Said and read – August 2020

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“Moreover, only when the weak have decent reasons to defend the system that reproduces their subservience does the empire of the powerful stand a chance to survive.” And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Image by S Donaghy

As I write, it is already the middle of September. I don’t know how this happens — the time slipping away so effortlessly. Perhaps the entire world feels mad, on fire, filled with a kind of crippling uncertainty that makes time present simultaneously as an accelerating blaze and a mind-numbing standstill (and the latter only because we see few resolutions or certainties that will provide comfort, that is, we fear the outcome of the upcoming US election; we watch literal fire turn large swaths of the world into infernos and then ash; we continue to grapple with the consequences of an out-of-control and still-not-entirely understood pandemic).

Just as always, reading is a salve, a form of hope, a cautionary tale, a glimpse into other worlds, other histories, lives we can only imagine.

Previous book reports: 2020 – July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for August:

Disappointingly most of what I read in August was uninspiring, and left me uninspired. A lot of things that were enjoyable or informative enough but were nevertheless mediocre. Despite having given myself time to contemplate everything, I’ve ended up without books that fit neatly into categories. Just a single list of a handful of books, making this August book report the shortest one I’ve written in a very long time.

*Capital and IdeologyThomas Piketty

“Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”

“This approach runs counter to the common conservative argument that inequality has a basis in “nature.””

A really densely packed and far-ranging book, probably not best served as the leisure-time reading for which I used it. It would be great if I were connecting it to something academic, but standalone – as great as it is – it’s a bit too much.

“To recapitulate: inequalities linked to different statuses and ethno-religious origins, whether real or perceived, continue to play a key role in modern inequality. The meritocratic fantasy that one often hears is not the whole story—far from it. To understand this key dimension of modern inequality, it is best to begin by studying traditional ternary societies and their variants.”

The book’s most valuable chapter is the final chapter, which serves as prescription pad for a more just and socialist future: Intertwined concerns – various forms of “justice” to reach equality, from educational justice to taxation, from democratic participation to universal income rights.

*Second Person SingularSayed Kashua

“She said that man was only smart if he was able to shed his identity. “Skin color is a little hard to shed,” she said, “it’s true. But the DNA of your social class is even harder to get rid of.””

Last month I mentioned Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, as I enjoy his voice. This book was still on my to-read list at the time. I realized well into reading Second Person Plural that I had seen some form of film adaptation of it. The film, A Borrowed Identity, isn’t a direct adaptation of this book but instead is billed as an adaptation of Dancing Arabs, which I’d read last month. But Second Person is definitely tells the part of the story the film eventually takes on, in which an Israeli Arab ends up assuming the identity of the Israeli Jew he had been a caretaker for – with the blessing of the guy’s mother. The film portrays this event (taking over someone else’s identity and the relationship between the protagonist and the person whose identity he takes on) slightly differently, but the themes of co-existing cultures, fitting into a culture but only to a certain degree unless you literally become someone else… these are fascinating questions.

*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”

I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics myself it was this blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas that brought only misery to people, that turned me off. I was not looking for a love song for capitalism but alternatives. What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, cause misery. The theoretical economic systems people attempt to employ are just that — theories. It’s in practice that misery or relief or prosperity can be enacted, and it would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has caused relief or prosperity for most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.

“Capitalism, lest we forget, flourished only after debt was demoralized. Debt prisons had to be replaced by limited liability, and finance had to ride roughshod over any guilty feelings debtors were encumbered with, before “the rapid improvement of all instruments of production… [and] the immensely facilitated means of communication” could draw “all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization”—to quote from none other than Karl Marx.”

I never found the right kind of economics program at any university, so I abandoned the field. And almost 20 years later, after doing some casual self-education, I’ve learned that I was not alone. To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raises the flag that tells the world that you think differently, and may therefore be dangerous. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.

“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long. In today’s Europe, those who wax lyrical about the sanctity of the existing rules are their own worst enemy and the handmaidens of discretionary, autocratic power. Europe’s democrats must, for this reason, beware of those speaking of moves toward political union and “more Europe” when their real objective is to preserve an unsustainable monetary architecture. Continuing to impose impossible rules opens the door to the ugly ghosts of our common past.”

Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes.

“DEMOCRACY VS. DISCRETIONARY POWER This section ought to be superfluous. The fact that it is not reflects badly on a world that seems to have forgotten the minimum requirements for a functioning liberal democracy. So here we are, stating what, once upon a time, everyone knew well, namely that the chief purpose of law is to create a level playing field between the weak and the powerful. While a level playing field does not preclude exploitation and serious violations of freedom, it is the very least the rule of law must provide.”

A few key points from Varoufakis’s work:

“Looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949) issues an impertinent theory of European civilization. Under the Borgias, he professes, three decades of bloodshed gave us the Renaissance. In contrast, five centuries of Swiss democracy and peaceful coexistence produced nothing more spectacular than the cuckoo clock.”

In addition to parallels with other modern economists, Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by journalists like Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior is best-known for her work on Trump and his long-lived criminal ties, but has an academic background and expertise in the rise of authoritarian regimes. When Varoufakis writes:

“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). I’ve recently reread Kendzior’s book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America and was struck by these kinds of analysis most of all: the spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.

And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.

Another thought-provoking point from Varoufakis’s work: he discusses at some length the 1991 Krzysztof Kiesłowski film La Double Vie de Véronique. His brief analysis digs into Kiesłowski’s own thematic exploration of the burgeoning European experiment. Near the end of Kiesłowski’s life, his final works dealt with European unity after 40+ years of disunity (the Trois Couleurs trilogy directly confronts and grapples with this). But the earlier Véronique teases some of the themes: The connection between the two characters (twinned souls, of sorts – one in Poland (Weronika) and one in France (Véronique) – who only briefly get a glimpse of one another) could represent the connections between these very different countries (Poland and France) and their very different historical trajectories. At the time we had only the haziest ideas of what each other’s lives were like, but we were still human — and the two heroines here have a split-second recognition of each other’s humanity, and its fleeting nature. Varoufakis takes this a step further, looking at how the past 25 years have eroded that naive hope and dashed much of the compassion with which Kiesłowski treated his subjects:

“And here is the irony: Before the border fences were torn down between Poland, Germany, France and Britain, a film like The Double Life of Veronique resonated perfectly in Warsaw, in Paris, in London and in Stuttgart. Today, a similar film would not. Véronique and Weronika would have no bond, no mystical connection. They would be pitted against each other in the context of a ruthless European Union where solidarity has been reduced to predatory “bailouts” that increase debt, “reforms” that translate into savage cuts in the poorest Europeans’ wages and pensions, and “credibility” that is synonymous with following failed economic recipes.”

I had never really thought much about these underlying themes when the films were released because at the time, as an American youth looking in from the outside at a Europe at the end of the Cold War, at the threshold of a new cooperation, it felt like a peaceful inevitability that Europe would unite – and Kiesłowski delicately captured the novelty and fragility of that. It remained to be seen then how unification would actually play out. How the unity of people is not at all the same thing as the unity of a currency.

On a final and completely frivolous note, Varoufakis wrote about people he met in 1991, one of whom was called “Grandma Georgia”. I laughed out loud seeing this, as my own grandmother was a “Grandma Georgia”, and a girl I knew in my adolescence claimed that she loved the sound of these words together so much that one day she would name a child “Grandma Georgia” (she didn’t).

*Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep EstablishmentYanis Varoufakis

A detailed and harrowing account of how Greece’s then-finance minister, economic Varoufakis tried to negotiate with the European and American establishment in the face of truly bleak odds and real human pain on display in a flailing/failing Greece. The establishment was not receptive and not negotiating in good faith, and much of this book, in addition to providing a blow-by-blow account of the crisis, explains much of the backstory as to how and why it’s not what it seemed and was not in good faith.

But that’s not all. Washington could park Wall Street’s bad assets on the Federal Reserve’s books and leave them there until either they started performing again or were eventually forgotten, to be discovered by the archaeologists of the future. Put simply, Americans did not need to pay even that relatively measly $258 per head out of their taxes. But in Europe, where countries like France and Greece had given up their central banks in 2000 and the ECB was banned from absorbing bad debts, the cash needed to bail out the banks had to be taken from the citizenry. If you have ever wondered why Europe’s establishment is so much keener on austerity than America’s or Japan’s, this is why. It is because the ECB is not allowed to bury the banks’ sins in its own books, meaning European governments have no choice but to fund bank bailouts through benefits cuts and tax hikes.”

*Selected Poetry, 1937-1990João Cabral de Melo Neto

Poetry of course

*SpellAnn Lauterbach

Poetry

*Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual EditionCarlos Drummond de Andrade

Poetry!

*The Country Between UsCarolyn Forché

What do you think?! POETRY!

*The Lunatic: PoemsCharles Simic

Need I say it? Poetry.

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

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History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.