Thursday, May 28, 2015

America Down the Chute

Note: This is a re-run, because my last post, about a book regarding the liberal class, a tragic book that, like Russian literature, you should only read in bright summer, has received more hits than the previous “poetics” post.
It’s still summer, so here’s a similar post for those who liked last week’s.

Time To Start Thinking
America in the Age of Descent
By Edward Luce, 2012

“Among many liberals there is a resigned type of nostalgia that yearns for the golden age of the 1950’s and 1960’s when the middle class was swelling and …
The right’s nostalgia tends to be angrier. But in their different ways both tend to blot out the sunlight. When a country’s narratives become this captivated by the past, they rob the present of the scrutiny it deserves. They also tend to shortchange the future. “America used to look ahead—we used to be good at that,” Craig Barrett, the former chief executive of Intel, which could lay claim to being America’s most consistently impressive company, told me. “Now we spend our lives reminiscing about the ‘Greatest Generation’ (i.e., that of World War II), We can’t stop looking in the rearview mirror.””
From the forward, p. 7

I was standing beside my friend Chuck, a fellow baby boomer, in the big box bookstore, when I saw Luce’s book on the top shelf. “Oh boy!” I said as I reached up. To Chuck: “I’ve been waiting for Americans to hit bottom.” I pulled it down, glanced at the jacket, and said, “Oh no!” For Luce, although a resident of Washington and chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times, was not American. He was British.

A few years previously I had been sitting in Sunterra restaurant (our favorite) with a university business school graduate, Christina. This was shortly after the Wall Street meltdown. We were both dismayed. Not by the still spreading waves of disaster, but by the undeniable fact, based on all we were reading and seeing in the public forums, that even after this terrible shock, the U.S. still hadn’t “hit bottom.” The phrase comes from the addictions field, where onlookers are horrified at how an alcoholic, regardless of the ever-increasing damage to his life, won’t admit he needs to change—won’t even see there is any problem, not until he “hits bottom.” Only then may he get humble enough to “see” and, perhaps, start the slow climb back up.

Television sometimes shows a family gathering to “do an intervention.” This is to help the addict to “see” and break through “denial” without having to go all the way down to the bottom. The everyday example, I suppose, for not having hit bottom yet, would be a neighborhood where the same people who, as children, had lived in bungalows while enrolled in Scouts America, are now adults in McMansions who live pay cheque to pay cheque, with ever-increasing debt, for their doodads. A lone voice might say, “A Scout is thrifty” but overall, where is the communal return to sanity?

From what Christina and I could see, there was a little tinkering, specific to Wall Street, but no widespread willingness to see the need for national change, a change desperately needed in so many ways, NOT merely a change in their personal credit buying—not to mention Wall Street credit. Relative to the rest of the world, America was clearly still continuing to decline, and the slope was getting steeper. Christina and I could see this about our dear U.S. cousins, perhaps because we were living across the border, up in Canada.

Luce writes with breadth. From the cover flap: “Luce’s research, analysis, and reporting covers areas from education to health care to politics to business and innovation. Luce frames the issues historically…”

Over ten years ago, world wide syndicated Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer pointed out that anyone with access to a hand held calculator (or graph paper) could look at the gross national products for China, India and (Germany?) and see how they were going to intersect and surpass the GNP of the U.S. I believe the American people are starting to see this fact, and starting to accept it. Not good enough. Much more serious than their relative decline, to which they contribute in many ways, is their absolute decline, a decline from things that are in their control and are no one’s fault but their own. Luce writes on both sorts of decline.

Is there any hope? Yes, a little. Luce would not have written his book if he thought we should write off America. I believe his phrase “age of descent,” not “decline,” was to help people avoid giving up. I think if they don’t soon succeed in changing, they are headed for a nation where the many are working to support the few to have a good life, with the middle class small and irrelevant. Unfortunately, the launch window is now barely ten years wide, and closing.

I have hope, not blind faith: I have seen Americans rise to the challenge before. In my youth there were scattered voices warning of something called “the deficit.” Not many voices, and not very loudly. Very few, if any, university students were going home at Christmas and warning their families. Finally, at last, a man in the White House, Ronald Reagan, roused the nation (and the universities) and put the D word into people’s vocabularies. Now we could see! Then came a lot of work. Initially, as I recall, politicians would promise to cut the deficit, and then find themselves merely slowing down the rate at which the deficit grew. Part of the problem, for the poor politicians, was getting the public to become willing to bite the bullet.

In my own province (state) of Alberta we were much like the folks over in Greece today: we who had silently endorsed a rising deficit would not immediately become willing to take responsibility for lowering the deficit. There were street protests. In my own city we had to blow up (implode) our biggest hospital because not only could we no longer afford to run it, we didn’t even have the funds to mothball it until the deficit could be slain. Thank God we had courageous leadership. At last we won. We slew the dragon of deficit… of course we never did get our big central hospital back.

Happily, I’m sure Luce is not the only voice. Two weeks ago I heard a CBC radio interview with a U.S. professor from New York, an expert on tribalism. The prof said something like, “We joke about how a big part of the U.S. problem with tribal politics is the ‘decline of drinking bourbon.’” He explained that without the excuse of drinking together politicians of the two main parties were no longer socializing together. The cover flaps to Luce’s book note the same problem:

“In domestic politics, things are also dire: conversation between Republicans and Democrats has all but ceased—Barney Frank call it “the dialogue of the deaf,” and the once noisy Senate dinning room, specifically designed so that members of different parties would be forced to talk to one another, is now empty most lunch hours. No surprise, when the politicians are busy talking to lobbyists and trying to raise campaign funds.”

I think it is important to remember that an empty lunchroom is not an “airy fairy” opinion: it is stark and measurable, as is the newest fundraising and lobbying. There have been measurable changes to the latter things, such as recently saying that a corporation, being legally “a person,” has the “free speech” to go and lobby without the lawful financial controls and legal constraints faced by any organization of citizens, changes that have led to a measurable change in the state of the lunchroom. In other words, throughout his book, Luce, a gifted financial writer, is not talking in generalities. And neither are the leaders he interviews. Luce understands laws and incentives; he writes about pragmatic opportunities; he is not some longhaired innocent. And if Luce says America is in descent, you had better grab a parachute.

At this point in my “book announcement” I can imagine an offshore reader eagerly asking for some examples of what Luce has seen and diagnosed. I won’t do so. For one thing, this is an announcement, not a review. Also, with a book of such breadth, I am sympathetic to the “addict thinking” of a few of my many U.S. readers. However hard I tried to give random examples, their temptation would be to think that I have shown the most important ones. As well, if an example could be discounted, it would be, by an addict eager to discount the entire body of research, sight unseen. I suppose I could show here the table of contents, but no: If a citizen picks up the book, and reads a page, then the contents page won’t matter, he will buy the book regardless. Yes, it is that good.

A final word on leadership: Peter Drucker, without using the phrase “rearview mirror” once noted how the U.S. people were alone in how they responded to the Wall Street crash. The Europeans all despaired: for years they kept glumly comparing everything to pre-depression times. It was only in the U.S., with the leadership of “nothing to fear” President Roosevelt, that people kept looking ahead.

Sean Crawford
Living in interesting times
May 2015, June 2012

I have deleted the 2012 footnotes; they referred to various essays of mine on Luce’s topics.
Next week I shall return to doing “poetic” essays.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Death of the Liberal Class

Death of the Liberal Class

Such is the title of a book by Chris Hedges, the correspondent who wrote War is a Thing That Gives Us Meaning.  It's because of his splendid book War book, never mind that Hedges has a shared Pulitzer prize, that whenever Hedges speaks I listen. Today I would like to offer a book review of Death of the Liberal Class… but words fail me.

I’ve written before about Universities. I remember a young professor who told us, at a rehabilitation conference here in Calgary, of criticizing an institution for the mentally handicapped, (retarded) an institution that, on its board of directors, included a household name of TV journalism. The directors went to the governor of the state: "We want him fired!" Who went to the president of the university: "I want him fired!" Who went to the faculty head, who maybe went to the department head (I forget) who said softly, “I can’t. He has tenure.” Here is a scary thing: A leading light in the rehabilitation world was nearly fired, not for  being a communist, (he wasn’t) but merely for offending the powerful. Here is a quote from Hedge’s book:

QUOTE Tenured professors are going the way of unionized steel workers. There are fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs—only about thirty percent of current academic positions offer tenure—and this percentage is declining. The desperate scramble by academics to placate the demands of college administrators and university presses that will publish their work so they can get tenure, has only grown as the number of secure jobs diminishes. The majority of academics are itinerants who may teach in a series of schools over a career, or at two or three schools at a time, with no job security. Adjuncts are usually hired on contracts of a year or less. They are considered part-time employees and are ineligible for benefits. Many earn as little as $1,000 a course. The lack of job security further inhibits any propensity to write or speak about topics that have political or social relevance. It is better for one’s career to stay away from politics and wallow in the arcane world af departmental intrigue and academic gibberish. (P. 126) UNQUOTE

I’ve written before about computer nerds who, in their Internet forums, such as digg and reddit, seem awfully dumb for nerds. (But I do like essayist Paul Graham and his YCombinator’s Hacker News) Here is a quote from Hedges:

QUOTE …(The liberal class was) forgetting, as Macdonald wrote, that “as in arts and letters, communicability to a large audience is in inverse ratio to the excellence of a political approach. This in not a good thing: as in art, it is a deforming and crippling factor. Nor is it an eternal rule: in the past, the ideas of a tiny minority, sometimes almost reduced to the vanishing point of one individual, have slowly come to take hold on more and more of their fellow men.”

The cultural embrace of simplification, as Macdonald warned, meant reducing a population to speaking in predigested clich├ęs and slogans. It banished complexity and further pushed to the margins difficult, original, or unfamiliar ideas. The assault on radical and original thought, which by definition did not fit itself into the popular cultural lexicon, saw art forms such as theater suffer.  (P. 88) UNQUOTE

Classifications don’t exist in nature, of course, and when it comes to people, we make them up. Perhaps in America there is an upper class. Perhaps there is an oligopoly, as a character explains so convincingly in Inside Out by Barry Eisler. (A story based on the 92 missing C.I.A. torture tapes) Or perhaps there is a power elite, a term used by Hedges. The power elite would work together like folks in the TV series Survivor, only the conspiracy would be continent-wide. Except that in Survivor, unlike in civilized society, there is no intermediary between the selfish nobles and the commoners. No liberals. No John and Robert Kennedy as the Gracchi brothers.

As a boy, I had the impression that actors, more than most grownups, were into equality for, say, persons of the Jewish persuasion and Negroes and homosexuals.  I couldn’t imagine Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, even in the U.S. south, telling Sammy Davis Junior they couldn’t eat together. From the time of Shakespeare writing about merchants, right up to the present day, actors seem to be a part of our liberal conscience, or, as Hedges would put it, a part of our liberal class. As a traveling troupe said on Star Trek, in an episode about Kodos the Executioner, “The play’s the thing, wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Shakespeare)

Incidentally, according to a "making of Star Trek" book, (I think from the early 1970’s) the writers bible for the Star Trek franchise made it clear that while they could show a planet controlled by women, or by organized crime, there could be no satire like Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet or Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars: No planets controlled by business.

Hedges classifies the entire liberal class, from actors to Zen artists, from teachers at university to trade unionists, from social workers to shipyard workers espousing solidarity, as all being like a buffer, like a safety valve for pent up steam, or like a flashing light of hope for incremental progress. Nothing radical, no liberals calling for revolution, but liberals as a conscientious force for continual progress, for having our children, at least, live in a better world.

This concept of a "liberal class" is a new idea for me. As a boy reading about the Romans I realized Rome's classic virtues, which will forever inspire mankind, were from their days of being a republic. Nevertheless during childhood I rather preferred the later centuries where their empire was expanding. The high school history texts would say the empire, expanding for many generations, was “running on momentum,” but I didn’t get it. As an adult, of course, I get it; I “get it” that by believing in decadence, and by not having a middle class, the Romans were doomed. 

As a boy, and to this very day, my favorite decade has been the 1950’s; and I’m not the only one: there is a comic book series called American Century that explores that fun decade.

But now I have to wonder: Were the 1950’s a case of America running on momentum? If so, that would account for the curious combination of soaring economy and lifeless conformity. Were the witch-hunts and blacklists of actors and writers and trade workers and professors merely the last few nails in a coffin that was mostly finished back around World War I? Were the 1950’s only a shadow decade? With activists of the 1960's being alone, rootless, and re-iventing the wheel? Hedges makes a convincing case that the liberal class has become non-effective… dead.

My two favorite 20th century presidents both happen to be democrats: Harry “give ‘em hell” Truman and John F. Kennedy. When did we start saying liberals are losers? When did we stop being accountable, stop saying “Wall Street Meltdown” and start saying the wimpy phrase “2008 recession?” Words fail me. I fear if I try to say we no longer face things, if I try to explain Hedge’s book, then I’ll sound like, well, like a loser.

Sean Crawford
~Everyone knows that Vintage is a fine liberal publishing brand. Well, my copy is by Vintage all right—Vintage Canada. On Google, on the top hits, I see the book is not published by Vintage, and not by one of the Big Five (Formerly the Big Six) but some obscure brand I’ve never heard of in my life. I tell you, the older I get, the more I believe in conspiracies.

~Kennedys as Gracchi brothers:
Rome’s decline into conspicuous consumption, instead of sober self-discipline, was horribly swift, taking only a generation or so. It was only after it was already too late that we get the story of Cornelius’s jewels. When a certain plainly dressed lady, Cornelius Gracchi, was visited by ornately adorned women, the other ladies would asked about her jewels. Cornelius would summon her two sons and say, “Here are my jewels.” As adults the brothers went on to try to do some good, but died violently. Just as in the song Abraham, Martin and John, the good die young.

Here’s the songlink, and here’s Robert (Bobby) making a speech. He had lengthy plans to work with the locals to reform one of the most infamous ghettos, and he was going to get us out of Vietnam because of his rock solid evidence, amidst all the swirling controversy, that pulling out was the right thing to do. This I know from his well-researched articles in his book To Seek a Newer World, which he put into the public domain so people could spread the word.

~I’ve written before (archives of March 2013) about how being unable to face the lessons of Vietnam means being utterly unable to face learning how to win the war on drugs, making the latter war as much a farce as the former. A war unlearn-able is a war unwinnable.

~Sadly, one of the things we’re no longer facing is how the US of A is no longer the greatest country in the world. Here is an edited down (condensed) video clip of someone explaining this, while noting that liberals are losers.

~I found the clip on a post exposing America (link) on a self-improvement blog by Mark Manson, a man who throws truth like a wet dishrag.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poetics of I am Nothing

Like you and me, everyone lives center stage in their own play. Like the doctor who has to confront the Leader during an expansionist war. He had been asked to diagnose a strangely shy little girl living under the Dictator’s roof, a refugee from the fighting. He enters the Ruler’s office to make his report, using anger at the war to mask his fear of the CEO. He carries no pages of charts and graphs, no laboratory tests, nothing but a single sheet of paper.

The doctor explains to the Fuhrer that sometimes we ask patients to make a drawing, or a poem. Here is the complete report—a poem. The doctor puts on his hat. Good day, Sir. Exit stage left.

The Leader, in the center of his world of respectful doctors, lives with a narrow one-eyed blindness. To him war is a Good Thing for the strong; his wife is weak, and why the heck has she taken in a little refugee?

As for the girl, she doesn’t dare think she deserves to “own the stage.” She is nothing.

I won’t tell you any more of the plot of the short story I Am Nothing by Eric Frank Russell.  I like his writing as he shares a quality of Neville Shute’s novels and George Orwell’s essays: Like them, he has a fundamental decency.

You’ve probably never heard of Russell. (1905-1978) Here in Calgary Will Ferguson, the winner of the Scotia Bank Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, said in an interview that he learned to write by studying Russell’s novel Wasp. I’m pleased to have my own oft-read copy. The title is a metaphor for how in wartime great damage can be caused by isolated secret agents. But Russell’s wasp is not a glamorous unscathed James Bond. No. During his war many scattered wasps fall out of contact, and many naval starships fail to return. Russell knew: War is not glorious. If you don’t mind science fiction, then you might like Russell’s work.

As for me, not an orphan, I had to push my relatives off my mental stage, stop them from being my “committee in my head.” And stop being guilty that I had managed to “get a life.” My best friend couldn’t handle the guilt and drove back east to live there and help her siblings, victims of abuse in childhood.

As with war, life is not a game, but it follows the rules of probability. Take a hundred quaking boys and girls, refugees from parents screaming over the “goddam bills!” Tell them they live on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Deep down, some will feel, “I am nothing.” Statistically then, at least one of them is fated to try to medicate her frustration by being a bully or a criminal or having an addiction. You and I, of course, will always rise above our circumstances and control our base nature. I’m just talking about others.

If the innocent girl in Russell’s story avoids the Fates then it’s because she is so nice. Sometimes, consideration for others can be a lifesaver.

Here is the shy girl’s poem:

I am nothing and nobody.
My house went bang.
My cat stuck to a wall.
I wanted to pull it off.
They wouldn’t let me.
They threw it away.

Sean Crawford
~It’s queer how some memorable stories are about motherless girls. In print, my favorite three are Friday, a grownup in the book by Robert Heinlein, and two girls, Pollyanna and Sarah Crew. The latter is what Wesley reads aloud to Fred (Winifred) when she is deathly ill in Angel. I have yet to read about Ann.

~I feature Fred as one of Two Imaginary People in an essay archived December 2012.

~I would guess that Indians who leave the reservation would, like me and my best friend, feel “survivor guilt” as one more force arrow against their assimilation. By this guess, a liberal who disagrees with folks who want to keep the “two” races separate, a liberal who favors assimilation, would not have to move mountains trying to abolish reservations, but merely work to make reservations into decent places.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Poetics of Wheelbarrows and Copyright

There is an all-to-believable scene in Robert Heinlein’s novel about an engineer who builds a bomb shelter, Farnham’s Freehold. Poor Farnham, emerging to rebuild after the apocalypse, realizes he forgot to include something… a wheelbarrow. I can relate, although I grew up using one. We always kept our barrow tipped over so that rain would not collect and rust out the bottom. Strange to think that in the Middle Ages they still hadn’t invented wheelbarrows yet. Or buttons.

Here’s a poem by William Carlos Williams
The Red Wheelbarrow

So much depends
 a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

To me, this is a modern poem, since all the other poems I have memorized could be found in a 1940’s era poem collection, from a decade before I was born. This poem I have heard my college English teacher recite—it’s such a lovely piece. But is it still under copyright? Since it’s modern and doesn’t rhyme I don’t know. (I found out)

I do know I cheer for the inventions of copyright and patent laws, inventions that are figuratively like a wheelbarrow for carrying supplies for everyone into the future.

Back home, with our wheelbarrow in the background, we raised two black calves, Angus and Dina, of the Aberdeen Angus breed.

Suppose here on the prairies you were trying to grow a couple of cows.  Suppose you ended up battling blizzards to return them to the barn, hand feeding them during sickness, and struggling to fatten them during them health. And just when you’re ready to take them to auction—someone steals them. Next year you bust a gut to raise two more, next year rustled again. Could anyone blame you if you said, “Ah, forget it, let my neighbors eat vegetables.”

The law of “risk to reward” means that safer investments pay less, risky ones pay more—if they ever pay off. Looking for oil is so risky, yet so important to society, that government will give “wildcatters” special tax incentives.

If digging dry holes is risky, so is any attempt at creation and invention. In Robert Heinlein’s novel Friday a man spends years in poverty, working down in his dark basement, trying to invent a power source out of a stone. Against long odds he succeeds. Shouldn’t he, at last, make a lot of money? Or should everybody and their dog be allowed to rustle his idea without having to endure poverty down below ground? And if his idea gets rustled, then why would any other inventor, with eyes to see, ever choose to live in poverty chasing a dream, a dream so likely to be ripped off? “Ah, forget it, let my neighbors waste fossil fuels.”

Will you spend your man-hours in trying to invent a better wheelbarrow? Unlikely. Or in composing a wheelbarrow song? Unlikely. Yet without progress, our community loses. We lose if nobody creates any new hardware, software, songs or books.

The backdrop of Friday is a dysfunctional society, without a sense of good citizenship, in a world where the inventor despairs of legal protection after applying for a patent. He thinks people will go read the patent, and then break the law by producing their own power stones. In despair, he proceeds to fabricate his stones in a secure windowless factory without applying for patent rights. This works out: Nobody learns the secret of the power stones. Unfortunately for his neighbors, long after the period of patent/copyright would have been over, the stones are still a secret, and so society doesn’t get to make them in great cheap quantities. Serves them right. If only folks had worked to establish a sound democracy with respect for laws that serve the community.

The natural law of “risk to reward” won’t exist in our universe if pirates are allowed to do violence to the laws of patent and copyright.

As a music lover I sometimes wonder if, during my lifetime, because of pirates, composing rock music of the more creative sort, as in the 1960’s, will become as uneconomical as composing classical music or poetry. Perhaps musicians will settle for keeping a less risky but more secure day job. Or perhaps musicians will resort to having a fulltime lifestyle of touring while affording only a timid nest egg, touring to merely entertain, too timid to bother people with artsy innovations. No Dylan standing on stage unplugged. Or unclothed.

This morning I did some research: In Canada, The Red Wheelbarrow has been public domain for two years, since the writer is fifty-two years dead. In the U.S. it will take another 23 years. Why? Perhaps it’s because congress thinks fifty years is not enough time for a poet to give money to his children (to pass on to their children) but I think it’s because corporations like Disney are immortal institutions. I value artists. Institutions? Not so much.

I was with artists just last month doing Spoken Word Poetry. As for words and names, my ethic for pronouncing names in the public domain is this: If a person or a character in a book has been dead fifty years, then his feelings won’t be hurt, and so I won’t pronounce his name foreign-style. Unless maybe his name is fun to say, like Tigger or Jean Val Jean. When I have my nose in Les Miserables, Marcus and Inspector Javert and all the rest of get their names Anglicized. Mister Paris is not “Paree”, and Bonaparte is not “Emperrorr Napoleonne.”

Of course, if I had the nerve, then my tongue and I could stand in front of a mirror practicing shifting gears to cope with alien pronunciations, but I won’t expect normal people to do that. Except for, maybe, art collectors with ample leisure time. So my ethic of Anglicizing remains.

This morning, when I didn’t immediately know if I could publish Williams’s wheelbarrow poem, I took the time to find out. I wasn’t about to risk being a lazy good-for-nothing pirate.

Sean Crawford

~Yes dear reader, I’ve seen Lieutenant Tom Paris playing the part of Captain Proton on that fine feminist TV series Star Trek Voyager. (Link to a Roger Ebert essay)

~I have an essay on Pirates and Prohibition, with links, archived in April 2012

What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism by Alan B. Krueger, Princeton University Press, link

~Are software patents evil? In an essay with that title, my favorite nerd, Paul Graham, wrote it would take him several weeks of research to determine whether patents have been a net win for encouraging innovation. You can find all sorts of his essays here (link).

Focus on Imperialism
Everyone has heard of “Yankee imperialism.” Some years back the Yanks imperialized each other, you might say, with their “Disney amendment” which gives a much longer life, another generations worth, to copyright law.

Do Yankees value imperialism and money more than, say, discouraging war?
Despite some protests, Americans were selling scrap iron to the fascist Japanese war machine, mainly for use against innocent Asians, right up until the Japanese threw it back in their faces at Pear Harbor.

Once a war starts, do U.S. citizens value imperialism more than winning?
It’s been scientifically shown that terrorism is associated NOT with “poverty and despair” but rather, with a lack of civil liberties. How unconscionable then, to Muslim eyes, that during the War on Terror, at the dying of the Arab spring, the U.S. sold military supplies to strengthen the regime in Egypt.

Not only that, they twisted Egypt’s arm, with Secretary of State John Kerry making a special trip to do the twisting, to take a big U.S. loan, without attaching any requirements for civil liberties or human rights whatsoever. That’s crazy. That’s as crazy as trying to fight two wars at once.

Is it impolite to burst a U.S. citizen’s bubble of “plausible deniability?”
The greater social good trumps a “bad truth.” Here in Calgary, despite our high percentage of American workers, when a petroleum engineer did a speech exposing a U.S. fruit company, at my Toastmasters International club, he did not stop to be polite. He did not ask first whether any U.S. citizens were present who might be offended. And I won’t worry about my essay being polite.