Category Archives: Politics

Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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Filed under Aesthetics, America, Anger, Criticism, Dissent, Doubt, Ego, Essays, H.L. Mencken, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Everything, Everything, Everything is Crap

urca42ckfu0qgllaty5jSometimes, in conversation, you criticize someone or something, and another after another complaint comes out. Soon indignation climbs on indignation until you’re riled. The world fills with unjust and intolerable and dumb circumstances. People around you are insensitive and/or ignorant. You’re incensed, as you should be.

A sympathetic listener nods and sighs, perhaps clapping a hand over yours, whispering, “Yes, the world is misguided… all but us.”

And sometimes you hear your laments as they’re heard by others. Your listener’s eyes lose focus or shift to a screen, window, or plant nearby. In that context, sighs have a different meaning. Air goes dry. The keening noise, that shaking-fists-at-the-sky, ready-to-leap voice, is yours. You’re as wrong as anyone.

I have opinions. When I evaluate poor decisions, miscues, and the culprits behind the blunders around me, I believe I’m right. I see the blunders and the blunderers, which some people—those people—don’t.

Then, in an instant, I hate listening to myself. Judgment is a terrible default, yet anything anyone tells me or anything I read or anything I experience instantly becomes good or bad, right or wrong, sensible or silly, feeling or unfeeling, interesting or dull.

I’d be happier with curiosity or sympathy or a profound desire to investigate and learn.

But perhaps I shouldn’t assess myself so harshly. American society is judgmental. One party and candidate sneers at the other. One product puts another in the shade. Arguments make good TV punditry, and all those people stranded on islands or traveling and the dancers and singers and generally talented people, they need eliminating. Cooks need eliminating. Disdain permeates media and politics. We enjoy laughing and love a snappy put-down or gotcha.

Even a president explaining the Affordable Care Act does so in mocking-cable format on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die. The President must follow the script—“C’mon everyone knows it’s a script, Obama is so wooden!” the critics cry—as he continually insults the cluelessly obtuse, hapless comedian. At last, he reaches his plug, his plug being openly dismissed as “a plug.” The comedian interrupts the President to point out how dull his message is. “This is what they must mean by a drone, ” Galifianakis opines.

My history classes listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat praising the American people for their understanding of the Emergency Bank Holiday, lauding the two political parties for their patriotic cooperation, and applauding the financial sector for self-sacrifice as we (plural) met the unexpected crisis.

The contrast woke me up. Of course, I could and maybe should be skeptical, critical even. FDR isn’t be telling the whole truth—history records his many detractors and the friction his reforms met—but speaking praise without fear of censure seems, in our age, surprising. He too needed to plug, to justify government action, but he explained with poise and calm. No one was hurt or threatened in the making of his broadcast. Many felt reassured.

My students seem better prepared for the mixed humor and earnestness of Between Two Ferns, and, even now, I hear them judging me, saying I’m clueless They’d say Americans are honest now. FDR’s Fireside Chat—really just as calculated as Obama’s appearance—exploited Americans too, only less openly. We can’t be so easily exploited now.

Maybe, but the extremity and judgment that permeate humor and earnestness exemplify our strident age. Nothing is solely what it is—it’s itself and what it’s worth.

Dear Reader, you may find me strident now. I’m ready to accept my part of the problem. I’m as cynical as the next American and won’t make any ridiculous, cringe-worthy (and judgment-worthy) resolutions to change. I won’t spout bombastic, self-righteous calls for others to change.

Instead, I’ll just say I hear myself now. Some matters deserve censure, others not.

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Chairs and Sofas

el-mundo-magazine_twwu-lisbon-bridgeAll this talk of government shutdown has me thinking (again) about the end of the world. I can’t explain my curiosity about doomsday—my MFA graduate lecture was titled “To Hell in a Hefty” and dealt with jeremiads of all shapes and colors. I often find myself saying, “Oh well.”

I heard once that levels of nitrous oxide—N2O—are rising nearly one hundred fold in the Indian Ocean. Before that instant, I thought of N2O as laughing gas, the stuff dentists use to anaesthetize patients. I didn’t know nitrous oxide existed in nature, and, apparently, it shouldn’t much. It comes from fertilizer run-off.

Nitrous oxide, the story explained, may be a double threat, depleting the ozone layer and contributing to green house gasses. The atmosphere grows more permeable to radiation while it holds more radiation in as heat. Which is to say, forget global climate change, nitrous oxide will kill.us.all.

Sometimes I stagger punch-drunk through the paper, taking every blow because I’m too weary to get out of the way. Past a certain point, all the bad news becomes one warning—love your family, love your life, the end is nigh.

It’s more accurate to say humanity is in trouble, and I’ve written before about the planet without us, one filled with bird and insect sounds and collapsed houses and high rises barely visible beneath vines and spring green trees. Smears of algae will run down streets littered with the carapaces of cars enveloped in morning glories. The air will smell like orchids in bloom, heavy and fertile.

In E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the main character Margaret Schlegel Wilcox repeats her sister’s quip that, in the end, the world will be “a desert of chairs and sofas,” and that version is more clever, a massive Ethan Allen catalog, all the settees and breakfast nooks artfully intact. Objects d’art scrupulously well-positioned, if dusty.

I much prefer slanting mellow light across a subtle plaid to the image of my family sitting around, sunburned and steaming, laughing our asses off on N2O.

Okay, so maybe that’s a step too far. Once I begin to think of people I love, any end time seems too harsh to contemplate, too painful and real. Yet that’s where my mind goes, and wouldn’t it be great if thoughts of family saved us from our crazy flirtations with catastrophe. But I’m not the only one who thinks catastrophe, in the abstract, is fun to consider. And some people are self-centered enough to overlook everyone else.

Once I had a dream that I was going to a photo exhibit of pictures taken with telephoto lenses from Manhattan rooftops. The photographers shot images of families through the windows of their apartments. Some caught the families eating or arguing or laughing over a board game like a Milton Bradley advertisement, but the longer I walked the walls of the gallery, the more photos depicted bodies bathed in television glow, strewn like sacks of flour around a white fire. The TV screens and their broadcasts never appeared, just mid-flicker radiation illuminating the slack, open-eyed faces of the recumbent.

I had some trouble getting back to sleep.

In the news stories I encounter, people are data, not individuals as complex as my wife and children. No one, despite the best journalistic effort, is anyone I know. Predictions of economic collapse, monster storms, rising sea levels, and impossible droughts and floods are just ideas, vast forces scything us down gently. The temptation to feel fatalistic is strong. What can be done? To everything—turn, turn, turn—there is a season…

W. S. Merwin contemplates his death in his poem “For The Anniversary of My Death.” He speaks somewhat wistfully about the way, even in the ugliest moment, life can surprise us with simple beauty—in Merwin’s case, a wren singing. After three days of rain, the bird’s song finds him, “bowing not knowing to what.” Try as you might, catastrophe can’t remain abstract. There’s so much to cling to here.

I have a friend who is more frightened of death than anything else. I’m not. I know my time will come. What bothers me more is thinking that, each year, as the anniversary of my demise passes, I’m wasting my time here.

What can I do to respond to great, abstract forces? I can’t march on Washington or single-handedly reduce the carbon footprint of the planet. I recycle. I shrink my environmental effect yearly by walking and watching my wastefulness. I support environmental groups financially. I’m nice and vote, as best I can, only for those who seem to seek something rather than seek to ruin what rivals want. But I’m not an industrialist, a congressman, a CEO, or anyone with any sort of power. Those people are hard at work. My actions are desperate faith.

And so fatalism seems valid. Though doing nothing much feels cowardly, may make me part of the problem, and will hasten ends I envision, all the hope I have left is to elude regret, to try to love it while I’m here.

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On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.

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The Closed Door Policy

door_revThe front door of our building doesn’t close unless you pull the knob hard, and my wife—condo association president—left a sign: “Please pull door shut.” Still it often isn’t shut, leaving me to guess why.

In elementary school, I was a kid who believed every lost item had been swiped. It didn’t matter that no one would want one sock or a special zebra rock I’d found under the slide—evil forces lurked. Unfortunately, since then only the range of possibilities has changed. I invent scenes I haven’t seen, eye everyone as a character in some drama, and assign intentions.

My neighbor’s boyfriend is often in the building. His clothes are impeccably dishabille, his hair artfully mussed, and he wears sunglasses when it’s stormy. His deft movements say he should have left before now. I offer “Hello,” and he raises his chin five degrees. Sometimes, he says something that isn’t a word.

This winter, during our worst snowstorm, as I shoveled the front steps, he appeared at the front door in expensive leather shoes. He stepped gingerly in the spaces I’d already cleared and into the street. 20 minutes later he returned with a sandwich from Subway as I continued to shovel, and, still hurrying, swept inside. No words either way.

So he’s my number one suspect, and I’ve invented a personality from these few particulars… plus others. I’m convinced he convinced his girlfriend to install an elaborate sound system that shakes our wall when it’s full-throat. Once I went to their door about noise and my knocking went unheard, and I was sure he was ignoring me. For the holidays, he received a horn and occasionally, at moments seemingly timed to annoy, he blows it like a shofar.

So I imagine his walking up to the front door, harrumphing in contempt at my wife’s sign, and then deliberately leaving the door ajar.

“He’s just the type,” I think.

Of course, my supposition reflects more poorly on me than my sometimes neighbor. I shouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t care to fraternize with his girlfriend’s neighbors. Perhaps he is late. Maybe his eyes are sensitive.

And maybe I’m too quick to blame others as deliberately difficult when I’m just being difficult myself.

I’ve met a few people who celebrate stubbornness and boast about obstacles they create. In our diagnosed age, we’d say they have O.D.D. or oppositional defiant disorder. They are pathologically obstreperous, hostile to innocent commands, and determined to subvert order. But I suspect they’re less common than we think and, seen from another angle, they’re necessary, the only people poised to see what we accept too readily. Are they any worse than people, like me, who are too fearful of confrontation? I’d never follow my neighbors downstairs to check their work at the front door. I’d never say anything if I found a culprit out.

Who knows, assuming malice may be another way to sublimate my own buried hostility. The safest accusation can neither be tested nor proven. The greatest satisfaction arises from what’s held closest, most inviolably. As I learned in elementary school, better to believe in stolen goods than admit carelessness.

One political party stands ready to accuse the other of deliberate evil. Congress blames the President, and he wonders if their actions reflect their beliefs or a desire to obstruct progress. TV hosts boggle at the stupidity of public figures they wouldn’t dare invite to the set, and public figures take pot shots at hosts they never watch.

The open door probably has many thoughtless authors, each believing someone else guilty of the crime. What if someone’s picked me out as the criminal?

If everyone loves the idea of an adversary as much as I do, the world is in trouble. It shouldn’t be so hard to think better of people, but it is. Sometimes it seems the only important transgressions target you, intrude on you, hurt you, endanger you. It’s too easy to offend our rectitude. That door is always open.

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