Saturday, March 22, 2008

Corrupt, Entitled Overlords of American Myth

Ok, that does it! I have had absolutely enough. Some feckless ass was on the television my mother was watching this morning, Holy Saturday by the way, explaining how to raise YOUR CHILD to be a millionaire. His website is a monument to himself, with copyright notices aplenty. He was on this television show with a youngster, and the youngster looked like a parody of Gordon Gecko (the video isn't there, yet; you should thank me).

I am FED UP with the idea of the imperial rich man.

I am sick unto death of the myth of the CEO.
Look, it's not that I necessarily hate the rich. I don't hate politicians, and I don't hate rich people. Some friends of mine are extremely rich (really extremely), and some are in politics, but there is a huge difference between a person who is rich and a person who sets out to be rich, just as there is a big difference between public service and power. However, in America, we have this desire to be ruled. It's nasty and shameful, and we don't like to admit it, but we have an inbred hatred of anarchy.

I thought, when I read it, that Carlyle was just being provocative, or perhaps he was falling victim to the same malicious, poltergeist zeitgeist that moved Matthew Arnold to do his thing. Both of these authors, and many more beside, said that we loves us some powerful men, that we needs us someone to give us orders. They seem proto-crypto-fascist to us, and loads of folks hate Carlyle, in particular, for what he said. Don't get me wrong, the zeitgeist can explain them, but it can't explain them away.

In the United States, we have always followed our own accidental way. We have put a bounty on public intellectuals. They are not allowed. Seriously: we don't allow them. We allow journalists, but not intellectuals. As soon as it looks like one is about to arise, we point out that she or he is a communist, a feminist, a Black nationalist, crazy, or something else so that we can black list and black ball them and keep them off center stage. We relegate them to "think tanks," at best, and then those release corporate reports. The result is that our policies emerge by accident. Our practices far supersede our theories. We also have this wonderful practice of talking up freedom and liberty already assured and democracy by definition and never investigating what they mean. Instead, we are more addicted to tradition than a Dickensian beadle or a Waugh headmaster.

Why do we avoid socialized medicine? Because our private system is the system we formed in the mists of time. Why do we have gerrymandering? Because this is the system we worked out ages ago. Why do we have the electoral college? Because the founding fathers (great men, all) decided on it in their wisdom.

"Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything." John Gay, The Beggar's Opera, II xii

Well, I've worked at Wikipedia for four years now. I've written some 250+ articles on the site. I admit this to my shame, I'm sure, but it is a truth I must confess. I was drawn to it for two reasons. The first was that there is a lack of opportunity for those of us who are generalists to write. The professional journals do nothing but "applied Lacanian insights into the underclass (re)presentations of the (m)other in the post-colonial narratives of Mrs. Gaskell" or the similar. The second reason was that it promised to have a flat hierarchy and to test the idea that the crowd, each contributing, was, in aggregate, well intentioned and knowledgeable. People who knew nothing would concede to those who knew, and people who wanted a quick giggle would give ground to people who helped them with information.

However, Wikipedia has a CEO-founder. James Wales (Jimbo, Jimmy, etc.) made money in business and then donated some to found Wikipedia. The project succeeded, and I suppose everyone out there knows to what degree it has succeeded. What is curious, and what has always been curious, is that, from the day the thing started to this, people have predicted that it would collapse under its own weight, and, from the first day to this, James Wales has been a sort of voice of authority or CEO for Wikipedia.

The US loves CEO's. George W. Bush promised to be the "first CEO president" of the United States, and I would argue that he has, indeed, been exactly that. In what way has he failed to be one?

The CEO is an ubermensch. He walks into a meeting, where competing underlings shout out their reports, and, in a dash, a trice, a flash, he uses his superior will to decide between them. He is "the deciderer." The CEO does not read all those reports. They would sully the instinct. They would pollute the will. They would tether the judgment. They would drag the CEO's impulses into the paralysis of consideration and contemplation, and, worst of all, fear. The attitudes of the employees do not matter (see Cheney's response to 70% of the American people thinking the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea: "So?"). You see, the CEO is fearless, and therefore attuned to "instinct" and will.

George W. Bush has boasted of not reading newspapers, not reading reports from his Cabinet, not reading much at all (when he isn't boasting that he reads deep stuff, even if it hasn't been released yet), because he needs to remain the one to decide, not to deliberate. He sees his function as the Magic 8 Ball of government -- when all things are indeterminate, just ask, and he'll pick one for you.

Of course, most corporate CEO's have one task: the profitability of the stock. Notably, this is not "viability of the company," "earnings of workers," "quality of goods and services," but only "profitability to shareholders." Now, "profit" can be generated a lot of ways. One is to sell the company. Another is to increase markets. Another is to decrease costs. Since all other companies are trying the same things, "selling the company" and "decreasing costs" are a hell of a lot easier than "increasing markets." Now, interestingly, "costs" include cleaning up the environment, health plans, safety measures, work environment, and workers. What's more, if you fire 2 of 3 workers, threaten the third, and hire temporaries without benefits to make up the slack, you have increased profit, even though it actually costs more to do that because the costs are on a different part of the balance sheet. The CEO who figured this out got rich.

This is our hero?

This is our leader?

Well, Wikipedia, as a corporate entity of users, has worked consistently to establish hierarchies. The people who volunteer there find the idea that no one is in charge intolerable. They really hate it, and each thinks that, since no one is in charge (except Jimbo), he or she should be in charge. When Wikipedia died, it did not do so because it got too large, but rather because it got too small. Power developed, and people selected themselves for it. They wanted, desperately, passionately, to know where they stood in the ranks. They wanted to know who was above them and who below, and they wanted to know what it meant. It was important for each and every one of them, and therefore all of them had a seriously vested interest in making sure that there was a single point of power above them all, a CEO.

How can you be in charge of a project with no hierarchy, unless you can assure all the rest that there is a single commander and that this commander favors you? If Jimbo were not the CEO of Wikipedia, then none of the others could claim to have rights.

Remember my definition of the CEO's job, above. The CEO is to be the deciderer. The CEO is to be the tie-breaker, the leader, the one who is unburdened with ethical or moral considerations that might lead to fear. The CEO is to be, in other words, an ego unburdened by superego.

Google "CEO scandal" some time. The list is long. Some throw parties for themselves with ice sculptures that urinate vodka. Some get hookers. Some get hookers and vodka. Some spy. Some start wars across the planet without thinking about it. This is to be expected: the CEO is impulse, not judgment. The CEO is "profit" (i.e. "gimme") and not work. So, when Jimbo Wales turned out to be screwing Wikipedia to screw "the Canadian Anne Coulter," it was no surprise. After all, the man listed Ayn Rand as his favorite author.

So, do you want to make your child a CEO? Do you want to make "millionaire" the goal? That's easy: teach the child that its impulses are perfect and give it arbitrary obstacles. Make sure that it remains selfish, inconsiderate, unthinking, and gluttonous. You can do it, America: you worship them, so you can make your children the gods they already think themselves.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Nothing Ain't Worth Nothing If It's Free

"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." -- Joseph Conrad
I only have one photo for today, so I'll make up for that with many quotations, both appropriate and delightful. Indeed, an allusion in the title should be noted by the keen eyed observer. That the world created by capital trading has only one god, and that being capital, is not news. Capital sets its own rules, its own code of morality, and I can recall T. S. Eliot's lines in Choruses from The Rock that we are in a new world, where people claim to worship nothing at all. Capital is on the pediment and on the mount of our institutions of mind. A publicly traded corporation that misses a chance to increase profits may be sued by its share holders, for example, and so one that passes up a chance to save money and pollute in order to be wise and clean up is acting against capital. In ethics, we have "wrong," and in religion we have "evil," but in capital, we have "waste" and "unprofitable." Since a corporation is a person (click, if you don't believe me), it is a person operating in a separate set of behavioral norms.

I really, really want to rant and rave about the CEO, and I keep promising myself that I will, just as soon as my bile is distilled and my thoughts are sharpened, but I must keep away from that theme for now to talk about something much more timely.

Bertolt Brecht had a lot to say about people who knew the prices of things, but not what they do. It's an interesting problem: the prevalence of price over substance. We have it many places, today. For example, we have had a spate of government as bargain hunting, where this policy or that was debated, not in terms of its public good, but in terms of its price in money. It used to be the Republican by-word, in fact, that the government that costs least governs best.

After the photo, a very strange connection.

"What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly, that they neither marry nor are given in marriage." -- Jonathan Swift
Well, at the beginning of last week, one of my favorite public figures fell. Elliot Spitzer's name came up in the investigation of an online escort service. Do I need to link to the story? If so, which would be even nearly impartial? The New York Times broke the story, so one can read about it there. By now, every American with a television set, most with a radio, and some residents of other nations, knows that Governor Spitzer appears to have employed a "high cost prostitute." Every comment, every analysis, every report made a point of the fact that "Kristen," Governor Spitzer's liaison, was expensive. She was very expensive.

I have been puzzled by this. Yes, journalists are, in general, stupid. They repeat themselves in preference to thinking. They rephrase the rip-n'-read from the AP 90% of the time. Television producers like to show women's stockings (as that's the best way to say "whore" without words: show an extended leg with stockings being put on). After the first day, the news critters went crawling about to get pictures of "Kristen," as they were interested in making her famous, and they began going through their Rolodexes of prostitutes to put on camera (and they did not seem to have trouble finding these phone numbers). Apparently, one investigative journalist has discovered that Kristen the prostitute lies on MySpace.

So here's what's bugging me: is it better or worse that Mr. Spitzer spent $4,000 on his prostitute instead of some lower sum?
"Most men are in a coma when they are at rest and mad when they act." -- Epicurus
Think about it: Hugh Grant pulled his Porsche over and got an act performed on him for 1% of what the governor spent. Like "Kristen," "Divine Brown" got some celebrity (I won't link, as it's obscene, but she made a pornographic film, and it was, if you can believe it, poorly reviewed even by that industry's standards). The fact that she could barely speak coherent English, barely sustain the male lewd gaze for more than a few seconds, and the fact that she had all of the strength of character of a street walker meant that her fame (like all fame, Aurelius said) was fleeting. Josh Levin did a very amusing piece on the service of Kristen's service and how it was "less a whore house than a whore home," so one supposes there is value added. Was Hugh Grant better than Elliot Spitzer for being frugal, or was Spitzer better for having a prestige brand?

Why is everyone interested in the cost of all things? Are female viewers and listeners thinking, "How can anyone pay that much for that?" and male viewers and listeners thinking, "That must be awesome to get something worth that much?" In fact, there is a mystique about the "high priced call girl." Such creatures are supposed by the public to be the nude models of men's magazines, starlets, and other refined and impossible prey/entrepreneurs who are calculating the cost of access very precisely and driving up the market value by scarcity.

Do we say, "Well, at least the governor gave in to a really excellent temptation," or do we say, "His crimes are worse, because he spent that kind of money on something he could have gotten anywhere?" Do we condemn Hugh Grant more, or do we excuse him more ("He must be really psychologically ill to do that")? Why the focus on the price, and not the thing?

National Public Radio alone tried, and only for a single story, to answer "why do men risk everything and go to a prostitute." Unfortunately, they got an expert on street exchange who could speak only of the Hugh Grant price range customers, and he reassured the listeners that "only 1 in 5 or 1 in 6" men have employed what Terry Pratchett termed "a lady of negotiable affections." 20-30% of men? I think I know quite a few men, and I am absolutely sure that none has ever told me of ever using a prostitute. Either some men are pretty habitual or the professor's statistics rely on some obscure and insane formula.

What's interesting to me about this obsession with the cost is that it doesn't seem to come up when the gay public figures have prostitutes. When "Jeff Gannon," White House friend, turned out to be a gay prostitute, no one mentioned whether he was a cheap or expensive whore. When Barney Frank turned out to have been paying a prostitute, we didn't really get the cost per hour. When the New Jersey governor turned up the same way, the price was not quoted. Of course most of the scandals have been about free gay sex or coerced gay sex. Foley was trying to coerce it from underage boys in Congress. George Michael and Larry Craig were looking for free gay sex from police.

So, the career of Governor Spitzer is over because he spent a great deal of money for Kristen, while Hugh Grant goes on. The incontinent Craig remains in office. Do not ask the public what prostitution means: all that they have learned is the price.

Addendum: In response to comments, which said that I had ended without the usual Cato-like denunciation, let me add this observation.

The constant reference to price is, in fact, the reiteration of the crime of prostitution, over and over again. Every time some news drone mentions how much is spent for what, that person is branding the woman a prostitute and branding the customer a John. Furthermore, every reference to price, and especially every repetition of the price, commits, once more, the actual crime in prostitution: it reduces a person to an organ and an organ to a monetary value and that exchange to rights of possession and use. It is reducing sex to a commodity and a person to a single anatomical feature, demanding particularized gestures and ceremonies of one person, and offering up power for money. Of course that's the bottom line crime capitalism has within it, as everyone from Swift to Jean Luc Godard has made clear: it is symbolic cannibalism. To continue to fixate on the price is to continue to buy a woman's sex.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Miscellany 1: Stars and Nuts

Why do the heathens rage?

"The horror of getting up is unparalleled, and I am filled with amazement every morning when I find that I have done it." -- Lytton Strachey

My first question is about the morning star. If you're up before dawn, and it's easy to be up before dawn these days, as the clocks have changed, but the sun hasn't, then you've seen, there in the East, a bright point. That's Venus. It's a "wandering star," because it seems to wiggle in the sky, unlike the "fixed stars."

The Babylonians and the Greeks saw the planet as the very essence of the feminine. The former called it Ishtar, and the latter called it Aphrodite. Why they associated the morning with women is beyond me, as both also associated the Moon, for pretty doggone obvious reasons, with women (because both are unapproachable, of course). In Latin, it was called Lucifer, the light bringer, and in the Masai, it's known as the "orphan boy."

Why is Venus important? It's important because it is above the horizon just before dawn, of course, and because it's easily seen in the early evening before disappearing. That makes it somewhat mysterious, but it also makes it important.

I don't care.

I do care about the Fallen Angel's association, because it suggests, like the Masai, that its position as not-night and not-day is an ejection. If you had to figure out why this very bright star was there some of the time and seemed to be away from the night proper and away from the day, you could either conclude that it was the Sun's harbinger or that it was suffering some sort of punishment. Thus, the fallen angel thing works.

What bothers me enough to write, though, is a really awful explanation of the importance of Venus I got from edumucational filims back when I were a laddie. You see (or I saw) shaggy cavemen in hairy clothes grunting in a cavern opening, and a Voice of Authority (a Metatron simulacrum) saying, "Primitive man lived in fear of the darkness, and this is why the morning star was so important to him. It assured him that day would return, and this is why tribes worshiped the morning star, which we know is actually the planet Venus."

Similarly, the explanation for the Fenris Wolf and such is that solar eclipses frightened the stupid clods and made them afraid that the light would never return again, and therefore they had to come up with the wolf, although in some places and people the Sun is the evil one.

Now tell me, reader, when you have noticed a solar eclipse, how worried did you get? Did you have weeks of worry and uncontrollably sweaty palms? Did your crops wilt, and did you fear that they would? When night has fallen, have you worried, even once, that it would never end? Now, I know that there are experiences that can make you think that the night will never end, but that's different. Indeed, Myles na gCopaleen said that he knew a man who was caught at a poetry reading who ripped his own face off as the only course commensurate with honor. However, have you noticed any animals, even the ones that are most susceptible to getting gobbled up, exhibiting any signs of fear over the possibility of eternal night? Well, I haven't.

As I looked up at Venus this morning, I noticed that my dog was peeing on the grass and sniffing where the neighbor Dachshund had peed, that she was intrigued by his medical conditions and concerned that he might be making an incursion into her property. To prevent this hegemony was her greatest concern. She didn't notice Venus and couldn't be persuaded to care. The invasion of the Dachshunds is much more relevant, she tells me. Why on earth would our ancestors be dumber than dogs, dumber than birds, dumber than deer, and dumber than cows? Why would they build civilization on inferential logic, only to forget every evening?

You know why early civilizations cared about Venus? It's because our circadian rhythms are 23.5 hr, and the day is 24 hr. In other words, left to our own devices, we wake up a bit earlier than we should, or we go to bed a bit later than we should. Before electric lights, guess which one was more common? So, there you are, donning your shaggy coat and wondering why no one has invented haircuts, and you need to go out to do some violence: when do you start out? You want to get to the place before the enemy (whether it's a Woolly Mastodon or the Persian Army), and so you pay careful attention to the light bringer. This is not because you're in the mood for love, but because you need to get going before dawn to be there at dawn. Far from grunting, autistic, amnesiac subanimals, the earlier civilizations were strategists who knew how to steal a march.Topic 2: Stars

The other thing pressing on my mind lately is how irate people get when high profile actors and singers and actresses and spokespeople endorse a political cause or other. They get furious. They declare curses upon whole cities, industries, and denounce all previous films and songs because the composers or actors in them disagree. (Warning: many of those links are to extremely nasty sites.) It's quite something.

I was thinking about this as I considered telling a student who is interested in sad music about Joy Division's "Atmosphere," (link is to YouTube video) which is one of the saddest things around (although "The Eternal" (nicest of the sites, there) is probably even more elegiac). I was thinking that this student is very determinedly conservative, and I realized that I could tell her that Ian Curtis was actually very much a conservative, too. I then thought about how I found his politics surprising, dubious, etc., and I realized that, in my own way, I was falling into the trap.

It wasn't the first time.

I'm a Jonathan Swift specialist, which means that I am also an Alexander Pope specialist. I recently gave a paper where I discussed how miserably Pope failed in the job of theodicy in The Essay on Man and how the cheerful, tug-your-forelock view that seems to be espoused in the poem is not Pope's, that Pope's view is actually just a big melange. The problem is that these guys were conservatives, and I'm not. Now, with Swift, it's easier. Swift was more of an anti-change person than a conservative. He didn't want to go back to anything. He just thought that all the people coming along with ideas to improve the world were venal, stupid, and arrogant, and he was right. In fact, he would be somewhat liberal today, as the people he fought as liberals are now the conservatives. Pope, though, was much more of a power magnet. He liked to be on the winning side, and he liked order, and he wished that order liked him more.

My temptation was to remake them, to save them from their limited perspective, to either make them secretly like me or to make excuses. However, in the end, I had to remember that what Swift and Pope and Fielding stood for lost. What Aphra Behn wanted was wrong. I had to get over it.

I think, when people get all upset about their radio stars or screen players having a view, it's because they confuse enjoying the art with endorsing the artist. That singer's song sounded just like your life, so she simply must be like you. When she isn't, you get mad at her managers, or you get mad that she was only pretending to be like you. She isn't "really from Texas," or isn't "really country," and Clooney must be "trying something," and Susan Sarandon must be "on a secret mission," just as Jane Fonda was a "secret agent." It's the fact that the person isn't like you, and yet you identified with him or her, that makes for the hatred.

It doesn't help that, when we read a novel, we have to project ourselves as readers into the text. We have to identify and assume an illusionistic mantle. With films and television, the illusion is cast at us: This is You, and it takes only a child's amount (or a caveman's grunt's worth) of imagination to make the connection. When you hear a song like "Atmosphere," where your own feelings of desolation match entirely the singer's, it becomes inevitable that you identify. When you do all that, when you become the artist and assume the artist as you, to find out that the artist is actually Not Like You can be traumatic.

There isn't much to do, when all is said and done, except hope.

We can hope that all of those throwing DVD's and CD's into bonfires get out of their childish inability to dissociate themselves from the experience of art, although such dissociation diminishes the pleasure. We can hope for the rise of a less totalizing artistic experience than the film. We can hope for a diminution of the star system in music so that fools don't get a chance. It's a vain hope, though. Congregations fall when their pastors turn out to be diddling themselves or the church secretary, and fans have a crisis when the star turns out to be Bruce Willis or George Clooney, and that's how things stand. The message is the message still, and the art is still as pure and true and as much You as it was before. Even in an age so overdosed on irony that no one knows what they mean, primitive identification is the normative value.