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.

Said and read – October 2018

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Textbooks. That’s about all I can say or reflect on with regard to books read in October. My neck and shoulders are crying out similarly (as I’ve dutifully lugged these texts with me all over the place). It’s been interesting, and has informed many of my non-studious discussions, but nothing worth writing extensively about.

I have been pleased, though, that I’ve somehow managed to keep my head above water over the course of October, which will (along with the first half of November) be the most challenging time of 2018. I enjoyed a brief re-connection with a university-era acquaintance who was apparently inspired by this blog to think differently about what he reads, which in turn gave me things to contemplate with regard to how I consume my literature – and why.

Feel free to dig further into what I was reading over the course of the year, which was undoubtedly more interesting than now: September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious. Or follow me on Goodreads to see a list of pretty much *everything* I read.

Thoughts on reading for October:

Highly recommended

*The Conformist: A NovelAlberto Moravia

I read this novel in the course of a couple of short flights, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I had had no idea what to expect. The style was infused by such intensity that I couldn’t stop reading.

“But Marcello, we were all innocent. Don’t you think I was innocent, too? And we all lose our innocence, one way or another. That’s normality.”

Still, Italy isn’t fooling me.

He observed all these people from under his lashes with urgent repugnance. It always happened like this: he thought he was normal, like everyone else, when he imagined the crowd in abstract, a great, positive army united by the same feelings, the same ideas, the same aims; and it was comforting to be part of this. But as soon as individuals emerged out of that crowd, his illusion of normality shattered against the fact of diversity. He did not recognize himself at all in them and felt both disgust and detachment.

Good – really good

*Development as FreedomAmartya Sen

Perhaps my interests are skewed toward social and economic justice, equality and equality of opportunity, and Sen’s ideas on development and development as freedom are thus especially appealing to my kind of thinking… nevertheless, he makes compelling arguments for these ideals with evidence from within the framework of fairly mainstream and widely quoted/perceived-as-capitalist thinking in the extreme (e.g. Adam Smith: We have to begin by noting that Smith was deeply skeptical of the morals of the rich—there is no author (not even Karl Marx) who made such strong criticism of the motives of the economically well placed vis-à-vis the interests of the poor.).

Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.

And we can see more clearly than ever the way these fundamental freedoms are withheld from the majority, leading the situation in what are often cited as the most prosperous societies:

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority—of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order.

I read several books about poverty, gentrification and the homelessness/housing crises as side effects of unequal economic development and infrastructural collapse in the United States, but didn’t find any of them to be as urgent or in-depth as they should be given the extent of the problem. I suppose Sen’s theories and analysis feels more important, even if it is grounded in theory rather than in the daily-life inability of individuals to pay their rent.

*Bosnian ChronicleIvo Andrić

“Daville thought: “The terrible thing is not that we grow old and weak and die, but that a new, younger, different breed comes pushing behind us. This is the essence of death. No one drags us toward the grave, we’re pushed in from behind.””

Andrić just has a way with describing people and scenes that I can’t quite compare to anything else.

One approaches every parting with a twofold illusion. The person we are parting from—especially when, as in this case, it is likely to be forever—appears to us far more valuable and deserving of our attention than heretofore, and we ourselves feel much more capable of generous and selfless friendship than in fact we are.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Selected Poems by Laurie LeeLaurie Lee

*Woods and ChalicesTomaž Šalamun

As always, it’s poetry that grounds me when I need to reconnect to myself and escape from work or study.

Coincidences

Nothing terribly coincidental although I find trivial tidbits interesting, such as reading about one of the pioneers of psychology/leaders of behaviorism, John B. Watson (who is woven throughout almost all of my current textbooks) is the grandfather of the actress and mental health activist/advocate, Mariette Hartley.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I can characterize anything I read as a disappointment or a source of strong feelings whatsoever. The workload of textbook reading is not exactly pleasure reading, and I am finding some things more interesting than others, but nothing qualifies as something I’ve actively disliked. The whole textbook ‘style’ lacks anything that endears the reader to it, but it serves its purpose.

 

Dickheads – Who Remembers Richard Marx?

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Among world-famous “Marx”es – Richard Marx is pretty low on the list and not first to spring to mind (Karl being most prominent for me). I always forget about 80s musician Richard Marx – I’d call him a “flash-in-the-pan” except that he had more than one hit at the time (at least one of which most people could sing along with or at least have heard, even if they have no idea who is behind it – “Right Here Waiting”.

He was no priority to me, but today I stumbled on an article about Marx’s petty wars-of-words with journalists – sometimes not even big-time journalists. Just people whose articles (even blog articles?) Marx apparently stumbles across and then starts arguing, defending himself against nonsense that does not really matter. Is it just to be mentioned and inflate an ego that cannot be sustained just on the 80s hits and a successful producing/songwriting career that came after the more visible fame? Is it really some kind of inferiority complex? Because really – if he embodied the kind of confidence that he probably should, to which he applies all manner of defensive words and threats, he would have neither the time nor interest in stooping to the level of addressing the fact that someone makes fun of the hairstyle he sported in the 80s or referred to his (soon-to-be ex-) wife, Cynthia Rhodes) as a “former model” (I guess he rushed to her defense, citing her history as an actress in important/popular films – we all remember Dirty Dancing and her role as “Penny”. Although I don’t remember much about her or her role, I remember Jerry Orbach saying something like, “You’re the one who got Penny in trouble.” – always enjoying this euphemistic language – “in trouble” – to describe pregnancy).

The aforementioned 2013 Salon article puts it best (although a Techdirt response also made me crack a smile in response to the Salon piece and Marx’s behavior, which they characterized as “acting like a self-important psychopath”) – Marx has outsold so many of his much better-known peers but has not had the staying power nor garnered the respect of the industry (italics are mine).

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Marx’s quadruple-platinum album “Repeat Offender” has sold more copies than “Blonde on Blonde,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” or “Pet Sounds.” (In fact, Marx’s most popular album has sold more copies than any album by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra or the Beach Boys.) However, Marx’s window of fame was so brief, and his songs so ephemeral, that he doesn’t have a musical legacy. He’s still heard on late-night call-in request shows for the lovelorn, and, as even he admits, “I’m HUUUUGE at Walgreens” as background music for shopping.

But unlike near-contemporary pop stars Hall & Oates and Journey, Marx has not built a following among a new generation of fans. Few people under the age of 30 or over the age of 60 knows who he is, and most people in between haven’t thought about him in decades. His last Top 10 hit, “Now and Forever,” was released in 1994. He’s a songwriter and a producer now, with a Grammy for co-writing Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” but in Hollywood, nobody knows the writer’s name.

Marx has never gotten respect from critics, which is understandably galling for any artist. In a 1990 concert review, a New York Times critic compared him to David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, as the latest in “a long string of insipid, pseudo-adolescent singing idols whose tenure as teenage heartthrobs rarely lasts more than three years.” That was also the last time Marx’s music was the subject of a New York Times article.

To be honest, I never imagined that I would devote a whole blog post to Richard Marx. But Edward McClelland (writer of the Salon piece and this longer, funnier version of the story, “Right Here Waiting”) probably did not imagine it either. But mostly on the strength of the quoted text above and how much I enjoyed McClelland’s pieces, I thought… yeah, this is all true. (I did a little bit more online digging, which also led me to a different Richard Marx who apparently practices law in Florida – found an article about journalism in Zimbabwe linked from that Richard Marx’s site – ties in nicely, if completely randomly, with my intermittent Africa-related knowledge binges.) It made me feel sort of bad for the guy, even though his lashing out at critics seems overboard and desperate – especially when he could arguably have the last laugh. He has undoubtedly “outgunned” most of his contemporaries and certainly his critics financially. And artistically – even if he did not make a lasting impression aside from probably providing a theme song for many a high school prom (again, see “Right Here Waiting” again or “Hold Onto the Nights” – among that category ballads that really does strike a chord with the lovelorn high school set who believe fervently that high school sweetheart love will last forever) – he made a few decent records (I sort of liked the single “Don’t Mean Nothing” at the time – I was a kid in the late 80s; what can I say? I am sure I thought I was too cool for it, just leaving sixth grade, but I will cop to having the broadest of musical palates, even then, so I won’t apologize! haha) and has what – at least in 1990 – I would have characterized as a rabid fan base.

Yes, you got that right. Rabid. Back in 1990 (you know, the old days when we did things like this), my best friend and I were waiting for tickets to a Sinéad O’Connor concert (we got in line about 4 in the morning) – and we thought we would be the first there. But there was a 30-something woman there first, who proudly exclaimed that she had been there all night waiting to buy tickets to see Richard Marx. She said she had previously been following him around the country and that his rabid fans affectionately refer to themselves as “Dickheads”. We were sort of making fun of him, and this woman became maniacally defensive. Why does Marx need to be out there defending himself when there are bulldogs and terriers out there fighting all these little battles for him? (Granted that was back in 1990 – I don’t know if the Dickheads are still out there, but I suspect that diehards of that type are forever.)

(And because I cannot sign off on a Richard Marx note, here’s Sinéad’s “Just Like U Said It Would B” from her brilliant debut album.)