Monday, October 31, 2011

Quote of the Day:

The Harris: This may sound a stupid question, but do you know a place to buy silver dollars?
me: my grandmother
she collects them
other than that, no not really
i'm sure we can steal something at a smithsonian exhibit
The Harris: It'll be like the good 'ole days. I'll leave them to the British Museum in my will.

800 Words: My Generation - Demotism: Conclusion


These are probably figures you’ve read as many times as I have: 14% of college graduates between 2006 to 2010 are without full time jobs. Of all people between the ages of 16 and 29, 55.3% have jobs. One in five young adults lives below the poverty line. Nearly 25% more people ages 25 to 34 are living with their parents than did before the recession began in 2008.

The last of these stats is a particular subject of expertise for me. Since graduating from college more than six years ago, I have spent the majority of my life under my parents’ roof again. After college, I prolonged the inevitable return home by decamping for a year to a cheap artist’s program in Southern Israel. A year later, I found myself back in the one place I tried like hell to avoid. I tried sneaking my way into a Hopkins grad program, I tried living hand-to-mouth on friends couches, I tried a desperate scheme to start a performing arts organization that would set the world afire, and God help me over the years I’ve even applied to somewhere upward of a hundred jobs.

Let’s be clear here, during this long fallow period I should probably have applied to upwards of a couple thousand jobs, but nobody has that much morale. Eventually, everybody loses faith that they’re going to find work. I just lost it much, much earlier.

Everybody has that existential moment. Some call it the “20’s moment” - the moment when you’re called to account for the fact that life will not occur as you’d planned it. If you don’t have that moment in your twenties, it will be that much more devastating to have it later. A few lucky people don’t have this moment at any point during their lives - they’re either sociopaths or in need of a sociopath.

For me, the moment was about a month after I graduated American University. Even if I managed to avoid a real education, I worked like a horse for that degree. I put on a two-hour composition thesis recital for which I rehearsed twenty-seven musicians and actors. For this recital, I’m told that I may be the only person in the history of AU to get five honors credits for a thesis. After the recital was done, I left my friends and musicians to have outings by themselves while I returned with my family to Baltimore so I could write sixty pages of papers on Orson Welles and Monteverdi.

And suddenly it was done. Sadly, this is not one of those post-graduation letdown stories. Would that it were. Instead, I was extremely relieved to be rid of the bothers of school and looking forward to experiencing, for once, an entirely normal type of ennui which could have easily happened to anyone else my age.

But I will never forget being in my friend Der Huber’s car when I received a call from my mother saying that she just got a call from AU. ‘One month and they’re already asking me for money,’ I clearly remember thinking. But that was not why they called....

Apparently my credits never arrived from the summer abroad I spent in London. My professor claimed to never receive the final paper I clearly remember handing in early so that I could go to the party my co-workers from my internship at the Association of British Orchestras threw for me. Rather than fail me, the teacher gave me an incomplete. In order to receive credit for the class, I had to write another paper and was therefore not yet a college graduate. This would probably seem to be a routine mix-up for most people - easily clarified. But not for me. This was a devastating turn of events for one simple reason.

I never graduated high school either.

For reasons I will elaborate upon in part three, there is to my knowledge no document in the world which shows that I graduated high school - in spite of the fact that it took me five years to do it. After the Miltonic epic that was my high school career, I made myself a solemn promise that I would graduate from college at any cost. And I would do it as quickly as possible because after an adolescence like mine, life can’t wait.

And with a single swift stroke, all the morale I’d built for myself in college to bear any burden to meet the single goal about which I cared was destroyed as easily as a kite in a thunderstorm. No doubt, I overreacted in my mind. I wrote the paper and graduated in August rather than April. But nothing could change that for all the hard work and obsessive over-preparation, I'd still not graduated in the normal allotted time. Over four years I’d braved a thousand anxieties to achieve that degree just as any other kid my age would, and even after all those headaches and heartaches I still couldn’t get what comes to other people so easily. I’d like to fancy myself the master of my destiny just as anybody else would. But now that the big 3-0 is a mere four months away, it’s difficult to escape the realization that the rest of my twenties were written out for me on that day as clearly as if it were etched in stone.

Please don’t think the last five yeras have been a washout. There’s much I wish I’d done differently, but it’s been a reasonably decent time all the same. I may not have technically been accepted into graduate school, but I have nearly two-hundred pages of papers from Johns Hopkins University classes to show for my time. I may not have made it as a choral conductor, but I have choral arrangements galore which I hope might prove useful for a later time (or regretfully, a later musician). But one development of the past few years stands above them all.

Long before I was born or my mother married into the family, the Tucker household resembled an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond crossed with a Eugene O’Neill play. Like any immigrant family that lives and works together, there is bound to be moments of high tragedy mixed with low comedy, sometimes indistinguishable from one another. But living and working in such close proximity as my father’s parents did all their lives got them through Stalin and Hitler and allowed them to begin a new family in America.

My Dad’s family was not here for the Depression or the War. Postwar prosperity and the GI Bill were not meant to benefit refugees. When my father got to college, he was still the son of barely middle-class shopkeepers. When his peers started rebelling against the social norms of the 1950’s, he felt completely out of step. No one in his family ever experienced the norms of the 50’s. My Dad was too busy helping his parents in their store to have anything to rebel against.

My father was born in Bialystok, Poland. He was also born on January 7th, 1946 - at the very start of the American baby boom. In certain ways, he’s very much part of his generation: marching for civil rights and against the War, going to grad school to avoid the draft, making (though mostly losing) money on Wall Street. But he is also quite apart from his generation - neither as radical as most baby boomers were in their younger years nor as conservative as they’ve become. Most boomers were starved for the challenge and adventure which life in the most privileged country in World History could not afford them. So they created their own adventure by insisting that the great society their parents built needed to be destroyed - it wasn’t great enough. But Dad, to whom privilege was a word for other people, grew up on stories of a far worse place. To him, as to his parents, the very meaning of life is to settle.

If there is one thing which Americans are not supposed to be, it’s ‘pessimistic.’ Amurrikans are optimists dangnabbit! This country is chock full of politicians and businessmen who not only tell us to expect the future to look brighter than the past, but expect us to believe it. For reasons that are a combination of empirical evidence, national identity, prosperity without precedent, and a lack of thoughtfulness, Americans of our age believe that a life of prosperity and continual improvement is our birthright. Our parents were the first generation Americans for whom that mentality would ring true from cradle to grave. Our generation of Americans was to be the first that any other view of the world would be outside of living memory.

But it was not to be. My story, such as it is, turned out to be not much different from my generation’s after all. We share a failure to live up to promise that once seemed unlimited, an unearned self-confidence turned on its head, and the disappointment that life is not what we thought it would be.

In a few hours, I’m going to sign a lease on an apartment. My father is coming out of retirement to found a business with all three of his sons. Like my father was with his father, I am now in business with him. My father, who earned a PhD from the University of Chicago, tried to find work in the 70’s as an historian. But he quickly learned that history had no future. His father also came out of retirement to help set him up in business. My younger brothers, both businessmen to the manner born in the way I’m clearly not, have the brains I lack for this sort of operation to work extremely well. Jordan had the unfortunate luck of graduating from business school at the exact moment when finding work in the finance industry became impossible. In less than two years, Ethan will graduate college with no guarantees of a job market better than the one we face. As my family has been compelled to do at so many other moments, we must turn to each other in a world that’s indifferent to our prosperity.

America made a damn good effort to create a new world in which people can rely on the system for prosperity. The liberal system of welfare which succeeded in creating American prosperity for so many was doubted at every point - by conservatives, by socialists, by communists, by fascists. But from Teddy Roosevelt onward, the American safety net created an ever-increasing ability for more people to follow their bliss than at any time or place in world history. But systems have life cycles just as people do, and we now see that there can only be a steady decline in its effectiveness. It’s still the best possible option by a long shot, but we cannot expect that it will shield us from the worst life has to offer as it once did. Just as my grandparents did, we have to accept that life may throw us tragedies which once we never thought we’d face.

But so long as we have a family upon whom we can rely, whether by blood or by friendship, we will weather whatever life throws at us and endure it with strength we never knew we had during more prosperous days. We are a generation no longer entitled to prosperity, but we are entitled to love. And as it has from time immemorial, love must be what saves us.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/4: Demotism


XI. Paperwork

As Americans, we collectively spend 1000 years filling out paperwork every year. We collectively spend 60 million hours a year on hold. Was bureaucracy this complicated in the France of Louis XV? In the Austria-Hungary of Franz Josef? In Gorbachev’s USSR?

Since 1935, every American is assigned a number at birth and over the course of a lifetime acquires dozens of other numbers. These numbers may or may not help us through the maze of bureaucracy. But the ultimate factor that helps or hinders us is the temperament of whatever representative we’re lucky enough to face. Milton Friedman once declared ‘Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.’ But that funny but slightly sexist wordplay demeans both women and the power of bureaucrats. A better one would be “I am your Toshiba customer service representative, look on my works, ye mighty and despair!” For in the hands of such a representative lies the fate of the four years of otherwise irretrievable files on your virus-infected computer that comprise the current period of your life.

Yet even with the amount of statistics that comprise our lifetime, the statistics we can control speak for themselves all too thinly. Between 1968 and 2004, there had not been a US Presidential election for which the turnout of eligible voters exceeded 60%. There has not been a 40% turnout for a midterm congressional election since 1970. Most politicians interpret the votes of a quarter of the US population to be an overwhelming mandate. The Bush Administration interpreted the votes of a fifth of Americans to be such a mandate. In the Obama era, it’s now routine to see polls that put American’s faith in Congress as less than 10%. This would be a stunning figure had similar numbers not been routine during the Clinton and Bush years as well.

Many pundits would have us believe that the biggest problem is special interests. But the very term ‘special interest’ sounds like an anachronism of the late 20th century. ‘Special interests’ are so woven into the fabric of Washington lawmaking that lawmakers are more reliable representatives of the interest groups than their constituents. They reliably provide millions of dollars for re-election efforts: AT&T alone has given $55 million of campaign contributions since 1989. And if loyal congressmen are defeated, they’re paid a couple million to lobby for precisely the interests that bankrolled their campaigns. Most of their staff members alternate every few years between serving in their staff or serving as lobbyists for the interests. What was once termed ‘special interests’ are the regular interests of congress. The American People are the special interests.

XII. Underlings

I’ve lived the better part of the last decade in DC, so I have a lot of friends who’ve served in Congress. Not congressmen, mind you, we’re all too young for that. Most of them have no desire to run, and I find it difficult to believe that any of them would be stupid enough to ever want to serve. Yet a few of them do. If any of them were to ever run for national office, I would phone bank for them every day, give the maximum possible campaign contribution, utilize whatever miniscule business and political connections I have, and talk them up as the brilliant, wonderful people they absolutely are to everyone I know. And at the end of every day, I’d call that friend to berate him for what an idiot he is for doing this.

The smartest of my political friends have long since realized that true political influence comes not from being the man in charge but the person who tells him what to do. If the Founding Fathers were alive today, none of them would be Presidents, Congressmen or Supreme Court Justices. They wouldn’t have the influence of Founding Fathers, but at least they’d have a chance to affect policy. Thomas Jefferson would be a Fellow writing papers about the impact of Imperial Rule in the Third World for the Brookings Institution, James Madison would be working at the ACLU; John Adams would be a political blogger for The Atlantic, Ben Franklin would be a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Harvard; Alexander Hamilton would be head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and John Jay would be an Under-Secretary in the State Department. The only Founding Father who’d have a prayer of being elected in today’s world is George Washington - mostly because he’s tall, tactful and doesn’t seem to have many opinions.

This is the price we pay for total transparency. Once you learn everything about a person, you begin to realize that there is enough dirt to disqualify absolutely anybody from power. Today’s successful politician must be without blemish, morally unimpeachable and intellectually unobjectionable. In reality politicians may be neither, but they must seem so to the public. However, it takes an enormous mental effort to present an unblemished image. Many politicians are so obsessed with the image they preserve that they become utterly timid creatures - the last to whom it occurs that the current system is not working, even though the very way they live their lives is an indicator of precisely that.

Furthermore, it should be no secret as to why so many of today’s most effective legislators often seem to have the most skeletons. The bull-headedness it takes to effect change in the world’s slowest-moving city is the same bullheadedness it takes to make incredibly stupid mistakes in one’s personal life. Barack Obama is the exception that proves this rule - that a black man who thoughtfully muses about his use of cocaine and former hard-leftism can seem like such an exception in our era testifies to how gullible our country still is.

Many a Washingtonian’s been heard to muse longingly on the good old days of the ‘back-room deal’, when corrupt but competent men decided the fate of our country with a handshake at a cigar and scotch-soaked table. But of all stupid Washington cliches, this has to be one of the most ignorant. Look around us, the back-room deal is more prevalent than ever, and arguably more powerful.

The coalition was always a wellspring of the democratic government, but never has every single interest group had more power to hold up the passing of a law than it is now. All one has to do is look at the contents of Obama’s health care bill (technically called the United States National Health Care Bill). Over the course of 15 months, the bill ballooned to over 2,100 pages, with each interest in the medical community able to obtain special protective clauses and dozens of earmarks appended that have nothing to do health care. Multiple senators threatened to kill the bill at an instant’s notice unless their demands were met.Eventually, it became clear that the bill would not pass in any form unless it placed coverage of every American in the hands of private insurance companies.

So who ultimately did the work of shepherding the bill through over a year’s worth of bargaining, cajoling, finessing and negotiating? The President and his staff deserve credit for even sticking with reform until its completion. But the ultimate credit goes to Hill Staffers who had to do the real bargaining to affect any change. One can only guess that debates which took place in Longworth and Rayburn were far more cogent and knowledgeable than anything heard on the floor. If John Adams was blogging at The Atlantic, then John Quincy Adams was working in Chuck Schumer’s office, spending nine hours a day for nine months on the phone with a Ben Nelson staffer named Henry Clay to debate public funding for abortion.

XIII. 140 Characters

So if the statesman stays in the office, what then is the job of the man on the floor? As Oskar Schindler would say (or at least as he said in Schindler’s List) he makes sure it’s known the company’s in business. He sees that it has a certain panache. That’s what he’s good at. Not the work, the presentation.

What matters in today’s climate is not who best articulates the issues, but who gives the best presentation. For a good presentation, two things are needed. A relateable image, and lots and lots of money. In 2004, the total money spent on elections in America was over $5 billion. Only a bit less than $2 billion of that sum went to federal elections, and only a third of that to the Presidential campaign. The nominating conventions alone cost $162 million, including $29 million of taxpayer money. Almost invariably, the presidential candidate who raises the most money wins the election. 9 out of 10 congressional races are won by the candidate who raises the most money.

Only one factor is nearly as important as money: character. Not the moral character, but the character of the presentation. Candidates are expected to be able to sum up the solution to every issue in a single meme that can be remembered instantly upon hearing it. The more simplified the solution, the less justice it does to the complexity of the issue, and the more attractive the solution becomes to voters.

But even if moral character has nothing to do with the presentation, politicians go to great lengths to assure us that it does. The moral character of candidates is constantly called into question. As an issue in elections, competence rarely has a chance. In its place, the public requires a relatable image, and access to so much money that every candidate is utterly unrelatable to the public.

Apocalypse Pooh

Friday, October 28, 2011

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/3: Demotism


VIII. Over-Stimulation

Books I’m Currently Reading:

The Book of Genesis
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
The Dropsie Avenue Trilogy by Will Eisner
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
The Beats by Harvey Pekar
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Twenty-Five Books that Shaped America by Thomas C Foster
Literature and Western Man by J B Priestly
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun\

These are the books I’ve been reading since I packed away my books for the move into my new apartment. How many will I finish?

Rented Movies From My Six-Month Old Video Americain Account (not counting movies watched on TV, from Redbox or in theaters...a far more lowbrow list I assure you):

The Dekalog: dir. Krysztopf Kieslowski
The Earrings of Madame de...: dir. Max Ophuls
Late Spring: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Floating Weeds: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
A Story of Floating Weeds: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Fitzcarraldo: dir. Werner Herzog
French Cancan: dir. Jean Renoir
The River: dir. Jean Renoir
Nashville: dir. Robert Altman (didn’t watch)
Ugetsu: dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (didn’t watch)
Scenes from a Marriage: dir. Ingmar Bergman (didn’t finish)

Currently Running TV Shows I Regularly Follow:

Boardwalk Empire
Mad Men
Parks and Rec
The Office
How I Met Your Mother
Two Broke Girls (only because I have a crush on Kat Dennings)
The Borgias
Game of Thrones
Boss (only one - fantastic - episode in)
Curb Your Enthusiasm
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
American Horror Story
Law & Order SVU
The Big Bang Theory (mostly because my family loves it)
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show
The Simpsons
South Park

The list of current shows I want to see but haven’t started following is nearly as long. I cannot lie, once I tabulated this list, it surprised the hell out of me.

Last 24 Hours of Napster Activity (not counting music I’ve listened to on youtube. for the record, I'm now listening to Joe Zawinul...):

Lully: Roland Les Talens Lyrique conducted by Christophe Russett
Jorge Bolet Plays Favorite Piano Works
Chopin: Etudes Played by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Chopin: Etudes Played by Nelson Freire
Chopin: Etudes Played by Freddy Kempf
Liszt: Harmonies du Soir Played by Nelson Freire
Schumann: Konzertstuck for 4 Horns Played by L’Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
Liszt: Dante Symphony Played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Liszt: Faust Symphony Played by the Orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire conducted by Ataulfo Argenta
Liszt: Les Preludes Played by the London Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations played by Stephen Kovacevich

At what point does a high-fallutin’ list like this cease to be bragging and become utterly obsessive? An appreciation for entertainment and culture is healthy, but to build every day of your life around it is an addiction - less damaging than drugs but no less potent.

I have the great luck of a secure job with an exceedingly light work load. In place of work-induced stress, I fill my days with creature comforts. I am a consumer like any other, it happens that the products I like are books, movies, TV, and music - much of which can be obtained in a library, on-demand, DVR’d or from a cheap streaming service. But I’m no less a slave to my luxuries than any other citizen of the 2011 world. The world is built around the ability of people exactly like me to consume. If we couldn’t consume on this level, even for a few months, the entire world would be plunged into a depression far larger even than what occurred in the 1930’s.

IX. The American Dictatorship

Earlier today, my father went on a diatribe about the utter parasitism of the fashion industry. Like me, my father is generally the least fashionable dresser imaginable. Unlike me, he’d prefer to live a frugal existence John Calvin would recognize. But I could not deny the validity of his point: from a purely utilitarian view, there is no discernible point to fashion except to keep its manufacturers in business. There are only so many clothes which one person needs in order to be comfortable. So if clothes cannot be sold for comfort, they must be sold for aesthetics. Buyers must be convinced that their clothes are aesthetically unsatisfactory, and they must be made to feel inadequate unless they have the newest clothes. How’s it done? Advertising, of course.

No matter what the product, it must be sold. If it weren’t, millions of people would lose their jobs. Therefore, there must be an arm of society whose job it is to make us feel as though we cannot live without what any business produces. If we were not continually made to feel as though we were lacking basic necessities, we would cease to buy. There begins the foundation of our identity: the richer we become, the more we buy. The more we buy, the more impoverished we feel. The more impoverished we feel, the more we feel the need to buy. The more we buy, the closer we draw to actual poverty.

What could the end result of this be but a mountain of debt? Our generation faces two great debt problems - one smaller , one larger. The small one is the $16 trillion deficit. Yes, the National Debt, now larger than the US’s GDP, is the smaller problem. If we raise taxes on the wealthy through the roof, cut defense spending through the floor and privatize industries that should never be privatized (roads, social security), America could pay the national debt in no time and be able to begin the cycle anew.

The larger problem is personal debt. A plurality of Americans ran hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit with money they don’t have. They then must pay the debts off with money and assets they don’t have. The banks know that these people have no money to pay interest on their loans (let alone the principle) so if banks loaned these people the money they lack, the banks would never see the money again. Perhaps some individuals can find their way out of this predicament with a mixture of hard work, good luck, and superhuman fortitude (I know a few who have quite admirably done exactly that). But there are only a few ways to solve this problem en masse:

1. Borrow still more money from other countries to loan the American people money to pay their private debts.
2. Further tax those who did not overspend to pay the debts of those who did.

Even the most (newly) prudent among American debtors will not be able to pay off their debts over the course of an entire lifetime. In either case, the US government will have find a way to pay approximately $50 trillion to rid the country of all private and public debts. Here's that figure again: $50 trillion, and growing.

The Dictatorship of America is spending. Debt is its secret police, advertising its propaganda ministry, and fashion (in a much broader sense than clothes) its gulag.

X. Jarndyce and Jarndyce

And the maintenance of civilization as we know it depends further on the places which provide employment growing larger and larger. If they do not, someone else will, and might eliminate them. In a perfect world, this would allow for perfect competition. In a properly regulated world, this would allow for imperfect competition. But when the survival of America’s finances is contingent on the big banks merging into only four separate entities (Citigroup: $1.194 trillion in total assets, Wells Fargo: $1.258 trillion, Bank of America: $2.264 trillion, JPMorgan Chase: $2.289 trillion) something must have gone extraordinarily wrong.

I can’t point to a single thing that caused the crisis. Don’t pretend you can either. The crisis caused by the sub-prime housing bubble could have been caused by a dozen different bubbles. Why didn’t the bursting of Tech Bubble cause a depression? Why hasn’t the Student Loan bubble burst yet? What would happen if it did?

No, the problem is far more general. I have no idea what it is, but surely the unchecked size of institutions themselves has something to do with it: banks, corporations (General Electric: $795 billion in assets), hospitals (New York-Presbyterian Hospital - 2,236 beds), and universities (University System of Ohio: 478,000 students) are each a turgid behemoth whose weight grows more unsustainably large with each passing month. Make no mistake, every one of these industries is a bubble in itself - containing dozens of weak spots that could cause them to burst at any point and take the well-being of millions with them.

There is only one organization capable of breaking them up, and that is the US Government. But the US Government is the largest behemoth of all - incapable of action without passing through hundreds of pages of improbable legal hurdles. Without an army of expert consultants and lobbyists to negotiate all the hurdles, government action would be impossible. And the very reason for the existence of these expert consultants and lobbyists is to help ensure that government action against their interests is impossible. And so they advocate for even larger hurdles so that special interests may do what they like without public interference, and so the assistance of consultants becomes still more necessary.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Piazzolla Moment

I love listening to Astor Piazzolla for ten minutes every six months. All those tangos blur together for me. It's like Stravinsky's comment that Vivaldi wrote the same violin concerto 400 times. Maybe I'm listening wrong.

In any event, Osvaldo Golijov's tribute to Piazzolla: Last Round, strikes me as much more creative.

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/2: Demotism



It’s now the ‘Information Age.’ As always in human history, every new technology turns out to be value-neutral. We hail it upon arrival for its ability to solve past problems, and like the idiots we are we’re always stunned when they create new ones.

Humans are fundamentally optimistic creatures, if we weren’t we’d have all long since committed suicide. As in all great transitions, we perceived the good in the age of computers and the internet well before we perceived the bad. We were told the world wide web would supposed to usher a new Golden Age in which we could learn everything we liked about any subject in the world. Indeed, it could be used for precisely that purpose; but it isn’t, human beings simply aren’t very curious. Far more often than the used to find information to increase our knowledge and wisdom, we use it to find information about each other (don’t lie, you do it, so do I). All you have to do is to open your eyes and ears and you can now hear whatever you like about other people. Is this a terrible thing? Probably, but who cares? We should all learn to stop worrying and love the Internet. Who wants to live their whole lives in fear? If you’d like to read damaging information about me, go to section II of Part 1. If I ever became particularly successful in any field of endeavor, people would find out anyway.

And because information is so much easier to broadcast in our era than any other in the history of mankind, it’s all too easy to think that human debasement and misery is particularly endemic to our time over every other. Every day we hear new reports of assault, child abuse and murder. American prisons house 2.3 million incarcerants (that's 1% of the adult population), another five million Americans are on parole and probation. Yet only 10% of reported crime results in conviction. Schools are the sites of more violent acts than most street corners, most perpetrated by one student against another. There are constant reports of mass murder and genocide in the news and media outlets, both right and left, encourage us to see fascism lurking in every corner of our communities. Before long, one might be convinced to believe your own family and friends to exhibit all the same traits held by Stalin and Hitler.

It’s all too possible for a more innocent cast of mind to believe our era particularly wretched, evil and monstrous. When else in history were there so many reports of such brutality on so massive a scale? But that’s precisely the problem: so much information yields findings of a terribleness to which no previous generation had access. Furthermore, anyone who counters with the assertion that the Twentieth Century was the bloodiest in human history is undeniably correct. Of course more people were killed, tortured, raped and maimed in the twentieth century than any other. There were more people to kill, torture, rape and maim.

It was all too easy to believe in the redemption of mankind in an age when every individual did not have to stare into the null void of his own brutality. Savagery was only something for infidels, believers used violence to cleanse. To hear of Muslims who impaled their victims on spikes were unspeakable horror, but to watch the infidels fry in Christendom was a Sunday’s entertainment. Perhaps our newfound realization that brutality is something universal to which every person must answer for his own beastliness can finally begin the hard work of cooling the molten core of our animal nature.

…..............probably not.

VI. A Digression on Liberalism

It’s impossible to be a liberal without a sense of irony. All one has to do is remember that old Robert Frost quote, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel,” - incidentally, Frost was a political conservative, as many progressives were who were born in the years after the Civil War.

But the ultimate irony of fancying yourself a liberal is something which none of us want to admit, myself as much as anyone. In order to pursue the most liberal results, we have to spend every day of our lives giving tacit acquiescence to some of the world’s most illiberal means.

We liberals dream of a utopia like any other utopia. One day, there will be an era in which everybody’s differences are tolerated, respected and celebrated. But if everyone’s individuality is celebrated, what does it mean to be an individual? We tell ourselves that each person is utterly unique, just like everybody else.

But there are two differences between liberalism and nearly every other political movement.

1. Liberals realize that every such attempt at establishing a perfect kingdom is folly. Nearly every form of conservatism has just such a perfect kingdom as its goal. Nearly every form of progressivism, socialism and communism has the exact same goal of a perfect union. Liberalism is almost unique in the regard that it resigns itself to the folly of trying to perfect the world. The only other movement which realizes this is the authoritarian paleo-conservatism of institutions like the Catholic Church, Absolute Monarchy and totalitarian dictatorship. Which brings us to difference #2.

2. Liberalism is an ideology of improvement, not perfection. The US Constitution realizes this, and in the very first sentence is the sentiment “in order to form a more perfect union.” Not perfect, more perfect. Liberals have resigned themselves to the tragedy that life’s agonies can never be eliminated. The difference between this sentiment and paleo-conservatism is that paleo-conservatism denies the very existence of these agonies; the world is already perfect. In Catholicism, the agonies of our world are merely a test for admittance into the perfect world to come. In absolute monarchy and dictatorship, the agonies of life are utterly preventable - submitting to the will of the leader will eliminate all of them, whereas defying the leader’s will will result in greater agony than can be borne.

Liberalism is the one such ideology for which no ‘out’ exists. A true liberal will believe that any set of principles will do in the struggle to establish a place that is just a little bit closer to a utopian ideal, including a plethora of authoritarian means. A conservative (a modern, libertarian one at least) will declare categorically that there is no justification for the government regulations of private enterprise, to allow it would be authoritarian. A socialist will declare just as categorically that there is no justification for government not regulating private enterprise, to disallow it would be authoritarian. A liberal will simply fold his arms, acknowledge that both are right, and agree to ‘Whatever works best.’ If either libertarians or socialists can produce categorically irrefutable proof that one side works better than the other, liberals would willingly accede to either. Unfortunately, no such proof yet exists to simplify our lives so greatly.

VII. Equality

It’s our banner issue. Equality in rights, equality in marriage, equality in employment, equality in entitlements, equality in ability. So long as the standard stays high, equality will always be a crucial thing for which to strive. But equality is the single hardest thing to define in American life. Anyone who wants to understand why the hard right in America has had such an easier time of it than the hard left need only look at the difference between defining liberty and equality.

Liberty is all too easily definable: don’t tread on me. Don’t tread on my earnings, don’t tread on my ownership, don’t tread on my speech, don’t tread on my community. When libertarians accuse the government of authoritarianism for demanding a tax, they’re absolutely right to do so. Incredibly stupid, but absolutely right. A certain amount of authoritarianism is necessary for the world to keep running, and occasionally the necessary authoritarian practices will become much more serious than a government co-opting a percentage of your money. And even if libertarians have allied with a religious right who hates the very idea of certain liberties - the bedroom and body particularly - it is a blatant hypocrisy that smacks of a convenience partnership to anyone with half a brain.

Equality is far, far more nebulous. The term ‘Equal pay for equal work’ is a perfect example: Equal Pay should be all-too-easily definable. But it isn’t. If one worker has a single child and another worker has three children and four nephews to feed, is the same wage still equal pay?

But equal work is a hundred times more fluid. Yes, the hours put in are equal, but how does one measure effort? Should a person receive the same hourly wage if they do less work? Surely, many on the left would argue that such an argument is a red herring. Most of the hardest workers in America are paid less than those who work less hard. And in most cases they would be right to make that argument. But even if it were true in every case, how could a social democrat explain this problem to a greater public which has no idea how hard the lowest rung of American society works and no desire to learn? Furthermore, anyone who believes that no work for large wages is never a problem should read about the public sector in Western Europe - particularly France, where there are multiple cases of civil servants who cannot be fired, in spite of not working a day in twenty years.

Equality is all too easy a concept to understand in a place like the USSR of Stalin or Mao’s China. Officially, the government would administer equal rations regardless of how people behaved. If people needed or wanted more, they would have to obtain their rations through illegal methods. If citizens broke the law, they might be punished brutally for it. If citizens did not break the law, there would be a roughly equal chance of their being brutally punished for it. But in a place where liberty is as important as equality, life becomes far more complicated.

And from this concept of equality flows all of our desires to endow every American citizen with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what if your rights come into direct interference with the rights of someone else? Whose rights are more important?

In today’s America, most of us (at least in the Blue States) believe that the government has a moral obligation to provide for its inhabitants’ welfare. And this means health care, social security, regulations for the workplace, consumer protection and protection from fraud. It also means funding for science, the arts, medical research, environmental protection, and education far beyond primary school. Furthermore, since there is an endless stream of people trying to get around government regulations, and a roughly equal number of people trying to point out others who are getting around government regulations, there must be a seemingly infinite number of courts to administer judgement for litigation.

Every one of these matters costs an enormous amount of money. And in today’s lexicon, the ultimate dividing line between a conservative and liberal is whether one believes, regardless of the reason, that all this government supervision is worth the near-incalculable financial cost it takes to ensure it. Especially when the traditional roles of government - military, police, road maintenance, mail, and law-making - cost more in themselves than ever in human history.

And so the battle rages on. In order to pay for all these matters, America used to tax its highest income bracket a marginal rate of ninety-four percent. That bracket now pays 35% of their total earnings with no marginal rate. Rather than tax America’s millionaires so heavily, the government decided to borrow that money from other countries like China so that the apparatus of government can stay functional.

In two years, America will have borrowed over $16 trillion in an effort to keep the world’s largest government running properly. At some point, America will have no choice but to pay off that debt while still trying administer the world’s largest government. If they do not, America will have to pay that debt while the world’s largest government is dismantled.

Quote of the Day:

Der Fersko: My memory is fuzzy
Didn't (Oliver) Stone say some gay guys and Ed Asner murdered Kennedy ?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

800 Words: My Generation - Part 1/1: Demotism


I. American Apparel

The 50’s never ended in Pikesville. Every child birthed here is a scion sworn at his Bar-Mitzvah to uphold the White Picket Eruv of the Jewish-American dream; a separate but greater than equal Jewish society of doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, realtors, executives, businessmen, stockbrokers, bankers and accountants.

The neighborhood begins right at the Pimlico Racetrack - at the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway. It goes down the Avenue for another dozen miles - well past Garrison Forest Road and trailing off into the neither regions of Baltimore County farmland. This road is the lifeblood of Jewish Baltimore; as important to us as The Nile to Egypt or The Vistula to Poles. In the fertile land that surrounds Park Heights Ave. lives 90,000 Jews with a median income well over $100,000 a household.

Only sixty years ago the entirety of this land belonged to a few farmers. In the meantime grew as perfectly realized a vision of the American dream as exists in the whole country. You may hear of crime in the area, but it never seems to happen to Jews. You may hear of drugs, but you’d have to go outside the neighborhood to find a mass supplier. You may hear of free love and extra-marital affairs, but they seem to be the ultimate exception that proves the rule, and the rule is this:

The 60’s never hit Pikesville. It is a place so bound by conventions, routine, and expectations that rebellion is virtually impossible within its town limits. The American Pastoral lasted for over half a century in Jewish Baltimore, and its an idyll well-deserved. No ethnic group save African-Americans paid for the American Dream in more blood, sweat and toil than Jews the world over. But there can only be two explanations for any community to experience the Postwar boom for nearly seven decades:

1. Jews were too new to America to yet se the problems that lurk within the American Dream.
2. The American Dream actually succeeded here.

For over a century, Jews worked in sweatshops, stores, factories and industry. And even those situations were preferable to the origins from whence they arrived. By the millions they left countries in which they were persecuted, discriminated, exploited and massacred. In their moments of deepest reverie, they must have dreamt of building a community exactly like Pikesville - a place where Jews could flourish free from want and molestation. It must have sustained them to have an idea that some distant ancestor might have a chance to build a community exactly like ours. And like all great dreams, perhaps the most damaging thing to happen to it was that it came true.

At the heart of our town lies the idea of a miniature America for Jews. As many subcultures of Jews live in Pikesville as there are ethnic subcultures: Modern Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitch, Messianic, Conservative, Reform, Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Soviet Emigre, Israeli emigre, Holocaust Survivors, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Italian, even (God help us) Republicans. In its microscopic way, Pikesville is as diverse as America itself. But now that the first Jewish generation raised North of the Pimlico Racetrack approach Social Security age, it suddenly finds itself as much a community in decline as its macroscopic counterpart. Baltimore can only decay for so long before its most promising children leave for better cities. The younger generation of Baltimore Jews never knew a time when Baltimore was not a dying metropolis. The best and the brightest of our generation are descending like flocks on New York, Boston, DC, even Philadelphia. Their grandparents slaved their way into the middle-class, but the grandparents had neither the money nor the connections to send their children to anything but state schools. Their parents slaved their way into the upper-middle class, and they did have the money and connections to send their children to Ivy League schools. Their children will be among the best and brightest of a city that can provide them with a greater future. In our generation more than any other, the average Jew has his and her chance to take a place among the world’s elite. From here, there is no mobility but down.

II. ...So much for partial disclosure....

Like all attempts at a perfect society, some people found Pikesville a prison. I suppose it’s no secret that I was one of them for a long, long time. We’re technically as unimpeachable a liberal town as any 90% Jewish demographic should be, with all the education and tolerance of a progressive community in the early 21st century. But like Red America, we have a nostalgia to recapture a moment of American innocence which lies fifty years in the past if it existed at all. The only difference lying between us and Red America is how successful we’ve recaptured it. But as with every lovely vision, it conceals some ugliness within.

For many years I couldn’t help hating this town, I had demons I couldn’t escape. So rather than escape the demons, I dreamed of escaping the place that birthed them. I suppose it was because like most members of my generation, I have a perverse sense of entitlement which no child should have.

In a certain way, I was horribly spoiled as a child. For a time, it looked as if I might be a child prodigy - possessing perfect pitch from the time I was three, not only able to pluck out once-heard melodies on the piano with my right hand but adding harmonies with my left. I learned algebra at a similarly early age, speaking fluent English and Yiddish (and even some Hebrew) by the time I was two, and by Kindergarten reading at a level many peers would not achieve until high school.

What can you do if you’re told that everything you do is wonderful, only to awaken one day to discover that everything you do is worse than the entire rest of the world? The memories are still as vivid as though it’s happening right now. When I was in third grade, I suddenly found myself unable to understand the first thing about the schoolwork I was assigned and bullied by other kids for being ‘slow’. It would take me an hour and a half to do ten simple math problems. Half the schooldays I’d arrive at school only to find that I didn’t remember most of the homework I had to do. I was screamed at by teachers simply for the zoning out in class which I could not prevent. I spent far more of my childhood than I care to admit hiding in bathroom stalls so that I couldn’t be humiliated by teachers and other students. All this probably sounds utterly trivial to most people. Perhaps it should, but few experiences could be more traumatic for a kid like me - I, Evan Tucker, told from birth by everyone I ever met that I was a changeling whose intellect would set the world on fire, am in fact a mentally disabled person: ADHD, severe executive function disorder, severely impaired spatial reasoning skills and some indefinable Personal Developmental Disorder that is neither Asperger’s Syndrome nor any form of Autism. I began third grade thinking I was the smartest peson I knew, and ended it knowing I was the very dumbest, and would be so for the rest of my life.

However trivial it may seem to an outsider, trauma like that stays with you. No matter how hard you try to forget, some things cannot be forgotten. A third of a lifetime later, I can say as a definitive pronouncement that these ‘issues’ have stalked me in every endeavor I’ve attempted. Thanks to impaired spatial reasoning, I never successfully learned math at any higher level than I’d known when I was in pre-school. As a result, I came within a hare’s breath of failing my musical Harmony or Counterpoint courses, subjects whose rules my perfect pitch made me understand implicitly. Thanks to my lack of organization, I could never get Voices of Washington off the ground - even if you get a thousand details right as a director, the thousand-first will ruin everything. It’s why I was rejected by every music graduate school to which I ever applied. It’s probably the reason I look ten years past my actual age. It resulted in two decades of daily fights with major depression, medication that at times caused me to be a hundred pounds overweight, a grab bag of unpreventable facial tics, and enough panic attacks to give me the daily chest pains of a man my weight but a quarter century my senior.

But what can one do? Experiences like mine don’t kill your drive to succeed, they amplify hunger for achievement by a factor of millions. And that very hunger is self-fulfilling, killing off whatever chance you’d have for stumbling your way to success because you feel a compulsive need to control everything about your life lest more failure creep its way in. It isn’t enough simply to write music, the first draft has to be a Mahler Symphony. It isn’t enough simply to form a theater group or conduct a choir, it has to turn upside down every expectation of what art can do. It isn’t ego that drives this need, for ego would imply a self-belief in any chance of success. It is insecurity which tells me that nothing except for the exceptional is worth pursuing, and everything else in your life is proof of the ‘disabled’ label.

This label delivered me to years spent dreaming for the day I could escape the environs of my birthplace for a place that could appreciate a person like me for who I am. It delivered me to decades of poisonous anger to anyone who dares find my disorganization to be ‘funny’ or a flaw in character. It delivered me to a lifetime of cancerous jealousy for anyone to whom achievement comes easily; two lifetimes of longing for precisely the type of hyper-achieving ‘resume girl’ who would run screaming in the other direction at the mere mention of my name lest my unbounded record of failures rub off on her; and three lifetimes of intellectual insecurity which drives me to hear every piece of music, see every movie, and read every book lest the world discover that I’m exactly as stupid as I look.

As far as genuine problems go, this is all pretty trivial. I’m not blind or deaf, I’m neither mentally challenged nor have I autism, I’m neither an addict nor an alcoholic (well...probably not...). I have had as difficult a life as a very easy life can be. And I know very well that I’m far from the worst case of failure to live up to the vision this town affords. Every month I seem to hear a new story of someone about town involving suicide, overdose, prison sentence, corruption, abortion, or abuse. Pikesville is a wonderful vision if you can live up to it. But it is a town like any other, subject to all the same chaos and the same problems that cannot be controlled.

III. The Malcolm Gladwell Chapter Generator

We live in an era of niches.

In today’s world, a person can go through his entire life listening to a single genre of music and never know of the riches that exist within another. Whether your genre is classical, reggae, hip-hop, punk, or the rich folk traditions of your particular region or country, you can go through every day of your life and only associate with the hundred-thousand people who like the exact same music you do if you so choose. Short of language itself, music has become the most ghettoizing, separatist force in everyday life.

Similarly, it has become all too easy to read only what you like. If you don’t like high literature, that’s OK because you can read science fiction. Don’t like Sci-Fi? That’s OK too, you still have fantasy. Wait, you don’t like Fantasy? That’s fine, you can read thrillers. But you don’t like to read? Sure, why not? We have graphic novels! Writers can do compelling work in each genre, and many often do, but how many people will ever know about them?

It’s not just a question of genre, it’s a question of nations themselves. European colonies have long since declared their independence, but even the leftover European nation-states now want their independence. Wales and Scotland now have their own separate parliaments from Great Britain. Among the French; Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, and Corsicans all demand varying degrees of autonomy from the government. Italy’s unstable governments forever produce talks about dividing the northern half of the country from the southern. Similar talks also occur between the North and South of Belgium, as does further talk about separatism among Basques, Catalans and Occitans in Spain. Germany is forever in talks about how to revive an East that still looks at the security of the Communist era with nostalgia. And that’s only in Western Europe, one of the world’s most stable regions. Civil wars rage continuously around the world for the sole purpose of separating one group of people from another. Freud’s old phrase, “the narcissism of minor differences,” means as much today as it ever has in human history.

Will people ever learn about and respect one another’s differences unless they have to? Is the price of cooperation worth the payment? Is unification only possible by authoritarian means? Is there a way to teach people to respect one another’s differences without the use of force?

IV. The Road to Peondom

Like everyone reading this, I am a product of my generation. We've been trained from birth to believe that individual freedom, due process, the needs of the few - negative liberties - far outweigh the need for unity, equality and the right to security - positive liberties. To be sure, all of these positive liberties are important, but the empirical evidence that we have (or that we choose to see) shows that a society is better off protecting the rights of the individual rather than the rights of the group. One day, sooner than we may know, that evidence could change. If the individual rights of America prove unable to protect us from fear or want, I think we would all surprise ourselves with how many infringements on personal liberties we’d endure without protest. Sooner than we can fathom, America could turn into a country much more like China.

How a nation becomes one like modern-day China is a topic for another chapter. But a nation has to be one like modern-day America before it becomes China. Instead, we are a nation which strives in every way to protect, defend and increase the freedom of the individual. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. But in the future we may pay dearly for this effort.

What is the greatest motivation for inspiring people to work together for a common good? I have no idea as to the answer to this question, but I would suspect that somewhere near the top would rank ‘shared characteristics’. But in order to perceive shared characteristics in someone else beyond skin color and creed, you first would have to learn things about them. You would have to learn that these people who seem so different love their children and want them to do well just as we do. You would have to learn that they enjoy art, jokes, sports, games, sex and one another’s company just as we do. You would have to learn that these people have developed their own separate history, culture and means to solve problems which worked for them even if it wouldn’t for us. And if no one ever teaches you those things, someone may one day teach you that these people do not love their children, have no culture, and do not enjoy themselves. And since they do none of the above, that would make them unlike you and not subject to the same rules of how you would treat one of your own.

But one of the great ironies of my generation’s education is that in our parents’ desire to make us free to fulfill our own potentials - in whatever direction they go - we may be as ill-equipped a generation to understand our potential as any in American History. In an era when public schools get lower subsidies than at any point since the 1920’s, when private schools care less for education than athletics, and when lunatics with a half-baked idea can receive a grant for a charter school that espouses the latest educational fad, we do not share more culture with our peers, we share less. In our parents’ desire to expose us to a broader cultural framework, we may have been exposed to less culture than ever. The history we share is usually taught poorly, and when taught with care is taught with hundreds of different interpretations. Who can deny that many of our generation don’t see the point of learning history at all? And since we were taught by a generation of teachers who saw little point in learning about history, who can blame us?

But the ultimate beneficiary of these change in educational philosophy is precisely kids like me. My acceptance into American University was contingent on admitting myself into a learning disabled program that was disbanded a year after my arrival. I graduated an honors student. How did I do it? I took as many electives as possible, avoided subjects and professors I didn’t like, and chose a major that didn’t have a single tenure-track professor until two years after I chose it.

As in everything else in my life, I got through college mostly by being an autodidact. I was left to my own devices, and hardly anybody oversaw my education. If my education were overseen in any real way, there is no question in my mind that I’d have failed out. My success does not indicate the success of our education system, it indicates the system’s failure. An LD kid like me should never have been able to graduate college. The education system was broadened so that kids like me could have a chance at success, but in the process it may have ruined the chances of success for everybody else.

Werner Herzog on French

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Schoenberg and the Teletubbies

Together as they always should have been.

Pierrot Lunaire just got creepier... from Daniel Capo on Vimeo.

h/t TC, LB and La Cieca.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Housekeeping Note

I shall be leaving for Boston in the morning. I had grand plans for an essay today that would be a grand statement upon the state of my/our generation, perhaps tying in Jacques Barzun, Slavoj Zizek, Reinhold Neibuhr, Christopher Hitchens, How I Met Your Mother and the wedding in Central Massachusetts which I'm attending this weekend. Hopefully the muse shall wait until there is time....probably not....

Blogging shall resume at redoubled efforts upon my return.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

800 Words: Excerpts from the Private Diary of Gilad Shalit

Pesach 2013: I write this entry from the Presidential Suite of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. In the next room over has lain Ariel Sharon and his feeding tube. Amazingly, there is no malnutrition, no broken bone, no hygenic infection and no torture wound that results in my stay this time. I am merely here for Cirrhosis and the dozen strands of venereal disease I’ve acquired in the last fourteen months. Apparently the malnutrition of my stay in Gaza has depleted my immune system, so all the sex I’ve been having gave me AIDS-like symptoms - even if by some miracle I don’t actually have HIV. The doctors asked me to recall how many girls I’ve slept with since returning, I can only guess a number that is roughly a hundred seventy-five. At first it was awesome, there was always a girl wherever I go: at government events, HaPoel games, backstage at concerts, bars, parties, interview sets, even walking down the street. It’s amazing that a guy like me could ever be in this position. Even before prison, I was just a bony little sports nerd who joined the combat unit to buff up and get women to notice me. Just eighteen months ago, my only experience amounted to some handjobs from a high school girlfriend and a few times with a prostitute during off-duty nights. Well they certainly notice me now, but at this point sex just feels like just another official responsibility - if I refuse anything, people will get pissed.

I guess there’s something good in every misfortune, at least that’s what I ought to tell myself - now as then. In this case, its taken a hospital stay to give me the first chance in a year to spend real time with my parents. At least my siblings can come with me to all the concerts and afterparties, but how many appearances at a Dag Nachash concert or Betar games can Abba and Ima take? They need to re-establish their business - and after all those years spent camping in front of the prime minister’s house and the money spent hiring PR to influence leaders to act, they have to work like dogs if they ever want to retire - and they need me to work too. Their lives were devastated nearly as badly as mine, and they purchased my freedom with life as they knew it. So if my family ever wants to return to something resembling regular life, they need me out as a public figure earning money for us all: the commercial endorsements have to keep up, the interviews on television, the official appearances for the government. Even if they say that I don’t need to do any of this, my family has five years of life to make up for, so I will probably have to keep being ‘Gilad Shalit’ for at least another five.

I never cease to be amazed at how easily this all came to me. One night I went to bed awaiting death, the next morning I was told that I was arriving home my country’s hero. What they call rehabilitation was a joke. I found myself exactly the same ‘Gilad’ as I was six years ago. My family was always there, friends visited me daily, physical therapists were always on call and even the press respected some distance. The only thing that got me nervous was the interlopers who mobbed the cars whenever I had to leave for tests at the hospital.

I’d have never realized it at this time last year, but home is hundreds of times easier than crowds. After those first five months, I was like a lion let loose into the wild kingdom. I’m still scared to ride buses, turn the keys to a car, or even walk down the street. But every one of those experiences were exhilarating - as though you were walking down the street with no clothes. Here I am, regularly among people for the first time in five years, and at any moment they could be coming back for me....I know that’s it? But what can you do? You accustom yourself to the thought that each day will probably be your last, so every new risk seems like another ‘fuck you’ to the jailers. Even if only once, I have survived death, and they can never take that away.

Tisha B’Av 2015: Today was the low point. Some rider walked right up to me and started screaming. It all happened so fast that I couldn’t tell whether he was going to physically accost me before the security detail restrained him. But I did hear him say: ‘What did you live for if we’re all going to die?’ Every time I hear something like that, I feel the need to be seen in public more often. Still, I can’t say I disagree with his point.

It’s nearly four years and forty-seven hundred more Israeli civilian casualties later - suicide bombings, bus hijackings, proxy bombs, drivers who run over pedestrians, qossam and ketushah rockets, letter bombs, mass shootings. A hundred Israeli soldiers detained in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Egypt forever on the brink of a government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood from which they can create a base in Gaza to launch dirty bombs (or worse) into Israel. Southern Lebanon and Gaza seeming to be under the conditions of a permanent war that could flair into a regional conflict at any moment: in the last three years, seven-to-eight thousand civilian casualties on both borders from Israeli fire. What relief could it be to me that Hamas and Hezbollah have killed just as many civilians when so many say that all these problems can be traced back to my release.

Even if that doesn’t seem fair, who am I to tell these people that they’re wrong? Clearly, it was Netanyahu’s plan to use the exchange as an excuse to go into Gaza and kill as many of the most dangerous prisoners he gave up as possible. And there began the war that’s still going. Even Adi refers to it as the ‘Gilad War.’ I always laugh when she does....

Chanukah 2018: Well, it finally happened. You can go into a bathroom stall five-thousand times only to find on the five-thousand-first that the stall reminds you of your jailcell and for the realization to cause you to faint. I can’t be too surprised by this. No matter how many times Adi tells me that I scream in my dreams, I don’t remember any of it. That’s all I want to say about this matter.

Purim 2023: I’m in Geha Psychiatric Hospital. Twelve years and it’s my first ever breakdown. I was on the phone and wasn’t paying attention to Zvi, who probably only wanted to tell me something about Moshe Oofnik. But I couldn’t pay attention, so the little pisher bit me. What could I do, I suddenly felt a huge wave of anger. Given how I was feeling, it’s amazing that I only hit him once. But he still has a bruise from it. Seeing the bruise a few hours later was much too much for me. I literally fell to the floor in front of him and started wailing as though my son were dead. For two days I was inconsolable before Adi and Ima decided I needed to go to the hospital. In a single moment of rage, I may have become Zvi’s captor. Life will never be the same again.

Sukkot 2023: As my dreams are getting increasingly vivid, Dr. Atzmon has asked me to keep a diary of my dreams.

Erev Rosh Hashana: I’m shackled in irons on a bus while a captor beats me and a crowd chants ‘Rotzeach’ (murderer). I then see an explosion in slow motion that incinerates everyone. I see myself on fire but I do not burn. I step outside the burning bus and I see that the bus is straddled on the Gaza Strip Barrier and thousands of people are looking up from either side. I tell them that the wall needs to be much higher, and suddenly the wall grows exponentially. Just as it reaches a cloud, it breaks off, and I plummet to earth, crushed by the wall and the burning bus.

Erev Tzom Gedaliah: I’m in a pit with hundreds of people looking down on me from above. They’re laughing at me, some of them are trying to drop rocks on me, but the rocks turn into rain. Somebody throws me a giant rope to climb out. I’m halfway up when the rope turns into a snake. After I reach the top, there’s Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barack, announcing that they’ve sold me to a Palestinian souk dealer in exchange for a bowl of soup. I look down at my hand and suddenly every bone in it is broken again. I turn around for one last look at the hole and turn into a statue.

Erev Shabbat Shuvah: I’m deep underwater, unable to breathe. The waters part and I’m on a dry shore with water a thousand feet high facing me on either side. A rock falls from the sky and a donkey suddenly appears to tell me that I should talk to it: it makes me mad I throw the rock at him. He responds ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ and the waters crash on us.

Erev Yom Kippur: I’m back at my Gaza jail. The sun has not risen for all week. I hear millions of footsteps marching around the jail. Every day this happens until the seventh day, when the walls of the jail collapse. I’m put into a chariot of fire which carries me through the air to my home, but just as I see home, the chariot turns around. It reaches Tel Aviv and then past the shore, the chariot then turns upside down and deposits me in the water. I’m then swallowed by a whale, the whale spits me out onto the shore near Yarkon Park. I begin my walk home, but the earth opens up and swallows me.

Hannukah 2028: I’m leaving Adi. She refuses to admit it, but it’s the best thing for her and the best thing for the kids. It’s probably the best thing for me too. Adi won’t have to put up with knowing that I’m out late because I’m drunk and screwing around, Zvi, Lelli and Noam won’t have to put up with regularly watching their parents fight and their father break a different piece of furniture every week. I’d like to think that I’m not leaving Adi for anybody. The official line will of course be that the military career is too much work. But everybody who knows us knows what a crock of shit that is. By the time I came back, I was already too old and stressed to train for another career. The army was extremely happy to hear that I was re-enlisting to train as an officer. Obviously, my graduation from officer training was a national event. But by now it’s clear I may not even make Colonel, let alone General. Is this the life I left Gaza for?

Purim 2033: Oh my god I’ve been elected to the Knesset. Gilad Shalit MK, 23rd on the Likud list, deemed by Yediyot a likely fast riser, and with seats on the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee and the Education Culture and Sports. In four months I’m getting married to Dafna, thank god I was there at that school play so that Yael could introduce me to the older sister of her friend. Dafna is the best thing to ever happen to me. All in all, this is as good as life can get.

Rising fast is all too easy for somebody like me. Long before I was in prison my eyes would glaze over whenever there’s a political argument. Life is too short not to find the common ground between people. People have always asked me to give opinions about what Israel should do, but I have very few. I just think people should find common ground and try to come up with solutions. When they asked me to run, I simply said what the party officials told me to say. What does it matter?

Shavuot 2043: Why, oh why, did I ever run for Prime Minister? Whoever told me that that was a good idea should be thrown into my old cell. It’s bad enough to have your record in prison called into question, but when your own children tell you that their friends called you a ‘collaborator’ and a stooge to your jailers is the moment when you know that you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake. I know that I told them nothing about strategic locations when I was in captivity, but when the entire rest of the party will do anything it can to prevent your election, I have no way of proving that. Those Likudniks will believe anything they’re told so long as it makes them scared.

So back to rank-and-file Knessetry I go. And honestly, it's exactly where I want to be. Other people might find it a boring job, but really, I was born for this. Believe it or not, all those basketball stats I used to memorize as a kid were perfect preparation for being a policy wonk. No other Likud MK seems much interested in facts. For all sorts of reasons, I can now be the public figure who keeps this posse of demagogues in check.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Darth Vader's Original Voice

Apparently David Prowse was quite pissed when his voice was replaced. Self-delusion can be very sad.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Quote of the Day:

Der Fersko: At the Bachelor Party
I plan to re-enact ken burns's prohbition
A limited engagement
From 3 AM - 3:15 AM

800 Words: A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks: The Good Stuff from Rossi to Mendelssohn - Oh God This Is Getting Longer

(Al Naharot Bavel - By The Waters of Babylon. By Salamone Rossi)

And so out we came from the Ghetto at no more than a trickle. We see signs of a Jewish musical culture to rival any Goyishe claim as early as the 16th century. Out of the hundreds of musical masters to come out of the musical Rennaisance, the Jews produced
exactly one. The Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi wrote absolutely gorgeous polyphonic motets with Hebrew texts from the Old Testament. If one were a music lover who couldn’t tell the difference between Hebrew or Italian, one might assume Al Naharot Bavel a Gesualdo madrigal. Rossi was a court musician in Mantua, but his family almost certainly originated from Venice’s once-thiriving Jewish community. Indeed, he and his sister were both friends with Venice’s greatest contributor to musical history: Claudio Monteverdi. That a court musician like Rossi could be openly Jewish and write devotional music for the glory of his religious minority is a development not to be repeated for three-hundred years.

(An Adon Olam of which Palestrina would be proud)

However long it took for Italian Jews to be accepted by the rest of Italy, it took far longer in Eastern Europe. Italy had a large and consistent Jewish presence since the Flavian Dynasty. To this day, the Italian Jewish community exists as a genealogy utterly apart from the rest of Judaism - neither Sephardi or Ashkenazi. But if Italian Jewry stretches back to the Roman Empire, Eastern European Jewry can only trace its roots to the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne admired the industry of Jews and therefore invited the gumptious Hebrews to settle in towns upon the banks of the Rhine. As a result, the emancipation of German Jews was correspondingly later.

(Giacomo Meyerbeer - Psalm 91: Qui in manu Dei requiescit)

There is always something about musical achievement that always seems to occur later in history than other branches of the humanities. By 1870, Impressionist painters were scandalizing Parisian galleries while salons were still stuck on Saint-Saens’s gold-plated neo-classicism - Debussy was still a small child. Goethe and Jean Paul lit the way toward Romantic literature while Haydn and Mozart were still sounding the notes of high classicism. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that while the intellecual emancipation of German Jewry begins in the mid-18th century with Moses Mendelssohn, the musical emancipation of German Jews does not occur until the mid-19th century with Felix Mendelssohn, Moses’s grandson - more on him in two minutes.

(Wagner in embryo. The Coronation March from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete - the first piece I ever played in an orchestra.)

But before the 19th-century emancipation of the Jewry which Germany found so crucial in its development into a world power, we must stop for a brief but welcome sojourn in Paris. As the French always have been in matters of principle, 19th-century Parisians were at the very vanguard of progress as far as Jews were concerned, and as always they were nowhere near the progressives they thought themselves to be. In the early 19th century, there were not one but two eminent Jewish composers of Grand Opera. One of them was the much-feted Giacomo Meyerbeer, who practically invented the term ‘Grand Opera’ and was a Peter Jackson for his day - a composer of the grandest stage entertainments Paris had ever seen. His operas are gluttonous displays of orchestral muscle, virtuoso singing and grand choral fanfares which call for the tackiest, most exotic possible stage sets - all with nary a three-dimensional character to be found. His operas are synthetic as motor oil, as dated to our ears as C.B. DeMille is to our eyes.

(Il Crociato in Egitto - some typically grand Meyerbeer)

One of the very first people to notice how artificial was his music was one Richard Wagner. In the early 1840’s, Wagner was a talented but penniless musician living in Paris who spoke not a word of French. By 1840, the German-born Meyerbeer was an extremely wealthy man and quite generous to other musicians whom he felt displayed promise. Meyerbeer so highly esteemed Wagner’s potential that he personally recommended Wagner’s opera Rienzi for the Dresden Opera - a premiere that would the first (and financially the greatest) success of his career. Wagner repaid that debt by anonymously publishing an tract called ‘Judaism in Music’ in which Wagner took Meyerbeer to task for ‘Judaizing’ opera with hours of empty bombast, artificial plots, superficial characters and facile spectacle. In the forty years after Meyerbeer’s friendship proved so key to Wagner’s success, Wagner paid Meyerbeer a much more fitting tribute by writing operas of empty bombast, artificial plots, superficial characters and facile spectacle. Incidentally, Wagner also reserved some time in his infamous pamphlet for the only musician he hated more than Meyerbeer, the "detestable" Felix Mendelssohn; but more on him in one minute.

(Mime and Siegfried. The German ideal alongside the Wagner’s archetypal Jew.)

As befits a stranger in a strange land, Meyerbeer’s operas all seem to focus their plots on the theme of tolerance. The typical Meyerbeer plot will include (among many other things) an oppressed minority group at the mercy of the majority. Whether intentional or not, Meyerbeer’s Jewishness may have made him particularly sympathetic to the plight of the ‘other,’ a plight which the other eminent Jewish composer of his era addressed far more frankly. Whereas he pecunious Meyerbeer was the son of great wealth long before he made money himself, Fromental Halevy was the mere son of a cantor. Halevy was not only born to modest means, but he died in near-penury - forced his life long to support himself as a professor and musical administrator. He did, however, achieve two great successes in his career. The first was an opera called La Juive (The Jewess) - an opera praised as one of the very greatest not only by Mahler but by Wagner himself. It’s medieval plot, like all opera plots, is a bit far fetched; but the plot deals with the impossibility of love between Christians and Jews, and the horrific persecution which Jews endured in the Middle Ages. At its center is the character of Eleazar, the Jewish goldsmith who watched his sons executed as heretics. In order to save his daughter’s life, he must confess that his beloved daughter is not his biological daughter but is in fact the daughter of the very man who sent his sons to their deaths. In his despair, he sings one of the greatest opera arias ever written:

(Rachel, quand du Seigneur...Rachel, as God gave me to you...)

The ability to create something as wrenchingly sad as this seven minutes of music takes not only talent but immense training, luck and knowledge of life’s suffering. It’s a combination inherently difficult to gain, and Halevy never managed it again. Whereas Meyerbeer possessed an infinite supply of money and ease to put his talent in the service of grand entertainment for fifty years, Halevy only once gathered the means to develop his still greater talent into the creation of a great work of art. Never again did he manage to set the world afire. But part of his legacy was to bequeath the world a pupil who very much did.

(The most famous duet in all opera...from an opera people still don’t know)

Over the years, Halevy taught various musical subjects to most of French music’s greatest lights of the mid-19 century. But no light among them was so great as Halevy’s prize pupil, to whom he grew closer than any other student. The student was Georges Bizet, the greatest musical talent of his generation from any country. And Bizet grew so close to Halevy and his family that he married Halevy’s daughter Genevieve. After Halevy’s death Bizet completed his final opera, Noe. Six years after Halevy’s death, Bizet’s followed. In the intervening six years, he bequeathed the world (along with a number of still neglected works) Jeux d’enfants, L’Arlessienne, and Carmen. Meyerbeer's legacy to our day is Wagner, Halevy's is Bizet. I know who I prefer...

(Is it completely insane to wonder if Bizet based the Chanson Boheme on memories of watching the Halevy family dance the Hora?)

...and I didn't even get to Mendelssohn...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Im Walde

One of Schubert's finest. h/t to the wonderful Classical Iconoclast for planting the seed in my head.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Quote of the Day:

The McBee: It's often occurred to me that the entire appeal of classical music based on f*cking with people.

Friday, October 14, 2011

800 Words: My Mom's Favorite Beatle - Part 1 of ???

The sweet girls loved Paul. The bookish girls loved John. The party girls loved Ringo. No girl loved George, except apparently my mother. How could any girl love that extremely British looking kid with an underbite, big ears and a unibrow? But true to the contrarian streak that nearly everyone in my family seems to share, the fact that no other girl loved George made him that much more loveable to Mom.

George was the youngest, but he seemed like the adult Beatle - that may have been a completely undeserved reputation, but it was how he came off. He seemed as smart as John, but without his head in the clouds; as polite as Paul, without the maudlin sensitivity; as macho as Ringo, but utterly without Ringo’s bravado. George’s quietness was like a blank slate upon which people could paint whatever qualities they wished to see.

This is not a post about their music. That will wait for when I’m not intimidated by a subject on which everybody’s a bigger expert than me. Everybody else was listening to The Beatles in utero, I found them at twenty-seven. In fact, I want to stay as far away in this post from any musical aspect of The Beatles as possible. Like most converts, I have the unquestioning credulity about great non-classical music of someone who was once a non-believer. I’m still worried that I don’t understand my reactions and will proclaim something as a masterpiece that bores me, or worse still, pronounce something boring that I later surrounds me as the masterpiece it is. Until I know a third as much about rock music as I do about classical, I don’t think I’m ready to be a reliable judge of The Beatles.

So this is not a post about music. This post is purely about coming to terms what The Beatles meant for millions of girls like Mom, for millions of students like Dad, and for millions of their kids like me who grew up only with stories of Beatle fever - learning to appreciate their music but never understanding how they could once meant so much to so many.

Furthermore, too much of our appreciation of Rock Music is grounded in religious terms that it’s dangerous to analyze it without getting too enamored by the grandiosity of its scale. All you have to do is read any Greil Marcus book or Rolling Stone profile to see how lazy and easy it is to pretend that Rock Music is a substitute for religion; Bob Dylan is inevitably a ‘prophet,’ Madonna inevitably a ‘goddess.’ But the more one listens to Rock, particularly British Rock, the more one realizes that without religion, how could this music exist? Unless you’re willing to slather yourself in the excitement of worship and surrender yourself to the idea that you’re just another brick in the wall, there is little point to sixties rock. The Beatles might allow for critical distance that allows you to keep your head even in the most heady passages, so might Van Morrison or The Beach Boys, but the Stones surely don’t and neither do the Velvet Underground or The Doors. A Day in the Life might seem just as great a song if you heard it sung by a hippie in a coffeehouse, but could Turd on the Run ever seem like a great song if it weren’t played at 105 decibels? So why listen to Robert Plant sing the blues in an age when we can hear Billie Holiday or Mississippi John Hurt whenever we want? Can the exhilaration of Pete Townshend rocking out compare to the visceral thrills provided by James Brown (or Leonard Bernstein)? It’s one thing to experience Ozzie or Pink Floyd in in a stadium, but to listen to them at home is a burden too great to bare.

What makes the music work is religious revelation - you don’t have to be from the Frankfurt School to see that. The Beatles persuade, the Stones command, but both demand the same ecstatic out-of-body experience (at least live). The very musical structure of Rock is the structure of religious revelation; with rhythms, melodies, lyrics and messages that require no critical faculties to be loved. And it’s all pitched at a single dynamic level: a fortissimo louder than anything by Bruckner. A single guitar with three chords now creates more volume than a Symphony of a Thousand - made possible by the development of electronic amplification; the single most important musical discovery since the invention of polyphony. What is the religion of 60’s music? Perhaps nothing more than music itself. But it is the most revolutionary new music in a millennium, and it forces us to relearn everything we ever thought we knew about it. From a certain point of view, The Sixties was just an ecstatic celebration of new music.

Is it art? Well...yes....BUT...

The bad stuff certainly isn’t. Bad classical isn’t art either. But most bad classical music has long since disappeared from the concert circuit (along with some extraordinary stuff). But we hear the bad music of the pop world every day of our lives. Bad music must be endured, good music must be found. And the very decrepitude of the classical music world ensures that only the stuff worth saving is worth the time to perform. Let’s face it, most music sucks. Most professional musicians are ordinary, unhappy people who give their lives to music because there isn’t enough joy in their lives to make a dull, stable job worth the time for them to commit.

But that’s the miracle of The Beatles: four not particularly extraordinary musicians came together, made some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, and simultaneously withstood a celebrity and worship unprecedented in world history. The overriding question of The Beatles’ story is not what might have happened had they stayed together, but how they stayed together at all.

I suppose it should go without saying, but The Beatles really are the historical dividing line between the old world and the world we now live in. When Philip Larkin wrote those famous opening lines from Annus Mirabilis: Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterly ban/And The Beatles’ first LP, he was clearly limiting himself to sex. But in Larkin's case, sex was a metaphor for the larger divides between an old way of perceiving the world and a new one. But the dividing line between the old world and new wasn’t sex - a subject every era thinks they’re the first to discover. It was, however, certainly the most important year for the creation of our world - the year which the postwar illusion that America solved the world’s problems soured definitively. Until ‘63, it was all too simple for most people in the West: America was the side of the angels, and those who opposed The American Way opposed the path of virtue. Could The Cuban Missile Crisis been allowed to happen if Americans did not believe with such Messianic force in the rightness of their worldview? But a Cuban Missile Crisis could never have happened after ‘63. 1963 was the year of the Kennedy Assassination, of The Feminine Mystique, of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington, of Diem’s assassination and Vietnam’s first public self-immolation, of Medgar Evers’s murder and John XXIII’s death. It is the dividing line between the confident, healthy vision of America we only recognize from Mad Men and the distressed, infirm America we know so well.

It certainly was a more innocent time. Until their era, The Beatles were certainly the most overly managed group in Rock History. But when they declared in interviews that they were not overly managed, you have to believe them. During their touring years, they were never presented as anything but what they were: four working class adolescents who didn’t quite understand why people loved them so much. The banter between The Beatles onstage and in interviews could not be manufactured. In their early days, publicists could simply put them in front of a microphone and let The Beatles do their work for them. The exchanges always bespeak an electric chemistry, but they cause us to wonder all the more... How was there once a moment in history where four unextraordinary seeming guys could create the music that defines our lives simply by being themselves?

Like so much great art, it was forged in competition: John vs. Paul, Paul vs. John, George vs. John and Paul, John vs. Dylan, Paul vs. Brian Wilson, George vs. Clapton, Beatles vs. Beach Boys, Beatles vs. Stones, Beatles vs. the Who. The competition could be as friendly as it was ferocious, but it was an age forged in a caulderon in which hundreds of talented people were thrown together. The twentieth century did not see a more fruitful decade for music of all kinds than the sixties.

But the great paradox of the music is that a music so devoted to surrendering one’s individuality could only be created with the friction and tension that occurs between many strong personalities. As happens with the music of all epochs, the further distance we get from Swingin’ London, the more all of its music begins to resemble each other. But at the time, Paul and John seemed like diametric opposites in people’s minds, as did The Beatles and The Stones, as did culture and counter-culture.

But all of those fights, between culture and counter-culture, or establishment and rebellion, seemed to play out on every possible scale. Paul wanted a rock that could comfort and soothe while John wanted a Rock that could climb every flight of imagination. Together, Paul and John wanted a vision of Rock that could bring the world together, Mick and Keith wanted a vision of Rock that could divide the infidels from the faithful.

The famed rock critic, Robert Christgau, made the amazing observation that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had diametrically opposed views of Rock, and their views were based on the class system. The Beatles’s view of Rock was that of poor working kids wanting to ‘make it,’ whereas The Rolling Stones’s vision was of upper class art-school kids wanting to slum. If you played most Beatles songs on a piano, they wouldn’t sound out of place in a cocktail lounge alongside Cole Porter’s and Rogers & Hammerstein’s. If you played most Rolling Stones songs on an acoustic guitar at half-tempo, they would be redolent of a guitarist at a smelly dive bar who plays Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. They were the twin polls of their time, with an angel’s symbiotic relationship to a devil - a relationship of two equally talented contemporaries in which one spurs the other to higher ground: like the relationship of Chopin to Liszt, or Ellington to Basie.

But they weren’t quite contemporary. By the time the Stones arose to their current eminence, The Beatles had retired to Abbey Road - issuing the sounds of a new world from on high. But in the minds of music lovers, it was the Stones who took their place as the live show of the world’s affections. A generation of children had grown into spiritual adolescence, and had outgrown their need for a god. The difference between the concerts was like the difference between two ends of a Bosch triptych. Beatles concerts seemed like a revivalist tent - full of ecstatic screaming and speaking in tongues while Jesus and Paul gazed immovably from their stations at the microphone. But Stones concerts were like pagan orgies presided over by living gods, ultra-kinetic androgynes who broke down barriers which suddenly seemed unnecessary: masculine was joined with feminine, modernist joined with primitivist, and most importantly the spiritual fused with the erotic. With The Beatles, you were never sure if the adulation was religious or sexual. With the Stones, you realized that they were one and the same.

By 1967, most of The Beatles’ generation was in college, and when they weren’t off protesting they wanted music. The Beatles had opened a new soundworld to them, the soundworld existed before The Beatles, but never to such enormous reach. The albums of their later years were not only listened to more reverently than any music since Wagner, but they gave far more to their listeners than Wagner ever did: the diversity of a whole world integrated into a single album. A scope this broad and generous had not been heard within a single piece of music since a Mahler symphony. This was not just art, it was great art.