January 25, 2010

Yes, The New Yorker

Dear Friends,

I've been subscribing to the New Yorker for years. Sometimes I wonder why. They actually supported the American invasion/destruction of Iraq in 2003; these days, they seem to think we're on the road to economic recovery, that the Obama $12-trillion bailout of the banks (i.e., the rich) makes sense, and that no fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economy (i.e. capitalism) is called for. What can one say. But once in a while, they catch me by surprise, and this happened during the last three issues: Jan. 4, 11, and 18. In a nation of dolts, a few little points of light. Let me be specific.

From the issue of Jan. 4, "Shouts and Murmers" column by Paul Slansky, we learn the following:
1. After watching a tape of his guest Michael Moore singing "the Times They Are A-Changing," Larry King asked him if he wrote the song.
2. A health-care-reform protester brandished a copy of what he called "the U.S.S. Constitution".
3. The mayor of Baltimore [Sheila Dixon, Democrat] was convicted of taking gift cards intended for poor children and using them to buy electronic gadgets for herself.
4. A Missouri legislator [State Rep. Cynthia Davis, Republican] suggested that a food program for low-income children was expendable, because "hunger can be a positive motivator." (You need to google this, folks; her face is really the face of America. I also have the impression she doesn't herself miss too many meals.)

From the issue of Jan. 11, article by John Cassidy, "After the Blowup":
1. Cassidy interviewed Eugene Fama, the Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, regarding the crash of late 2008. Prof. Fama told Cassidy, "I don't know what a credit bubble means." "We don't know what causes recessions." He added that the mortgage collapse "was a government failure; that was not a failure of the market." Basically, he feels that the market is sound and self-regulating.
2. Then Cassidy went next door to Fama's son-in-law, John Cochrane. Cochrane explained that the cause of the 2008 crash was Obama getting on TV in Sept. of 2008 and announcing that the financial markets were near collapse.
3. He then went one floor upstairs to talk with Raghuram Rajan, one of the few scholars who warned about the coming crash as early as 2005, pointing to deregulation and trading in complex financial products as red flags. Senior Fed officials and prominent economists dismissed this as alarmist, and Larry Summers (now Obama's top economic adviser) said that this kind of talk supported "a wide variety of misguided policy impulses." (Rajan had in fact been the chief economist at the IMF from 2003 to 2006.)

These are good examples of something we've discussed on this blog before: folks with high IQ's being morons. Robert McNamara had a high IQ, and was a complete idiot (something he basically admitted before he died--too bad it took so long, he could have spared us Vietnam); and a war criminal to boot. The same can be said of Dick Cheney. Fama, Cochrane, and Summers are undoubtedly brilliant; they are also little more than buffoons. It's kind of interesting, reading Cassidy's interviews and hearing these educated clowns staring reality in the face and denying it. (Not unrelated to all of this is the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs; posted 2 July 2009 at rollingstone.com; quintessential reading, amigos).

Moving on to the Jan. 18 issue, an article by Claudia Roth Pierpont called "Found in Translation." This is about contemporary Arabic literature, something Americans couldn't care less about. (Shit, they couldn't care less about American literature, who are we kidding?) In general, as Henry Kissinger once pointed out (and he was one to talk, eh?), Americans aren't interested in non-American points of view. They certainly aren't interested in how they are seen from the outside (see my previous post). But Ms. Pierpont does a good job of taking us into books that deal with the living realities of our "enemies": Alaa Al Aswany's "The Yacoubian Building"; Elias Khoury's "Gate of the Sun"; Ghassan Kanafi's "Palestine's Children"; and a few others of note. They are windows on a rich and complex world, and personally, I look forward to reading them.

And speaking of an impoverished and simplistic world, let me reprint the poem by Campbell McGrath in the Jan. 11 issue, entitled "Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day":

Beneath a ten-foot-tall apparition of Frosty the Snowman
with his corncob pipe and jovial, over-eager, button-black eyes,
holding, in my palm, the leathery, wine-colored purse
of a pomegranate, I realize, yet again, that America is a country
about which I understand everything and nothing at all,
that this is life, this ungovernable air
in which the trees rearrange their branches, season after season,
never certain which configuration will bear the optimal yield
of sunlight and water, the enabling balm of nutrients,
that so, too, do Wal-Mart’s ferocious sales managers
relentlessly analyze their end-cap placement, product mix,
and shopper demographics, that this is the culture
in all its earnestness and absurdity, that it never rests,
that each day is an eternity and every night is New Year’s Eve,
a cavalcade of B-list has-beens entirely unknown to me,
needy comedians and country singers in handsome Stetsons,
sitcom stars of every social trope and ethnic denomination,
pugilists and oligarchs, femmes fatales and anointed virgins
throat-slit in offering to the cannibal throng of Times Square.
Who are these people? I grow old. I lie unsleeping
as confetti falls, ash-girdled, robed in sweat and melancholy,
click-shifting from QVC to reality TV, strings of commercials
for breath freshener, debt reconsolidation, a new car
lacking any whisper of style or grace, like a final fetid gasp
from the lips of a dying Henry Ford, potato-faced actors
impersonating real people with real opinions
offered forth with idiot grins in the yellow, herniated studio light,
actual human beings, actual souls bought too cheaply.
That it never ends, O Lord, that it never ends!
That it is relentless, remorseless, and it is on right now.
That one sees it and sees it but sometimes it sees you, too,
cowering in a corner, transfixed by the crawler for the storm alert,
home videos of faces left dazed by the twister, the car bomb,
the war always beginning or already begun, always
the special report, the inside scoop, the hidden camera
revealing the mechanical lives of the sad, inarticulate people
we have come to know as “celebrities.”
Who assigns such value, who chose these craven avatars
if not the miraculous hand of the marketplace,
whose torn cuticles and gaudily painted fingernails resemble nothing
so much as our own? Where does the oracle reveal our truths
more vividly than upon that pixillated spirit glass
unless it is here, in this tabernacle of homely merchandise,
a Copernican model of a money-driven universe
revolving around its golden omphalos, each of us summed
and subtotalled, integers in an equation of need and consumption,
desire and consummation, because Hollywood had it right all along,
the years are a montage of calendar pages and autumn leaves,
sheet music for a nostalgic symphony of which our lives comprise
but single trumpet blasts, single notes in the hullabaloo,
or even less—we are but motes of dust in that atmosphere
shaken by the vibrations of time’s imperious crescendo.
That it never ends, O Lord. That it goes on,
without pause or cessation, without pity or remorse.
That we have willed it into existence, dreamed it into being.
That it is our divine monster, our factotum, our scourge.
That I can imagine nothing more beautiful
than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart.

And so there we have it, my friends: X-rays of the American soul. It can only get worse, as (most) readers of this blog well know. Let's hope the New Yorker will be around to document the vacuity, the ignorance, and the continuing descent. If we are going to commit suicide (and we are), might as well do it with our eyes open, don't you think?

January 24, 2010

To See Ourselves as We Are Seen

I recall, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, a radio program in the United States that asked for brief statements on the part of journalists and editors from around the world as to how they viewed the events of that day. Most of the respondents, as might be expected, condemned the terrorists for the slaughter of innocents; and rightly so. But I was particularly struck by the response of the editor of some Pakistani newspaper–the name escapes me now–who added to the general condemnation something rather unexpected: “It is important for America to understand the impact that it has on the rest of the world,” he told his American audience. “Too often, it fails to take that into account in trying to assess the reactions of other nations to it.” Of course, his exhortation was completely ignored in the United States; to this day, the vast majority of Americans believe that the attacks of 9/11 emerged from a political vacuum, being nothing more than the actions of men who were “insane” or “evil”. U.S. foreign policy, apparently, had no part to play in these events.

The next Pakistani comment I came across regarding the events of that day was several years later, and of a very different order. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, can be seen as a pointed fleshing-out of that editor’s remarks. It won’t have any more success in waking up the American people than did that immediate post-9/11 commentary, but the brilliance of this novel certainly makes it worth the effort. Indeed, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, and read the book in one sitting. Written in the form of a monologue delivered, at a café in Lahore, to an American CIA-type (or so it seems) by “Changez,” the narrator, Hamid’s prose has a limpid, natural quality that is both understated and seductive at the same time. Changez tells his silent listener the story of his life to date: as a bright Pakistani student, he won a scholarship to Princeton University, graduated with honors, and went on to a job as an analyst at a prestigious New York-based corporation, “Underwood Samson & Company”. USC is in the business of “valuation,” i.e., estimating the value of a company that another company might want to buy, or of a division of a company that the larger firm might want to liquidate. More often than not, the lives of workers are destroyed by the valuation. In one case, that of a publishing firm in Valparaiso, Chile, the intended goal is to eliminate the trade books section that deals in quality literature, so that the press can market books that have purely commercial value.

In the beginning, Changez is dazzled by his high-paying job, elegant Manhattan apartment, and the prestige derived from moving in corporate circles. He follows the company’s directive to “focus on the fundamentals,” i.e., the cash value of things. The social and political context in which his work is situated is not something that concerns him. All of this, however, starts to change after the attacks of 9/11, the American response to them, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim nation that borders his homeland. Ineluctably, Changez is led to grasp the nature of American society as a whole, and in particular, of the American empire. He sees how class-based and xenophobic the society is; how civilian deaths in countries under American attack are regarded as nothing more than “collateral damage”; and how “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, [or] frightens so many people so far away, as America.”

The real turning point comes during his work with the publishing house in Valparaiso. The elderly company chief, Juan-Bautista, reminds him of his maternal grandfather, with whom he was close. Juan-Bautista asks Changez what he knows of books, and the latter finds himself saying that his grand-uncle was a poet, and that books were loved in his family. The problem is that USC’s goal is to evaluate the firm from a strictly financial viewpoint; it couldn’t care less about the world of learning. Sensing Changez’s internal conflict, Juan-Bautista takes him to dinner, and talks to him about the Janissaries, Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to destroy their own civilization, until “they had nothing else to turn to”. Changez gets the point: he himself is a modern-day Janissary, having sided with an empire that thinks nothing of ruining the life of someone like Juan-Bautista for the sake of monetary gain. It becomes impossible for him to keep pretending that his “valuations” are neutral. He finally betrays USC to save the deeper values he was raised with, and which he had never really given up. For Changez sees that the American Dream is not only shallow and illusory, but actually destructive of the deeper values of civilization; and even worse, is by now grounded in violence. Having lost his job and his visa, now back in Lahore, he tells his American audience of one:

"As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared
pain that united you with those who attacked you. You
retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions
of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs
on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was
rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my
family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an
America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the
rest of humanity, but also in your own."

Changez finally leaves the United States and becomes a university lecturer in Pakistan, popular for pulling no punches in his analysis of the American attempt to dominate the world. Eventually, as the title of the book seems to suggest, he is led to act on his beliefs in more radical ways.

With the exception of this final development, which gives the novel its concluding (and ambiguous) twist, it is difficult not to regard the story as autobiographical. Hamid himself is a Pakistani who grew up in Lahore, and subsequently studied at Princeton and Harvard. Although the prose is smooth and low-key, his passion over what the United States is doing in and to the world can hardly be disguised; and there is much here for Americans to learn, if they could only see themselves as others see them. For there is a definite relationship between macrocosm and microcosm: as the U.S. government behaves, so do its citizens, and this is hardly an accident. On a holiday with some Americans in Greece, for example, the narrator says that he found himself “wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.“ Good question, and hardly irrelevant to American imperial designs and U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Speaking again of the aftermath of 9/11, Changez relates to his listener how New York was suddenly soaking in American flags–on windshields, fluttering from buildings, even stuck on toothpicks: “They all seemed to proclaim: We are America...the mightiest civilization the world has ever known; you have slighted us; beware our wrath.”

That was indeed the mood, all right, and Hamid’s lines remind me of that classic poem by Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in which a traveler in the desert finds the remains of a statue, now reduced to a pedestal, which bears the following words:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

The traveler looks around, and all he can see is an empty landscape of sand
stretching to infinity.

Everything passes; what else is there to say?

©Morris Berman, 2010