Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Oki's Movie - Last Chance to See

I finished Teju Cole's Open City a few days ago, and I have been wanting to post my thoughts. However, I am still thinking about the book and may need to re-read it before I can write anything worthwhile.

That said, I want to throw out a quick observation. I just saw "Oki's Movie," and it reminded me strongly of Open City. Perhaps this is because the movie uses a narrative technique similar to one Cole uses in Open City. In both, my initial reaction was unstable and soon gave way to new thoughts. My opinion about each remains unsettled, and I don't know if I will ever reach equilibrium.

If you want to see Oki's movie, your last chance (for a long time, maybe forever) is tomorrow night at 7:30 at the Maysles Institute in Harlem. [UPDATE: I am informed that the movie is easy to acquire illegally on the internet.]

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Swim Test

A few weeks ago John Derbyshire, who wrote for (but was not an employee of) the National Review, penned a bigoted essay describing "the talk" that non-black parents allegedly have with their children. Everyone was rightly outraged, and the National Review has terminated its relationship with Derbyshire. I don't want to downplay the awfulness of the piece, but (like Noah Millman) I want to focus on just how terrible and sad the "advice" is qua advice.

I keep thinking of a kid who drowned at Amherst College when he tried to pass the then-mandatory swimming test (this was several decades ago). The kid was black, and presumably he had little or no swimming instruction. I am sure that those present tried to save him (something that Derbyshire would have advised against), but they failed, and he died. Of course the college soon got rid of the archaic swimming requirement.

Why was there a swim test in the first place? I don't know. We are surrounded by barriers, some of them sensible, some of them impossible to avoid. One of the biggest barriers is simply the difficulty of reaching another person, establishing a real connection. Even in the city, we live like farmers: we are lonely and separated by vast distances.

How perverse it is to advise your children to throw up even more barriers, to wall themselves off from so many of their fellow humans, for the sake of these feverish abstractions about race and safety. Think of all the interracial couples who would not have found their love if they took this advice. But it's not just romantic relationships, or even friendships. Daily life (at least in any large urban area) would be completely poisoned by this kind of attitude. Riding the subway, going to a baseball game, going for a walk in the park (an example Millman cites)—these kind of activities are bound to bring you into close, temporary contact with all sorts of people who are very different from you. If you walk around with alarms going off in your head every time you encounter black people, you are going to have an awful time of it. Save the alarms for legitimately dangerous circumstances, and leave open the possibility of a human connection with the people you meet. You can't afford to impose swim tests on the world, they are bound to end badly sooner or later, and not just for the other person.

Behind the Blog Post: Rachel Nolan on Doing the Math on McGrath

The next volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson will be coming out next month, and the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on Caro and his project. The piece, written by Charles McGrath, probed the factors driving Caro to write about Johnson. Later, Rachel Nolan, writing for the New York Times's "The 6th Floor" blog, asked McGrath to talk about why he chose to write about Caro. Earlier today, I got a chance to ask Nolan what interested her about McGrath.*

It seems as though the "Sixth Floor" blog likes to have a lot of fun with its subjects. It wants to show a lighter side of life at the New York Times. For instance, the two posts that immediately preceded your post on McGrath were about the economics of matzo production and spoofs of the Romney campaign. Is it fair to say that the blog takes a lighter tone than the magazine itself?

Well, you know, I would say that what ties the "Sixth Floor" blog together thematically is not so much a tone or a viewpoint as it is the desire not to, how can I put this, let things slip through the cracks. It's sort of a net for little thoughts that don't fit in the magazine but that we would hate do discard. It's sort of a residual category.

The category of things that don't otherwise fall into publishable categories.

Yes, that's a big part of it, and also the desire to be more transparent about how the magazine actually functions. I think people have this mental image of, I don't know, almost a methodical or industrial kind of process, but that's not at all how it is. Charlie loves Caro's writing, and so the piece really emerged from that fascination, and not from some abstract formula.

So tell me, what did you find so compelling about McGrath's story?

Well, it's really the combination of Charlie's single-minded focus—he read up to 400 pages of Caro's LBJ biography per day—and the importance of his subject. In many ways, the story of Robert Caro sheds light on the world we live in. And who else has the stamina to do what Charlie is doing, writing long-form journalism about Robert Caro? I mean, just to read the three published volumes of the LBJ biography is quite an undertaking, leaving aside The Power Broker. And of course, no one writes like Charlie.

The passage where he writes in the voice of Robert Caro is uncanny.

Exactly, that's an instant classic. There was a kind of hidden drama to the piece, by the way. We knew that Knopf would be publishing the next volume soon, and that the New Yorker was going to excerpt the book. So Charlie was in a race against time, to tell the story in his own words. On the sixth floor, we were all so tense, wondering if he would make it.

Well, he did, and your blog post does a great job of capturing some of the factors that went into the piece. Thank you for talking with me today.

My pleasure.

* Note, I didn't actually speak with Rachel Nolan.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Living in Open City

Every year on June 16th, Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday, retracing Leopold Bloom's steps through Dublin as recounted in Ulysses. My guess is that the celebration is far more popular and raucous than St. Patrick's Day, so it must be absolutely bonkers.

I can understand the impulse, which is not so different from taking wine tours based on the movie "Sideways." Reading Teju Cole's Open City, I have these moments of recognition that make the events of the book feel much more immediate. For instance, the narrator takes in an exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum, which at the time was experiencing financial difficulties as one of its major donors was headed toward bankruptcy (among other things, his creditors seized a painting that he had "donated" to the museum) and eventually prison. I happen to have represented some of his other creditors at the time, as a fresh- (albeit ugly-) faced bankruptcy lawyer.

Also, this passage grabbed me (the narrator is describing the Wall Street station on the 1-2-3 line [UPDATE: of course I meant the 2-3 line, the 1 splits off at Chambers Street]):

I took the escalator up, and as I came out onto the mezzanine level, I saw the ceiling—high, white, and consisting of a series of interconnected vaults—slowly reveal itself as though it were a retractable dome in the act of closing. It was a station I had never been in before, and I was surprised that it was so elaborate because I had expected that all the stations in lower Manhattan would be mean and perfunctory, that they would consist only of tiled tunnels and narrow exits. I suspected for a moment that the grand hall now confronting me at Wall Street was a trick of the eye. The hall had two rows of columns running along its length, and there were sets of glass doors on either end. The glass, the dominance of white in the color scheme, as well as the assortment of large potted palms under the columns, made the room feel like an atrium or greenhouse, but the tripartite division of the space, with the center aisle broader than the two to either side of it, was more reminiscent of a cathedral. The vaults strengthened this impression, and what came to mind was the florid Gothic style of England, as exemplified in buildings like Bath Abbey or the cathedral in Winchester, in which the piers and their colonnades spray up into the vaults. Not that the station replicated the stone tracery of such churches. It evoked the effect, rather, by means of its finely checkered or woven surface, a gigantic assemblage of white plastic.

The narrator is describing 60 Wall Street, also known as the Deutsche Bank building. This is where, a few years after the narrator of Open City passed through, the Occupy Wall Street leadership met to make decisions (note, the link describes it as a "publicly owned private space," when in fact it is the opposite—it is not, however, a subway station—the Wall Street station itself is as dingy as the narrator initially expected it to be). When I finish the book, perhaps I will make an effort to visit (or revisit) the places described in the book (though it is impossible now to visit the American Folk Art Museum at the site visited by the narrator, as it as moved to a much smaller space).

Grace Under Pressure

We just had an emergency announcement over the PA system at work. There was horrible static and so the announcement was borderline incomprehensible. My co-workers decided that the correct response was to say, loudly, "I can't hear it! What is he saying?" throughout the announcement, making it impossible to determine what the announcement was. I hope I'm not about to die.

[UPDATE: suspicious package in the adjoining tower.]

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Don't Call Me Daughter, Not Fair To

To dwell a little on the point I made in my previous post, imagine that you have a daughter and you want her to be happy. You teach her to respect herself, to stand up for herself, not to be ashamed of her sexuality, etc. Basically, you do your best to make sure she is well-adjusted. (This is a delicate balance. I'm not a parent, but I'm guessing that discretion is often the better part of valor. No one actually wants to talk about sex with her parents. But the point is, you do your best.)

Your problem is that this isn't really enough. It matters how her peers were raised, and you have little control over that. In some communities, the vast majority of boys (and maybe girls) will have backward views about women and sexuality, and that is going to be no fun for your daughter.

And the worry is not just boys whose parents don't inculcate good values. The worry is also boys whose values come from mass media and the internet instead of from their parents. To some extent we have outsourced these aspects of child-raising. Kids look for examples on which they can model their behavior, and unsurprisingly they end up being influenced by what they see on TV and on the internet. And these are businesses (albeit highly regulated ones in the case of broadcast television) whose interest is making money, not making sure your daughter gets the respectful treatment she deserves.

An example of this is the movie M*A*S*H. Remember the character Hot Lips? Why is she called Hot Lips? It's because (if I remember correctly—it's been a while) the protagonists eavesdropped on a sexual liaison in which her partner said that her lips were hot. So for the rest of the movie, that's what they called her, even to her face (again, if I remember correctly). (Seemingly the sexual liaison is being broadcast to the whole camp over the PA system, and the character says, "Kiss my hot lips," hence the nickname.)

This kind of casual humiliation of a woman based on her sexual activity is really gross (so much so that it's difficult to enjoy the rest of the movie). So what do you do if M*A*S*H becomes a hit movie and long-running TV show, and basically every American teenager sees it? You can tell your daughter (and your sons, if you have any) that the behavior in the movie is unacceptable, but you can't do much beyond that.

So you just have to trust that the anarchy that has been unleashed will sort itself out and that we won't move to a degrading or alienating equilibrium. How has it worked out? I don't know. Very well for gays, I think, relative to the status quo ante (note, this is an area where mass media has probably been helpful on net, with its sympathetic depiction of gay characters). Probably fairly well for straights too, but I am not so thrilled with the way men are encouraged to behave. As a society, we've decided to take a decentralized, hands-off approach, and that makes it a playground for capitalists. The kind of people who make M*A*S*H and pornography and beer commercials.

Monday, April 09, 2012

What Is the Invisible Hand Doing to That Poor Woman?

Everybody talks about the sexual revolution, but no one does anything about it.

In a post published on April 16 (but with such verve that it propagated backward through time), Margaret Talbot looks at the sexual revolution through the lens of "Girls," a new show on HBO. After discussing the possibility that pornography has made women's lives worse (the cited example is that it has taught boys bad kissing technique), Talbot has this to say about capitalism and the sexual revolution:

When people talk about the sexual “revolution,” they can make the changes in sexual mores seem more intentional than they were, more like a strategically planned uprising with a neat manifesto. In some ways, it was: the feminist movement did call for, and then achieve, greater sexual freedom for women, and access to birth control and abortion as rights. But unintended consequences, and particularly economic forces, have played perhaps an even bigger role in arranging the new sexual landscape: certain moral barriers drop, and then capitalism rushes in with, say, Internet porn, stoking old desires and creating new ones. Like the young women on “Girls,” most young women in the real world are surely grateful for their sexual freedom, but they didn’t necessarily want it shaped by sleazy entrepreneurs. To paraphrase Marx, women make their own circumstances, but not under circumstances of their own making.
So my only real point here is that this is what capitalists do. Pornographers are sleazy, perhaps more sleazy than other capitalists, but fundamentally when you cede territory to the market this is precisely what you are inviting. The question is never whether a social institution is good but whether it is better than the alternative. To the extent that the sexual revolution consisted in curbing the influence of traditional social institutions, it is the natural and inevitable consequence that capitalism, with all of its assorted sleazebags, would rush in. After the king has been deposed, as the Vikings are rampaging through the streets, the citizens might say, "It turns out there were some downsides to the revolution." The king, if he is still alive, might respond, "This is the fucking revolution."

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Not All is Lost

In my previous post, I mentioned that I am finding it difficult to start reading books by people I first encountered on Twitter. However, the problem does not extent to people I met before Twitter, who happen to have Twitter accounts now. For instance, I have greatly enjoyed reading Sarang's debut novel, which he hopes to have ready for publication soon.

The book tells the story of Jessica Larkin, an introverted high school girl growing up in a midwestern university town. After school Jess frequently rides her bicycle to the university library, where she escapes the dreariness of high school life by submerging herself in Middle English poetry. Soon she begins writing her own poetry in the same style, copying out the poems in pencil and slipping them into the stacks. Her poetry examines a wide variety of themes, but focuses mainly on rodents and aquatic mammals. Here Sarang's pacing is magisterial—he frequently reproduces Jess's poems in full, but these excursions never feel like detours, even when they take up several pages. Though they seldom advance the plot, the poems bring Jess to life, highlighting her intellectual flexibility and fondness for wordplay. She begins to use poetry to explore her budding sexuality, at first in awkward, tentative steps, but then more and more confidently.

Meanwhile Simon Govindasvami, a student at the university, comes across Jess's poetry and is enthralled. Believing the poems to be transcriptions of authentic Middle English poetry, he switches his major from physics to English literature. One day, when Jess is about to slip another of her poems into the stacks, she sees Simon poring over one of her previous poems. She strikes up a conversation, and at first she is thrilled by the effect her words have had on Simon (and the effect his studious manliness has on her). However, she is taken aback when she realizes that he has already put a tremendous amount of effort into his thesis—a lengthy exegesis of Middle English poetry, most of which turns out to be hers. As Jess faces the fact that she has inadvertently jeopardized Simon's career, the plot accelerates and events spiral out of control. I won't reveal the way Jess attempts to resolve her guilt, since the way Sarang lets events unfold in a chaotic but emotionally honest manner is arguably the highlight of the book.

The novel is quirky, and not everyone will appreciate its artfully crafted but spare storytelling. Probably the ideal reader is one who can share the characters' excitement on discovering a clever metaphor or a surprising etymology, but I think Sarang captures their ecstasy in a way that will be accessible to everyone. In the end, the book is a lengthy meditation on obsession, deceit, authenticity, and the promise and peril of using sex as an apology for complicating someone's academic career. I can't wait to see it in print.

Super Sad True Twitter Story

There should be a German word for reluctance to start reading a book written by someone you first discovered on Twitter. On my shelf are Teju Cole's Open City and Elisa Gabbert's The French Exit, both of which I am eager to read, and yet neither of which I can bring myself to start. I don't know quite why this is. On some level, do I want the author to be distant and mysterious? I didn't have a problem with Super Sad True Love Story, although (A) I didn't see the video below until I had read it, and (B) the video maintains a great deal of distance from the viewer/reader.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Pink Slime and the Herbivore Men

In the last few weeks, the public has become suddenly aware of what Mark Bittmann calls "the pink menace"—the practice of treating beef trimmings with ammonia to kill pathogens and then selling the beef as food (presumably after rinsing off the ammonia). I haven't seen any allegations that so-called "pink slime" is nutritionally worse than other meat, but people apparently find its production method distasteful, and so it may not have much of a future in the American diet. (One presumes that the beef scraps could be used in dog food instead, but in that case maybe the scraps can be processed in a cheaper way. Or perhaps it only works financially if the scraps are usable in human food.)

I think there is a large degree of arbitrariness to this development. As the old saying goes, the three things you don't want to see being made are laws, love, and sausages. I am sure there are many food products that appear distasteful at some point in their production. Matt Yglesias observed that "as time goes on, if the United States becomes a more prosperous country we'll keep becoming pickier and pickier eaters who demand a less manufacturing-intensive food system." And this, I think, is the key. One of the things you can do when you get more affluent is to refuse to eat things that disgust you. Disgusting food is an inferior good.

And so are disgusting men. I see a parallel to herbivore men. These are men who do not actively pursue sex. Let's back up a bit. We had a lengthy discussion of the sexual revolution and its alleged consequences. In general, the thought was that women gained substantially more autonomy over their sex lives, perhaps because they weren't economically dependent on men (and could thus indulge their taste for casual sex) or because the norms against casual sex were significantly eroded.

So you can think of women as having become more affluent, in a sense. Capable of being pickier. And so men who previously would have been sexually viable lost that status. They became pink slime. (Of course, they were always pink slime, but once upon a time women couldn't afford to discard them. They were pink slime but they weren't "pink slime.")

And I imagine that a lot of herbivore men are essentially opting out of a hopeless situation (though some may have other motives). They are like Houellebecq's Tisserand, except they give up the fight. In a sense, the fate of the "herbivore men" is another step in the evolution of society. A welcome one, in fact, because it is hard to imagine a more acquiescent response to uselessness. But where will it go from here? One interesting implication is that monogamy is probably on the way out, as the ratio of women to sexually viable men becomes ever-higher. We will observe doubling-up, and then tripling-up. (This doesn't literally have to take the form of non-monogamy, it could take the form of serial monogamy at greatly increased velocity.)

Another question is whether this will be good or bad for products and activities that tend to make men less sexually viable. Will men get more obese or less obese? More interested in science fiction or less interested? Richer or poorer? The example of the herbivore men suggests that we may see a sub-population that opts out of the struggle entirely, which in turn suggests an increased market for things like science fiction. On the other hand, this might "ghettoize" science fiction even further, as non-herbivores struggle to identify themselves as such by shunning all signs of herbivory. In fact, the herbivore/non-herbivore boundary may become an interesting cleavage since each group would probably be intent on distancing itself from the other.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Santa Claus Structure of the South

I don't actually mean to pick on the South, it just happens to be where I grew up, and it happens to be a conservative, religious part of the country.

But anyway, here is my point. If you are raised the way many southerners are, your life is a series of coming-of-age moments when you cast aside myths that you were previously encouraged to take seriously. Santa Claus is of course the archetype, and a very strange model for Christians to teach to children. Children are encouraged to believe in a supernatural person who receives their communications, monitors their behavior, and rewards them accordingly. Then that belief is dashed—revealed to have been an elaborate fiction, accompanied by all kinds of pageantry but nonetheless a complete fabrication. Simultaneously, children are encouraged to believe in another supernatural person who receives their communications, monitors their behavior, and rewards them accordingly. Skepticism is perhaps to be expected in these circumstances. (In fact, if atheists were clever, they might mount a "war for Christmas" campaign, joining the Fox News assholes in promoting Christmas, with a particular focus on Santa Claus. What better model could there be for abandoning religious myths?)

But anyway, what I am thinking about is sex (it is safe to assume that this is true at all times). Southerners are taught that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Then they grow up and find enthusiastic sex partners who aren't interested in marriage but who still manage to have a good time. Obviously this doesn't disprove the marriage norm, but the point is that southern society does not practice what it preaches. Teenagers are encouraged to adopt an essentially unworkable life plan, one that they are bound to abandon in droves.

And how do those teenagers feel when they finally do have pre-marital sex? Well, if they're like me, they feel mildly disgusted by the female body. But most of them presumably get a Santa Claus feeling: they have been lied to, and they have taken yet another step toward adulthood by exploding the myth. It turns out that not only is pre-marital sex fun, it is something that almost everyone does.

And being southerners, they know exactly what to do: separate their behavior from their stated ideals. And they know what marital norms are: a story that is told to teenagers to get them to behave. So society's unwillingness to be honest from the outset ends up leading to a situation in which you risk being seen as childish, naïve, credulous, etc. if you associate sex with commitment. It is like believing in Santa Claus.

This may not be an entirely bad thing - I am open to the idea that sex would be a lot less fun if it weren't prohibited, if it were discussed clinically and given official sanction. "Go out there and have fun! Be safe!" Ugghh.

But it seems to me an odd way to organize society, constantly dissembling and overstating, setting up an inevitable cascade of exploded myths and abandoned beliefs. Teaching people to associate transgression with maturity and sophistication. Encouraging a mismatch between stated ideals and actual behavior. Inviting shame and hypocrisy and the associated pathologies. There are also bound to be cruel cases of mismatched expectations: not everyone abandons the myth at the same time. Hopes are dashed, feelings are hurt.

Anyway, sex is not such an important part of life. But my worry is that people will come to believe that the rule of law is a myth, that everyone cheats on taxes, etc. They are told otherwise, but they can be forgiven for not believing it. And then we will be Greece.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Troll Repellent

There's trolling and then there's trolling. My blog seems to have attracted some wags in the comment section who pretend to find outrageous inaccuracies in my posts. So for instance, when I pointed out that it isn't cold in Buenos Aires in fucking June, they commented that Buenos Aires is in the southern hemisphere. Ha ha ha. Everyone knows that further south = warmer (or do my commenters purport to believe that Texas has harsher winters than Massachusetts?). These "so wrong they're funny" comments are getting a bit tiresome, and if I have to I will start moderating my comments section.

Much To Be Humble About

In an NY Times "Room for Debate" on rethinking the way we teach economics, Jeffrey Miron titles his contribution "A Little Humility Would Help."

I think this is a case where the title is better than the post. Miron writes about a kind of predictive humility: we are not as good at predicting the future as we might have thought. I suppose economics could use some humility along these lines, but honestly it seems to me that economics was already reasonably humble when it came to predicting business cycles, financial booms and busts, etc.

Where economics has gone off the rails, I think, is its lack of humility about its methodology. Economics ignores vast areas of human knowledge and makes only token acknowledgment of the limitations of its models. I can't count the number of times I have heard people deploy economic arguments as though they are decisive, as though the only reason you would ever support, say, unionization is because you are untutored in economics.

That's the arrogance that needs to be purged from economics. Economists need to stop colonizing other disciplines, retrench, and seize the commanding heights of their own territory. Then they can tell themselves that they never had it so good.