Godzilla vs. Megalon

September 30, 2019 at 2:29 pm (By Amba, Uncategorized) ()

In The Law, human beings attempted to create an authority that would transcend their own best efforts to besmirch, evade, manipulate, and abuse it. A North Star of dispassionate justice that would shine far above the nonstop mud wrestling of human affairs.

In practice, of course, the law, a human product, has often been used as the protector of privilege or the refuge of scoundrels. But it is a work in progress, and over time it’s been hewn and refined and fought over toward something that begins to vaguely resemble the ideal of objectivity—to extend its protection to the powerless and its demand for accountability to the powerful, “without fear or favor.”

Those words, as you’ll see if you follow the link, arose in the context of journalism, which has now largely made a travesty of them. Only The Law is left.

(Digression: it’s interesting that the English, who tore through this globe creating, exploiting, and destroying with their mind-boggling drive to industrialize, capitalize, and colonize—a truth brought home to me by copyediting this forthcoming book—also created much of what we now know as The Law, and slowly, from Magna Carta to the reformers of the 19th century, broadened its protection, imperfectly, from the rights of property to the rights of the naked person.)

Here, you hear the authority and dignity of The Law awakening, shaking its wings, clearing its throat—not a moment too soon. Things have finally gone too far, rousing it from its “stony sleep,”  like the more-than-equal and opposite monster to Yeats’s in “The Second Coming“:

somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 

In The Law, we finally have a Godzilla to fight the Megalon of chaos.

Or, in a more mundane image, the parents burst through the door just as the kids who’ve been gleefully trashing the house are about to burn it down.

But The Law is no human parent. It’s our own imagining of a power authoritative and impartial enough to stop us from destroying each other and ourselves.


Permalink 3 Comments

I dreamt of Rainy this morning

September 8, 2019 at 12:07 pm (By Amba) (, , )


This poem came to mind.

Rainy wasn’t “placid and self-contained”; he was goofy, obsessive, and attached. (I suspect Whitman was thinking of a cow, a stupefied human creation.) The stallion Whitman describes later in this section of the poem, with his “eyes full of sparkling wickedness,” certainly isn’t “placid.”

But the scathing description of human behavior, that I can relate both to myself (at least the first two lines) and to the world. I was so glad to see Rainy.


~ Walt Whitman

from “Song of Myself,” 32


Permalink Leave a Comment

Follow the Money. It Doesn’t Lead to Teachers.

September 8, 2019 at 10:17 am (By Amba) ()

Medium pundit Umair Haque’s anticapitalist rants can be over-the-top, but they can also be right on. His point below is not news, but it bears repeating, because we’ve become so resigned and dulled to it that we’re in danger of accepting it as normal.

[G]uys that self-evidently don’t know anything…not a thing…make millions — while a teacher can barely scrape together a middle class living…and even so, takes care of the kids in his or her charge on his or her own dime. Do you see a little bit what I mean by “incentives for knowledge being corroded so badly they’ve been twisted upside down”? I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m speaking quite literally. The Bret Stephenses and Morning Joes of our society are paid colossal amounts. The teachers and adjunct professors of our society can barely make ends meet. The “hedge fund managers” and “traders” of our society are paid massive fortunes. The teachers and adjunct professors can barely raise families. Real incentives. Real money. Real lives. Real social outcomes, too. […]

Now, American pundits will point out the obvious at this juncture. Educated Americans make more than uneducated ones! How can you say incentives for knowledge have been corroded!! . . . It’s true that educated Americans make more. Why is that, though? It’s largely because kids with Ivy League degrees head off to Wall St and Silicon Valley…where they rake it in. For…doing precisely nothing of any real value to society. Targeting ads more finely…finding cleverer ways to pump and dump stocks…these things have no benefit whatsoever, they just accrue profit. It’s not “education” per se that’s being employed here. It’s just that a specific kind of technical knowledge is worth more to capitalism than anything else.

Hence, if you have a PhD in physics, Wall St will pay you a fortune. But if you have a PhD in English…nobody will pay you much at all. But hold on: it’s the PhD in English that might have helped explain how the rhetoric of authoritarianism erodes the norms and values of a democracy, how today’s demagogues echo yesterday’s dictators, how to fight back against them using words and concepts. See my point? Nobody will reward you for having a PhD or even a Masters’ in our society outside a set of very, very narrow disciplines — mostly mathematical, mostly technical, all corporate. That’s because that kind of narrow skillset can be employed to maximize profit, to write more efficient algorithms, to optimize the code.

UPDATE: Bonus rant by Umair Haque—colonialism redux:

The deal that we — the rich world — offered the poor one doesn’t work anymore. It never did. It went like this. You’re poor. We’re rich. We’ll pay you to make the stuff that we need — but only as little as humanly possible, with the least respect for your rights, dignity, and development. We don’t care if your kids labour in sweatshops. We don’t care if your rivers and forests get chewed up. We don’t care if you never have a democracy. We only care about getting our stuff — as cheaply as possible.

That’s global predatory capitalism in a nutshell — the deal America came up with for the globe. Does it sound suspiciously like colonialism to you? It should. Colonialism’s logic was exactly the same, whether practiced by the British in India, the French in Indochina, or America in its very own south. If we can’t enslave you, we’ll pay you as little as possible, with as little respect for your human potential, to make our stuff. Take it — or leave it. (And, by the way, if you leave it? We’ll hit you with sanctions, maybe even bombs, probably CIA coups and plots. So you’d better…take it.)


Permalink 1 Comment

Garry Wills Links Gun Rights to Slavery

September 7, 2019 at 2:27 pm (By Amba) ()

From the New York Review of Books newsletter (I added the red bolds):

This week we published an essay by the historian, writer, and longtime Review contributor Garry Wills titled “The Rights of Guns.” After the recent series of mass shootings—in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso and Odessa, Texas—one might say that it was timely. But there’s a sense in which a reflection on the hold that guns and gun rights have on American society is never not timely.

Wills’s piece this week ends with the observation that the Second Amendment worship that enables this cycle of death is akin to religious idolatry—taking us back to the mordant piece he wrote for the Daily on this theme in 2012, “Our Moloch,” in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting. It is a melancholy fact that, with every new mass shooting, we see an uptick in people sharing and reading that piece. […]

The distortion of “gun rights” has been a long-running theme [for Wills], dating back at least to a learned 1995 essay for the Review on the constitutional debate over the right to “bear arms.”

There, he explains that Madison granted the Second Amendment essentially as a compromise […] to win acceptance for the rest of his Bill of Rights. But in our email exchange this week, he offered an even darker interpretation of this compromise:

“I am now even more convinced that Madison added the Second Amendment under pressure from his Virginia foe Patrick Henry, who opposed the Constitution without protection for the militia as a slave-compelling power and for arsenals (‘keep and bear arms’) to store military resources against slave rebellions, a deep and constant fear in the South.”

Patrick Henry?? “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry?

I really must clean out the rest of my 1950s grade-school version of American history. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!

More on Wills: He advocated “Distributism,” which he described as “against both unchecked capitalism and socialism, respecting property but distributing it.” (William Buckley told him that wasn’t conservative—too anticapitalist. Wills reportedly got the idea from the great conservative writer G. K. Chesterton.)

And he apparently advocates Warren:

[B]ack in 2015 he’d written a piece for the Daily urging Elizabeth Warren not to run. (His point there was that her best work was championing people’s interests against those of bankers and using her influence to pull Hillary Clinton further from the clutches of Wall Street.) But what about now?

“Warren was useful in the Senate before Trump. She is essential in the White House after Trump,” Wills said. “Who does the government work for?”

(I’d link to the newsletter, but it seems to exist only in inboxes.)


Permalink 4 Comments

Life without Facebook 3

September 6, 2019 at 6:43 pm (By Amba)

(The novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. Besides, what better methadone for writing ON Facebook than writing ABOUT Facebook?)

From a comment on an earlier post:

BTW I looked at a few of the old posts here (circa 2010). I used to write a lot more coherently, and we’d have discussions in the comments like the ones we now have on Facebook, only more leisurely and substantive. Facebook has really done a chop job on our minds. It’s hard to say whether FB and Twitter have reflected the times, or shaped them.

I’m so fidgety, have such a hard time concentrating—saccades of the mind that were wired in by hopping back and forth to social media, keeping three conversations in the air, plates spinning … Now they are empty, or filled by reading the sparse responses to my blog posts. But the matrix is still there. How long will it take my mind to heal from this shattered concentration, for its moments to melt and fuse into larger units like drops of mercury?

Even so I feel much less mentally frenetic off social media, and time goes slower, so there’s more of it. I haven’t figured out how to structure and fill it yet; letting myself down into that space is like gingerly lowering oneself into a hot, or cold, bath. It’s a strong sensation, empty time. It exposes how afraid I am to do what I most want to do.

The frenetic feeling churned up by Facebook is kind of a false feeling of responsibility, like Chicken Little running around trying to hold up the sky. You feel like you’re part of, or participating in, something important, momentous, breathless. At the very least you’ve incurred an obligation to entertain your equally bored and twitchy friends.

Permalink 4 Comments

Two good articles

September 6, 2019 at 6:34 am (By Amba) (, )

about the promise hidden in American decline and fall.

Permalink 4 Comments

Removed from Twitter

September 5, 2019 at 5:00 pm (By Amba) ()

(I will not just replace Facebook with another social medium. If FB is fentanyl, Twitter is not Tylenol. Not methadone. It’s heroin. If I have to write something I’ll write it here. Let it fester in darkness.)

  • Just a hunch, but I think Trump is skating closer to a 25th amendment intervention than he is to impeachment.
  • That said, as long as he is useful to the Republicans, they’ll strive to cover up his mental disability as the Democrats did FDR’s and JFK’s physical disabilities.*
  • It’s a bizarre race against time: Will he completely lose it before they can get him reelected? He is magic for them.
  • He delivers a white working class that will believe whatever he says no matter what he does, and evangelicals who see him as the savior of The Traditional Family (which has always included mistresses, and abortions for them, as its “dark matter”).


*and as the Republicans did Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s

Permalink 2 Comments

Life without Facebook 2

September 5, 2019 at 12:09 pm (By Amba) (, )

I am so used to being involved in the far-flung water cooler chatter that most of spend an inordinate portion of our days in that when I read the news I have a strong (I won’t say irresistible) impulse to comment on it (wittily if I can, to get hits of admiration dopamine) and share it. Nowadays, this almost feels like a responsibility of citizenship, a way to turn being informed into a participatory activity. To leave social media is to abandon one’s small part in the work of weaving the collective consciousness of our time, day by day—a task that has become democratized by social media, so now it’s not just pundits opining and the reactions of breakfasters over their newspapers mostly lost to oblivion. Social media is the letter to the editor metastasizing like The Thing, the inmates swarming all over the asylum and a good thing too.

So to give up one’s part in this feels seductively perverse—why would you?

Well, because time sunk in social media hinders you from gathering any more-substantial contribution (if you even aspired to that, which is pretty futile for most of us, and things are moving too fast anyway; the contribution to social media, however ephemeral, is more of a turn on the mind-stage than most of us would ever have taken without it. Maybe only those of us who used to write, or blog, feel reduced rather than enhanced by it).

And because, as has been amply documented, social media makes you unhappier, and lonelier. It reduces “making your mark” to a new kind of daily rat race, feeling your existence and impact and your very “like”-ability validated or not; a new kind of micro-success and failure, of nano–manic depression. It reduces the trajectory of a week, a month, or a lifetime to a rubble of moments, a Brownian motion of little ups and downs that never gathers to a wave. It shatters long rhythms, yanking you down from anything that is building by the gut-clutch of addiction. Addiction has the patience of a hungry newborn; it constantly hijacks your attention from things that might be more full-filling, longer-term (like more than five minutes), to give your attention to.

I deleted a thread from Twitter this morning. I don’t want to swap one social medium for another. My experiment is to get off social media near-totally. At least I’ll force my impulse to comment, snark, lament into a longer form here, where it will be read by two or three people instead of, say, fifteen, and so will be closer to being a way I’m keeping my attention for what makes me risk and does me good instead of pimping it out for the cost-free illusion of companionship.

It’s finally, for all these fancy words, a matter of mental health.

(When I say “near-totally,” I might set a high bar for what demands to be shared, and set a quota: no more than one tweet a week.)

Permalink 2 Comments

Life without Facebook

September 4, 2019 at 12:39 pm (By Amba)

  1. Life is incredibly spacious and eerily silent without Facebook. I am intimidated by the expanse of pristine, fallow time. At least now I have—I won’t say noless escape from it. It confronts me almost impudently, a challenge and an invitation. It’s actually more inviting than intimidating. I’m still getting things done spasmodically. Do I dare to waste less time?? It’s like venturing into the ocean.
  2. (from a letter to a friend planning lunch) This is one way in which getting off FB has ALREADY enhanced my life — I’m making plans to ACTUALLY SEE MY FRIENDS! It’s amazing! FB becomes a kind of low-effort substitute that over time creates a deficiency, a drained, anemic feeling. What is this? It’s loneliness! How can I be lonely when I “see” so many friends every day? It’s like looking at pictures of food when you’re hungry, at least for me. Plus, since I don’t have a job job, I have to structure my own time and motivate myself, and FB is absolute death to that.


Permalink 6 Comments