Two Neologisms: One Good, One Bad

Good: “Sadomonetarism”.

Paul Krugman:

 …Europe in particular is struggling with dangerously low inflation. Has the BIS changed its prescriptions? No, it’s just changed the reason for demanding the same thing.

What all this suggests is that the BIS basically just wants to raise rates, and is always looking for a reason. It’s about sadomonetarism, not stability.

Bad: “Reformicon”.

…together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine — orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street — and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.

Reformicon sounds like the name of the most boring Transformer.


And Speaking of World War I



From Vox: “40 Maps that Explain World War I

One hundred years ago…the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by Serbian terrorists. The murder set off a chain reaction that plunged much of the world into war. The Great War killed 10 million people, redrew the map of Europe, and marked the rise of the United States as a global power. Here are 40 maps that explain the conflict — why it started, how the Allies won, and why the world has never been the same.

The Shock of the New

I’m not as much of a history buff as I’d like to be. But I think I know enough to reckon that we should all care and think about World War I than we currently do. World War II was really something, don’t get me wrong – the star-studded cast, the pyrotechnics, a bang-up script, etc. But it was a sequel – an exploitative, crowd-pleasing addition to the narrative set in motion by World War I – a bleaker, more fatalistic work. Critically acclaimed, but a box-office bomb. The modern world limped into existence from the fields of the Western Front. In politics, in philosophy, in literature, and just about everywhere else, slates were wiped clean. The old ways of thinking and creating meaning had just killed millions. And so new ways of thinking and creating meaning had to be crafted.

The Shock of the New is a 1980 documentary series on the development of modern art written and hosted  by the late former TIME magazine art critic Robert Hughes. It is accessible as hell and a must watch for anyone who doesn’t “get” modern/abstract art, but would like to in large part because it does a fantastic job of placing works – placing entire artistic movements – within their historical context. This is only one way of looking at things, of course, but it’s a good entry point. Full Disclosure: I haven’t finished the series. I’m not even close, actually. But I have seen the early episodes, where Hughes takes viewers through the ideas behind the movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism- and explains how World War I fueled the impulse towards abstraction:

[O]ne can indicate what the war did to culture. The fact that its reality was incommunicable to non-combatants…opened a vast gap of experience between the ones that had fought, mostly young men, and their civilian elders. Thus, the war started the first of the exacerbated conflicts of generation that would mark modern culture right through to the 1960s. …After the catastrophes of Verdun and the Somme, this generation – or at least those of it who had done time in the trenches – knew that it had been lied to. Its politicians had lied about its causes, and a compliant and self-censoring press had seen to it that very little of the realities of war, not even a photo of a corpse, had found its way into any French, German, or British newspaper. Never had there been a wider gap between official language and perceived reality.

That gap was made manifest in art that was, in a word, difficult. The Dadaists and abstract visual artists influenced by the events of World War I weren’t subverting the existing modes of expression. Those modes of expression had been subverted by the war itself, which, in its ineffable horror, gave writers and artists license to do new things with language and form. Some of those things (ie pop art way down the line) ended up being stupid. Says Hughes, anyways. Watch the series and decide for yourself. It’s worth it. You’re closer to “getting” art than you think.

Old Stuff: “On LGBT Rights”

I figured I might as well move some highlights from my old blog over here. This is a short post I did last March as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the DOMA case. 

Gay marriage is going to happen. If not with these cases then relatively soon. Everyone knows this. As George Will said, the base of the opposition is literally dying.

Public acceptance of gay marriage does not however imply an acceptance of homosexuality itself. We’re still far from a time/place in the American consciousness where homosexuals and those of other identities are considered truly normal by most people. This is evidenced by the fact that much of the rhetoric in defense of gay marriage aims to placate middle America by projecting notions of what “real”, “stable” heterosexual relationships look like onto homosexual unions. “Look,” we say. “They can raise kids too!”  And, to be sure, the lives that many, many gay couples aspire to are ones not dissimilar from the model set by the archetypal nuclear family. PTA meetings, a two-car garage, a white picket fence and a dog in the yard – there are gay people who want, and increasingly have, all of this.

But we should not pretend that the ideas about gay relationships middle Americans have grown to find more and more acceptable because they resemble the kinds of lifestyles that they themselves are comfortable with accurately reflect the lifestyles and desires of the entire LGBT community at large. Because they don’t. Obviously. Some want to be promiscuous. Some don’t. Some are fine with the gender binary. Many are not. At no point in the history of this debate has the diversity of the LGBT community been truly reflected by the arguments (and cliches) advanced in the popular media and conventional political discourse. I have honestly never been a fan of identity politics on principle and I admit I can’t really grasp the reasoning behind many of the gender categories/orientations that get talked (and fought) about on social media sites. But it is plain that there are legions of marginalized people out there with a lot to say and few places to say them but the internet. When the debate about gay marriage ends, will our “leaders” make an effort to show middle America that these people deserve as much respect as “normal” monogamous and conventionally gendered gay couples do?

The fact of the matter is that we’ve gotten this far by taking the sex out of sexual orientation. Instead of getting to a place where it can consider what goes on in LGBT bedrooms – and LGBT people themselves – as normal, middle America simply wants to move on. They “don’t want to know”. It’s “none of their business”. Both are essentially nice ways of saying “What they are doing is strange, unnatural, and maybe deviant, but they have the right to be the way they are and I won’t bother them.” Being queer is still queer and will be for quite some time. Until middle America can say “Homosexuality is normal,” instead of “Homosexuals have the right to be homosexuals,” we cannot say that we’ve truly been successful.

But, things are changing pretty fast. I think we’ll get there eventually. No idea when.

In Slate: A Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan

I’ve just published a piece in Slate about Pakistan’s newest military offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb. I argue that the United States, given how hard we’ve pushed for action in Waziristan, should be held partially accountable for the humanitarian crisis that now seems to be unfolding:

Over 500,000 refugees have fled from Waziristan into neighboring regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past two weeks, leaving behind their homes and those too poor to hire others to help them move. Last week, refugees frustrated with the authorities’ spotty relief distribution network, long waits in triple-digit heat, and shortages confronted security forces with protests in the city of Bannu.

Meanwhile, a third week of jet strikes and shelling continues and the Pakistani Army’s ground campaign has only just begun. The number of casualties thus far is unclear, in part because the Pakistani military has banned journalists from entering the field of operations. Its own reports claim that 376 militants have been killed. No one seems willing to hazard a guess about the number of civilians lost.

The final version is missing some nuance that I had in earlier drafts and some commenters have identified gaps in the picture of the situation I’ve presented. So, to clarify:

  1. I think the Taliban & co. are really bad. Much, much worse than the Pakistani military. I thought this went without saying. Evidently, it doesn’t.
  2. I think the United States has painted itself into the most difficult of corners here. I don’t know what exactly we could do to mitigate the humanitarian effects of offensives like Zarb-e-Azb. Maybe we could work to ensure the Pakistanis get better training. Maybe we could negotiate in a way that would allow our drone strikes to substitute for more destructive air and ground attacks (difficult given that Pakistan clearly wants to protect certain groups that we’d like to target). Maybe we can’t do anything at all. My concern is that it doesn’t seem like the Obama administration has asked itself this question at all. It seems instead that it pushed for a Waziristan operation having already seen the humanitarian impact of 2009’s Swat Valley campaign and while fully aware of  the Pakistani army’s imprecision, its lack of discipline, and – another detail that didn’t make it into the final piece – its human rights abuses.
  3. Pakistan’s slipperiness isn’t lost on me. But I think the United States can exercise muscle here. They resisted acting in Waziristan. We steadily ratcheted up the pressure. And now here we are. I don’t think it’s implausible that we could use that same pressure to make Pakistan exercise greater caution in carrying out these kinds of operations.

In a Project Syndicate column earlier today, former Pakistani Finance Minister Shahid Javed Burki further outlined Zarb-e-Azb’s potential consequences:

…the army wants to clear out foreign fighters who are using the territory as a base for various jihads around the Muslim world. But, by triggering yet another refugee crisis, the operation risks spreading the terrorist threat to other parts of Pakistan, including its largest city and commercial center, Karachi.

…Even if the army succeeds in clearing out the militants, some of the internally displaced people, bearing battle scars, will end up in Karachi. They will be in no mood to lay down their arms if the municipal authorities fail to develop inclusive political institutions that give minority ethnic groups a fair political voice. In that case, the long-term consequence of the military’s North Waziristan campaign may well be more violence where it can cause the most damage.

Infinite Jest and American Politics


A newly unearthed interview David Foster Wallace did with Chris Lydon on WBUR’s The Connection in 1996 has been making the rounds on the internet for a few days now. There’s a good amount to sift through for Infinite Jest fans. But I found his commentary on poverty and contemporary politics the most interesting. At 22:25:

WALLACE: …I got real lucky early on in my twenties and had some career success and got a lot of the stuff that I thought, you know, ‘If only I could get that, then I would be alright’ and discovering that…I wasn’t. I guess…this sounds kind of embarrassing – I mean I was raised in an academic environment and in a pretty middle class one. I’d never really seen how a lot of other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston, and a lot of it was in these halfway houses for this book. I didn’t really understand emotionally that there were people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. And again, when you say it, it sounds very cliche and blah, blah, blah, blah, and we read about it in newspapers – to get to look into the eyes of people like that is…

LYDON: Is the sadness in seeing it, David, or in confronting a life that hasn’t experienced any of that?

WALLACE: Yeah, I’m not explaining it well. The sadness isn’t in seeing it. The sadness is in realizing – for me, at about age 27 or  28 – how phenomenally lucky I’ve been. You know, not only never to have been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books…I mean – never before in history – again, and this is a truism – but never before in history has a country been so blessed materially and intellectually and whatever. And yet we’re miserable.

LYDON: For me, oddly enough, experience of reading this book will forever be entwined with the last five days of the New Hampshire Republican primary – the sense that, ‘Wait a minute, nobody gets out of here unwounded or with much of a clue as to where in the world this society wants to go.’

WALLACE: Almost a non sequitur here would be that the thing that strikes me about the election is watching everybody contort about not raising taxes and balancing the budget and – I don’t know what this has to do the with the book – it seems bizarre to me that we are one of the least taxed industrial nations on earth, that we demand all these services, punish politicians who raise our taxes, and then dislike politicians for lying when we encourage them to lie by telling us they’re not gonna – I guess what makes me sad is that I would like my generation to realize that it would be way better for us inside in our stomachs to pay higher taxes to be able to shelter and feed poor people, not for their sake but for ours. So that we would be the sort of culture that doesn’t let people die. And that instead we’re all so worried about an extra four percent off our monthly paycheck that we get all exercised about it. And, you know what – I see you looking at me – I know this sounds really pious and weird and its got nothing to do with the book, but it’s got to do with…doing this book was hard for me because it’s about why exactly are we so sad and how have we become so unbelievably selfish. Like lethally selfish and self-indulgent.

I’m not so sure that Wallace is right in saying that the problems with the demands of our political culture don’t fit in thematically with Jest. The book, if it’s about any one thing, is about how we do not know what we want. And when we do know what we want, the narrative suggests, we often pursue it while completely oblivious to how our desires and actions delimit and shape the desires and actions of other people. The web of characters and interactions in Infinite Jest isn’t much more complex than those within the real world. American democracy and democracy in general requires us to view these tangles of people and preferences as parts of a cohesive whole. But the whole doesn’t really exist. It has to be created – through empathy, and honesty, and meaningful communication. Without those, democracy has to sub in the qualities we all share for a sense of genuine collective preference. Too often, maybe inevitably, the qualities most often represented are incoherent selfishness and passive expectation – these are at the core, I think, of what it means to be human. They do not make governing easy. And so our leaders either focus on total bullshit – the Johnny Gentle administration’s obsession with cleanliness for example – or try to meet the needs of those who are easier to understand – like corporations, whose preferences are always going to be grounded in the need to make more money, as easily as possible, right now. Corporations know what they want. The average person does not. So corporations win and get to sponsor time itself. Eventually.

(Aside: For more on Wallace’s politics, you should read this piece by James Santel in The Hudson Review and the reply from Rod Dreher of The American Conservative with its accompanying comments section. I’ve read the second and not the first yet for some reason; both have been sitting in My Bookmarks for too long. Oh, and his McCain campaign essay from Rolling Stone, obviously.)

Anyhow, the interview as a whole is really something and features some talk about how Boston figures into Infinite Jest, a topic that doesn’t really get covered much in most discussions of the book, I think. Some of the callers’ Boston Brahmin accents are wonderful. So too is the show from earlier this year featuring Infinite Boston tour guide Bill Lattanzi, Wallace biographer D.T. Max, and Deb Larson-Venable, executive director of the Granada House treatment center and the inspiration for Pat Monstesian, the manager of Ennet House.

Two Things

  1. This is a blog, but I’m not a blogger.  I’m a writer who blogs. This is an important distinction. I haven’t decided why yet.
  2. The Way We Live Now allows people to keep two kinds of journals: ones we keep for ourselves and ones we write for other people. This is the second kind.