Monday, July 25, 2011

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Traction Recommends

In lieu of a full post, I'm just going to offer up a few things I've enjoyed in the last week:

"The Curious Case of Curt Flood," now showing on HBO. Curt Flood, the Cardinals' center fielder during their 1960s dominance, has often been demonized for challenging baseball's reserve clause, a feature of all major league contracts that forbade free agency. Flood paid dearly for this decision, and this documentary is an affecting look at how one man essentially sacrificed his well-being for a principle. As Gerald Early says in the film, others tried to challenge the reserve clause before Flood, but only Flood made it a moral issue.

"Connection," by the Rolling Stones. From their overlooked album Between the Buttons, "Connection" is a deeply catchy song about a landslide of troubles. We all know the feeling, but rarely does it make us want to tap our toes like this.

James Wood, "Madness and Civilization," in the July 4th New Yorker. I tend to disagree with Wood's broad focus on aesthetics, but I'm continually awed by his close readings. This essay, about the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, is criticism at its best. It doesn't matter if you've read Krasznahorkai's works (and who among us has?) or not; Wood's thorough reading is a deeply felt exploration of one of Krasznahorkai's epigraphs: "Heaven is sad."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

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Empathy for Sale

The nuclear disaster in Japan was at bottom a disaster of consumption. I don't at all wish to suggest that Japan brought the tragedy upon itself through some unique national defect. Quite the opposite. I want to suggest that Japan is no different than any other developed country whose capitalist yearnings have placed it in a position where such a disaster is possible. Modern society has an unrelenting need for fuel, and the reactors that suffered meltdowns in the wake of the April earthquake and tsunami were just one of the many means human beings have developed to feed our rapacious appetite for energy.

In the wake of the disaster, ads that proclaimed "Fashion Unites For Japan" began popping up in my copies of The New Yorker (pictures above). In the ads, willowy models with pouty faces sported t-shirts designed by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Karl Lagerfeld, and Orlando Bloom, who had scrawled on the shirts messages of dubious morality and indubitable bathos: "Through struggle we unite and overcome"; "Your strength is our strength."

There's certainly something very wrong with these t-shirts in particular. Are we in the U.S. really capable of "uniting" with the homeless earthquake victim across the Pacific who is suffering from radiation sickness? This seems to stretch the bounds of plausible empathy, and suggesting that buying a t-shirt puts us all in the same boat sends a dangerous message about the ease of doing good. But I'm more concerned about the broader attitude that these t-shirts represent: that disasters of consumption can and should be met with more consumption. Unfortunately, the disaster in Japan is probably more a symptom of things to come if we continue on our unsustainable path rather than an anomaly. This doesn't mean that spectacular Michael Bay-like disasters will become the norm, but it does mean that a continued sanguine indifference about our disposable society can only have bad consequences for the future. Selling t-shirts to remedy a crisis essentially brought about because there's already too many things for sale is the type of absurd contradiction that becomes the norm in postindustrial capitalism.

I promise this isn't going to turn into an anti-capitalist rant. But it is going to turn into a plea to think more critically about capitalism's effects on morality. As the brilliant writer Anthony Doerr pointed out in a recent article about the planet's bleak future, "It’s socially acceptable nowadays to compost your coffee grounds and turn off your thermostat and grow strawberries on the porch, but it’s still considered uncool to suggest that the American capitalist system is untenable." How did we get to the point where coolness became an ethical criteria, where doing good is measured entirely in dollars, where a charitable appeal takes the form of sexily glowering models, whose runway mugs hardly seem to be feeling Japan's pain. But damn, do they ever look cool.

There's no easy answer to the problems raised by these ads, in this or any other space; these are ethically fraught conundrums. I, for instance, haven't donated a cent to relief efforts in Japan. Would I be better off buying one of these t-shirts, or continuing in my lazy reluctance to Google the Red Cross? These shirts have undoubtedly done some good for Japan. How to balance this against the attitudes that they foster, and the resources that their production required? Must economics dominate ethics? Is a good deed diminished if its primary motivation is feeling good? Where is the line between doing good and feeling good, if anywhere?

And finally, eternally: How to empathize with human beings suffering on the other side of the globe? I suspect the answer is not to be found in our checkbooks.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

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Listing to the Side

Minor publication news: I have a list on McSweeney's Internet Tendency today in honor of tomorrow's final space shuttle flight. You can find it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

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View From the Top

We drove up towards the top of Twin Peaks, joined by clumps of people hiking the same route, as if we were all going to inspect the radio tower, which, with its spindly legs and impassive aviation lights, looked like an extraterrestrial visitor still deciding whether to teach us or destroy us. But our interest didn't lay at the top. After cresting the hill and parking the Vespa, my uncle and I joined the crowd already there, standing with its back to the tower, chattering amiably and looking towards the bay. A band of fog stretched across the middle distance, obscuring Alcatraz, but the sky was otherwise clear, a halogen moon inhabiting the radio tower like a bird cage.

My uncle and I left our helmets on for warmth, muffling the conversations around us and giving me the sense of self-contained environment known to astronauts or scuba divers, an acute awareness of the human body as a closed system, a reminder that in this group of sixty or so persons, our deaths had separate appointments on the calendar. Cars continued to stream up the hill, disregarding parking laws and wedging wherever they could. I made out several languages through the thick foam that coddled my ears. Awaiting our own fireworks, we attended to the blossoms silently unfolding over Berkeley. 

Then, glistening faintly and intermittently, as if revealed by the moonlight, twin tails aspired upwards from the Embarcadero, resolving themselves in golden explosions as our crowd exclaimed and applauded. By some unspoken dictum, all the couples assumed a vertical spooning position, their eyes latched towards the same spot in the distance. Maybe fireworks are all it takes to forge a bit of national unity, for they impose silence and attention. One couple, two men, began singing the Star Spangled Banner. Perhaps they were feeling especially patriotic because of the decision handed down in New York a few days earlier; perhaps, like all of us, they were just feeling uncomplicatedly fond of their country. 

One of my frustrations as a writer is that I depend upon observation to feed my sentences, but sentences are also how I tend to observe. Instead of really discerning how an object or event appears to me as I look at it, my mind likes to race ahead to a finished work, thinking of how this object will look once it's been transformed into a metaphor on a page. And so, in the half hour or so that the fireworks lasted, the explosions at one point or another appeared to me as weeping willows; mourning mothers; visions of destruction fading away as soon as they appeared; koi surfacing and diving in a pond; galaxies living out their lives in a few short seconds. 

These were all more or less true, some of the images coming to me unbidden, some forced into being. In my helmet, listening to my own breathing and aware of the foam that framed my view, I entered a state of entranced focus on the fireworks, aware of the glimmering coal carpet of the city only as a pleasant buzzing in the fore of my brain. Adding to my detachment was our distance from the fireworks, which smoothed their noise into low rumbles that rolled off the hill behind us many seconds after the explosion. Austerlitz must have sounded the same to Napoleon and Alexander. 

After the show, we hurried down the hill, my uncle taking some chances with the Vespa that brought up unknown reserves of courage within me. Leaving behind the crowds at Twin Peaks, we passed through streets that were empty except for the occasional patch of acrid smoke from backyard fireworks. A pair of sparklers in the distance chased each other with the laziness of Chinese dragons. I could hear only the Vespa's motor and my own breathing. My uncle's helmet occluded a large part of my vision, like a looming planet; I thought of very little, no worries about the debt or the end of the space program or the wars abroad or the grim economy or my future, nothing but the fog on my visor and my hands wrapped around my uncle's waist for stability. There were no more fireworks; nothing left but the city, and beyond it, America.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

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Happy Fourth of July

"But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my—my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom, through the awful grace of god.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

-Robert Kennedy, speaking on the death of Martin Luther King in Indianapolis, April 4th, 1968.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

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Newsweek is Dead, Long Live...Nevermind

When it was announced last year that The Washington Post Company had sold Newsweek for the ignominious sum of one dollar, I was prepared to mourn the magazine's inevitable demise with the same mixture of resignation and guilt I felt at the end of Kodachrome and the silencing of my local classical-music radio station: resignation in the face of the inexorable onslaught of digital media, guilt about not having made better use of the extinct good while it was alive, and even greater guilt about the first wave of guilt not being as sharp as all my philippics against digitization would suggest it ought to be.

But then came Tina Brown, enfant terrible of New York magazine publishing in the 1990s, riding on the back of her Daily Beast to the rescue of Newsweek. While not exactly rejoicing at this news, I was intrigued to see if she could somehow revamp the obsolete model of the weekly newsmagazine into something relevant. I hadn't read Newsweek seriously in years, devoting only the time it took me to walk from the mailbox to the front door to flipping through its ever-fewer pages. But there was a time before I discovered The New Yorker when I read it religiously, and I fondly remember how it felt to hold a copy of Newsweek that weighed more than an issue of Highlights. So while not holding my breath, I silently wished Newsweek well.

I didn't expect to end up wishing for Newsweek's failure. For the first few months of Tina Brown's tenure, the magazine was unremarkable, revamped more in style than in substance and no less ungainly, caught awkwardly between the minute-by-minute Internet news cycle and the saner undulations traversed by the likes of The New Yorker.

Some things remained the same. The front-section essays sported flashier names (Niall Ferguson, Stephen L. Carter) but proved to be unremarkably competent. The section containing charts, graphs, embarrassing quotes, rebranded the NewsBeast, still conveys almost no information. There was still a heavy reliance on the list, that inane favorite of the middlebrow newsweekly. Brett Easton Ellis's too-clever essay on Charlie Sheen's meltdown, called "rollicking stuff" by Brown in a New York Times Magazine profile, was as disposable as its subject; an essay by Columbia historian Simon Schama in the current issue about the dangers of sanitizing the Founding Fathers was astute, galvanizing, and entirely too late, probably close to the hundredth time that the topic has been treated since the Tea Party's rise. These are talented writers, yes, but the reader sees no reason why these articles are unique to Newsweek the way a New Yorker piece can only appear in that magazine. In today's crowded climate, with Slate and Salon and the Times and Journal and their magazines, a weekly generalist magazine may simple be out of luck.

My feelings about the revamped Newsweek switched from fulfilled cynicism to outright anger with the current issue, whose cover sports a jarring Photoshop job that depicts Princess Diana walking next to Kate Middleton. To explain why this is such a problem, it's worth quoting Tina Brown's opening editor's letter at length:

Ironically, it was living in THE DAILY BEAST’s fast and furious news cycle for the past two years that revealed to me what a newsmagazine can bring to the table when it’s no longer chasing yesterday’s story. It’s about filling the gaps left when a story has seemingly passed, or resetting the agenda, or coming up with an insight or synthesis that connects the crackling, confusing digital dots. NEWSWEEK’s cover story last week—“Brain Freeze”—made the point exactly: a surfeit of information seizes up the ability to process it. What a magazine can offer readers is a path to understanding, a filter to sift out what’s important, a pause to learn things that the Web has no time to explain, a tool to go back over the things we think we know but can’t make sense of.

Considering this lofty agenda, Brown's moral priorities seem a little skewed when her "filter" of a magazine chooses to elevate Brown's speculative article about Diana at age fifty over a troubling report about the poor state of military-base schools. In journalism school, they teach you about a thing called a "nut graph," the paragraph in a magazine article that explains its importance. Reading Brown's article, I kept waiting for the nut graph, interested to see how Brown would justify such a mindless venture. This is as close as she came: "Diana would have been 50 this month. What would she have been like?" Apparently, Brown thinks the importance of Diana's not-birthday is self-evident, which is troubling, because the piece could be the year's nadir of inanity, going so far as to include a mock-Facebook page for the late princess.

Brown is a demi-celebrity who loves buzz and uses words like "content" and "trending." She is absolutely the wrong person to carve a "path to understanding" through the jungle of digital news; what's the use of connecting the dots if they aren't worth our attention in the first place? At Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Brown's appetite for all things current (Newsweek's arts section is now called "Omnivore") was checked by the knowledge that she could only tamper with those magazines' venerable styles to a certain degree. But Newsweek is Brown's to do with what she will, and what she's done is offer ephemera as substance. Diana's death, while tragic, was no moral crisis. Brown, on the other hand, genuinely thinks that marking Diana's fiftieth birthday is worthy of our attention. And Brown, though controversial, still carries power as a tastemaker. And a tastemaker professing to know what's truly important in our age of short attention is an unsettling combination. Claiming to be a force against distraction, Tina Brown's Newsweek has only added to the noise. Here's hoping that it soon goes silent.