, figuratively speaking. I’ve seen it in right-wingers; I’ve seen it in Bernie supporters; I’ve seen it in the disenchanted who say hold your nose and vote for (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush usually) because either of them is better than the alternative.
Now, as for Bernie Sanders, in particular, but to a certain extent it’s true of Donald Trump, who, as an aside, are a strange Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but that’s how I see them, yin and yang and therefore reinforcing each other’s gestalt, we’re beginning to see the Messiah syndrome emerge. Increasingly, as the media institutionalize the question of Joe Biden’s candidacy (his jumping in would be entirely opportunistic, even if he is genuinely contemplating it, and his prospects more an index of Clinton’s failing inevitability—Biden is simply not an inevitability kind of candidate; he is what he is, the dependable, steady running mate; even Andy Borowitz still doesn’t take him seriously) and the progressives now getting really hot about Bernie Sanders are acting exactly like suitors with a new flame, having been spurned by their real soul mate, Liz Warren (who has shown herself to have feet with a little bit of clay in them, but not so much it can’t be overlooked except by Republican trolls).
Now suddenly, every candidate has the potentiality for being a snake in the grass, a spoiler, duplicitous, ambitious, greedy, and underhanded. Judases. As if Sanders is not a politician, but something purer than the common clay that contaminates all of us ordinary people. As if Sanders is not also, despite the allure of many of his policies, and his quiet assertions of mature, rational adulthood, contrasted with the insane adolescent spritz of the crypto standup comedians that constitute the rest of the candidate field, capable of solecisms and misfires. As if our Bernie is not a member of that most exclusive of clubs, the Senate, who must go along at times, to get along. The Senate does not do absolutely nothing, and when it does what little it does, it manages to do so these days because somebody has to cross the aisle and work in league with the enemy.
Finally, of course, to take the focus off Bernie Sanders, who is the cynosure of all of that other white minority, the urban liberal, plus all the other people who usually quietly go about their lives because there is so rarely anyone who seems genuinely capable of honestly expressing their sense of being passively oppressed for decades, let’s consider Liz Warren, the former darling of the left. She’s got more flash and glamour, and showed some of what seemed sincere humility, not to mention a sense of humor, when she would appear on The Daily Show (it’s too bad that aside from an appearance in 2011, to speak up for universal health care, Bernie Sanders can no longer be “interviewed” by Jon Stewart, especially as a possibly viable candidate, a proposition that Stewart seemed to dismiss earlier this year—he was as taken by surprise as anyone), but essentially, she’s a Bernie type progressive, without the self-imposed label of “socialist.” But now, she’s plotting with Smilin’ Jack Biden… some even suggesting, with all the intrigue of a genuinely tortuous Machiavellian strategy, that the sudden talk of a Biden/Warren ticket is actually a Trojan horse, brilliantly calibrated to ensure a Clinton nomination!
Would that politicos were that smart and capable of diabolical skullduggery. Of such artistic treachery. Senator Iago.
No, as usual, at this stage, and building a drum beat that increases in tempo and volume (undoubtedly to the proportions of the soundtrack of Birdman as election day approaches) the fascinating thing about the campaigns is not the candidates, it’s all of you, the people, carrying on about your candidates. The caravan is nothing without spectators and hangers on, without camp followers, without purses full of the currency of our hopes and fears, waiting to be fleeced by the vendors in their stalls in the marketplace. But when the caravan moves on, as in that famous saying, still the only thing to be heard as the wagons diminish in size on the horizon, will be the dogs. Barking.
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