A must-read, I think


Comrade Paine is going to give us a better-informed response to this book than I can manage. I have just begun reading it and although it is very thick and heavy, and a bit frightening on that account, it is also written in a lucid, jargon-free, down-to-earth and rather droll style. I am enjoying it very much.

Piketty asserts for himself a kind of coy non-Marxism, and I’m sure he’s not being dishonest. As far as I can tell, he approaches his subject without Marxist theoretical commitments. But he is respectful to the Moor, and suggests we might have something to learn from his way of approaching the matter.

His title — CAPITAL in the 21st century — is unmistakably an hommage to our old hero. The Belknap Press, his American publisher (alas, a tentacle of Harvard) has driven the point home with a lot of red on the cover. They’ve also printed it on nice paper, and the typeface is easy on the eye, which matters when you have 600 pages before you.

The book seems to be fresh, original, un-dogmatic, and rather impressively fact-based, unlike most economic writing. I kinda think it’s going to be pretty important. Not just a nine-days-wonder. Check it out.

The veil of unknowing — and of knowing


This started out as a comment:

There is a not uncommon intellectual deformation among us admirers of Dr Marx. We seem tempted to believe that because the old Moor gave us some very important insights into the big picture of history, we must therefore be able to divine in detail what’s going on in the streets of a city halfway around the world, though we don’t speak the language, we’re not present, and our sources of factual information are next to useless. Perhaps even worse than useless, come to think of it.

It occurs to me that this is under-generalized. Isn’t this in fact the besetting sin of our time? Isn’t it also the problem with sociobiology, and ‘evolutionary psychology’, and so on? Aren’t there those among us who are shallow, dogmatic Darwinians in just the same way that many of my Lefty comrades are shallow, dogmatic Marxists, always trumping each other with proof-texts?

Surely there is nothing less ‘scientific’ than the belief that one has found an all-purpose answer for every question.

And yet, how we crave it!

The magazine that cried wolf


My Lefty mailing lists are dominated, these days, by the anti-tyrannical Left, posting fast and furious anything they can dig up in support of the Syrian rebels or the Ukrainian Iron Maidan. But I was surprised to see a link to an article in Time magazine — yes, Time magazine — sounding the alarm about Cossacks on the march, a story which must have made a lot of old folks’ blood run cold in Washington Heights.

The Time item was illustrated by the wonderfully comical picture above(*); click on it for a link to the whole article, should you have some time to waste and an appetite for the comedy of breathless journalism.

Now I realize that boosting the Maidanites requires a somewhat selective and yet, at the same time, uncritical inventory of sources. Even so, I was surprised to see a self-identified Marxist citing Time magazine, a notoriously and thoroughly mendacious and tendentious jingoist shitrag.

I mentioned my surprise — oh, all right, I mentioned it in my usual snide snarky way: “Hmmm. We’re reading Time now, are we?”

This provoked a good deal of sanctimonious lecturing from the Maidanophiles. Apparently one is not supposed to “consider the source”, proverbial wisdom notwithstanding. My favorite spanky came from a very frequent and voluble contributor — let’s call him Humillus Dirtwick:

I would be very interested in seeing something on this list impeaching the Time’s article on the Wolves’ Hundred. I get highly annoyed with people who think they can avoid that by just impeaching the source. I consider it a corrupt practice.

Where can I get the official Marxist list of prohibited words and prohibited sources? Can someone post them here?


Caps in original.

Apparently the anti-tyrannical schematism in thinking about politics extends to a similar schematism in thinking about thinking: as if people had — or ought to have — a completely zero-based, amnesiac attitude toward everything they read or heard. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. The villagers should never have decided that the boy who cried wolf was an inveterate liar, and should have continued to muster up with the torches and pitchforks when called. After all, it turned out he was telling the truth — once.

I daresay Time occasionally tells the truth too, by accident or design. But in fact anybody who does any thinking or reading at all has heuristics for filtering the torrent of information, misinformation, disinformation, and plain imbecility that crosses his screen every day.

I’m sure that Humillus has some such heuristic as well, though in his case I suspect it comes down to whether the item before him does or does not support his beliefs.

(*) It put me in mind of a sniffy review of a long-ago Metropolitan Opera production of Siegfried, which included, the reviewer wrote, “a man in a bear suit.”

People are just no damn good, says The Atlantic


Click on pic for the story. Three questions:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.

The Atlantic deplores the results:

In Russia, 96 percent of those surveyed could not answer the three questions correctly…. only 30 percent of Americans aced the quiz. The best-performing respondents were the Germans (53 percent got a perfect score) and the Swiss (50 percent), but this still leaves almost half of each country’s population without a basic understanding of financial matters… 79 percent of Swedes, 75 percent of Italians, 73 percent of Japanese, and 69 percent of French could not respond correctly to all three questions.

We’re living in the world of The Hunger Games, and the Atlantic wants everybody to learn archery.

Garcia Marquez, RIP

Somebody — Pablo Neruda? — observed that the late Garcia Marquez was the most influential Spanish writer since Cervantes. Startling, but probably true.

Magical realism was such a great idea that it promptly got overdone. It’s potentially a rather serious matter to have encouraged the likes of Salman Rushdie, and our man will probably face some questioning on the subject at the Pearly Gates. But a guy is not responsible for his imitators, and St Peter will certainly clear him of all charges.

I have no idea whom G M admired among English writers, but it’s easy to imagine him striking up a very good friendship, on the further shore, with Lawrence Sterne.

His death evoked comments from at least three Presidents. Those of Colombia and Mexico were not especially original, but struck a suitable note. Here, however, is Unspeakable Bill Clinton:

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. From the time I read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ more than 40 years ago, I was always amazed by his unique gifts of imagination, clarity of thought, and emotional honesty. He captured the pain and joy of our common humanity in settings both real and magical. I was honored to be his friend and to know his great heart and brilliant mind for more than 20 years. My thoughts are with Mercedes and his family, and with his friends and admirers in Colombia and around the world.”

Exactly one hundred words, five of them being first person singular pronouns.

But of course our responses to books always are personal, if they’re real at all. Clinton’s observations are couched in such dull, banal terms that it’s difficult to believe he has any real love for stories and storytellers, or has given much thought to how one is different from another; but perhaps the stump-speech manner has just taken him over.

Perhaps there was a greener day for him, when a book could stir something more in his mind than a little rustling dust-devil of dry phrases, whirled up for a moment like leaves in Vallombrosa. Perhaps he remembered the day he read that wonderful opening(*). Was he really in love with Hillary then? She, with him? Did they still believe, in those days, that the world held better things in store for them than bombing Serbia, and carrying water for Israel, and electrocuting retarded people?

But return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past.

It was Comrade Paine, actually, who suggested 100 Years to me, and I read it on an overnight train, from Chicago to New York. Macondo will always be strangely mixed up, for me, with the little towns of the Hudson Valley, in the gray of dawn, after the kind of sleepless night that leaves you hearing bits of imaginary song in your ears.

(*) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

A bas le beret


I blame Mattress Jack Kennedy for these stupid berets. He introduced them for elite troops, if memory serves, and now that all troops are elite troops and heroes by definition, they all have to wear berets. Of course the berets in question are all folded and creased and flopped according to regs, now. The full-face version, as a result, is even sillier than the profile shot above:

Poor devil looks like a stillborn basset hound landed on his head.

Of course, the beret can be worn with style:


NOT an April Fool item


Post on one of my Lefty lists:

I have just ordered Trotsky in Norway, published by Northern Illinois University Press. According to the ad it is “a very significant contribution to the biography of Trotsky” as well as “an important contribution to Norwegian political history in the 1930′s.”

Now I yield to no one in fondness for esoteric topics, but this title made me smile. I couldn’t help imagining it as a musical, or perhaps a ballet.

Maybe I’ll order the book, if only in the hope that it will have a picture of Trotsky on skis.

Where’er the Merkin eagle flies


More Albert Speer architecture envisioned for the Nineleven(tm) memorial. This particular exercise in brutalism will conceal a branch office of the New York medical examiner’s office, where various scraps of human corpses will be kept — frozen, I presume — pending “identification”.

There will be a ‘viewing room’ for the families, who, we are assured, will not be charged admission. The families apparently also have a viewing site of their own over the whole Nineleven theme park — a sort of skybox, I suppose.

The combination of ghoulishness, sentimentality, and grievance privilege exhibited here seems very, very American.

You can see in the picture above that there is to be an inscription on the wall, picked out in — what else? — letters of steel, salvaged from the skeletons of Nelson and David(*).

The inscription is a rather pedestrian translation from Aeneid IX. The poet is addressing the shades of Nisus and Euryalus, two terrorists from Aeneas’ band of settler-colonialist invaders, who embarked on an errand of nocturnal assassination against the native resistance movement led by Comrade Turnus. After slaughtering a number of natives in their sleep, Nisus and Euryalus got their well-deserved comeuppance.

Virgil, of course, knows how to put a good face on this sort of thing:

Fortunati ambo! Siquid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.

Nicely Englished by my man Dryden:

O happy friends! for, if my verse can give
Immortal life, your fame shall ever live,
Fix’d as the Capitol’s foundation lies,
And spread, where’er the Roman eagle flies!

– though Dryden rather softens Virgil’s bluntness; the last two lines translate literally: “While the house of Aeneas occupies the immovable Capitoline rock and the great Roman father holds his empire.”

“Erase”, I must say, is a rather odd choice of words for ‘eximet’, which doesn’t mean anything quite so graphic; it’s just unemphatic ‘take away’. But ‘memori aevo’ is a lot better than the lame ‘memory of time’; it means something like ‘the remembering age’.

Unlike Nisus and Euryalus, the dead of Nineleven didn’t deserve their fate. Apart from that, there is a certain appropriateness, intended or not, in the choice of quote.

(Mutatis mutandis, as the Romans say.)

The gory tale of Nisus and Euryalus, in Virgil’s genuinely sublime and incomparable imperialist tract, takes its place among the uncompromisingly violent and unapologetically thuggish foundational narratives of Rome. Virgil wants it there; his exegi-monumentum poetic confidence tells him he can place it there; and he makes it stick. We remember Nisus and Euryalus because Virgil raised them a monument more lasting than bronze.

What the dullard plodders contriving Ninelevenland have in common with Virgil is the shared program of legitimating empire. Virgil does it by showing Nisus and Euryalus as bold impulsive gallant fellows — and ardent lovers as well. Irresistible, eh?

But the soul-engineers of Ninelevenland don’t really have this option as regards their Immortals (and probably couldn’t handle it if they did). What they have to fall back on is the rhetoric of American victimhood: poor us. So ill-used; so misunderstood.

Somehow I don’t think that a monument more lasting than bronze can be erected on this basis.

Update: Apparently the compromising context of the original has been pointed out to somebody in the theme park’s management cadre. The response? Drop the word ‘Aeneid’ from the attribution. Hey, if we do that, people will think it’s from the Georgics!

(*) As the two boxy towers were unaffectionately known in some circles — the reference being to the two Rockefeller brothers who ran, respectively, the state of New York and the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Victoria’s secret


For years and years and years, I was desperately attracted, in the sickest possible way, to Hillary Clinton. It’s the same kittenish-dominatrix thing that enslaved Comrade Paine to Margaret Thatcher.

But Victoria has broken the Hillary spell. ‘Fuck the EU!’ Oh Victoria! Say it again. Say it right in my ear, in that silky mezzo register so uniquely your own.

You stinking traitor


Like many Americans, I have occasionally found myself somewhat embarrassed by credit-card debt. Such was my situation last month, after a spell of unemployment. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was keeping me awake at night. I could just hear the usurious interest tick-tick-ticking up.

Finally I borrowed the amount again a weensy, I might even say derisory, pension account I have, at a rate of interest much more favorable to me, and paid down the entire account.

You would have thought the heavens had fallen. The credit card people promptly canceled the card. The phone was ringing off the hook. Fraud alert!

But hope springs eternal. They sent me another card. I went to energize it on the phone, and an extraordinary rigmarole ensued. Was I a US citizen?

Now I’m sure there’s some more or less ineffectual scheme to prevent money laundering — or rather, unauthorized money laundering — behind this craziness. But the unintended message is awfully clear: You’re not paying 17% interest on a loan, and you call yourself an American?!?!