Thursday, July 29, 2021

Back to the normal...

 There's an old Married with Children that sticks out in my memory when Al Bundy is, for whatever reason, in Hell, and has and makes a bargain to do something redemptory with some devil or angel, and goes over the terms of the agreement, at the end of which he says for reassurance "Then my life will go back to the normal hell I live in, right?"

For the nine months since my last relationship breakup, I've been living back in my parents' house, which is exactly where everybody wants you to live when you're thirty-nine. I came over mid-pandemic to get away from solitary confinement during a period when solitude would have been a terrible idea. I planned on leaving in May, but my grandmother needed hospice care, and I stayed both to help take care of her and babysit my nephew while others did, but like we all occasionally do, I stayed afterward out of entropy.
In these three quarters of a year, I visited my apartment maybe half-a-dozen times, including twice this weekend. And now it's Thursday and I've returned for the day...
The apartment is precisely the mess I left it in November - same books on the sofa, the bed unmade, the dishes still in the sink, the same shopping bags I use for recycling still on the ground. In April I finally cleaned out my refrigerator and the gunk from rotting fruit is still on the shelves; there are even a pepper shaker and salt grinder still on my piano. The posters are still up on the walls, and the "Wall of Depression" I keep in my kitchen is still there (the place dirty enough that I know nobody will want to go in but me...): Goya's Sleep of Reason, Rembrandt's Lamentations of Jeremiah and Doubting Thomas, Picasso's Don Quixote and Blue Guitarist, and two Van Gogh self-portraits... giving me the same reassurance as ever that the interminable modulations of temper will continue their cycles, in its beginning is its end, and to everything there is a season.
The seasons do not get shorter as I age, though my physical stamina to endure them does. So much of what used to be palliatives, epic binges of food and alcohol, grow more unendurable as the heart rate goes up, the esophagus speaks more volatily, and the memory jogs far more slowly. The last one hurts particularly - the savantine sponge by which I knew there were compensatory rewards for what I must endure shrinks in my late 30s to unreliability. Hour-long pieces of music I could hear clearly enough to write out every detail by memory grow hazy, sentences in foreign languages blur together in a European fruit punch, lines of poetry I used to know by heart I have to look up to remember...
I'm not like you all. Most of you think linearly, but this mind has only ever thought in circles and thinks at a thousand miles a minute. You might think that a boast within a complaint, and perhaps it is - I'm a human encyclopedia, or at least I was... but I would not wish this brain on my worst enemy and wish only to get off an out-of-control ride that has never brought me anything but a barely endurable train of thoughts which spiral into every manner of mental conmorbidity. This mind has only ever worked when it's distracted, and if it does not operate in a constant state of overstimulation, it stimulates itself into anguish that dictates when it ceases and when it starts. It's a separate brain within the brain, a second personality within the body of Evan Tucker - I've taken call him AC Charlap, larger-than-life, grandiose in his ambitions and agonies, full of obsessive thoughts that cross the border into psychotic every minute of the day, only able to wrest himself out of abysmal desolations after being pulled fully in by a cerebral chamber of horrors - will he one day be unable to get out? But Evan, the real Evan, only ever wanted to be a nice Jewish boy living a quiet life in a modest American city, and would give anything to wrest control of this brain from a mental pirate who long ago stole what was not his.
I don't know what else to write... If only I could write a memoir of this madness, but the demons are so deep and controlling and painful, I doubt I have anything like 10% the strength.

Live and Let Die

Vaccinated or not, we know it's coming again. It's doubtful anybody reading this will die, it's doubtful too many of us will get seriously ill, but we know that some of us will get it, and we know that some of us will have lifelong problems afterward.
And yet we just can't take it anymore. We're all getting coffee, we're all going to stores, we're all seeing friends, and even if we're taking every precaution, we all know we're spending extra time in places where we shouldn't be. And if we're in denial of the mortality staring us all in the face, imagine how desperate the 35% of the country is to live normal lives who denies the seriousness of COVID-19....
I don't even know if it's denial at this point. I think the human mind is not built to withstand more than a year of behavioral changes before we just can't take it anymore and have to rebuild some semblance of our old routines. Love does not make the world go round, routine does. Routine is what makes sense of life, it gives us expectations, 'if we do A, take care of B, then C and D will happen.' If we don't know what to expect from life, every one of us with a capacity for mental illness (between a quarter and half of us) snaps, and does extremely regrettable things that in ordinary circumstances we'd probably view as psychotic...
In retrospect, we were all a little too careful when it didn't count, and we're now paying an extra price for it. On this issue America's going to have take a hard, glum look at the new reality:
The medical community knew right away that COVID would almost certainly not spread without five minutes or more of indoor exposure, but they wanted to be sure, so they basically compelled the entire country to shelter in place, without emphasizing realistic precautions for those whose ability to survive was dependent on income. In no small part, this is the reason the entire lower income segment of America has rebelled against all medical sense and the country goes into Pandemic: Battle 2.
All we needed for herd immunity was another 20% of the country. We might have gotten so much closer now if we hadn't compelled uneducated lower income families of all demographics into their houses, out of work, not knowing where their next paycheck will come from, with no guarantee of government relief from a President whose most fervent believers don't even believe in government solutions, and whose entire party does everything to spite every low income demographic that isn't white.
If we had emphasized extreme workplace precautions rather than sheltering in place, we might have gotten to herd immunity. Twenty million working class people might have become convinced to take the vaccine because they weren't at home, stewing in the propaganda they watch on television and read online. And if a few hundred thousand more died in the meantime? Well... a couple hundred thousand more may die anyway. And if we'd encountered a million deaths much more quickly, that might have appalled another twenty million into getting the vaccine. And who knows? The social stigma of getting the vaccine might have gone away, and still another twenty million would get it, and there would the 70% herd immunity nearly be achieved.

Yes, getting rid of shelter-in-place might have put the casualties over a million. But look around you, we're probably going to get there anyway. How many of us are going out this summer as though there's no pandemic because we just can't take it anymore? I know I'm going to coffeeshops, and when I'm there, I take my mask off to drink my beverage. But at least I'm wearing my mask when I'm not drinking. A lot of people are going and not wearing their masks at all - people who look sufficiently educated that they ought to know they should.
If we'd buried over a million by now, at least the country would have become so terrified that we might be done with it, because the country would have seen what a matter of life and death COVID is and been scared straight before this became yet another irreparable long term problem in a superpower history's long since marked for a crash landing. But even now, eighteen months in, the country still doesn't get it, and if we don't get it now, we're not going to get it until it's too late.
COVID won't be what does us in. The fight over COVID is what will do us in. All the political capital it would take to fix every long-term problem this country endures is now going into this pandemic. And while we fight a 99% unwinnable battle to convince sixty million more people to get vaccinated for herd immunity, we're staring down the barrel of a decade's worth of irreparable long-term damage to every single American institution we take for granted that keeps us alive. If China had deliberately leaked a biological weapon onto this country, they could not have come up with any virus more effective to wreck the the USA from within. We're staring at an existential earthquake to American political system itself, to democracy itself, to the planet itself - and it's all just in time for global warming to wipe god knows how many billions of us alongside the billions from other species we've already killed. If other countries and NGO's can take the burden of leadership on themselves that could and should have been ours, there's still time to save the world with relatively minimal damage; but at this point let's get real, the leadership is never going to come from here, and odds for proper leadership coming from elsewhere are not particularly good...
What we had last year was a moment of utopian delusion about public health. We believed that with enough effort and communal sacrifice, we could end COVID with it only claiming the people whose time had come anyway. We believed in this community of good will in spite of all the evidence. We believed it in spite of the fact that Donald Trump was President, we believed it in spite of the rise of authoritarianism all around us in a country with half a billion guns and an internet to mobilize their owners, with 20 trillion dollars in debt and a creditor willing to take us to war, with an entire political party whose leader was installed as a puppet by a foreign enemy, with millions of immigrants about to flee global warming and amass at our border, decrepit infrastructure, corrupt banking, and still no universal health insurance during a pandemic.
But the more of us die, the more solutions become possible....
When you set impossible standards for human behavior, people rebel. However many lives sheltering in place saved, the fallout will kill an exponent more if it squanders our ability to solve any other problem. The Delta Variant is slaughtering its way through the whole world. Covid is yet again showing what it does to people without vaccination for all to see, and it even ruins the immunity of the rest of us without vaccination - if enough people don't get vaccinated for long enough, the COVID deniers will have proven that vaccines don't work for a reason they didn't intend: the reason is that that people like them are so irrational that they can't handle this much compromise to their freedom of movement.
Twenty years ago, we had a reciprocal moment when Republicans put absurd numbers of precautions in place for terrorism. We put in place ridiculous measures for airport security, for immigration and customs, torture, rendition without trial, warrantless wiretapping, and rather than relying on multilateral nation-building, we deluded ourselves into believing we could remake any country we wanted in any way we wanted. Anyone who opposed their measures was a social non-person to be humiliated as an accomplice to evil: condemned, censured, even cancelled.... Occasionally academics and celebrities with beliefs perceived as sympathetic to terrorism were ostracized and sometimes fired, and progressives felt widespread paranoia that conservatives would use the warrantless wiretaps and arrests on them in addition to terrorists.
Just like with cancel culture, the paranoia was mostly unearned and stupid, but that not entirely justified fear among progressives was extremely real. The false boogeyman conservatives fear today about being branded a racist or sexist is the same false boogeyman progressives used to fear of being branded an anti-American or sympathetic to terrorism.
Maybe conservative measures did prevent further 9/11s, but the end result was the further emboldening of authoritarianism: neoconservatives got everything they wanted, and it lost them their party, their country, and the world. Why? Because rather than help us heal and pursue realistic counterterrorism goals, a certain kind of conservative practically crowed with triumph at their vindication over the importance of counterterrorism, and gleefully celebrated as their leaders imposed a series of measures guaranteed to make the world rebel against everything they believe in for living memory. The result of that counterterrorism spree: all of the the world's good will to us after the fall of Communism squandered, the American ability to show democracy's competence over dictatorship ruined over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian Civil War (remember when Republicans tried to take credit for the Arab Spring? They were right to... and Syria is the result...), and a refugee crisis three-million strong with untold millions to come....
So now, nearly half the US plans to stay unvaccinated. Why do they persist? Because they know that we have all the same contempt for them that conservatives had for us after 9/11, and nothing inspires ill will like contempt. The ill will of conservatives to progressives today is akin to the ill will of progressives to conservatives after 9/11 - it's the ill will of a portion of the country who knows in their bones that they've been proven wrong on something crucial, and therefore fears they'll have to concede to many unrelated ideas on which they still think they're right - ideas like the narrative of structural forces which favor them...
So rather than concede on what they're proven wrong, the ideologues double down on their wrongness, again, again, again, again, no matter how self-destructive, until the pendulum swings and the world can be reframed again in a narrative that flatters them.
90% of the time, people behave in ways that are basically logical, but during that illogical 10%, even the rational among us behave in ways so illogical that we would rather die than prove people who disagree with us right. Even if the contempt for the unvaccinated is deserved (and it mostly is...), it's not a good idea to let it show. People can deal with relinquishing their lives, they cannot deal with relinquishing their dignity, and if they believe others are out to humiliate them, even if their belief is incorrect, they will rebel to their last 'breath.'
A lot of American leftists like to think of hard-core conservatives as the Christian equivalent to the Taliban. I must say, as ridiculous as it might have seemed twenty years ago, the evidence keeps piling up and up and up. If the America-led world leads to the worst case scenario of global warming, the death toll caused by us will be unfathomably higher than the Taliban ever was.
So if the Republican party really is the American Taliban, we have a golden opportunity treat them that way without ever dropping a bomb. Let them die of the disease, let them spread it. And if some Democrats become collateral damage along the way, what can you do? War is war, and those of us who die are soldiers who nobly gave our lives to the cause of letting our kids survive until they can have kids of their own, and we will honor the sacrifice of the fallen just as we will honor the sacrifice of the stupid who could have saved their own lives if they GOT FUCKING VACCINATED.
Christopher Hitchens used to say of Islamic terrorists: ""If they want to be martyrs then we're here to help." Some of us were opposed to going full force against the Republican party because we understood the risks involved in a way that many of you reading this, really, really didn't... If you try to stop a guy with a gun, you expect to get shot.
This is what it means to go after Republican party with everything we have. If we're in, we're all in, and willing to put not just our lives on the line but the lives of everyone we love. If you feel that civil war with the Republican party is unavoidable, this is how you wage it. God is literally giving us a weapon to wage the war for us. He has sent us a plague to kill them without our having to get our hands bloody at all. Let them kill themselves until they understand their iniquity and repent. If some of us die too, we're all gonna die anyway if we don't solve this in time to solve global warming, and compared to that, our deaths from this will be mercifully quick.
This is the glum calculus of politics, where millions are expendable if it saves billions. Lincoln and Grant knew it, Roosevelt and Churchill knew it, Truman and Eisenhower knew it, and so did Hillary Clinton... If you don't have the stomach to look into the abyss, stay home and look at e-bay.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Good Things #6: Multicultural Theater

James Earl Jones turned ninety this year, which should be a surprise to all of you because most of America thought James Earl Jones was 90 since Field of Dreams. And here he is playing King Lear about as well as it's ever been played in an extremely multicultural cast: a grand old man of 43, playing an 80 year old, which in 1600 is a bit like being a centenarian, yet playing him with the energy of a 25 year old.

Theater in America is a depressing thing. Musicals are one thing, but let's face it, 75% of the most talented actors, writers, set designers, and directors go to Hollywood. If you're artistically ambitious, why do a local show for at most $50,000 that two thousand people see when you can put on a $30,000,000 show for millions? Why wait hand to mouth between one theater production and the next when you can get steady work on a TV show for ten years? The US such an enormous place that most Americans can only get their entertainment from TV and movies. To get to a halfway decent theater you often have to drive for an hour and pay forty dollars for parking. You have to be a special kind of snobby chump to fall for that kind of scam (clears throat...).

If you can afford it, go to the UK and spend all your money at theaters, you will experience a revelation unlike anything you can get in the US. English film isn't much, and English TV shows rarely last for more than 12 episodes; but whether it's Shakespeare or Caryl Churchill, theater in England is 100x the priority it is in America. Actors in the US are fundamentally trained to act for a camera. You'll hear a lot in acting classes about creatively inhabiting your role, but by many accounts, the actual technique is not emphasized nearly as much as it is for acting students in the UK, who are trained for the stage - to project and get nuances registered in the back row, to learn to adapt to the other actors in a uniformity of conception from part to part.... Back in the day, even the stars would be part of a repertory company in which you'd play Hamlet one night and night watchman #3 the next - and even if there isn't much repertory theater anymore, that ethos is still perpetuated from generation to generation. In the UK, it's not about the individual, it's about the show. But the one place where the best of the best still go into American theater is the minority artists: black artists, hispanic artists, and the gay artists who want to play shows that relate to their lives. These are all artists who know that they won't get a fair shake in Hollywood, so they go to New York, or they stay local, because they know they have better opportunity to do elsewhere what Hollywood won't allow them. The 1970s were a kind of Golden Age in American acting. You had the new, naturalistic school of method acting jivng with the old school that prized stage training. I could list a couple dozen names you might vaguely remember, but the 'crown jewel' of the period was the Public Theater and its extremely volatile director, Joseph Papp. Papp was the pioneer of 'Shakespeare in the Park' which still draws in tens of thousands to Central Park every year to see big names take on the big roles. But more importantly, Public Theater is the longtime home of multicultural theater - thirty years before identity politics was a debate, Papp was sponsoring all kinds of plays with unique identities that became huge hits of their times: African-American plays like "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," "No Place to Be Somebody," or conspicuously gay plays like "The Normal Heart." Even after Papp's death, Public Theater was responsble for "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk," the conspicuously pansexual "The Wild Party, Susan Lori-Parks "Topdog/Underdog", the homophobia and racism centered "Take Me Out," Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change" about Jewish-Black relations, Stew's "Passing Strange", the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's "Funhome," and..... HAMILTON. Papp was also America's greatest pioneer in 'non-traditional casting', and not only promoted James Earl Jones but also Raul Julia (known to you all as Gomez Adams), whom when he was younger would play Shakespearean roles with a thick Puerto Rican accent. Papp, as was the mean of the period, was as womanizing as a high-profile director was supposed to be, but he produced 'A Normal Heart' with an eye toward attacking Ronald Reagan and Ed Koch for their response to the AIDS crisis. Politics is politics, but diversity for diversity's sake is the state of things in theaters all around America. It is the place where the voiceless find voice, and talent too unique for movies finds its space for a display only it can provide. Outside of the theaters and galleries, diversity for diversity's sake is a bad argument that will win no people over predisposed to think that diversity precludes quality. All it's generated so far is empty noise. Millions of conservatives who haven't read Shakespeare since high school suddenly care very much about the idea that white men must now play Othello as white. And face the truth, millions of progressives who never buy tickets to August Wilson suddenly care very much that playwrights of color get a chance to show their work on the major stages they couldn't care less to attend. None of these debates get more work for people in the arts because it makes the arts an inconsequential sub-reddit of politics that distracts from political issues where lives are at stake. Plays and music and books that are only championed for political reasons will be a failure, and only set back the causes they're willing to champion. But if the argument were made artistically rather than politically, people would think very differently of this proposition. So here are three arguments that matter, and they matter very much, because they're grounded in the arts, not politics. 1. When we think of whom we would regard as the greatest creators of the 20th century, so many of them are from groups shunted off to the marginal hinterlands. Of color or white, they speak not only for themselves, but for peoples never heard from before until that moment in history. Whether it's because each culture has so many unwritten stories in the oral tradition, or because there's little work yet that articulates their demographic's unique worldview, these artistic creators speak not only for themselves, but for every unheard person of their origins of, after, and especially before their lifetimes. Great artists don't just speak for themselves, they speak for everybody. So read what the great Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes (and read The Death of Artemio Cruz), said about precisely this in an interview: 'There is only a great desert between Cervantes (the Spanish writer of Don Quixote) and ourselves... ...I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer... and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? "How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books." But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history... we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.' 2. The fact remains that part of the resistance to multiculturalism it is very simple and obvious - the pool of jobs may stay the same, but the number of people seeking them gets much larger. If there is a larger pool of talent from which to draw, a greater diversity of people who get the jobs will probably result in a better artistic product, but the lives of the practitioners will be that much harder. White artists will have to work that much harder to keep up. Hopefully, but it's still only a hope, the more diverse artistic representation will result in greater diversity of audience, and that will sell more ticket. Linn-Manuel Miranda aside, this hasn't happened yet, and it doesn't mean much to the rank and file person in theater when one Puerto Rican can write a show that sells $400 tickets. Perhaps this means we need to make the artistic selections still more diverse, but thus far, the audience's demographic pool is still overwhelmingly elderly, white, WASP, and Jewish - all of whom are turned off by any new fare at all, let alone new fare which they feel is being consumed solely for demographic reasons. But that audience is completely dying off, and there is no one to replace them, so whether or not theater continues as anything but street theater, there will have to be nothing short of an artistic revolution to get a new audience - and like most revolutions in American life, who can doubt now it's coming? For a little while, the director of Baltimore's Center Stage Theater was the very fast rising theater director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, who then became director of the Young Vic in London - founded by no less than Laurence Olivier, most famous stage actor of the 20th century. I have to say, I was not very impressed by Kwei-Armah - I found both his directorial work and his selections mediocre, but let's face it, the stuff coming out of Center Stage wasn't all that great before he got there either. Theater in the US is dying, and dying very quickly. I have to imagine that however mediocre or good the selections of multicultural theater at the moment, and some of them are very good indeed, this is the only way forward, and for all the current hemming and hawing about genius, the slate is soon to be wiped so clean that the 'stage is set' for a genius of color who reinvents the whole thing and bares the same relation to August Wilson as Christopher Marlowe bares to Shakespeare. The artistic revolution is coming - we might as well accept it and just wait for it, and as obviously painful as it will be, we may just have to let these older organizations die their natural death to clear the way for something new. In lieu of them, something may take their place that is not only fairer in representation, but so different and revelatory that it will sell like wildfire, and we'll consider the gain worth the loss. 3. Today's million-dollar question in the arts is this, and it's an artistic question, not a political question: is art entirely talent and personality based, or does the 'lived experience' of an artist's identity endow the artist something unique? I have no idea how to answer the question and I don't believe anybody who says they do. But wherever one stands on the issue of representation, we will not be certain which side of that question is true until we truly find a way to view the works of black and hispanic and female and queer artists commensurate to their demographic representation. If it turns out that their creations really are that different, then we will have been missing out on hundreds of years of uniquely great art. As much as people don't want to admit it, the answer still may turn out that it's completely false. Not because of any lack of talent, but because clearing a way inevitably causes complacency, just as it has in the white males who've been given an artificial leg up. Anybody who goes to the theater has sat through all manner of overrated plays that we don't know why we're watching. Artistically, it won't make a difference who's producing the work if a lot of it sucks, and precisely because we've given underrepresented demographics an artificial leg up, we will inevitably promote mediocrities by letting people coast on their identity rather than their merits. But we will not know anything like an answer until we try it. And if the increased representation results in more artistic dynamism, so much the better. And if not, we'll at least give more work to demographics who have it harder. Artists are artists because they're creative, not smart. If you want people who respond sensibly to societal problems, the arts are nearly the last place you should look. A lot of internet commentators these days make think pieces about how 'all art is political'... And yes... there's no question, art is political, but politics are very complicated, and an artists' knowledge of politics can often be fit in a single paragraph. The political aspect of art is just one arm on a being with a hundred arms or more. Many conservatives allege that art's purpose is beauty. Many progressives allege that art's purpose is empathy. Many think that art's purpose is emotion, and ideologues of all stripes think art's purpose is its message. The last one is closer to the mark, but because it's closer, it's correspondingly more dangerous in how it simplifies. All of those concepts are mere tools at art's disposal. The purpose of art is meaning, and artistic meaning is simultaneously very specific and very nebulous, universal and very, very personal. Meaning comes to us in an infinity of forms - forms intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, it always evolves upon reacquaintance, and the meaning is different for every person. It is truly extraordinary how long it took artists to come to the idea that structural forces marginalize the concerns of unfortunate demographics by race and gender and class and sexuality. These ideas have been around since right after World War II, formulated by a bunch of German-Jewish communists who hailed from extremely privileged backgrounds, and it literally took people in the arts seventy years to adopt this idea as their universal ethos. Theater is not a place to look to for ideas - or at least American theater isn't... American theater is a place for self-expression. Nobody knows how increased representation will affect the arts. We don't know if it will result in a better product, and whether audiences are racist or feel condescended to, if they stay away, it won't even result in more work for underrepresented artists. But the sea change is clearly coming, some kind of revolution is coming in people's relation to the arts. Nobody has any better ideas yet for how to increase the presence of the arts in American lives, and I'm willing to stake a significant claim that, in the long run, lived and unique identity is the future of art, and it will begin in the theater. We won't know until it happens, but it may be glorious.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

What The Fuck Is Wrong With Lawyers?

No matter what the subject, the alleged experts will inevitably pull rank: doctors, academics, armed forces officers, counterterrorism workers, campaign workers, journalists, historians, social workers, cops, businessmen, scientists, immigration and customs workers, community organizers and union organizers,... it's the ultimate white collar conversational hazard. They will inevitably spout jargon incomprehensible to all but them, they will inevitably say 'Don't tell me the reality I live every day." they will inevitably say 'You don't know what you're talking about, I do." I know this because I've obviously done it too, with much less professional certification than most of the people I'm talking about. I'm not proud of it, but I'm at least aware of the problem and I do what I can to remedy it, and I don't think they are.

But, and I write this with all the love in the world to my many many lawyer friends, lawyers take this conversational marauding to an exponential level. If there's any angle of the subject that can be put through some kind of legal rubric, often a rubric designed to be as incomprehensible as possible, you can be sure lawyers will do it. It's not because of any inherent character defect - it's because that's literally what lawyers are trained for. They're trained for verbal combat, they're trained to sound authoritative, they're trained to find miniscule obscurities to gain an advantage. And if they can find ways to make themselves seem like authorities over the rest of us, they will take it.

The problem with this, and it amazes me that lawyers seem particularly unaware of the problem, is that persuasion depends upon being able to couch difficult concepts in terms the layperson can understand - and not only understand, but be sympathetic to. Friends are friends, and will give each other the benefit of the doubt, but persuasion is done as much with the heart and the gut as the brain, and if conversational partners feel they're being condescended to, they will persist in their logical fallacies precisely because they don't want to admit the other party is correct.
The ultimate problems are articulated by the two masters of clear English far better than I could.
First, George Orwell: "...the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
Secondly, Lincoln: "You may say to him,—"I see no probability";.... but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."
Any process of cultish jargon inevitably leads to an avalanche of unsound thoughts. The 'experts' are stuck in worlds of thought comprehensible only to them, and the concepts on which their expertise is laid divorces itself other people's lived experience. Meanwhile, the laypeople have less ability to understand concepts which can improve their lives, and the experts no longer have theories which can be proven in reality, because they've stopped listening to their subjects.
And if those last few sentences are incomprehensible, well, lawyers aren't doing any better than me...
Opacity is what the law is and must be. The entire way our lives are structured exists at the rule of tiny legal nuances between how one defines words like 'wrong', 'incorrect', 'false', and 'unsound'. The problem is not law, the problem is lawyers, and the problem is that for my entire lifetime, everybody's seen the problem but lawyers.
Law school, by all accounts, is hell - at least the first year... Just like med school, you memorize all the thousands of terms, or you fail. There aren't many legal jobs that aren't high pressure, so if you can't handle the pressure of law school, why endure the pressure of a fifty year career? Therefore lawyers are, by process of elimination, a very self-confident lot who endure much and come out the other way thriving. Humility is virtually coded out of the profession, and along the way, they assimilate a belief inherent in many professions, that their knowledge is for a privileged few intelligent and strong enough to understand it. The only problem with that is that lawyers are supposed to be the people who explain and advocate for these concepts to us in plain English, and they so rarely try to do that.
Academics and doctors are just the same way, but the particular danger of lawyers is that they occupy a nebulous middle position between the necessity of doctors and the uselessness of academics.
The necessity of doctors is absolute. If there's no doctor, the patient dies, if the doctor is insufficiently prepared, the patient dies. Academics are answerable to no one. If a humanities professor is wrong, literally no one cares, least of all themselves (except for the 1 in 100,000 academics whose ideas kill millions...).
Lawyers, on the other hand, matter very much, but their long-term effect is never apparent at the time, and that results in the formation of very dangerous ideas that metastasize very quickly before anyone can study the practical application.
Obviously, this would be the place to lambast originalism, but 95% of the people reading this probably know that originalism would be the dumbest piece of philosophy on the planet if a hundred million people didn't believe it. So let's move on...
No, the 'original' problem is not originalism, the original problem is the marriage of law to philosophy and the divorce of law from practical application. Every 'court watcher' and reader ('watcher'...) of Jeffrey Toobin knows about William Brennan's maxim that the only law that matters in the Supreme Court is 'the law of 5.' What Justices from Earl Warren to Harry Billings Brown understood is that the reason for the ruling itself does not matter, so long as the ruling is the majority.
In a world where the legal interpretation is used for any reason but a brass tax practical one, the most simple-minded legal philosophy will inevitably win out, precisely because it's the easiest philosophy to explain, and therefore will attract the most adherents and be used as a political tool to inflame a mob. The law does not exist in a celestial realm of pure form, it is a moral war on the ground on which every case is a battle in which you'r thinking not only of what's right and why it's right, but if the ruling of this case will achieve or set back the long-term impact you desire. I'm sure many lawyers reading this would argue "so much of the law has nothing to do with politics. It's just grunt work, most of which has no political implication at all." Bullshit. While you're arguing the case at hand, conservatives are enlisting thousands of legal soldiers from every law school to take dictation for exactly the results they desire in fields that you would think should have absolutely nothing to do with politics. You'd think that of all people, lawyers would understand this, but they don't.
Unlike legislative negotiations, the law, certainly the law in America, is a game of miles not inches. It's a zero-sum in which you bet everything on every throw and continually advocate the most extreme position. Why? Because such is the design of the American political system. The American judiciary was designed to be a system of monarchs, and in the rule of fiat, there is only absolutes. Want the ideal Supreme Court Justice? His name is Bernie Sanders. The perfect justice is not anyone who is celebrated for carefully argued legal interpretations, it's someone who hammers home extreme positions in language the most simple-minded, explanation-retardant layperson can understand.
The legal justification for a ruling literally does not matter so long as the desired outcome is obtained. The law is not an ideal, it is not an end in itself. The law is purposive, the law is practical, the law is exactly as activist and legislative as conservatives pretend to excoriate liberal judges for being. Every conservative operative who pretends otherwise knows that simple fact, and argues that morality should not be legislated in the worst possible faith. They understand better than we do: we literally have laws to legislate morality, and if your 'side' does not impose its morality on unwilling people, the other side eventually will.
Every judge, from the chief justice down to traffic court, is on the bench to be absolutely nothing more than an expedient political arm. So long as Supreme Court justices are lifetime monarchs of the American judicial system, judges are not referees, judges are not philosophers, they are lawyers advocating for a position as much as any lawyer in their courtroom - and judges on higher courts are a combination of generals and bureaucrats in a total cold war, their positions are purely strategic and functionary - literally appointed to benches to do nothing more than enforce the moral will of their legislative allies.
There is a second problem: lawyers make it so. The problem is not just that judges and legal professors fancy themselves philosophers, it's that lawyers treat these would be philosophers like rock stars and not political subordinates. The rock star treatment clearly goes to the heads of legal celebrities. It made Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a rockstar as big as Paul McCartney, and she never would have become one without everybody getting the green light to make her so from their close lawyer frend. As a result, she never retired. Who could resist that level of acclaim? She always said it's because her replacement would be insufficiently liberal, but she had her chance with the 2009-2010 congress, and she didn't even retire then. Maybe she was waiting for a still more liberal congress, but if she was, she must have been politically blind. Anybody in 2009 could have seen that no liberal wave was coming to save us from Mitch McConnell. Was she really that politically blind? Perhaps.... and that blindness is exactly what comes from divorcing law from politics. And meanwhile the tally of liberals vs. conservatives on the Supreme Court became 6-3.
And now Stephen Breyer seems to refuse retirement. Why? Well,... why would he? Supreme Court Justices are literally on the court because a lot of people think their judgement is better than other people's, and if so many others believe their judgement is that good, why would any justice of that much experience risk an inferior replacement? Breyer's at the top of his profession, and no lawyer rises to the top of their profession by humility. The whole reason the world has lawyers is to persist in arguing justifications which some people find specious, and lifetime appointments literally breed specious reasoning into their occupants. Anyone with a lifetime appointment to power of life and death over others no longer understands the world the way we do, and they have a license to adopt whatever pet concerns attract their attention regardless of what's most needed by the rest of us.
By contemporary standards Breyer is quite moderate, and he probably believes he'd be replaced by a left extremist who will take the Court down yet another path he doesn't want to see. Surely, I'd imagine he reasons, this is a phase and he may be able to wait this out.
Meanwhile, Mississippi's issued yet another challenge to Roe v. Wade today... and the clock continues to tick for yet another midterm election that will probably win Republicans back the Senate...
This is the result of making lawyers believe that the law applies more to politics than politics applies to the law. The culture of 'lawing' has given us this Supreme Court mess. Lawyers are the only people who can argue us out of it, but it's entirely against their self-interests to do so, and lawyers are not known for refusing self-advancement...

Good Things #5: Rebellion

Every Jew in the world needs to read Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander - most Jews seem to have already... If you know people who went to synagogue, you could be forgiven for thinking its readers experienced an earthquake in the middle of the service. Jews talked about it every day for years, like a bug bite that itched more every time they scratched it.
What was the problem? What's the problem of any memoir? It spilled dirt. It aired dirty laundry. It told tales of people's misbehavior and said in no uncertain terms everything parents did, teachers did, student peers did. From one point of view, it could be seen as a terrible betrayal and humiliation of people who love the author - all the moreso fifteen years ago when books like this were much rarer. From another point of view, a more common point of view now than in 2007, it could be seen as a necessary airing of abusers' bad behavior. From a third point of view, one people only pay lip service to having, it's an examination of how a belief system that demands complete control over your life damages its practitioners irrevocably. Every member of the system is a tortured captive, and the only way to stop being tormented is to be the tormenter. Like all organizations that demand holding its hostages to impossible standards of human behavior, it cannot help but encourage humiliation, delusion, assault, and disobedience. If we truly believed in systemic injustice rather than individual villains, we wouldn't be so quick to publish about them because we'd be too busy learning about how to best apply systemic reform so that other exploiters of people don't step into the systemic vacuum they leave. But that hasn't happened because the human mind believes more in revenge than in solutions, and the best evidence is religion's continued hold over us.
For those of the non-Ira Glass crowd who've never heard of Shalom Auslander, Foreskin's Lament is a merciless memoir of growing up in the Orthodox Jewish world. It tells of exactly how the impossible standards of Judaism enable abuse, mental illness, shame; and not just Judaism, but religion itself. It's horrifying, moving, and all the more shocking because it's one of the funniest books of the 21st century.
If it was just a juvenile humiliation of his family, it wouldn't have been published, if it only implicated his community, we'd move on, if it only implicated the Orthodox Jewish world, Jews could have shrugged, but it doesn't stop there... It implicates us all. Orthodox and reformed, Jews and Christians, goyim and apikorsim. Is it unfair? Well... a little, but it's unfairness is earned, and it's nowhere near as unfair as its critics allege.
There's nothing in the book that should be a surprise. Is anyone really surprised that that Orthodox Jews with the slightest doubts are pre-emptively ostracized? Or that Orthodox teachers' most reliable techniques are shame and corporal? Or that some orthodox men beat the shit out of their sons? Or that class bullies enact tortures as horrifying as in any prison? The point of the book is not that Auslander's childhood experience was typical of Orthodox Jews, his childhood is still roughly the average world childhood, the point of the book is that religion, the supposed consolation that makes us all act kinder to each other, was enforced as a means of making sure that his tormentors could keep tormenting him. When you learn so early that your world is so structured against happiness, the only surprise is that the vast majority don't rebel too.
Most importantly, this book is a love letter to sin: slim jims, swear words, McDonald's cheeseburgers, porno magazines, walkmans, shoplifting, weed, Pontiac Trans-Ams, art galleries, freedom of choice, and putting a note saying 'Dear God, Fuck You' in the Western Wall.
It clearly implicates us all in the slave-trade that is religion, and maybe that's unfair, but religion IS a medieval holdover. It DOES encourage insanity and lies and harm and shame. It allows an omniscient being an eternal parking pass in our brain's longterm lot - and once He's there, He's not leaving. It's rarely ever the thoughts of His love and mercy that fill our minds: it's His blackmail of us with unfathomably eternal pain, a blackmail that is so much more effective than any love He offers. As Christopher Hitchens so memorably likened it (quoting verbatim), religion is a 'celestial North Korea' in which an omnipotent being demands that every moment of your existence on earth is devoted to his praise on pain of the most horrific punishments; but at least North Korea ends with death. God demands praise for all eternity.
So if I'm still slightly religious, it's because nobody has yet come up with a better idea to keep us from killing each other. Religion is medieval because human beings are medieval, and we're not progressing any time soon. Material science was supposed to free us from mental slavery, but look at the internet: every bit of progress finds a new way to fuck us up. At least with religion, there's a small chance to find something better in a world to come. That small possibility is the reason I stay religious.
That and the God-blackmail.... it got me too... badly...
As far as the religious go, my family was not bad; a kosher house but we still ate beef and chicken at any restaurant we wanted. We went to Shul a couple Shabbeses a month, but we didn't go 'religiously' and my parents seemed to prefer that I go out into the hall and goof off with friends who never liked me than boredly disrupt the service. Friday night dinner was mandatory at my grandparents' house, except for when we had Symphony tickets, which caused a series of rows between parents and grandparents.
Any kid would find religious obligation boring which their parents don't condition them to believe in, but it was ultimately rather mild stuff, and it was not out of any great belief that we kept doing it. We were a family from 'survivors', and whether we liked it or not (there were plenty moments when I didn't...) the burden to keep things going fell on us. My brothers and I were instructed very early that being Jewish is not a choice, and whether we view ourselves as Jewish, the world always will. It was a constant message enforced at home, at Jewish Day School, sometimes even at summer camps. After nearly 40 very Jewy years on Earth, it's harder to disagree with that assessment than it used to be. Still, I think we'd all have been somewhat happier with more choice in the matter... And I confess that there are two things about our religious observance that were destructive. One's amusing, the other infuriating.
Don't believe any Jew who tells you that Jews don't think we're better than you. We totally do. We can't help it. Jingoism about our intelligence is flourided into our seltzer. Look at how many Nobel Prizes per capita we have, look at how many billionaires, look at how many celebrities and politicians and famous intellectuals, now look at how many you have (blows raspberry). The vast majority of Jewsh holidays are devoted to commemorating all the times you tried to kill us all, but we were too smart for you to pull it off (second raspberry). My parents are very bright, the average person isn't, and like most Jews, my parents internalized their intelligence in a way that's self-congratulatory (and clearly passed on to their oldest son... third raspberry...). They believe, and in my heart of hearts I suppose I still do too, that the average Jew is brighter than the average gentile, and to them, that justifies believing that Jews should only live among other Jews, should only marry other Jews, should only be close friends with other Jews. As far as bigotry goes, it's not that bad... but unlike my parents, most Jews are not that bright, and neither they nor I have figured out what most of the brightest American Jews figured out long ago - that their best chance for happiness was outside the religion. Look at all those Nobel Prize winners and celebrities. Most of them married shiksas and their descendants' religion is NPR or crossfit. Being Jewish is a state of lifelong irritation at each other in the good moments, persecution and mass slaughter in the bad ones. Anybody smart enough figured out by 1950 that the path to happiness is to get out, assimilate your family, and hope nobody remembers your descendants' Jewish ancestors by the time of the next Shoah.
And that leads to the other, infuriating gripe: being told, many times, that I was a perpetuator of Jewish death because I wanted to stop speaking Yiddish... I was four years old when this happened, and it was the refrain of my childhood. In my mid 30s my uncle was still bringing it up. But at least my infant rebellion seemed to spare my younger brothers that particular experience of feeling completely different from everybody they knew... They never went to school worried they couldn't communicate with the other students, and let's face it, my English is clearly a little weird even now...
But there was the simple problem that I was.... different... quite different... and the differences were only becoming more pronounced as I grew.
I've always wondered if half my brain was wired in Yiddish, and when I made an effort to forget most of my Yiddish, I lost my organizational ability, time management, fine motor coordination, logical thinking, ability to plan ahead, and the ability to get through any activity at all without bodily tics. God already knew the filth I was and was punishing me when I was four...
I'm not going to go through 'deh meiceh' again: the brilliant kid (illui) who woke up one day, found out he was an idiot, humiliated for it by teachers and students both, went crazy from the disgrace, became a violent maniac in his early teen years, lives forever with shameful flashbacks to misdeeds every day, misdeeds doctors think never happened (but God knows better, doesn't he?...), and sentenced to a life imprisonment within humiliating limitations which nobody ever believes until they see them, and rather than react with compassion, they inevitably go as batty as he when they have to deal with his limitations which half of them think he's faking.
And I'm not going to go through 'deh andereh meiceh' again, about getting manipulated and lied to by a guidance counselor into going to a school for 'character education' that was a cult. Stuck for three years in a place that demanded as much access to your thoughts as any angry god on punishments of daily physical torture and public humiliation, during which the pressure mounted in the mind of this once insufferable teen atheist until delusions of God's personal interference in every decision of his life began; delusions which have been described by professionals as everything from extreme "Pure O" (obsession) to Schizotypal Personality Disorder, obsessions to which he can still only pay fealty at every moment, even as he types.
And in all these confessional essays, I have never truly set to paper the nature of these delusional obsessions, and I still find it much too painful to set them down this time in anything but outline, but suffice to say, when Shalom Auslander described his own thought processes of dealing with a perpetually pissed off deity, I realized how common my experience is - just like my experience of Yiddish, it's only atypical for non-fanatics. I have rarely ever made a decision in my adult life that was truly my own. Every decision I make is affected by a labyrinthine system of weighing consequences of my chances of punishment through numerology, color scheme, the direction of traffic and wind, the things I hear people say in the street or on televsion, the texture of nearby inanimate objects and their holes and cracks, and the various tics I allow myself to perform... Much of this has been worked up in a system I could easily write out. I'm amazed I have any mental space left over to write anything else...
The chance for a decent life was over for me so early. I was a screwup and a rebel before I even had a chance to deliberately screw up. All I ever wanted was to be the 'nice Jewish boy' nobody ever thought I was, prizing the approval of the very types of people who have never, will never, grant it.
I seem to have emerged as fully formed as Athena. Fully adult as a toddler, yet unable to grow up at any age. It's the ultimate cosmic joke: the nice and smart Jewish boy who's a cross to bear and can be neither smart nor nice. Who could undergo that and not see the hand of a vengeful god? And so I grew convinced that all through those early years of humiliation, God was biding his time, waiting to see if Evan Tucker would ever be the 'Nice Jewish Boy' again, and when that clearly wasn't the direction I was trending, He issued His eternal punishment, His lifelong voice in my head, commanding me atonement at every minute of every day until death and well beyond.
I was so far gone by high school that I never even got my opportunity to rebel against the types of people from whom rebellion is so amply deserved, and I confess, to this day I feel incredibly cheated. I ended up at a second high school where the vast majority had rebelled too much, and here I was grouped with them, bullied by them, but never experiencing the highs they experienced before encountering that school's lows. I never got my chance to figure out if I was truly a theater kid, mathlete, band dork, gamer, emo or stoner. I never had my chance to drive drunk with a group of friends into a Denny's parking lot at 4 in the morning, have awkward teen sex with a pimply girl wearing an inch and a half of caked foundation, smoke cigarettes in a public school bathroom with kids who beat me up last week, or figure out what the big deal was about Blink 182. And of course, as a teen, the only love a kid like me ever experienced was unrequited.
Nobody actually LIKES adolescence, but normality has its consolations, and the biggest consolation is the ability to rebel against it; to experience that sensation of 'pure being,' even if illusory, which grows teens to the realization that their spirit may be infinite, unconquerable and ungovernable - and until time wears them down, that's exactly what they all are. The consolation of adolescence is that feeling of freedom all teenagers have that they can do literally anything, experience any amount of enjoyment, be any kind of person they want to be; and even if they eventually learn that that's bullshit, there's nothing bullshit about it when you're a teen. The sensation of freedom is the most crucial part of growing into an adult. It energizes the will to create a future for yourself, and without that illusion, what reserve of morale is there later to do anything at all?
I feel like this essay needs a final third but I have no idea what it is... Perhaps revisited in the PM...

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Good Things #4: Anthony Bourdain

I must have been the only person to read about Bourdain's suicide and think to myself 'I get it.' This is one of the most beloved Americans of his generation, and it was for a fucking food show. Anthony Bourdain was so original, so charismatic, such an unlikely celebrity, that he was completely unnecessary to the lives of everyone who loved him, and if we lost Anthony Bourdain to scandal instead of suicide, we might have forgotten that we ever needed him. Every celebrity worries that their fall will be just as sudden as their rise, and when the hint of scandal affected Bourdain's girlfriend Asia Argento in the middle of #metoo's height, it must have been far too much for a celebrity as beloved as him to handle. We think we love celebrities, but we don't, we're just infatuated with them the way we might be with a drug. The more we think we love them, the more we hate them when they do something that disappoints us. Celebrities are completely disposable from our lives. If you don't like them, you get a new celebrity crush. Whatever else was true about Bourdain's girlfriend, Asia Argento, she was clearly not good for him, and by all accounts she'd put him through hell already. She had also been raped by Harvey Weinstein and Bourdain wanted to be there for her. The misfortunes of those we love make us love them more, not less. We all want to be there for the people we love who suffer. But in order to be there for her, Bourdan paid off a a guy she had sex with when the guy was 17. For a brief moment, Argento was a lightning rod for #metoo hypocrisy. It didn't last very long, but Bourdain clearly thought the backlash was going to be much worse than it was. He was at one remove not only from the absolute center of #metoo but of the potential backlash to it. He was a former addict in the world of rock'n roll, who bragged in every episode he ever made about the bad behavior of his younger years. There's no way that a guy of his CV didn't have questionable moments with women. If Bourdain fell, he'd have fallen harder than literally any celebrity had - or at least so his demented head reasoned, and have nobody left. Bourdain was just a food guy, not even an actor. There was no one else with a job quite like his, and if he'd fallen from his place atop America's carnival, there'd be no chance of a comeback because without him, would there be a field for a celebrity chef/writer/world traveller/cultural critic who has multiple cable hits? He would just be a distant memory about whom people would say "boy did he fuck that up...". America would forget about Bourdain, about food, about travel, about the whole world of curiosity and opportunity he stood for. A guy with a history of addiction like Bourdan is already more fragile than anybody knows. Bourdain couldn't take that kind of pressure. In his mind, it was either go back to full-time using without even the dignity of people's well-wishes when he goes to rehab, or check out. For nearly twenty years, he'd thrown TV's most wonderful party, and as troubling as his suicide was, he left on such a high note that ever since he'd ascended to god status. Everybody thinks they want celebrity, but the reality of celebrity is worrying at every moment that you can lose everything which you've won. The desire for fame requires a hole in your life so deep that only the love of anonymous people can fill it, so the very people who pursue fame are the least suited to handle it. Bourdain had everything he thought he wanted, only to spend his days, as thousands of celebrities have, bracing himself for a day he'd lose it that may never come. At least the homeless have our sympathy, but celebrity can be the loneliest state on the planet, because you have no idea why anybody in the world loves you. Think of Bourdain's Miami episode: he begins it with saying that he doesn't think he could be a Miami person. He describes Miami as 'the seductions of flash' and how the city is "The manufactured dreams of many television shows made real." Bourdain always said he was repelled by such things, but he was only repelled in the way of someone who found them irresistible. Every paragraph of his writing and TV narration told us how seduced he was by the glamor of sex, drugs & rock'n roll. The high life was his home, and to his eternal surprise, he found it unfulfilling. People don't realize that for all his working class badass affectation, Bourdain grew up a kind of 'New York Intellectual' nobility. His mother was a copy editor for the New York Times. His father was a longtime executive for the classical music division of Columbia Records. He rebelled against it all and became the devotee of William Burroughs and Iggy Pop, but he never really knew any world realer than the glamorous world of Manhattan socialite parties in which he probably grew up. We'd have never even heard of Anthony Bourdain if Bourdain's mother hadn't used her connections to get his first article published in The New Yorker. What made Bourdain compelling is that he was attracted by everything he thought was real, but he never really knew the real world. Everything he thought was real was fake, and his search to find something real in connections he'd have never made without a budget of millions was beautiful and moving for reasons that I'm not sure he understood. He met all these interesting people who told him everything about history and culture and flavor, only to leave them right away before he could get to know anybody. You felt Bourdain's loneliness waft off the screen as the weight of the world stooped on his shoulders, and in his struggle, we saw the struggles of all the people he passed on the street because he only got fulfillment from imagining the effort that goes into their much realer struggles and fulfillment. Both were an effort which he could only appreciate intellectually without experiencing the real thing, because the real thing involves being tied down to a place. What made Bourdain incredible television was that he tried so very hard to be a realer type of person than he was. He was inherently as glamorous and attractive as all the rock bands he loved, he was a playboy's vision of an honest person; he knew it, and it drove him crazy. He wanted real connections and love so badly that he traveled the entire world to find it, only to realize that the only places he could find that is near at hand, the place he left because he couldn't stand it. But by being so empty, he was America's perfect conduit to understand the world: the overprivileged American who doesn't get it, but unlike the rest of us, he really tried. He knew he couldn't build that bridge, but he might have made it easier for future generations. There's no way to build that bridge without effort, and Bourdain was one of the only Americans even trying to build a bridge. And if his picture of other cultures was overly glamorous to everything from kitchens to poverty (even their war footage was beautifully filmed), at least he gave us a view of it. I always thought that Bourdain's show was the most expensive on television because it made everybody who watched it look up flight deals, but the point was that even if he made the world seem a far more glamorous place than it is, he made us far less scared about the unfamiliar. There's no travel like a Bourdain episode, and clearly Bourdain's trips were a lot more like ours than we ever realized. Everybody says that they had more fun on the road than they actually do, and in retrospect, we usually believe our own lies about our trips. By the time everybody gets to the beautiful restaurant, we're all exhausted and usually pissed off at our travel companions. Everybody goes to the churches and museums to appreciate things we take for granted at home and therefore have little idea what we're looking at. What everybody is there for is the very few moments of transcendence when they feel 'the moment of empathy'. Not empathy as social justice progressives define it, but 'empathy' in the old sense which is much more selfish: literally warging into the mind of another person. 'Travel empathy' is the moment when they feel themselves in contact with a completely different kind of life than the one they live, and completely forget the person they are as they imagine themselves into an ephemeral moment of that other cultural outlook they'll never understand. We travel to forget ourselves, and once we have that moment of forgetting, we're never the same. Travel and vacation are very different things. Vacations are for fun. They're where we do the things that give us pleasure and generally live our lives as we'd like to live them more frequently. Vacation is about improving our lives, but travel is about changing our lives. It's about stimulating our imaginations so that we can see our worlds differently, and if you're in bad enough need of a new perspective, you're not going to get that from a mere vacation. Vacations should be as much fun as you can possibly have, but travel takes serious work. To have fun, you have to really know what you're doing there. You have to spend time learning what's unique and wonderful about the places you visit, and you can't be scared of experiencing them. That's very difficult for a lot of people, but without it, your perspective stays the same, and if your perspective is harming your life, travel is the best chance you have to change your perspective. We Americans are deeply incurious about everyone in the world who isn't us; not to mention, us. But Bourdain was the best window this country's had in our lifetime to the benefits of travel, and never have those benefits been more needed than today. The world of Bourdain seemed to end the moment he died. We were living in the international golden age of cuisine when uncurious lower-middle-class people could order food from dozens of countries with a single phone call. That's probably over now. It will take decades for America's restaurants to come back from last year's hit. The pandemic's also ended widespread travel for god knows how long, every dinner in a restaurant's a risk, and as we increasingly understand the connections between food and disease everybody goes on their own personalized diet which cuts out so many kinds of enjoyable meals. Bourdain's shows are no longer about the opportunities of travel but a lost world of food and travel which we may not get back for god knows how long. We are growing ever more distant from everyone but the people we see every single day. The opportunities for lethal misunderstandings with people we don't see are increasing exponentially. Getting out of this virus-infested internet world without war will be an accomplishment, and depend entirely upon moments like the ones we see on Bourdain's world in which people 'do the work' to understand each other from the most different perspectives imaginable. Even if the understanding Bourdain conjured between different people is a false understanding, even if there may not be such a thing as true understanding between people, it's the possibility of that understanding from which progress and peace may draw closer.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Good Things #3: Louis Armstrong and the Question of Genius

Well... since Neal Fersko posted to remind us all of his deep love and devotion for jazz, I suppose it's apropos as any time to talk about Pops, who after 98 years, still plays the music which defines this country for good and ill, and played it better than any musician before or since. Was Louis Armstrong a great musician? Of course - among the greatest in any era or hemisphere. Was he a creative musical genius whose compositions changed the curvature of the earth the way Mozart and Beethoven did? Again, just like with Jaws, who gives a shit... Americans don't like geniuses, we never have, and it's a straw man to say, as so many people today do, that America must rid itself of its 'cult of genius' because America has never, ever, had a cult of genius. Ridding ourselves of the cult of genius has basically been the entire mission of American history. Our political system is the first long-lasting republic, our science is almost all team-based, and the artform we dominate the world in is movies - a medium made by committee. Americans have never worshipped geniuses and America is the best proof the world's ever had that we're all better off without them. What Americans have always worshipped is personality, charisma, uniqueness. Americans are repulsed by the otherworldly figure who sees what the rest of us can't, but we worship the personality whose extraordinary singularity can be perceived by every person, no matter how mediocre. This is a country whose people have never taken on faith what it can't understand for itself, and if we're told something is extraordinary, we want the proof right in front of us or we'll chase it out of town with pitchforks and torches. Americans won't even believe in Jesus until they see his face in a cinnamon bun. Europe believed in great geniuses who see farther than the rest of us. Putting their trust in geniuses got them very far: it brought them Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Beethoven and Newton and Darwin and all those Kings who had 'the Great' appended to their names; but eventually that belief brought them Hitler and Stalin. Americans rose to world domination because we believed that the uniqueness of a human being is more important than their ability, and that belief in uniqueness allowed millions of humans to reveal their abilities who never would have such opportunities in the rigid castes of the Old World. ----------------------------------------------------------------- America has only ever believed in two geniuses: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Americans hated the Wright Brothers and didn't notice Tesla until he was an old man. We forgot Jonas Salk because he refused to profit from the polio vaccine, we barely noticed Edwin Hubble and we never even heard of Milton Humason. We didn't even make Eli Whitney a celebrity and Whitney started the entire industrial revolution! We have always believed in brilliant salesmen like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs who claim inventions they had nothing to do with, but that shows how much we prefer con men impersonating genius to the real thing. And would we ever have taken Albert Einstein to heart had he not given us the bomb? So was there any genius whose discoveries were more immediately applicable than Edison? The lightbulb, storage battery, movie camera, electric power distribution, automatic telegraph, phone powered by battery, and of course, the phonograph... there was life before Edison, and life after him... We loved Thomas Edison because he was the genius who liberated America from ever needing to care about what a genius thinks. Once you have a movie camera, a minute of moving images can tell a story for the entire world with no translation between languages necessary; and once you have a phonograph, one trumpet can sound louder than a 100 piece orchestra. Once we had Edison, the genius already did the work for us. By 1907 you could tell a long story without writing down 100,000 words. By 1949, you could record an album the length of a symphony without writing anything more complex than a few songs with four chords, verse, bridge and chorus. No longer had there to be a sovereign creator whose performers and audience ministered to them like subjects to a king. Instead there was a musical democracy. Musicians no longer had to be geniuses to create great art. Genius had its day. Geniuses brought us as far into the world of enlightenment as they could, but they could only acquaint us with the extraordinary things. Real enlightenment can only come from figuring out how the extraordinary can improve ordinary situations, and in order to do that, you have to understand ordinary people. All through the long history of Western art, there's always been a terrible problem: its unrelatability. There are surely some colossal geniuses who create relatable things, but let's face it: most of it is guys like Gaudi, Wagner, Milton, Dante, Michelangelo, Bosch - giants who create larger than life sublimities that drive their audiences insane with passion. Geniuses are obviously not ordinary people. Most of them don't understand ordinary situations. They're obsessives; fanatics who devote decades to getting every detail exactly correct of a vision that could only be conceived of by a crazy person. There is so little space for ordinary life in their world that they wouldn't even know what ordinary life is like. Occasionally you get a Mozart/Tolstoy/Flaubert/Rembrandt/Courbet who uses their abilities to illuminate ordinary people; but they can only tell ordinary stories from observation, not from the inside. Until the 20th century, we had yet to hear the stories and sounds of regular people, and no matter what unique qualities regular people had, they would fade into obscurity the moment everyone who knew them died. A part of them might live on through their folk tales, songs, dances, costumes, embroideries, ceramics and woodwork, but no one would ever know who they were. Were they geniuses? I doubt it matters, but as Edison said, "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Even if they had the inspirational spark and the strength of will a genius needs to make undreamt possibilities real, who among them had the resources to make anybody know? So no, none of them were artists of genius as we understand the term, but many were unfathomably brilliant artisans who mastered a narrow craft and created beautiful treasures of far more use to people than the Sistine Chapel. Over the sands of time, there were millions of superlative craftsmen who gave beauty and meaning to the lives of billions, and we barely know the name of a single one. For 3000 years, the stage has been set for a cultural rebellion that only happened in the lifetime of my grandmother. --------------------------------------------------------- That rebellion finally happened in 1923. 1922 was the year Old Europe officially grew too high-fallutin' for the world. That was the year the British Empire was the largest it would ever be and Howard Carter discovered King Tut's Tomb. When Howard Carter became the first man to see King Tutankhamun in 4000 years, it was as though the largest Empire in world history touched the face of the world's first great empire, and shortly thereafter, the British Empire imploded as totally as did the Pharaohs. It was also the year James Joyce published Ulysses, Wittgenstein published Tractatus, TS. Eliot published The Waste Land, and Marcel Proust 'finished' Remembrances of Things Past. These are four towering and tremendously difficult books of genius, whose revelations elicit religious worship in acolytes who devote every free moment to pouring over their texts to discover ever new meanings within their minutia - meanings whose understanding is entirely beyond the capacities of even the most passionate lay reader. As classical music and art did a decade before, literature and philosophy became the property of an 'elect' for whom their favorite books were so complex that they take a lifetime to understand. There surely were other writers and composers writing in old forms who were easier to understand, but they did not attract the lion's share of critical attention, and the critics who sang their praises turned a hundred years of audiences off of their most meaningful cultural inheritances. The greatest prose writers were thought to be the most difficult ones: Proust, Joyce, Mann, Woolf, Faulkner, Musil, Broch - when there were much more accessible ones who in their easier ways were just as meaningful: Willa Cather, Jaroslav Hasek, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Katherine Mansfield, Isaac Babel, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser.... You could make a similar list with accessible creators of every artform, but the point is that a great divide formed in the 1920s between the most highly praised geniuses and their audiences, who suddenly found that to appreciate genius, they had to work like slaves. The stage too was set for an entirely new way of looking at arts and culture. ----------------------------------------- So listen to what Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) does with this music. It's incredibly simple music. There are no distinctive feats in the composition. The music is meaningful because like folk songs, everything about their style was passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition which no microphone was ever present to capture. And like so many folk songs, Pops's music has that 'lived in' feeling that comes from accompanying daily life for centuries. Over an unknown eternity of time, the style of his music was distilled like diamonds to its very essence. Did Louis Armstrong write his own music? A lot of it... at least probably... The truth is we don't really know and there's no way of knowing. It's claimed he wrote 50 songs, collaborated on more, and occasionally gave credit to other musicians for his own work. But much more often than we like to admit, even the great classical composers based their melodies on folk music they heard in the streets - Stravinsky may never have written an original theme in his life.... and at least with classical music the composer always contributes the form and design, but in popular music, whose form is so often the same from piece to piece, it's not really composition as ever before understood. And it doesn't matter at all. The ebb and flow of everyday life is in these recordings - a kind of eternal wisdom that contains life's joy and sadness in equal measure: it's the same juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy you get from Mozart operas and Shakespeare comedies, Rembrandt portraits and Montaigne essays, Dickens novels and Chekhov short stories. Whoever could be said to compose his music, Pops's recordings, particularly the early ones, are a glory of the world, and whether they're listened to in thousands of years, they should be. Struggling with difficult mysteries is extremely important, and Americans make a religion out of avoiding them, but whether it's through spirituality or philosophy or art and science, attempting to solve impossible mysteries is all that can prepare us for life's many situations from which satisfaction is impossible, and they teach us that however much we struggle, our struggles have meaning and reasons. But just as important is to have cultural works which speak to our everyday life; that give joy to our daily activities and reasons to get through our small struggles with a smile because we know there's a reward at the end of them. Like folk music, this new music's most important component is its perfection. There's not a single wasted gesture in the whole thing. Almost every track follows the cliche formula of verse, bridge and chorus. The formula leaves just enough creative room for a 'hook' or 'gimmick' to distinguish one song from the next. But cliches are usually cliches because they work, and these songs are perfectly housed vessels for an artist of singularity to lay something completely unique on top of the generic form. It may not transcend to infinity like Late Beethoven or a Mahler symphony, but like Chopin or Schubert at their briefest, it needs nothing more than what it is. It's absolutely perfect. ---------------------------------------------------------- I have another essay in my head that's actually about his music. ....but next week we're gonna do Danny Aiello...