Monday, September 30, 2013

More Seriously

As a follow-up to yesterday's meditation on the sorry state of things, there's this really neat post from Felix Salmon perfectly illustrating the conflict between acknowledging serious consequences for very destructive, if not criminal, actions on the part of the JP Morgan bank (articulated here by Salon's Alex Pareene) and the abundantly unserious attitudes taken by the crew at CNBC whenever the topic of lavish riches might be critiqued (and not reflexively praised).

In thinking in the wake of yesterday's post about what our culture broadly and obviously does take seriously, the best I could come up with was sports and making money (maybe patriotism too, but so much of that is caught up in spectacle, and used by so many in exclusionary, self-obsessed ways so as to be unserious).

Sports, as serious as the subject has become, is, of course, essentially the spectacle of play; and the measure of how seriously they are taken now might make a fascinating comparative study regarding the coinciding loss of seriousness elsewhere in our culture. But let's save that for another day.

Right now I would propose that the deadly serious subject of capital acquisition, the very serious way money, or rather the focus of capital investment and details of monetary policy, have manipulated, maybe degraded, whole societies and populations, and steadily laid waste to the planet has been a topic which our entire media enterprise, largely created by vast capital investments and returns of its own, has evolved to obscure. We are instead shown daily the entertainment side, the unserious scrim if you will, of the money game: the hot picks unloaded hourly, the arguing analysts, the fawning billionaire interviews, The Apprentice, the ever-fluttering charts, so as to render diverting and comprehensible a financial system clearly beyond rational understanding and ultimately devouring of human lives and humane perspectives, the latter case especially among those who presume to work it.

Two-three months ago I was having the western omelette at a local greasy spoon, my first and last visit, and was astonished to see the single TV above the counter tuned to CNBC. It was hard squaring the setting of cheap eats, and the weary-looking cooks and customers, with the bright, breathless display of finance capitalism beaming forth. It was, in fact, absurd; it was just not serious.

UPDATE: Alex Pareene writes about his appearance on CNBC with this neat observation germane to the points made above: The New York Stock Exchange is at this point essentially a heavily guarded television studio and occasional film set, which I guess is an appropriate enough symbol of American capitalism in late 2013. Thanks, Alex!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Seriously

Poster Doug Milhouse J, over at the ever-refreshing Balloon Juice, articulates something that's been on my mind too. Conventional wisdom late this past week has it that once a government shutdown is effected, and proper blowback directed at the GOP, the tots will have then gotten the anarchy out of their systems and, chastened, will raise the debt limit in due course.

Well Doug isn't having any of it, and neither am I. Really, why should some ignorant yay-hoo, bumped up to Washington from a kind of rural, faintly exurban district to show them damn yankees a thing or two about freedom (which, let us note, mainly means freedom from responsibility) give a good goddamn about the full faith etc.etc. of the nation's credit standing? And the world economy? Don't make me laugh.

The point of this is not to gaze full-of-whist at my political crystal ball, to game out what's to come; rather to point out a broader issue that is at the heart of our disorder and, for obvious reasons, left unremarked upon by nearly everyone on the culture fair merry-go-round, and that is a dreadful lack of seriousness in any aspect of our commercial, that is public, transactions.

Oh, we feign seriousness alright. Writers at every major magazine and/or website can fill whole archives on "The Golden Age of Television" we are apparently witnessing, or the meaning, the seriousness of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, all of which are--with all due respect to the pronounced talents and admirable care vested in those fine entertainments--only as serious as soap operas can be: serious by comparison, of course, to Wheel of Fortune or Two and a Half Men, maybe even temporarily culture defining, but our culture is not serious, and has not been for quite some time.

"Okay, smartass", I sense some of you snorting, "what do you call serious?"

For starters, serious does not appeal to the emotions; serious is not a distraction; serious is not something that goes away when the show is over, or the series ends; serious does not have a message, or provide uplift; serious does not care how you feel about it. Serious is hard and slow, a constant testing of ideas and goals, and demands that people pay attention if they are to live within its boundaries. Serious is terrible and devouring, and will always prevail in the end, and to ignore it is to live a shallow and skittish life of endlessly rocking unease.

The country had seriousness in spades for the century starting in 1860, and one can certainly appreciate every attempt to escape it in those particular years, and the decades since. In fact seriousness is made whole by diversion, and that diversion itself, by treating seriousness as something worthy and profound, can then command a great weight as art, be it high or low. But at some point our commercial culture--which is pretty much all we have left--rather than acknowledge seriousness in its attempts at relief, resolved to abolish it altogether; to send us on fantastic little journeys, aided mightily by electronic and digital vehicles, so as to reach a place where seriousness is defined completely by our own intentions for ourselves. And we can't be serious.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Psy-Oops

In a nod to blogger conformity, let me direct your attention to this must-read from Jonathan Chait on the constitutional reason why the president will not negotiate a debt limit "deal" with the GOP, and why we are careening towards a national payments default on Oct. 18.

You several regulars know where I stand on this, that certain Republicans, like certain southerners 155 years ago, knowing that the broader nation will never, ever, conform to their sick social and economic agendas are eager to torch the whole enterprise and go away as losers in fact and form, albeit heros in their own eyes.

Chait cites the debt-hike bargain Obama struck in 2011 as the biggest mistake of his presidency, and I am inclined to agree. As I recall, I expected him to allow the clock to tick down then without a bargain (with a little looking, I may be able to link to that post), and the chagrin that he did not was buffered by other considerations that must have entered into his judgement: real debt reduction, a trembling economy, the upcoming election.

What rankled throughout his first term however was the president's dogged need for what looked like agreement for agreement's sake. This inane philosophy was played beautifully by the opposition to frustrate and reduce every single policy initiative and bill, with the one person in town apparently unaware of this, for years, was Obama himself. This has, of course, led to the confidence among Republican strategists--reported also by Chait--that the president will fold yet again.

In all those battles of the first term, all those months waiting for some compromise on something from the GOP which never came, no commentators that I'm aware of ever noted what was glaringly obvious to me, that there was a solid psychological basis for why the child of divorced parents--and not just divorced but wildly separated by culture and geography so as to make the gulf between mother and father absolutely unbridgeable--would believe so fervently, so illogically, in finding a place where two so-very-different sides, brought together by his own heroic efforts, would meet and, presumably, prosper.

The cynic in me absolutely believes that particular GOP operatives knew this all along, that there was a very detailed profile whipped up by some public relations psy-ops shop which outlined these very issues in some detail, and that was the text used in every negotiation with the president from his first inauguration onward. Who knows? Maybe someone will leak it someday...

Anyway, I do believe we are past that point. The young man understands now that his father never cared all that much about him, and is never coming back. He is an adult at last, and now it is the arrested adolescents on the other side with control issues of their own, still terrified of their own daddies, haunting their dreams and guiding their lives, who are about to burn down the farm.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Whigged Out

A stray comment I posted at a far more responsible political blog last week, wondering what it would take for the MSM to stop referring to the GOP as an intact, national political party, got me thinking seriously about the topic and here's the best I can come up with:

A) Desertion of office holders to other parties in advance of elections.

B) Unexpected losses at the polls, especially among "safe" seats.

C) Policy irrelevance.

D) Irreconcilable regional policy differences.

E) Collapse of small donor contributions.

F) MSM recognition of total collapse.

Looking over the list, I now see that F) will come only at the very end; also that the Repubs are pretty well along the paths described in C) and D). The outlines of B) and E) will not be clear for at least another year, which leaves us with A), and such developments which may accrue between the government shutdown/debt limit showdown and the kickoff of the 2014 campaign season.

Last year I predicted that there would be a migration of so-called purple state Republicans to the rather more sedate bays of conservative Democratic politics. Honestly, I thought we'd see more movement in that direction before now, but some things take time. I will note that there is probably more than a handful of GOP reps who would feel far more welcome (and be far more effective) in conservative Dem tribal circles than the howling gauntlets being prepared for them next year by the radical avengers. Human nature being what it is, I still look forward to several grateful crossovers.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Got Live If You Want It

Another new feature here at H&J is the In Performance link at right, connecting one to the YouTube channel of a modest videographer here in the Windy City, who tends to record performances by his favorite artists when certain conditions cooperate.

Fortune certainly smiled here, at The Hideout, for this performance of Steel Guitar Rag by the briefly reunited trio Devil in a Woodpile last November.

Bassist Tom V. Ray is currently touring with Nico Case; singer and washboardist Rick Sherry finds steady employment with his regular jug band the Sanctified Grumblers (catch them this Saturday at the National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville, KY!); and guitarist Joel Patterson plays with several ensembles of his own devising, here and in Europe, about as well as anyone can.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

Whatever confidence among certain political bloggers that John Boehner would do what was needed to avoid a government shutdown and/or debt default has taken a hard cross to the jaw over the last 24. Nope, it looks like my contention that the dead enders would rather destroy the funhouse than share it with a bunch customers they hate might be the more germane

In thinking about that post, it came to me that in some cases sheer nihilism might not be fueling some in the House GOP caucus, that a certain ignorance, long observed among the rightwing faithful, prevails; that some refuse to believe the party has anything to lose by this desperate gambit, because it's clear from the polls that people hate Obamacare, correct?; or the proposition voiced by, oh, the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street Journal that a debt default would have dire and long-lasting consequences to the nation's economy, and economic world standing, because, hey, it's never happened before (has it?) so who can say for sure? They see a winning strategy heading to the elections fourteen months away, and even the most skeptical, evidence-based observers are not prepared to disagree.

A large part of the reason why, we're told, is the effective gerrymandering which rendered dozens of white conservative districts safe as banks for GOP intransigence for the next ten or so years. This has become one of the sturdiest props in conventional political thinking in our day, which leaves me to say: Really?

People die all the time, people move, people sometimes need to make new adjustments to hard circumstances; all of which is to say that if I was planning a campaign to retake the House, the last thing I'd count on is the mortal lock safety of a majority of the seats I have already. If you ask me (and no one ever does) the GOP, spectacularly wrong for over 12 years now, might have less going their way than anyone, right or left, is prepared to acknowledge.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Lost 'Cause

As the minutes tick down to the inevitable debt-limit zero hour, I believe there is a certain psychological element being overlooked by even the heartiest liberal commentators regarding the paste-headed GOP intransigence: namely a profound social death-wish, the absolute willingness to destroy whatever structures they cannot control.

An example from this can be drawn from the American Experience, and how the rebellious South fought what was obvious to all, once Grant took Vicksburg, and certainly Hooker's victory at Lookout Mountain, a losing cause. But the Rebels fought on for another 18 months, pleased to see their cities and rural infrstructure laid waste and their whole stupid economy enter a period of economic vassalage, which did not end until rescued by the New Deal 70 years later.

That is because if they couldn't have it, by God, they'd make sure nothing of value remained for the Yankees and their former bondsmen.

I submit that it is not at all coincidental that this latest resistance to thoughtful, fair, and humane governance comes from the same dreary districts of white ascendency. Now, as then, they know, on a sub-luminous level at least, that the jig is up. They can't even watch football on Sundays without seeing the new America, young, diverse, and tolerant, reflected in nearly every commercial, from car insurance to fast food, soft drinks to nice cars.

And it bugs the shit out of them, those fat headed suburban nihilists who see no future for themselves and so are keen to fix that wagon for the rest of us. And I say, yeah, boy, because to consider them and their mean little concerns as somehow separate, or an aberration from the national psyche is a profound misunderstanding of our history, and if their rancid fruit is even the partial undoing of the vast credit project which undergirds our economy by laying waste to the planet, well, worse things have happened to nicer people.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Elsewhere On The Internet

Russell Brand, a surprisingly sensitive prose stylist and clear thinker, takes on our corporate sponsorship culture (here connected to a big-name magazine). He probably won't be invited back.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Booked

Eagle-eyed regulars, if there are any here, will not only note the brand new look--in which the tyranny of black type at last prevailed over the free expression of white cuneiform on the mantle of deep blue which was once the hallmark of this abject scriptorium--but also a few new links to our right.

Top of the list is the website for a book published last April by my, uhm, indispensable colleague, Joe Gioia, being The Guitar and the New World, a sort of rambling, multi-faceted social history of the guitar and American music. The book's central proposition is that what are now called the Blues and old order Country music are in fact divergent branches of an early-American rural music very much formed by the chromatic scales and songs of the continent's Indigenous people; that the real roots of American music are Native American.

Though excerpted in the online Utne Reader in June, and reviewed in Publisher's Weekly, the book's central, and one might suppose mildly controversial, proposition has so far attracted no argument from the diligent cadre of music writers prone to care about stuff like this. This is slightly puzzling, though might be chalked up to the persuasive nature of the argument, which is something I know its author certainly wants to believe.

Interested parties can order this thought-provoking number via Amazon.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Muddle East

Two days ago I ended my rambling discourse by observing that the president's handling of the current foreign policy dilemma in Syria is really an altogether new, interesting, and I submit, far-reaching development. Mr. Greg Sargeant of the Washington Post yesterday asked all interested parties commenting on the affair to put up or shut up (well, he was a little nicer than that), and so I will.

It has been clear, if not altogether impressive, to most observers that Barack Obama has been from the get-go an exemplar of certain cautious and completely central means of advancing in this country. Issues of unhappy parentage, and the real struggles endured by his mother, aside, a private high school education, leading to Ivy League undergrad and law degrees, are distinctive marks with which the best and brightest, both good and bad, go on to make their mark on the times.

Obama's faults, at least as seen by his usual supporters, tend toward hewing to this defining system of rule by a democratic elite: an appreciation of process, an unseemly willingness to concede marks to the opposition under the basic assumption that the values shared by both sides will render whatever outcome the most just, if not exactly the most sensible or efficient, solution. (I will leave for another time any consideration if this guiding attitude was ever at all justified.)

I think the president advocated bombing Syria in the wake of a poison gas attack on a dissident population because, as the moral exemplar of a democratic nation (a role I believe he takes very seriously) he had to. In this his hand was forced by fate, and one presumes he hoped for the best.

Best may well have been the refreshing rejection by Parliament of any British participation in punitive strikes, which then presented, or at least made more vivid, another opportunity: seeking permission from congress for military action. This, at this stage in our history, had to have been taken in full knowledge that passage would come by way of every other successful bill this era, by splitting the Republican caucus. I submit too that the administration probably was not expecting the level of resistance among Democrats, which Ms. Pelosi was beginning to whip against shortly before the secretary of state made his marvelous off-hand remarks.

While most on both sides are probably relieved a vote was avoided by Syria's unexpected acceptance of Kerry's putatively inadvertent terms, let us however not lose sight of the fact that the GOP was poised to split over what was called in simpler times a war resolution, which is an altogether stunning development certainly noted with no small alarm in corporate war dog circles.* That the president was prepared to abide by the vote also strikes me as unheard-of in our history.

As for the Secretary of State's supposed gaffe: does it matter if it was one or not? As we have learned early-on in this century, Truth is a very dodgy concept, and of only lateral concern in most political deliberations. I tend to think the remark was not as accidental as many would like to believe, but I know next to nothing.

What I have learned though is that Barack Obama, a very smart and honest man, will always hew to the ways established in the order of constitutional governance, even if there is no good way forward, even if no one else wants to. This is the central fact of his success, and a sustaining thing: the authority of the office, the division of powers, and the respect between branches. As designed, it's a refuge in difficult and dire times, and immune from second-guessing and mean motives.

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*While there was certainly some posturing among normally pro-war Republicans looking to hurt the administration, I will bet that the radicals have successfully introduced isolationism back into the GOP DNA and that the resulting schism is now indelible.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Summer Summary

Mr. Brian Beutler writes one more wither goest thou? for the Gone Old Party today, which, I submit gets it kinda backwards. The hopeless fight against Obamacare is not destroying the Republican Party, rather (my longterm hobbyhorse here) a shattered Republican Party is now being defined by the central social issue of our time, just as the busted window is defined by the brick.

I have kept mum of late in these precincts for a bunch of reasons, mainly because the politics of the past year have been staggeringly dull. I also hate repeating myself, and have seen no reason to change or amplify my central proposition of these many years, old friends, regarding the collapse of the GOP. The only change I've noted over the last few months is that others, like Mr. Beutler, are finally beginning to say it out loud.

This is not to say that I've been right all down the line. I honestly thought the "working" press would have twigged to this reality long before now, and it has been spectacularly discouraging to witness the charade enabling, the straight-faced deference to patently dumb losers made every goddamn day in the byways of mainstream journalism. Fact is, and I knew this very well, the undergirding assumptions of media companies, being those of material consumption and civic spectacle, are far better suited to the big-money verities of the GOP than the rather more open-ended, and therefore complicated, concern for the broad civic well-being generally voiced by Democrats.

And let me tell you, Bub, people hate thinking about open-ended, complicated, that is, difficult stuff; and they avoid it as much as possible. But clarity and simplicity have their own pitfalls, especially on the rather meaner and crazier edges of political calculations. And, fact is, people deal with complicated stuff everyday. One of our finer national characteristics is problem solving, which the magical thinking Republicans forgot very early in the administration of that squalid little man. I think most Americans are looking forward to solving the problem of healthcare in this country, which most Republicans, astonishingly, can't begin to comprehend

I also expected the rather more business-minded elements of the GOP to have a much greater say in the direction of party affairs, but I guess one of the drawbacks to oligarchy is that you get only so much loyalty as you can buy, and even if you can buy a lot, you can never buy enough. The vastly wealthy are also easily fleeced by their factotums. Pockets are lined, everyone looks good, and nothing of merit really gets accomplished.

What has, in fact, prompted my return to blogging, such as it is, is the fascinating turn recently made, I believe against everyone's expressed wishes, in foreign policy: that is the president's fruitless quest to get the nation to support an application of cruise missiles to Syria. That, however, must wait for a day at least as I have gone on long enough for one warm morning.