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.)



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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.)


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Two good articles

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

about the promise hidden in American decline and fall.

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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

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Not so fast with the optimism, buddy!

April 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm (Icepick) (, )

CAVEAT: I try to avoid political posts here at Ambiance. But today, as yesterday, there is some economic news worthy of note.

The new jobs report was released today. I have heard a few people make some optimistic noises about the fact that private sector jobs have matched the 2008 peak in terms of numbers. (See here, for example, though they do have the decency to caveat the hell out of the article.)

What I’m not hearing, and don’t expect to hear from the Administration, is a comment about full-time jobs. As of March 1 2014, the US economy had 3,872,000 FEWER full-time jobs than it did at its peak in November 2007. And that’s after almost five years of recovery.

And given that the working age population has grown considerably in the intervening years, the employment situation is actually even worse than it appears.

So don’t let the bastards tell you how goddamned good we’ve got it, and what a wonderful job they’ve done. Because it just ain’t so.

(Sorry, I’ve been trying to get the graph to embed, but wordpress isn’t accepting the FRED site’s code. I’ll see what I can do to fix it later.)

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I’m Against It

February 12, 2013 at 3:12 pm (By Tim) (, , )

I apologize for importuning you lately with my odd musical tastes. This has been done to make trials here of materials for a Music Appreciation blog for the school where I teach. Knowing that politics trumps polyphony, and that several of you have been disturbed over the years by my seeming to be a wussy Northeast liberal, I thought I’d try my hand at something purely political.

As I say, people frequently take offense when they discover I am not strong in party-feeling or love of faction. I tell such persons, if they must know which side I adhere to, they ought consult Addison:

The Spectator.
No. 117. Saturday, July 14, 1711.

… Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt.

There are some Opinions in which a Man should stand Neuter, without engaging his Assent to one side or the other. Such a hovering Faith as this, which refuses to settle upon any Determination, is absolutely necessary to a Mind that is careful to avoid Errors and Prepossessions. When the Arguments press equally on both sides in Matters that are indifferent to us, the safest Method is to give up our selves to neither.

This principle lies close to the foundation of my opinions. Further, Marx gives stronger standards for the practical conduct of life in the modern world that I have adopted as my own:

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Political Stuff

October 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm (Icepick) (, , , , , , )

For those eager to discuss politics I have a few posts with observations of the Orange County, Florida political landscape over at my place. I kept at the political yard sign counting in an effort to gauge the political intensity of the Presidential race down here. Since we’re in the swing part of a swing state it actually has some relevance! (Short version: I believe but am not certain that Romney will win Orange County and Florida. Some of the latest polling agrees with that assessment.)

Anyway, I try to avoid politics over here, but not over there. So if that’s what you want please feel free to join in. I’ll be posting about how I’m going to vote soon as well. I’ve been in the Attila the Hun American camp but I’m wavering.

And the REALLY good news is we’ve only got about nine more days of this crap. After the election we’ll get some fresh Hell to blight our political landscape.

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Essay After a Sonata

July 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , , , , , )

I‘ve been listening to and thinking about the music of Charles Ives (1878-1954), one of the most original composers of this or any other country.

His father had been a bandmaster in the Civil War and later Danbury, Connecticut, and he gave young Ives an odd but thorough musical education. Ives took a degree in Music from Yale in 1898, where he was captain of the baseball team,  and where, the story goes, he was said to have muttered, “Goddam Brahms…Goddam Brahms…” under his breath as a kind of mantra during warm-ups.

Having thus studied the best European masters and their weak American imitators, he determined never to compromise his own startling, American, and original vision of music. He saw that making a living in music in the Gilded Age would entail nothing but compromise.  So, he went into business and became the co-founder of Ives & Co., later Ives & Myrick, a successful New York insurance agency.  He was an original thinker in business as well as music, and in fact pioneered the entire modern concept of estate planning.  Composers do not commonly write books titled, Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, but Ives did in 1918.

Ives, while becoming wealthy in business, wrote an astonishing amount of music in such spare time as he created for himself. His music is beyond unusual for its day or any other, and, in fact, to say it was “ahead of its time” is the worst limp-wristed cant. Stravinsky put it best, I believe, in 1966:

C: Have you heard Ives’ Fourth Symphony yet, Mr. Stravinsky, and if so, have you any comments to register concerning it?

I.S.: I have found it to be rather less of a ‘gas’ than opinion led me to expect. Ives was not primarily a symphonist; the Three Places in New England are more of an entity than any one of the symphonies (besides which they contain much better music than the third and more consistently good music than the fourth). But the second movement of the fourth is an astonishing achievement. The inclusiveness, which is at the root of Ives’ genius (‘all things in their variety,’ as he quoted Emerson) reaches saturation point in these seemingly free-for-all pages; ‘seemingly’ because while this or that tune may suddenly burst out for no other apparent reason than joie de vivre, it is inextricable in the skein of the composition. But I will say no more. I know too little of this fascinating composer who was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives’ discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table. But to me personally these innovatory achievements are of less moment (artistic inventions not being patented, in any case) than my discovery in him, only very recently, of a new awareness of America.

–Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 66.

The original book is online here.

The second movement of another Ives symphony, the unnumbered “New England Holidays,” has always been close to my heart.  It paints a picture of Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) in a New England village when Ives was a boy, about 20 years before the turn of the last century. It’s filled, like most of Ives’ music, with quotes and snippets of popular songs, hymns, and Civil War tunes, which is what Stravinsky meant by “inclusiveness,” in reference to the second movement of the 4th Symphony.  Much of Ives’ commonplace music is unfamiliar to people today, but see what you can pick out.  Knowing some of Ives’ musical landscape adds considerably to the appreciation of the portrait he has painted with it as a background. Ives wrote of this piece:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial.** During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity–a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness–reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order-man.”

After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.

After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day .

I can never listen to that, especially as I live near a cemetery filled with Grand Army of the Republic badges next to weathered marble headstones, without a lump in my throat.

Ives was a careful reader of the New England Transcendentalists, especially Emerson.  Ives’ one extended piece of writing, his Essays Before a Sonata, (another online version here) originally published in 1920, is filled with Emersonian ideas, filtered as they are through Ives’ atmospheric and sloppy prose. The lack of editing, both in his music and his writings, is perhaps Ives’ weakest point.  Considering he was a preoccupied businessman who managed to accomplish at least three lifetime’s work in his relatively short productive span, I think it’s worth plowing through a little hazy writing to get at the gems of Emersonian thought as applied to music, a subject on which Emerson wrote very little.

There’s also no little humor in Ives, both in his music and writing. In his “Introductory Footnote” he says, “These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can’t stand his music–and the music for those who can’t stand his essays; to those who can’t stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated.” I’m afraid this particular blog post is focused on his more serious side, although there is no lack of subtle mockery of Bronson, for example, in the “Alcott” movement of the Sonata mentioned next.

The occasion of these Essays was the publication of his large, complex Second Piano Sonata, titled, “Concord, Mass. 1840-60.” It has four movements, each a portrait of a Concord author, plural in the Alcott instance:

1. Emerson (Part 1) (Part 2)
2. Hawthorn.
3. The Alcotts.
4. Thoreau.

The Sonata is an enormous work, and I won’t try to analyze it, except to quote Bernard Herrmann, the composer probably best-known for his music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and who was a longtime friend of Ives:

The first movement, “Emerson,” is prefaced by the following comment:

There is an “oracle” at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony–in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater human-message of destiny, and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations–even to the “common heart” of Concord–the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened–and that the human will become the Divine!

This movement is divided into three sections, prose and verse and coda, the coda being one of the most superb pages in music. In its twilight mood, it is only comparable to the coda of the last movement of Brahm’s Symphony in F major. The scherzo tries to suggest Hawthorne’s fantastical adventures into the half- childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms–about the ghost of a man who never lived, or about something that will never happen, or something that is not. The third movement is a sketch in form of a free improvisation–of Beth Alcott at the old spinnet-piano, playing and improvising on old Scotch airs, hymn tunes, and on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This movement is constructed on simple, diatonic harmonies. The finale follows Thoreau’s thoughts on a day in Indian summer, at Walden. It is twilight, and the poet’s flute is heard out over the pond. “‘Tis an evening when the whole body is one sense.”

The links on the titles of the movements are to excellent performances of this Sonata by John Kirkpatrick, Ives’ first real piano champion, who played its public premier in 1938. The recordings are a transfer from a 1968 vinyl, I believe, so they’re a bit scratchy. But they really are the best readings I’ve ever heard of this piece, and I recommend spending some time with them.  You also might want to explore some of the CD’s available of this piece.

Here, also, is the YouTube file of the “Alcotts” movement, which is probably my favorite, as the character of Bronson Alcott and Louisa May (“Necessity’s Daughter”) have always affected me greatly. I drive by Orchard House almost every day on my way to work, and sometimes think I see the Shade of Jo and her sisters scampering behind the big tree, or Bronson sitting in the “Hillside Chapel” of his Concord School of Philosophy and Literature, ready to expound profoundly on any subject by the hour.

While this my be my usual effort at Music Appreciation, it also has something to do with the current situation of the American psyche, if I may use the term.  Ives is interesting to me, aside from his purely musical merit and the quality of his thought, because he was a genuine American of a sort I don’t know can exist any longer.

It seems our political and social thought and dialog, such as they are, have become crude travesties, in thrall to one or another rigid system, with too much of the country lapping up foreign and discredited ideas, the conflicts of which in the 20th century have wrecked a noticeable part of the ancient physical fabric of Europe and killed millions and the European soul in the bargain, while the Chinese, practical people as they are, finally withdrew from the brink before it ruined them utterly.

The other part of the country seems to be taken with such absolutes of private property and public economy as would have warmed the heart of an old Whig mill owner in Manchester in 1801.  Both sides, but particularly the first, seem intent on cutting off the nose of the country to spite the face of the other.  Where, now, is our American practicality and common sense?

Where in all this do we find thinkers and writers of the character of an Emerson? Where do we find artists with the independent, Yankee spirit of an Ives? Maybe they exist. I see very good political and social writing all the time, and know that there’s quite a bit of good, new music being composed. But everything I read or hear, despite my efforts at engagement, fills me, in some deep place, with dread. It’s as if I have stumbled into a terrible Dark Age, in which there are still clever people, ignorant as they may have become, but nowhere do I find essential spiritual comfort, wholesome-minded and renewing, as I do in Emerson or in Ives.

Ives was mainly a programmatic composer who evoked ordinary American life. He wrote music about small-town events, places he knew in New England, scenes in New York City, and pieces inspired by well-known American political and literary figures. In a sense, he had the outlook of a Norman Rockwell, but wedded to an astonishing avant-garde musical technique. More to the point, he had the outlook of the New England Transcendentalists, who found spiritual meaning in everyday life and in ordinary Nature.  Ives always had, behind his depictions of life and quotes from other music, a deeper, spiritual and cosmic purpose.

The thing that leads me to despair when I consider Ives, is the nearly complete absence of this today. Our artistic sensibilities, particularly in “serious” art or music, seem to be foreign and imported along with our left-wing politics, leaving little space for the genuinely American. Ives does not mock or condescend to small-town life, as journalists, writers and artists of all stripes do today. He does not sneer at the village band playing the Second Regiment Quick-Step, missing a beat or two, but instead surrounds them with a another story, deeper and more spiritual, that in itself springs from those ordinary people.

The condescension and self-loathing in American intellectual, political, and artistic life today is an acid that eats at my soul. I hope you don’t think it too self-indulgent to say this, while pointing to an example from the past that is so much different.

Perhaps it’s always been this way to those who must live through the anxieties of any particular time. I have found in Emerson a few words of ultimate comfort, as he inevitably has, to those of us Americans who despair at the present and think things are uniquely bad. I suppose we ought to be reminded there never was a Golden Age, but that this country may indeed represent the last, best hope for mankind and the renewal of the human spirit. Emerson gives us the full brunt of what always seems to have been wrong with America, and then his reasons why it should turn out well. I pray he was right:

I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables. to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology, or skill without study, or mastery without apprenticeship, or the sale of goods through pretending that they sell, or power through making believe you are powerful, or through a packed jury or caucus, bribery and “repeating” votes, or wealth by fraud, They think they have got it, but they have got something else,-a crime which calls for another crime, and another devil behind that: these are steps to suicide, infamy and the harming of mankind. We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing, advertisement and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.–Society and Solitude, Chapter 1.

Gentlemen, the development of our American internal resources, the extension to the utmost of the commercial system, and the appearance of new moral causes which are to modify the state, are giving an aspect of greatness to the Future, which the imagination fears to open. One thing is plain for all men of common sense and common conscience, that here, here in America, is the home of man. After all the deductions which are to be made for our pitiful politics, which stake every gravest national question on the silly die, whether James or whether Jonathan shall sit in the chair and hold the purse; after all the deduction is made for our frivolities and insanities, there still remains an organic simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its balance, redresses itself presently, which offers opportunity to the human mind not known in any other region.–”The Young American.”


I can’t leave this without a few more words.

First, to my conservative friends, you should know that Ives was not one of you. As he was progressive in his music, so was he Progressive in his politics. My point about him in relation to modern politics is that he was an American and a New England Yankee, with everything those implied. He was as unlikely to follow the dictates of the Comintern in his day as to lap up ideas from the Daily Kos, were he alive now, and even less likely to listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than a few minutes.

There is a strain of American “progressive” thought, implicit in the New England Transcendentalists, that sought more perfect democracy, the Abolition of slavery, free and equal public education, governmental efficiency and elimination of corruption and favoritism, regulation of the influence of the “moneyed interest,”  Temperance, the protection of Nature for the common good, etc. These things were historically associated with the Republican Party in New England, who were heirs, ultimately, to the old Federalists.

These were not wild-eyed radicals in their love of some collectivist ideal. Neither were they Jeffersonian small-government Democrats, with their hypocritical cant of “each man under his own vine” and “States’ Rights” covering for the enslavement of millions.  New England Republicans, mocked in the past as “Goo-Goo’s” for their commitment to Good Government, trace their roots to the intensely communal Puritans and their version of a proper Christian life.

Puritans never passed up a chance to Do Good, individually or collectively, as they were impelled to as an external sign of their Christianity as part of  the Body of Christ. Yet, each of them had his or her own intensely personal relationship with God, and to a Salvation not meted out to Merit, but to Faith, and that by God’s unknowable Will alone.

Thus were the tensions between the individual and collective expressed in the very mothers’s milk of our own first, distinctively American, tradition of communal responsibility.  In modern New England, politicians such as Frank Sargent, William Weld, Olympia Snowe, and Joe Lieberman have been the uncomfortable heirs to this ambiguous and tense legacy, long since stripped of external signs of its Christian roots.

Charles Ives would have been, I think, more comfortable with these, and his own turn-of-the-century Republican Progressives, than any of the pro-crypto Marxist modern “progressives” or doctrinaire “conservatives” that otherwise pester us today.  From what I’ve read, Ives was a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, like many Yankee former Republicans, who found their liberal and reformist social ideas squeezed out of the 1920’s Republican Party, and taken up, however strangely and hypocritically, by the party of the Solid South and Jim Crow.

Such is another example our “pitiful politics.”

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