mercredi 31 octobre 2012

Romney and Ryan: Today's Hollow Men

One of the first poems I ever memorized was The Hollow Men, by T.S. Eliot. It may seem an odd choice at the age of 13, but I won't deny that I was an odd child. I liked the cadence of this poem, which was sorrowful, urgent and incantatory, like a prayer. There is an apocalyptic weariness to The Hollow Men that makes it timely today. Even if you don't know the poem, you probably know how it ends, since the final refrain took on a life of its own that is probably eternal. It sounds more like a children's nursery rhyme: "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."
 
In other words, we all fall down.
 
 
Here is the first verse:
 
The Hollow Men
I
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

lundi 29 octobre 2012

More to life than smoothies

As we move into fall, I find there is nothing more satisfying in the morning than a bowl of hot cereal. Since we discovered Wheat, Montana, on our way back from the cabin, that's where we buy our steal-cut cereal. This morning's serving, shown here, is topped with half a banana, sliced; two fresh figs, sliced; a green grape, quartered; a handful of pomegranate seeds; a dollop of my neighbor Genevieve's plum, lime and ginger jelly; and some oat milk. As with smoothies and fashion, color coordination is the key to success when it comes to a bowl of hot cereal. Enjoy!

mercredi 24 octobre 2012

Famous Men

With just under two weeks to go until election day, I would like to crawl under a rock and hibernate. And I don't even live in a swing state. I swore I would not set foot in the US for as long as George W. Bush was in the Oval Office but ended up returning to the US to live before he slunk away, never to be seen again. It was a strange time: the entire American public seemed to have given up on or even actively repudiated Bush, his policies, his politics, his wars, his neocons... As his presidency wound down, the subprime crisis emerged and the housing bubble burst. This came as no surprise to me, a virtual newcomer to the US, where everyone I met was involved in the mortgage refi or real estate business, or was married to someone who was. This can't be a good sign, I thought. Turns out it wasn't. (Note to the 40-somethings who were riding high during that time but who have since lost jobs and extra cash: you are crazy if you think a Romney presidency will bring those crazy money jobs back. Once Romney eviscerates the mortgage interest deduction,the housing market will scream in pain.) I'll never forget where I was when I heard, on the radio, that Lehman Brothers had collapsed. I was driving south on I-5 to join my husband for a post-charity golf tournament dinner. I literally looked up at the sky, to see if it was falling. The election of Obama marked a turning of the page, symbolically, but many people seem not to have realized that the economy, in free fall, would have to bottom out before it could begin to heal. Since my work involves deciphering economic texts, I was privy to what the non-partisan economists - most of them not American - thought about the global financial meltdown. They all agreed it was a long overdue and hence necessarily brutal correction, and they all agreed that the recovery would take a long time to materialize and that it would be characterized by weak job creation. Guess what? They were right! Let's not dwell on these complex matters. Let's instead just say that, given the slow nature of the recovery and the weak net job creation numbers to date (partly due to the huge number of jobs that disappeared, see above), it is amazing that the sitting President has never fallen behind his challenger and often has in fact led in the polls. This can only be due to one thing: an incredibly weak and lunatic field of Republican contenders resulted in an incredibly mediocre, hollow and unfit candidate, the man we know as Mittens. Had the Republicans come up with a strong or even adequate Republican candidate - someone with genuine, enlightened conservative values, substantial governing experience and charismatic leadership skills - they would be running ahead in this campaign. Instead, they chose someone who exemplifies everything that is wrong with latter-day capitalism and the corporate mindset. If Mittens does end up pulling out a victory, it will not be due to his leadership, experience, genuinely conservative worldview or anything like that. He does not have any of those things because he is fashioned out of silly putty. It will be due to voter intimidation and chronic mendacity combined with that lethal, uniquely American blend of apathy, fear and greed. The stock market took a big tumble yesterday, falling by something like 248 points on worse than expected corporate earnings numbers. According to the corporations in question, these disappointing numbers are attributable to the global slowdown (led by slower Chinese growth, now at single digits) in general and the European recession in particular. Okay, this is logical: US corporations are multinational, in part, ironically, to spread their risk of exposure to economic cycles. When Chinese GDP growth is double digit, this is good for everyone who does business with and in China. When the Euro Area is relatively strong, trade is more robust for everyone. This is called globalization. As a CEO, Mittens knows all about this. Which brings me to my next question: if Mittens is elected, and after he has spent the week repealing Obamacare and rolling back a half-century of women's rights, how is he going to create 12 million jobs if America's trading partners are suffering? I'm afraid that while America's multinantional corporations can "explain" their poor performance by pointing to slower growth in Asia and a recession in Europe, American voters will see this as an excuse, and an inexcusable one at that. As a CEO, Mittens is probably used to dictating a set of "must have" numbers and then getting them. This would be a lot harder to accomplish if he were CEO of America. These days, I find myself thinking about the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I read it as an undergraduate and have never forgotten either the austere, gripping photos (by Walker Evans) or the complex, poetic text (by James Agee), documenting the lives of three white sharecropper families living in Southern Alabama during the Great Depression. The foundations for what we think of as the social safety net were laid at this time by FDR. He succeeded Hoover, who had presided over the start of the Great Depression and who made things worse by stubbornly clinging to the idea that business would correct the economy without government interference. When that did not pan out, he said let the state and local governments take care of the problem. The problem was that they simply did not have enough money to cope with the magnitude of the misery. And the rest, as they say, is history. And as we know, those who do not learn from history tend to repeat it.
A Walker Evans photo from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

lundi 15 octobre 2012

Not about Myth Romney this time: how about Bob Dylan?

We got free tickets to the Bob Dylan concert at Key Arena last Saturday night. If I had a bucket list, which I most certainly do not, I would be able to cross one more item off. Everyone knows that Dylan's voice has.... umm, changed over the course of his long career. You can read the polemic surrounding this fact on the internets, so I will spare you. Yes, his voice has changed. Yes, it was distinctive but not great to start with. And yes, it is still distinctive but has gone from not great to truly awful. How awful? Most of the time it takes awhile to figure out what song he's singing, even if you know his music well. He has rearranged the songs, in part to work around the severe limitations of his current voice. All singers do this more or less. To cite but one case among many, we saw Joan Baez a couple of years ago at a Zootunes concert, and it was clear that her voice had aged. But it had aged well and her workarounds were as lovely as whatever she was working around. Bob Dylan is in another category altogether. His voice is a wreck, and not a fine one. Every once in awhile, he hits a note at the same time he hits a word, but most of the time he sounds like a baby who has cried its lungs out but continues to cry. An angry crying baby. There was one moment that may have made the evening worthwhile, however. It was the moment when a light shone on the dark stage and all that was visible was Dylan's light-colored hat. Then Dylan's face. And I thought to myself, behold the man: one of the most well-known names on the planet. There he is, standing before me. I also appreciated his playlist, though most of the songs were not immediately recognizable. They were only recognizable when a word and note combined with clarity. "Oh," Walt would say with a laugh, "that's Tangled up in Blue". Or "Wow, that's All Along the Watchtower". "Highway 61!" Etc. Mark Knopfler opened for Dylan. It is hard to imagine Knopfler opening for many people - Dylan is one of few who has that kind of stature. I mean, Knopfler is pretty mythical himself. I had seen him once before, in Paris. It was 1986. I was actually attending an Eric Clapton concert, and Knopfler's appearance onstage came as a total surprise for everyone. When we emerged from the Zénith after the show, exhilarated, snow was falling. It took hours to get out of the parking lot and then endure a slow crawl back to Paris. But what a night! Knopfler continues to amaze. He is certainly one of the best if not the best guitarist alive. His voice is distinctive but not great. Unlike Dylan, however, his has not changed much. It is still distinctive but not great. He seems to be just a guy who wants to surround himself with the best musicians and jam. That's what he did on Saturday. I am sure half the crowd was there to see him, including the increasingly insistent loudmouth who wanted him to do "MTV". Knopfler ignored him, though he ended with a relative oldie, So Far Away From You.

jeudi 11 octobre 2012

Elizabeth Warren demonstrates why she should be the next Senator from Massachusetts and why Scott Brown should go back to doing whatever he was doing before

"I have no doubt that Sen. Brown is a good husband and a good father to his daughters. But this is an issue that affects all of our daughters, and our granddaughters. And what matters here is how Sen. Brown votes. So he's gone to Washington, and he's had some good votes. But he's had exactly one chance to vote for equal pay for equal work, and he voted no. He had exactly one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control and other preventive services for women. He voted no. And he had exactly one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman -- from Massachusetts -- to the United States Supreme Court, and he voted no. Those are bad votes for women. The women of Massachusetts need a senator they can count on, not some of the time, but all of the time. [...] "I am a mother of a daughter, and a grandmother of granddaughters, and this is about their future. And I want to be blunt: we should not be fighting about equal pay for equal work and access to birth control in 2012. These issues were resolved years ago -- until the Republicans brought them back."

mercredi 10 octobre 2012

Mitt's soul

The definition of a soul: “That which crawls away and hides whenever someone mentions algebra.” (Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities)

go to elles!

I'm talking about SAM's latest exhibition, not imitating an angry Frenchman speaking English. It runs from tomorrow through January 13, 2013. The exhibition features more than 130 works made by 75 women artists between 1907 and 2007. The Centre Pompidou in Paris (home of the Musée National d’Art Moderne) curated the exhibition with SAM. Artists include Sonia Delaunay, Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, Marina Abramović, Louise Bourgeois, Atsuko Tanaka, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Tania Bruguera, among others. I was lucky enough to attend a special preview last night that was attended by more than 500 special guests, including the French Ambassador to the US (François Delattre, a Sarkozy appointee and career diplomat), Alain Seban (PDG of the Centre Pompidou), Alfred Pacquement (director of the Musée national d'art moderne) and Cécile Debray (curator of the MNAM). I am particularly thrilled to see Sophie Calle among the artists featured in this show. Her latest exhibition just opened in Paris (Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin) to rave reviews. Called ”Pour la dernière et pour la première fois” (For the Last and for the First Time), it features a project called Voir la mer (To See/Seeing the Sea) that took Calle to Turkey, where she captured on film three Turks discovering the sea for the first time in their lives. I think everyone remembers the first time they saw the sea or the ocean. I know I do. I don't think I really believed it existed until I actually saw it. Ah, that oceanic feeling!

lundi 8 octobre 2012

Bullshit Mitt

Everyone keeps harping on about Mitt's lies during the debate, which were delivered in a fast and furious style intended to dazzle the viewer. Apparently, many were hoodwinked. Sure, Mitt lied, in the sense that he said many things that just don't bear up to scrutiny. But I think the essence of the performance, which captures the essence of the man, is that he did not so much lie as bullshit for a full 90 minutes. And people lapped it up because bullshit is one of the most pervasive features of American life and culture, especially our political culture. Way back in 2005, professor emeritus of Princeton Harry G. Frankfurt devoted an entire treatise to the subject called On Bullshit, which begins in the most provocative and refreshing way: "There is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted." In a nutshell, Frankfurt gets at the heart of what bullshitting entails and how it can differ from outright lying. For one thing, bullshit is bullshit even if it happens to be true on some level. The difference between a liar and a bullshitter is the latter's complete and utter indifference to whether or not what he's saying has any bearing on facts or the real world. In other words, the bullshitter does not acknowledge the existence of truth at all: he ignores it. And this is precisely why bullshitters and their bullshit are more dangerous than liars and their lies. Any expsosure of the truth will just result in more bullshit. That's why Jon Stewart's Bullshit Mountain is so brilliant. Let's take just one example from Mitt's bullshit treasure trove. During the debate, he said that Obama's tax plan (which involves, among other things, letting Bush era tax cuts expire for incomes above a certain amount - for example, for a couple making more than 250,000 a year) would cost middle class folks an additional 6,000 dollars a year (or something like that). What he does not say is who he is referring to as middle class. You have to have been paying attention when he said weeks earlier that a couple making 250,000 dollars a year is middle class. It is true enough that those of us who are lucky enough to be in this category would see their tax cut expire. [My husband and I are in this category and thus would see our tax bill rise. And that's fine with us. We could never have gotten beyond high school without heavy financial aid. And we are grateful for our public school education and the everyday heroics of law enforcement professionals, firefighters and others. We think veterans deserve rewards.] It is tempting to cite other examples, in part because they are so plentiful. But I think this one illustrates the broader point. I don't think I am alone in feeling frustrated with and saddened by the inexorable expansion and rise of bullshit. How did it happen? Can it be combatted? Is a retreat into privacy the only consolation in a bullshit infested world? Frankfurt has some ideas about where the bullshit explosion originated, and his answer offers additional insight into Romney's brazen performance in the first debate. Professor Frankfurt sees the postmodern preference for subjective truth sincerely rendered over objective truth as the main cause. It is a form of narcissism, for sure. And, as Frankfurt concludes, "sincerity itself is bullshit." Bullshitters are interested in one thing only: advancing their agenda. In order to do so, they must persuade people, which they do by exuding sincerity and talking fast. One of Plato's most important Socratic dialogues, The Gorgias, is devoted to this very problem, which proves, among other things, that bullshitters and bullshit have always been with us. Socrates uses his famous Socratic method to demonstrate that the art or "knack" of the rhetorician, which produces verbal sophistry, is antithetical to both philosophy and the truth. But these days, those sound like such quaint concepts, don't they? Where have all the lovers of wisdom gone? Let's not end on a pessimistic note, though. There may be hope. The bullshit detecters may be slipping into active mode. The urban dictionary's primary definition of "mitt romney" is "to change your position in order to win favors or votes". The third definition is wonderfully apt: "Something Massachusetts is happy to be rid of", also known as "Mitt the Shit" or "Mittens".

vendredi 5 octobre 2012

Etch-a-sketch my ass! Everyone knows Mitt's Slinky!

Mitt Romney, what a concept! It took him 17 days after the tape surfaced in which he is heard stating that 47% of all Americans are the unwashed masses who think they are entitled to everything from food to healthcare to air, who see themselves as victims, and who will thus never vote for him, in part because he would never be able to convince these victims to care about and take responsibility for their lives. Okay, I doubt there is anyone out there who has not heard the tape or at least heard about it, except maybe those who think all they need to know is on Fox News. Even they know about it now, though, because that Hannity fellow asked Mitt to clarify his remark last night. You see, Mitt had memorized an answer for when he was asked about it in the debate, but it did not come up. Perhaps we should fault Obama for this oversight; then again, maybe Obama knew Romney had a canned response and did not want to hear it during the debate. Let's get the chronology of events straight: Romney made his offending remarks, which then surfaced in an uncut tape. Her Haughtiness Ann Romney made a haughty and unsuccessful attempt to claim Mittens' remarks were taken out of context. Not. Mittens hastily called a press conference wherein, looking a bit like Shifty Nixon, he said that he stood by his remarks and that they were "inelegantly stated" but basically reflective of his worldview. As the days went by, the soundbite did not go away. So Mitt told reporters he was only trying to express the difference “between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams.” He certainly did not disavow the sentiment caught on tape. Then came the debate. Romney delivered the various zingers he memorized, along with a bunch of mostly made-up facts, in a combative, fast-talking style that many found offensive. [As an aside here, I told my husband as we watched the debate that Romney's arrogant and fast-talking bully persona is exactly the kind of alpha male behavior that most women loathe. We have all known people like this and generally try and have nothing to do with them. Ugh.] Mittens, feeling high on testosterone after that performance, called up his campaign central - Fox News - and said he wanted to deliver his memorized response to the 47% problem. Hannity obliged the boss. Mitt then said "it" was completely wrong. Notice he did not say "I" was completely wrong - the devil is in the details and that extra "t" is just one of those details. Mittens never admits to being wrong. So one might wonder - and Hannity certainly did not ask - what, exactly, was wrong? The fact that he got caught saying it? The fact that he called 47% of all Americans victims who don't care about their lives? He did say that he thinks his life shows that he has always cared about 100% of the people. Say what? Those outsourced jobs? Those shuttered factories? Those unpaid pension obligations? That sweat factory in China he mentioned on the tape? Was he kidding when he said the high fences topped with barbed wire were to keep people out who wanted to join the inmates - I mean workers - inside the factory he had acquired? Because the fact is, the people inside work 16 hour days and are paid just pennies for their pain. Does Mittens have trouble sleeping at night or is he truly a full-fledged sociopath? He sure is Slinky and if you put a t in place of the l, you have a perfect description of the steaming pile that he delivers up on a daily basis. The best thing about Slinkies, as I recall, was that you could set them in motion at the top of a staircase and then watch them flip flop flip flop flip flop all the way down to the bottom of the stairs. In fact, that's basically all they did: flip flop. Wake the f*ck up, people!

jeudi 4 octobre 2012

Mitt Romney: Home of the Whopper!

Well, sorry I have been away for the last four months. The reason is kind of embarrassing, truth be told. I lost my blog, meaning I lost the capacity to access it. After trying to fix that problem for at least ten minutes, I concluded that what I really needed was a new computer. It turns out I was right, though it took me four months and thousands of word crashes to do something about it. Having a new computer is like getting a new body. And my old computer is like a room that has become so cluttered I just don't go in there any more. If you are interested in my thoughts on certain people profiting from the murder of Meredith Kercher, I am sorry to inform you that I will have no comments on the subject. I will say this: I sincerely hope that those currently doing so or about to do so enjoy their moment in the spotlight and then crawl under their respective rocks. And to the public, I would only say that the truth lies elsewhere, way elsewhere. I don't care much for Nancy Grace's in-your-face brand of talk television, but I think she nailed it on Knox and Co: why interview people who aren't going to tell the truth? Speaking of liars, did anyone make it through last night's debate? Mitt Romney: Home of the Whopper! That's probably a company Bain acquired and then forced into bankruptcy for all I know. Anyway, I think I have figured out Romney's plan to cut the deficit. He's going to eliminate funding to PBS, generating not only a whopping spending reduction of 445 million dollars a year but also a huge incentive for all the slackers who sit around in their jammies 24/7 watching documentaries to get dressed, get out the door and get a job at their nearest Staples store. For those who live in an area where one has been shuttered recently as part of the restructuring effort required to make sure shareholders get their big dividend, the option of moving should also be taken seriously unless the local KFC is hiring. Channeling Reagan here: VOTE WITH YOUR FEET, SUCKERS! But here's the deal: Romney says he will magically raise people's incomes so they get to pay taxes (which incidentally will also reduce the deficit by adding to the government's revenue and revenue base). Does this mean Mitt's going to raise the minimum wage or somehow require business owners to pay their employees higher wages? Or is the private sector suddenly going to realize that people need more money so they can buy the stuff these businesses produce and also pay taxes? Or will Mitt's across the board tax reduction (which he said he will only offer if it doesn't increase the deficit) come with the proviso that businesses have to plough some of that extra profit back into their payroll? Mitt's detailettes (not quite enough to be called details) are intriguing but they still don't add up. Expect no explanation, however. That just leads to trouble: questions, more questions and more questions. My other thought on the subject of The Whopper came to me at 4 am: Romney figures that with so many people getting back to work under his leadership - doing all those overtime hours at Staples or Walmart - they won't have time to watch public television anyway, so why not just eliminate its funding altogether? PBS funding costs each American about one dollar a year, after all. That dollar could be added to savings and eventually get you a pack of cigarettes instead! As for NPR, same thing. Where did people get the brazen idea that they are entitled to freely accessed culture? What an absurd idea! Next thing you know, they'll think they are entitled to food! There is an upside to all this though, folks: Since there will be no pressure whatsoever on these businesses to provide health care for their employees, people will forgo health care if they don't have it through their spouse and thus not be overly healthy if they make it to retirement. Therefore, they won't miss that "free" access to culture very much if at all. And this is probably a silver lining too, since most of these fantastic new jobs will either have no retirement benefits or they'll have retirement benefit obligations which can easily be dipsensed with. All that is needed is a Bain style intervention that will force the companuies into bankruptcy when their pension obligations start to become a burden. Here are my favorite images created in response to the Whoppers that The Whopper Mitt Romney served up last night. (Although, come to think of it, the only non-Whopper last night was when Mitt looked Jim Lehrer in the eye and said he was going to defund him. I can now understand what he meant when he said he likes to fire people. The Whopper was positively giddy with delight when he fired Jim Lehrer, effective immediately. You could tell it was immediate because The Whopper stepped in and ran the debate, pretending Lehrer had already left the building.):