Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Today, we're checking out the HARPER’S for March, 2014. Once you've read the following precis, you won't need to read (much less buy) this month's issue. You will have ALL the vital information distilled out of it for you!

Mary Louise Starkey, subject of last issue’s expose of an elite butler school, writes in to defend herself. She strikes a surprisingly appealing tone, considering how she was portrayed in the (admittedly excellent) article in question. In a letter about an article about the M.K. Rawlings novel The Yearling, one reader extols the virtues of forgotten creative writing teacher (and occultist) A.R. Orage, who taught Ralwings, Nathanael West, James Agee, Djuna Barnes, and others.

Guest editorial by James Marcus examines recent efforts by progressive and liberal figures such as journalist Tom Ricks and Representative Charles Rangel to bring back military conscription (the draft) in one form or another as a way to force Americans to realize the true life’s blood cost of military adventurism overseas… the “skin in the game” argument. Interesting stuff, but dated. Rangel’s efforts in this regard began years ago, and were widely covered at the time.

Most interesting entry:
Price of an Occupy Wall Street poster beings old by Wal-Mart - $52.25
Most interesting juxtaposition:
It’s God=7, Harvey Weinstein=30 in the Oscar “thank you” sweepstakes!

- As part of her memoirs, author Barbara Ehrenreich’s “The Trees Step Out of the Forest” describes quasi-mystical dissociative experiences she underwent during her youth. Vivid and well written. What some seek to cure, she sees as a special privilege. I agree with her, possibly because I also experience dissociation on occasion.
- “Good Cop Sad Cop” records remarks by retired NY police officer Joseph Esposito, who coached other cops on how to fake disability for insurance scam purposes. 
- In “Greek Tragedy”, fraternity hazing is described by those who tortured the pledges and some victims, too. Sadism on parade.
- In “Nuclear Meltdown”, Major General Michael J. Carey’s ridiculous drunken behavior in Moscow is described. He was in charge of a nuclear first-strike-capable unit at the time.
- In “Hustle and Flow”, writer Alice Goffman explores the world of black market clean urine sales, for people subjected to regular drug testing. Intriguing.
- “On Nudity” is exactly what it sounds like.
- “Oedipus in Mississippi” describes an inspiring event that occurred in a jail in Mississippi in 1961, where civil rights workers were being held. They wanted to tell stories in the night, but a Sgt. wanted them to shut up, so he took all their mattresses, but they didn’t care. They sang inspiring protest songs then laughed at the Sgt.
- “The Academies of Siam” is weird Portuguese 19th century fiction. I didn't care for it.
- “Devil’s Advocate” presents part of a submission by a Satanic group to mount a statue next to the 10 Commandments statue in Oklahoma.

“Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” by Adolph Reed Jr.
Opens by covering familiar ground… the Left’s mid-century “crest” and the Great Consensus politics of the post New Deal era. “The Labor Left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American politics through the 1960’s.” 
Electoral and populist pressures forced Democrats to shift defensively rightward and “roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations that the left had won.”
I have some issues with the following, key paragraph from this report:
“Today, the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 80’s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling. Dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.”
Seems like a lot of wordplay to me… very subtle differences, indeed. Thin gruel, weak tea. Still the idea that there has been a “narrowing of social vision” is hard to argue with. The idea that the future should surpass the present – always a key concept on the Left, according to historian Russell Jacoby – has been given up on.
Clinton was right-wing, anti-welfare, pro-NAFTA, a military interventionist, etc. A great economy? Hardly. The tech and housing bubbles. He empowered snakes like Rubin and Summers and Greenspan.
And so now… Obama. Obama, whose books are a pose and a ruse, providing a necessary Pink Dipping for the True Believers (not that anybody truly believes anymore).
Matt Taibbi characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as: “an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geography, allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing … His strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly. … He is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle.
Slavoj Zizek, usually not a faddish enthusiast, proclaimed just after the 2008 presidential election that “Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more… Whatever our doubts, for that moment [of his election] each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity… Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of signeum rememontivium, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements.”
But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. … Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right".
The left careens from one oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth, students, undocumented immigrants, the Iraqi labor movement, the Zapatistas, the urban “precariat”, green whatever, the black/Latino/LGBT “community”, the grassroots, the netroots and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat, a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed. This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power of influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the USA seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.
Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors.
A strong commitment to anti-discrimination is the path that Democrats have taken in retreating from any and all commitments to economic justice.
Obama’s election is an expression of the limits of the left in the United States-its decline, demoralization and collapse.
The crucial tasks for a committed left in the USA is to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to build one. This is a long term effort that will require a renewed emphasis on labor. Aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task before the American left. “Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless.” We need to create a constituency for the left program – and that can’t be done via MSNBC or blog posts. “It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. “Admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating.” Seeing as the left has no say in who gets elected or nominated, we can stop going crazy every four years, or two years, or all the time, when it comes to House races these days.

“Sochi’s Troubled Neighbor: A journey through a Russian client state on the Black Sea”
by Bill Donahue
The United States does not recognize the Republic of Abkhazia, and in fact, only Russian and four of its client states do: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Tuvalu and Nauru, two tiny South Pacific nations with about 10,000 citizens apiece. The official US position is that Abkhazia, which was once part of the Soviet Union, is now a rogue, breakaway region of Georgia.
Whoa… sound familiar? The situation in Ukraine and Crimea now seems like another case of history repeating. Why hasn’t anyone pointed this out in the mainstream media yet?
Apsny” is Abkhazia’s unwritten “code of honor”, embraced by Christians and Muslims (15% of the population) alike. It shapes everything from burial rites to table manners.
Russia first conquered Abkhazia in 1864. In 9137, Stalin let Beria the authority to send Georgians there. On Aug 26th, 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence… four days after beating South Ossetia out of Georgia’s hide militarily. WTF?!
“Georgians regard Abkhazia as a stolen paradise.”
There are 50,000 ethnic Mingrelians in Abkhazia. Just as Abkhazia is ignored by the world, so are the Mingrelians ignored by Abkhazians.
The narrative swiftly begins to take shape as a sort of “Lifestyles of the Drunk and Miserable.” Then it returns to the issues of competitive dominoes, anti-Mingrelian bigotry, and the 92/93 war. Russian soldiers asleep at their post. Scrubby little “museums” crumbling apart along pothole riddled streets while a bust of Stalin stares ahead implacably. It’s all very charming, indeed.

“Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Predicting murder on Chicago’s South Side”
by Monte Reel
This is a very important story about the cutting edge of police work, with a very sad and troubling ending. It’s partly the story of Chicago resident Devonte Flennoy, 20 years old, victim of a homicide. In the five day period preceding Devonte’s murder, there were over fifty other shootings, five deadly, throughout the city. What made Devonte special was that he had been chosen as being at a “high risk” of falling victim to a homicide by a groundbreaking public school program that uses a wide variety of key indicators to determine individual students’ likelihood of either committing, or falling victim to, violent crime. Turns out that Devonte, due to his family situation, his grades, where he lived, his attendance record and so forth, was more than TWENTY TIMES MORE LIKELY than average to get himself shot.
The case of Devonte Flennoy might suggest how powerful the new analytic techniques can be, but it should also serve as a warning that predicting a death isn’t the same as saving a life. Police have estimated that 625 gangs now exist in Chicago, some with only a handful of members, others with several hundred (three people is enough for a group to be considered a “gang” according to the US Department of Justice and the Chicago City Council).
Strangely, the data does NOT reveal any kind of hierarchy, as one might expect.
Those near the top of the list were estimated to be at least 500 times as likely as the average Chicagoan to either be the victim or perpetrator of a homicide. Unlike the school system’s model, the police’s version searches for evidence of social connections between the high-risk individuals themselves and factors those connections in as additional risk, along with other aspects of a person’s criminal record.
At Devonte’s funeral, his old friends express personal philosophies that are fatalistic to the point of nihilism. “Whatever’s gonna happen to you is gonna happen to you. Whether they catch up with you now, whether they catch up with you later, whether they catch up with you ten years from now.”
“REC City for Life” t-shirt. Sad as shit.

“Portrait of a Township: Former militants take on the post-apartheid struggle”
by Justine van der Leun
Gugulethu is a black township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, where – thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – brutal thug race-murderers who used to go around chanting “One Settler, One Bullet!” go free on technicalities, running the show in the super-slums. And yet the story has a very odd tone… hopeful in the face of obvious hopelessness. The tone we get is “Apartheid was bad… m’kay?” Like, duh.
Some of the every day crazy on display here includes dudes getting perforated over a pair of slacks stolen from a washing line to pay for South Africa’s version of crystal meth (called “tik”).
Gugulethu was established in 1962 to absorb the population overflowing from the older townships of Langa and Nuanga. It was originally called Gugulethu Emergency Camp. Gugulethu means “our pride” in Xhosa.
They watch Nigerian soap operas.
“In Xhosa culture, fat on an old lady is a mark of dignity and a large family.”
Gugulethu’s main road was recently renamed Steve Biko Drive.
Many middle-class and wealthy South Africans consider free care at a government hospital to range from usless (a routine checkup) to a potential death sentence (surgery). For the poor, obtaining such care is a full-time job.
In South Africa today, people like to joke that your resume can be blank but for one qualification and you will become a minister or a tycoon: you need only have served time at Robben Island – Cape Town’s offshore prison, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners suffered for decades – and your future will be bright and certain.
“Waiting State”
by Olivier Kugler
Comic art portraying the lives of Syrian Kurdish refugees killing time in Iraq. This is a very intriguing form of reportage, in my opinion. The artwork is great.
Check out the comics festival Fumetto, in Lucerne, Switzerland.

“The Toast”
by Rebecca Curtis
A funny story about a toast made in absentia by one (broke, loser) sister at another’s exclusive, expensive wedding in Hawaii, which she won’t be able to attend in person. Good, but a tad long.

NEW BOOKS, by Christine Smallwood
"The Double Life of Paul DeMan", by Evelyn Barish
One of the fathers of “close reading” and deconstruction, his falsehoods and early anti-Semitism and flirtations with fascism would seem to make him, if not his critical theories, obsolete. “A confidence man and forger who embezzled, lied and arreared his way to intellectual acclaim.” Smallwood seems upset that DeMan’s theories are still so well regarded (if not consciously acknowledged as his), despite his having come up through the academy in a “mystical” and unorthodox way.
"A Place in the Country", by W.G. Sebald
Odd. To applaud this teacher’s words would be to “applaud Modernity’s march into the abyss.” His glosses on five writers and one painter seem smaller than miniature, acting as fortifications against time’s decay. A minor work.
"Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America", by Kevin Cook
Too much truth is a bad thing, especially in the case of the Kitty Genovese murder. This book seems to have far too much truth in it. Disgusting and despair-inducing. It seems as though, culturally, we are back on the downslope with the Genovese murder, after a bit of a lift a couple years ago thanks to The Atlantic (and the New York Post)’s revisionist history of that seminal crime. Now it’s back to being as awful as it gets.
MOSTPEOPLE'S POET: Is E.E. Cummings a serious writer? by Ruth Franklin
Discussed in this review: 
“E.E.Cummings, a Life", by Susan Cheever
“E.E. Cummings, Complete Poems”
Again, this reflexive make-awareness of Cummings’ “anti-Semitism”. It almost seems like the sole purpose of modern liberal literary journals is to catalog each and every time in history that an author, poet, painter or thinker has had something negative to say about the Jews. Supremely annoying tic, this is, especially when discussing someone as worthy in talent as Cummings. Read the poetry. Leave the reviews out of it. They add nothing.

“Here There Is No Why: The Trial of 12 Years a Slave” by J. Hobermam
Makes some interesting asides about how the President at any given time in America’s history informs the cinema of that historical moment. Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan are all pretty obvious ones. And now Obama, who informs this slave narrative come to cinematic life. The review is positive, and somewhat insightful. There is a humorous rundown of Black presidents in American film (almost always during a disaster of some sort, as in 24, Deep Impact and Fifth Element… though Hoberman doesn't mention Idiocracy, perhaps tellingly).

Leprosy is on the rise in India. Russian street drug Krokodil has reached Texas (where it’s devouring teen genitals). Statistical stylometrists have shown that unsuccessful novelists use too many adverbs, etc, etc, etc.

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