Thursday, October 27, 2011

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A House Divided (and Occupied)

The incongruity of it struck me immediately: slapped to an office window in the basement of Fisher-Bennett Hall (by whom I do not know) was a yellow sign that read, "We are the 99%!"

My first thought was of the irony of posting this statement in an Ivy League university; my second was of the fact that 99% of a society does not constitute a whole. Neither, of course, does one percent, and few would disagree that there's more justice in the rule of the 99% than in the rule of the one percent. But just how much more is another matter entirely.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is right to draw attention to the elements of plutocracy, theocracy, and oligarchy that have corrupted our republic in recent decades. But they are absolutely wrong in their rhetoric, which frames the division in our society as lying between an overwhelming majority and a small, greedy minority. The truth, as always, is far more complex.

For instance: that sign in the basement of Fisher-Bennett, saying that "we" are the 99%—does that include me, a politically engaged young man with liberal sympathies, who is privileged in many ways? At the opposite end of things, does it include a person of extreme destitution, who feels so removed from the political system by poverty that an activity like camping out at Wall St. or Philadelphia City Hall can only seem like an inexplicable frivolity? Does it include Warren Buffett, wealthy beyond imagination, who recently generated a lot of attention when he asked to be taxed more, saying that the super-rich do not pay their fair share? In other words, is the division of our society into a 99 and a one based upon attitude or upon income?

This kind of imagery, though powerful, runs several risks. For one thing, rather than effecting any real change, it does little to alter the notion, ever more ascendant in America since the Reagan years, that the United States is less a body politic than an uncomfortable agglomeration of classes; it does nothing to disarm the Right's recourse to the flimsy defense of "class warfare," which in turn does nothing to encourage a more complete political discourse. For another, it risks alienating those whose hearts lie with the protesters but whose wallets or jobs would seem to align them with Wall St.

The late historian and social thinker Tony Judt rightly pointed out that members of societies have different interests, and that glossing over this point—as many politicians did in a weak effort at comity after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords—does nobody any good. The purpose of societies, after all, is to unify varied interests into a livable body; this was the central insight of the social contract thinkers. That said, a point comes when a society's interests are too varied for its own good, straining the social fibers. It seems America is reaching such a point, as income inequality balloons, with all its attendant ills.

The solutions to these problems are not readily at hand. When some of our politicians refuse to raise taxes in any case, and when others believe taxes should be raised significantly, what constitutes compromise? When citizens can hide behind hallowed terms like "freedom," who will listen to a disagreeing view? When some of us can send our children to private schools and live far from crime, and some of us cannot, how do we prevent the continental drift that's slowly pulling our polity apart?

One thing seems certain: the solution does not lie solely in the tents that line Wall Street.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

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South of the Border

Once again, the good people over at The Millions have been kind enough to publish some of my musings. This time, it's a piece that's been kicking around my head for about five years, a look at Mexico's role in The Adventures of Augie March, On the Road, and In Cold Blood. You can find it here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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Everyone's A Critic

As much as I hope to someday be a critic who wields some real heft, I have an equal and opposite fear of actually achieving that position. The ability to ruin someone's career simply by expressing an opinion is not one to take lightly. So I'm grateful that my review of Wilco's new album—which is being hailed as a work of genius, though I don't see it—won't get much further than Penn's student paper. Either way, Wilco has survived bad reviews before. I hope they continue to do so. The exigencies of keeping this blog impel me to post 'er up. You can find the piece here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

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Poor Old Grandad

My grandfather died last week at 91. I imagine I'll have more to say about it later, but for now, I just want to post one of my favorite songs, "Ooh La La" by Faces. The grandad in the song bears little resemblance to my own—he never inspired pity, and didn't seem to regret many things—but nevertheless, "Ooh La La" never fails to put me in mind of my own grandfather. It's also a lovely statement of finality, the last song on the Faces' last album. I'm not sure a band ever made a better exit.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

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On the Death of Steve Jobs

President Obama inadvertently hit upon a hard bedrock of ambiguity at the center of the response to Apple CEO Steve Jobs's death when he said that "there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented."

It's indeed a compelling thought, one of unfamiliar and even unsettling irony, but it raises an interesting question beyond itself: how great a tribute is it? Or: What, exactly, was the nature of Steve Jobs's success? Why has the death of an American tech executive prompted such a public outpouring of grief?

One answer is that Jobs, like no other inventor of our time, enmeshed his products into the daily fabric of American life. Apple devices upended the way human beings experience music. They challenged the traditional notion of a telephone. In the case of the iPad, they even created their own demand. Remember how baffled people were when it launched? When's the last time you heard that kind of banter?

This answer, while partly accounting for the lionizing that began almost as soon as Jobs died, strikes me as incomplete. More pertinent is the fact that while outlets like The New York Times focused, with relative neutrality, on Jobs' revolutionary innovations, everyday mourners described him as someone who not only changed human life but improved it, a beneficent inventor devoted to the betterment of mankind. This, at least, is the impression one gleans from comment sections and Twitter feeds, and it strikes me as willful. Jobs was indeed a visionary, and he made beautiful products, many of which have been used to the benefit of mankind. But his inventions are tools, and man is more than the tools he uses. To automatically and uncritically assume that Steve Jobs improved our world because he endowed it with iPhones is to have a limited notion of what constitutes progress.

But, as I have to constantly remind myself, to scorn the new simply for being new is equally uncritical. As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley, "Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies...the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance." What we left behind was not necessarily better; what we are moving towards is not inherently worse.

Either way, Steve Jobs gets the last word: even someone as wary of technology of myself writes his angry blog posts on a MacBook, listens to his beloved Rolling Stones on an iPod, and texts his mother on an iPhone. And perhaps this is the case for the same reason that so many are now mourning Steve Jobs's passing: in his elegant devices, his Space-Odyssey Apple stores, his "Think Different" ads--even in his monkish personal aesthetic—he offered us the dream of clarity in a muddled age.