|. . . 2017-03-15|
It only takes a slight twist of carrier or population for the common cold of aesthetics to feed a Real-Life global plague. Live long enough, you live through more than one epidemic.
When I was a teenager I watched the baroque cynicism of Henry Beard and Michael O'Donoghue downsized to the thudding LCD opportunism of P. J. O'Rourke, and then watched O'Rourke become, well, a real bad hangover.
When I worked with the divorced libertarians of DEC, I met the first generation of networked resentful misogynist pampered dweebs. I'm still a little amazed at how effectively they breed.
I'd often wondered how WCW and Zuk and such felt when trying to stay friends with Ezra Pound, and last year, as my Twitbook feeds filled with Protocols of the Elders of Clinton, I learned.
And while reading yet another two 4chan-to-Gamergate-to-Trump think pieces, a nagging peripheral memory finally pulled into focus: Cerebus.
Not so much Cerebus-the-character, who Jeet Heer picked as Trumpalike a year ago. More Cerebus-the-comic-book: a Shoah-slow train ride from geeky lulz to lunatic-fringe antifeminism through a series of cosmological mother-in-law jokes. Beginning with MAD parodies of teenage-boy-aimed comics, Sim took his hard-earned technique into realms in which it's a less, let's say, established bearer of light: the Flaming Carrot and Druckerized Lou Jacobi dropped wisdom on the moon; Druckerized Maggie Thatcher led execution-torture for the matriarchal dystopia; Druckerized Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway rotated with Druckerized Marty Feldman and Mick Jagger and Batman/Wolverine/Punisher.
If the timing was different, if the comic hadn't peaked thirty years ago, Pepe the Frog would probably have made an appearance there. On the web, Cerebus the Aardvark might've been photoshopped into The Deplorables. My alternate-forecasting skills aren't sharp enough to guess the reaction of the generous working-class Jewish-Muslim syncretist who created Cerebus.
|. . . 2017-03-10|
The shouting crowd, loud band, and ringing acoustics transform me into an Irish Setter: look attentive, react to my name, and otherwise rely on scent.
|. . . 2017-03-06|
One thing you can say for Junior Laemmle (there aren't many more): he was a man of his time. The pleasures on offer here (including a definitive answer to the old question, "Are Jews white?") are less like a movie than like a visit to the Musée Mécanique.
Not recommended to those who can't see why they'd waste time at a magic lantern show when YouTube's right there on their phone.
|. . . 2017-01-30|
(all from The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe)
As if countless Americans had anticipated their roles, the pieces fell into place with a neatness almost no one could have predicted. The extensive readjustment of the surface — the proliferation of laws and agencies and committees — created a perpetual noise of bustle and complaint; endless details meant endless quibbling. Nevertheless, the apportionment of tasks and responsibilities seemed to be following a prearranged schedule.
Much of the secret behind this silent plan lay in the assumption running throughout the reforms of the twentieth century that no system could work without the voluntary cooperation of its leading participants. In particular, national progressivism had been predicated upon the existence of the modern corporation and its myriad relationships with the rest of American society. Chronologically, psychologically, this network had come first. It had set the terms of debate. Even as the reformers attacked trusts, slums, and the like, they had built upon them. In a way only a few of them fathomed, their alterations strengthened a scheme they disliked by weaving its basic elements into an ever-tighter and more sophisticated national system. A public bureaucracy sheltered as it regulated.
Progressives in office had not known what to do with their own revolutionary rhetoric. A La Follette, for example, could talk earnestly about a sweeping anti-monopoly crusade yet premise his tax program on the growth of big business in Wisconsin. As Governor, he pruned but never attempted to uproot. A Wilson could describe the glories of old-time competition with complete honesty yet help to construct law after law that reflected an existing distribution of power. The nation required a modern financial system? Then the men on Wall Street, and to a lesser degree those on La Salle Street and Chestnut Street and even Main Street, would simply have to cooperate. Every important Democratic official agreed.
Somewhat more slowly, private leaders had come to believe that they also could not function without the assistance of the government, increasingly the national government. Only the government could ensure the stability and continuity essential to their welfare. Its expert services, its legal authority, and its scope had become indispensable components of any intelligent plan for order. And what they sought could no longer be accomplished by seizing and bribing. The nineteenth-century formula of direct control — taking an office for yourself or your agent, buying a favor or an official — now had very little relevance to the primary goals of society’s most influential men, whether in business, agriculture, labor, or the professions. They required long-range, predictable cooperation through administrative devices that would bend with a changing world. Nor were they thinking about a mere neutralization of the government, the automatic reaction many had given to the first flurries of reform. They wanted a powerful government, but one whose authority stood at their disposal; a strong, responsive government through which they could manage their own affairs in their own way.
Yet not only did the older cities lead in most respects — medicine and public health, modern bar associations and educational legislation, assertive new business and women’s groups — but they continued to attract more and more outsiders in the process. Isolated academics, hopeful young journalists, professional architects, experts in administration, and many others gravitated here where opportunities beckoned and where they could find enough of their own kind.
This clustering meant considerably more than an arithmetic difference. It drew together groups undergoing similar experiences and sharing similar values and interests. As the professional secretaries who moved among their organizations discovered, members of the new middle class spoke a common language and naturally, easily, they began to encourage each other’s efforts toward self-determination. In Chicago, for instance, the architect Allen B. Pond designed uniquely functional settlements for Jane Addams, who aided Margaret Haley in achieving professional status for teachers, who joined with John Fitzpatrick, progressive president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, in championing the rights of wage earners. Every major city produced comparable patterns. Moreover, they increasingly met each other in broad areas of mutual concern. Joining doctors in the public-health campaigns, for example, were social workers, women’s clubs, and teachers who specialized in the problems of youth; lawyers who drafted the highly technical bills; chambers of commerce that publicized and financed pilot projects; and new economists such as John B. Andrews, whose exposure of “phossy jaw” among the workers in phosphorus-match factories remains a classic in the history of industrial health. Greatly enriching the movements, such pools of talent also returned inestimable benefits of morale and insight to the participants.
These men and women communicated so well in part because they were the ones building a new structure of loyalties to replace the decaying system of the nineteenth-century communities. As members of the new middle class found their rewards more and more in the uniqueness of an occupation and in its importance to a rising scientific-industrial society, the primary differentiators of the nineteenth century weakened proportionately. They lost that appreciation for fine gradations in wealth and its display, that close emotional involvement in differences between English and Irish, Swedish and Bohemian. The compulsive identification with a political party also waned. Although they usually retained the party label of their fathers and some traces of the old feeling, they tended to subordinate that loyalty to new ones drawn from their occupation, its values, and its policies. Joining an occupational organization was a defining as well as an identifying act. Just as a political party had once done, now the occupational association supplied many answers, hopes, and enemies far beyond the range of their immediate experience. Where a shift in party allegiance had once been treason, it became not only possible but in some circles popular, opening the way to various forms of nonpartisan and interest-group politics.
If partisanship declined, therefore, political involvement certainly did not. During the earliest stages of self-consciousness, the strongest political ambitions concerned occupational autonomy. For such groups as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, that entailed legal sanction for their own standards of entry and proficiency. Accredited members of the group — a board of doctors or lawyers or teachers — would administer the laws, passing upon the qualifications of applicants and adjudging any violations within the profession. The academic professions, by controlling degrees and jobs, enjoyed similar privileges without the need for legislation. Business and farming groups, however, discovered that effective self-regulation required more than an empowering statute. With increasingly elaborate plans for stable prices, coordinated marketing, and reliable, expensive data, they looked as well to a variety of government bureaus and agencies that would provide the technical services their specialized needs demanded. In almost every case, these groups depended upon the government for the means of independence from all intruders, including the government itself.
The forces of occupational cohesion were at the same time forces of general social divisiop. Most obviously, they widened the gap between the major cities and rural-small town America. In part, the new middle class only helped to formalize differences that had been developing for years. Professional teachers, for example, were improving a modern educational system that had scarcely touched the rural areas, especially in the South. Even more important was the matter of communication. Proud of their specialties and comfortable only with others who shared their life, the new class lectured to but seldom talked with country folk. To rural Americans the strange language, the iconoclasm, the threatening values of these articulate urbanites, came to represent much of that conglomerate danger, the sinful city.
As usual, the men in the countryside overlooked the many ways in which this new class was also sharpening differences within the cities. In the poorer wards where a keen sense of nationality continued to determine antipathies and alliances, neither the bosses nor their constituents could understand the ways of the new class. They seemed like so many mugwumpish ingrates lacking even an elementary morality in political matters. The very rich on their part found little to their liking in the behavior of the new class. Attacks from far below, however irritating, merely verified their low opinion of the ignorant, weak, and envious. It was quite another matter for otherwise respectable lawyers and businessmen to add their cries. The wealthy could seldom distinguish between traditional assaults upon them as monopolists, manipulators, and oppressors, and new ones accusing them of backwardness, waste, and crudity. As Thorstein Weblen’s biting comments on barbarism and conspicuous consumption suggested, the new professional challenged their rights to prestige as much as their place in the economy. Fortunately for the new middle class, the basis for a league of their opponents, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, did not exist.
Fighting for their stake in society, they set about the task of counting the challengers out of every election, protected by majorities in the state legislatures and a friendly judiciary. Republicans to a lesser degree used the same techniques in the West. Although voting frauds permeated politics in the late nineteenth century, making a crude joke of those who debated why a party had won this or that hairbreadth victory, the grim, methodical work of the nineties belonged in another category. Exemplars of community virtue joined hands with hacks to prostitute the democratic process in the name of a higher civilization, claiming as so many did during those years that however sordid the means the end would glorify them. Above all else, the crisis mentality demanded results.
Tightening rings of control expressed in terms of power the generally pathological state of a nation. In an increasingly mixed society what men did and saw and thought and dreamed had been diverging farther year by year. Yet until the eighties mutual ignorance, even mutual intolerance, had tended to separate people whose paths seemed not to be crossing anyway. Despite the undertones of suspicion, in other words, American society had contained more diffusion than conflict. The members' of the New York Supreme Court who praised the sweated laborer’s tenement home for “its hallowed associations and beneficent influences” were inexcusably blind but not systematically inhumane. The eminent economist who explained strikes on the “one-sided reading” of the workers was fatuous but not sinister. The balance began to tip during the mid-eighties as larger and larger numbers came to believe that people they could neither trust nor understand were pressing upon them. Feeling crowded, persecuted, hated, they turned to face that enemy. Ignorance and intolerance now mattered a great deal. When Theodore Roosevelt advocated “taking ten or a dozen of [the Populist] leaders out, standing ... them against a wall and shooting them dead,” he was both benighted and vicious. By the mid-nineties fears had deepened to the extent that other men’s guilt came embedded in each new event, and once incidents carried their own meaning, communication between opponents effectively ceased.
In place of communication, antagonists confronted each other behind sets of stereotypes, frozen images that were specifically intended to exclude discussion. Reinforcing the faithful’s feeling of separateness, the rhetoric of antithetical absolutes denied even the desirability of any interchange. If as so many substantial citizens maintained the issue was civilization versus anarchy, who would negotiate with chaos? If as so many dissenters claimed the alternatives were the people and the plutocrats, who would compromise with Mammon? In such a simplified world like always attracted like; good and evil flowed irresistibly to opposite poles. By the same token, virtue and vice reproduced themselves. In one camp men miraculously shed their sins, while in the other they invariably spawned new, often covert ones — immoral recreations, private bestialities, and the like — that suited a diabolic ideology. The established leaders in urban-industrial America properly believed that their opponents would destroy them, or at least their functions, if they could, just as the protectors of the community accurately sensed the existence of a league of unrestrained power such as the one that operated during the Chicago boycott. Both then assigned the enemy a monolithic consistency and machinelike organization, invested it with a conspiratorial design, and imputed to it an almost supernatural potency. Honors for distortion divided about equally.
The mediator simply could not function. A well-intentioned citizen like Frederick Jackson Turner, who tried from the middle ground of Wisconsin to explain the radical West to the respectable East, had to await a saner day. Such men as Arthur Pue Gorman, who had premised his career upon compromise, could find almost no one who cared to negotiate. As the Democratic party fell apart, Gorman and a few others hurried helplessly to and fro, frustrated, angry, and now obsolete in a time that could no longer use their skills. It was a world of strange choices that finally placed Gorman, the urbane manager of Cleveland’s first campaign, in William Jennings Bryan’s agrarian camp, an awkward and lonesome observer. Words that had once had a common, albeit vague meaning had acquired the blacks and whites of mutual recrimination. When Cleveland and Altgeld debated the events surrounding the Pullman strike, they spoke in private vocabularies. To the Democratic President “Federal government” represented the natural, responsive agent of law and order, and “business” the corporate protectors of social stability. To the Democratic Governor “Federal government” referred to an alliance of monopolists and bosses bent upon wholesale oppression, and “business” the legitimate pursuits of average men thwarted by that alliance. “Republic” meant restraint of the masses to Cleveland and a local bulwark against national aggression to Altgeld.
At the center of each rhetorical cluster lay the symbols of finance. Over the last decades of the century banking and currency had come to hold a mysterious meaning apart from the rest of the economy. They comprised the inscrutable science. Unlike the bulky power of manufacturing and commerce, finance functioned invisibly. With fugitive slips of paper, men in hidden offices seemed capable of moving the universe. At the same time, finance appeared the most fundamental of all the nation’s business. It dealt with money — the core of the matter — and in the end everything else must revolve about it. This was simple logic in a society that relied so heavily upon wealth, raw wealth at that, as its differentiator.
|. . . 2017-01-23|
If you say you want to transform a nominally representative government and your first reaction to a three-million-plus march is that they were the wrong people, you need to reassess your intent or your guidelines.
Virtually every Republican policy change has majority opinion against it. The union of those majorities is a larger majority. The intersection probably isn't a majority at all. But none of them will get anywhere unless the union pries power away from the extremists who currently hold it.
Josh Lukin gets first comment!
Ray, it suddenly occurred to me that the "you" might not refer to the President. But damned if I can figure out who it is. Maybe David Brooks?
Generally when I say "you," I mean "me." Might as well stick with that for now.
|. . . 2016-12-31|
In a post I persistently remember as "Dawn Powell for President," Roger Gathman noted Hillary Clinton's roots in conservative Chicago and asked, "But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast?"
For me, the question triggered a resurgence of survivor's guilt, resolving into the usual hysterical paralysis. But even as the Drama Queen express barreled away, another train of thought launched towards Hollywood's most peculiar specialist in Midwestern You-Can't-Go-Home-Again-or-Can-You parts: Brooklyn orphaned-and-abusively-bred Barbara Stanwyck.
Back in 1939, Remember the Night had dragged Stanwyck back to Indiana in the custody of killjoy D.A. Fred MacMurray (but this is a Mitchell Leisen picture so at least he's an attractive killjoy). There she's rejected by a shockingly real representative of the Heartland's evil-hearted 30%, meets warm welcomes from not-so-realistic representatives of the open-hearted 20%, sinks gratefully into the embrace of family and community, and is then rejected by them. Big romantic finish while the Breen Office chants "Lock Her Up!"
In All I Desire, Stanwyck's Naomi returns to Wisconsin under her own steam. This makes for a very different story, directed by a very different storyteller.
For some reason, The Film Dictionary of Received Ideas is considered particularly authoritative on "Sirk, Douglas," but Sirk was not a simplistic thinker. Instead of Sturges's-and-Leisen's rigid segregation of good and evil souls, here they're so thoroughly intermingled with the middling majority that, well, sometimes we almost can't tell them apart.
And embodiments of Naomi's original disgrace continue to walk the mean streets of Riverdale, although they seem to have slipped her mind during her busy years on the road: her extramarital lover remains a pillar of good ol' boy society and has assumed a pointedly paternal role towards her son — the family's youngest child, born long after his two sisters and so closely to Naomi's escape that he may have precipitated it.
So Juliet Clark is certainly right to predict that "we can only feel relieved to be on the outside looking in" at this all-American home. But consider (as Stanwyck's character must) the alternative.
After ten years Naomi Murdoch's theatrical career has skidded midway down the music hall bill, with sour prospects ahead. (We'll never know how much talent she started with; she'd already borne three children, so she would have been trying to enter the profession at, let's say, age 28 or so?) Ostensibly, at least, she's seizing an opportunity to give her kid a thrill and pick up a little egoboo by way of a little fraudulence, after which she'll shed the pretense of stardom and return to her grind. But from the moment she struts off the train, she seems, so to speak, at home, which is to say on the stage, facing challenges, hitting her marks, sparking glee at each new win. She may not have been able to conquer Paris and London but this audience she can handle, and she'll surely find more opportunities to recite Shakespeare here than in burlesque.
The hometown hoaxer of Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero is scabied by guilt; for the con-maiden of Sturges's The Lady Eve, the allure of sincerity goes foot-in-hand with the similarly vulnerable intimacy of full-frontal lust. In Riverdale, though, all self-expression is strictly utilitarian (albeit with none-too-well-thought-out motives); Naomi's just best at it.
The unrepentant criminal of Sturges's Remember the Night and the tempted ladies of Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and All That Heaven Allows gladly lose their burden of selves in Good Clean Fun. But at no moment in All I Desire does Stanwyck convey pleasure untinted by performance. In Double Indemnity, what men mistake for sensuality is simply Mrs. Dietrichson's delight in manipulation; Mrs. Murdoch may have encountered similar confusion — and may still.
(A few critics even predict that lechery will send Naomi back to the creep she nearly killed. I can't see it. Stanwyck was a magnificently wide-ranging movie star but one thing she could never play convincingly on-screen was being pushed around. If Naomi strays again, it'll be with someone of more practical use; Colonel Underwood, maybe.)
All I Desire's' "unhappy happy ending" is not all tragic and not all sacrifice. It's the role of a lifetime.
From which I conclude that if the Democratic party had shown the good sense to nominate a HUAC-supporting union-attacking self-martyring workaholic for president and relocated her to Illinois, she might have drawn a plurality of the state's votes.
(On the other hand, the original novel, screenplay, and directorial intent had Naomi opting again for self-exile, possibly after a bridge-burning public self-exposure, presumably to expiate her sins by someday dying in the traditional gutter. So maybe it really is just a crapshoot.)
Naomi's got the situation well in hand
Josh Lukin reflects on 1952:
Your HUAC reference got me thinkin' —the candidate who was uncritical of McCarthy (see Howe, Irving, Steady Work) managed to lose in his native Illinois during the McCarthy era. To be fair, he seems to have lost everywhere except in a handful of states where his running-mate was popular. And thank Heaven he did, 'cause where would we be without the four civil libertarians Ike put on the Court, right?
|. . . 2016-12-26|
I loved my country — my United States, headed by a well-funded and unabashedly ambitious federal government — I loved my country about as much as any halfway sane person could love an unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstraction. Which seems only natural since it had rescued, fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and boosted me and my brother after having rescued and supported our parents.
Of course (being halfway sane) I knew big government was frequently inept, hypocritical, and unjust to the point of murder. But it was also the only rival to and our only defense against the unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstractions of big business and big religion, both of which were at least as frequently inept, hypocritical, unjust, and murderous. And where big businesses and big churches could cheat, lie, embezzle, extort, and rape with virtual impunity, big government's pretense of public service left its miscreants nominally (and therefore sometimes actually) susceptible to public inspection and public penalty.
Even while I and my brother were swaddled by socialism, big business and big religion began negotiating an unholy alliance. As of the 1980 election, its success was no longer deniable. But I kept a sullen, resentful faith. My country had absorbed such body blows before and re-righted itself. Weren't the allegiances of evangelical with Jew around Zionism, and evangelical with Catholic around abortion, and church with plutocracy around ignorance inherently unstable?
After the 2000 election, "my country" suddenly looked less like world-as-is and more like a vulnerable blip. 2001 confirmed its vulnerability; the 2004 election guaranteed its loss. Seventy years, approximately the lifespan of the Third Republic.
You know how these things go, though. We understand our loved ones will die, and yet the day finds us unprepared. We understand that gambling is lucrative business; we noticed the casino staff repeatedly extract ever larger winnings and repeatedly produce ever colder decks. And yet when we blankly watch our chips, checks, bonds, mortgage, and IOUs squeegeed dry across the table, it's a shock.
A shock but no surprise.1 No need to waste weeks arguing over how we might have played that last card better. No infallibly winning card was left in this particular game. If we hadn't lost this deal, we would have lost the next one.
At least our razed territory holds plenty of company. Like successful totalitarians of the past, our new leaders didn't let themselves be distracted by the unpopularity of their goals; instead they focused on gaining power by any means at hand, and then guaranteeing continued power by any means at hand. This they interpret as a heroic win against overwhelmingly unfair odds by dint of their superior intelligence and talent.
They've recently attempted to adapt their self-justifications for a wider audience with spins like "saving our country from urban scum" or "defending America against California" or simply "making those fuckers squirm." And of course, as soon as their eminent domain's established they begin demolishing anything in the path of the propaganda superhighway — notably the distasteful slums of reality-based journalism, education, and research. But for a brief while yet, our rulers remain a lunatic fringe who defy majority opinion on almost every policy, and we retain some belief that a democracy should at least vaguely represent its people. History suggests that's common ground enough to push from.
1 Well, one surprise, at least for me. I never anticipated Vladimir Putin as leader of a new Axis. Awfully exceptionalist of me. After "patriotism" lost any connotation of service or sacrifice (even the trivial financial sacrifice of taxes), and frankly selfish plutocrats could reach office without need of political stand-ins, who better to inspire them than the leading exponent of the globalized shakedown state? And whereas Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's attempts at foreign influence relied on native "thought-leaders" who never quite met spec, now misinformation and propaganda, like every other form of publishing, can bypass the middleman (unless, of course, the middleman is a national firewall), and Russia's greatest export, the bot-troll cyborg, can work from the comfort of home.
|. . . 2016-12-25|
The old Roman law had insisted that freed slaves should continue to render obsequiuum — personal service — to their masters. This law was maintained with particular vigor in the church. In the words of the fourth council of Toledo (in 633 AD), the descendants of all slaves freed by the church were expected to continue to owe “service and obedience” to the church. They did this “because the church never dies.”- Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle:
Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD
|. . . before . . .||. . . after . . .|
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2016 Ray Davis.