Monthly Archives: July 2017

Confederate and the Jerry Falwell Left

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In the late 1980s, Martin Scorsese, who had always been an implicitly Christian filmmaker, became an explicitly Christian filmmaker with The Last Temptation of Christ. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics reacted not only with outrage, but with a well-organized boycott. “This is Hollywood’s worst hour,” Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell said. “Neither the label ‘fiction’ nor the First Amendment gives Universal the right to libel, slander and ridicule the most central figure in world history.” Most people on the left quickly jumped to Scorsese’s defense, ridiculing Falwell for condemning a a film he admitted he had not seen.

It’s unlikely that Confederate, the proposed mini-series set in an alternative historical timeline where the south wins the United States Civil War, will rise to the artistic heights of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent dramatization of the controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Sadly, however, many American leftists have descended to the level once occupied by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling for a boycott of a show that does not yet exist. Following the lead of April Reign, who created the hashtag “OscarsSoWhite,” progressives and anti-racists on social media declared with an almost unified voice that the very concept of an imaginary world where the Confederate States of American successful established their independence was racist and harmful to black people. “You are essentially asking black folks to wait and see if a show about slavery existing to modern times isn’t offensive,” white, male, feminist social media personality Charles Clymer maintained. “You’re asking black folks to be okay with white people being entertained at the thought of the Confederacy existing now.”

The left on social media is, in fact, so united in its outrage at the possibility that “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would be successful in bringing “Confederate” to HBO that I began to wonder what I was missing. Was I simply suffering from a bad case of “white privilege?” I eventually decided the whole issue was a lot more complex than anybody wanted to admit. I also realized that as different as they are, the evangelical Christian right and anti-racist, social media left share one thing in common. They both believe that art needs to be experienced, not as an individual, but as part of a community.

I used to attempt to argue the Bible, which I’ve read through several times, with Christian evangelicals, often setting “traps” like pointing out how the story of Jephthah in the Book of Judges seemed to indicate that human sacrifice worked, or asking them where in the Gospels Jesus ever mentioned homosexuality. It never had much effect. One of the primary institutions of the Christian right is the “Bible study,” where prospective church members are drilled in the “correct” interpretation not only of the Gospels and Paul’s letters, but in each book of the Old Testament. I was always astonished at just how many Christian evangelicals had a well-thought out answer to any question I could raise about even the most obscure, and confusing Biblical narratives. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Back when I was an undergraduate at Rutgers they had such an active chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ that I eventually just assumed that any cute girl who chatted me up was just trying to get me into a room full of people who would disabuse me of the notion that Matthew 25:40 was in any way an argument for socialism.

The social media left’s version of the Bible study is the hash tag. Here, “thought leaders”  like April Reign and Charles Clymer will instruct their followers in the correct reactions to the Oscars, the popular HBO miniseries of the day, which pop stars are “lit’ or “woke” or “badass” and which ones are “problematic,” and what forms of artistic expression white people should avoid so as not to “appropriate” someone else’s culture.  The main difference between me and my fellow leftists is pretty much the same as the difference between me and the typical Christian evangelical. Just as I read the Bible as an individual, and not as part of a church, I also experience “culture” as an individual, and not as part of a community. Unlike most people on Twitter I did not find the idea of an alternative timeline where the Confederacy emerges victorious racist or “problematic” but intriguing. Neoconfederate propaganda rarely depicts southerners as victorious oppressors, but, rather, as defeated, romantic martyrs. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, I imagined, might just blunder into something subversive. What many people on the left want to see, by contrast, an imaginary south where blacks are the elite and whites the oppressed, struck me as fairly standard “lost cause,” neoconfederate propaganda about Radical Reconstruction.

What’s ironic is that if Confederate is successfully produced and aired on HBO, I’m unlikely to watch it. I don’t even have HBO.  Many of the people who enthusiastically joined in the “NoConfederate” hashtag, on the other hand, are likely to “hate watch” the show, and contribute to HBO’s promotional campaign by debating it online. In fact, the “NoConfederate” hashtag was timed in order to coincide with an episode of Game of Thrones, a series I’ve never followed, and which has always vaguely disgusted me.

A Brief Meditation on Clipless Pedals

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Last year, while riding in Watchung Reservation, a cyclist passed me on WR Tracy Drive. “On your left,” he shouted as he whizzed by me as if I were standing still. There was no shame in being passed. WR Tracy Drive is a steep incline. The cyclist who passed me was training for hills, and I was just out for a pleasant ride in the park. Nevertheless, as is my habit, whenever someone shouts “on your left” (asshole for “I’m faster than you”) and puts a significant amount of distance between himself and me in a short period of time, I always try to close the gap, or even pass the offending showoff. Usually I have little trouble. I’m a fairly strong cyclist and there are few people I can’t catch if I’m genuinely determined. This guy, however, moved like a grey ghost through the mist. By the time I downshifted and started to pedal in earnest he had already rounded the circle on Summit Lane and was nearly out of sight. Try as I might I couldn’t catch up. I never even came close.

I went home that evening demoralized, feeling weak and old. What was it about the demon cyclist that I lacked? I suppose it could have been age. He appeared to be in his prime cycling years. I’m well into middle age. It could have been conditioning, but it wasn’t being winded that held me back. It was a simple lack of speed. I suppose it could have also been physical strength, but then again, cycling isn’t a sport that involves brute strength. Nobody trains for the Tour de France doing squats. I decided it was form, technique. He was getting more of out his bike than I was. He was younger, stronger, and better conditioned than I was, but he also employed what he had more effectively than I did. I looked down and noticed I was still using my ancient platform pedals with toe clips. I needed something to force me to keep the balls of my feet firmly in the center of the pedal. I also needed to tighten my straps and my toe clips to the point where I’d be using the upward stroke as well as the downward stroke.

I decided it was finally time to switch to clipless pedals.

The term clipless pedals is highly misleading. Even though you literally “clip in” the way you do on a pair of skis, we still use the name invented back in the 1980s to describe pedals without straps or toe clips. They’ve been standard on high end mountain bikes and road bikes for a long time, and they’re starting to trickle down to the masses. The only reason I had put off making the switch for so long was, oddly enough, the Internet. The idea of “clipping into” pedals on crowded suburban roads had always made me nervous. It’s one thing to have your feet bound to your pedals on a group ride out in the countryside. It’s another thing altogether when you have to stop for a red light every few blocks. What’s more, there is a generally accepted truism on the Internet that clipless pedals have a learning curve, that for the first few weeks that you use them you have a tendency to get your feet stuck and fall off your bike. The idea that falling off your bike while learning how to use clipless pedals is so well-accepted on every cycling forum and discussion board and stated with so much confidence I never thought to doubt it. That fall just seemed like something you’d have to go through. It was kind of like losing your virginity, something I didn’t want to experience on a crowded city street.

I’ve never fallen off my bike while using clipless pedals. I’ve never even come close. In fact, they’re so easy to use, I can clip in and clip out so fast, I’m baffled as to where the idea came from. I’ve even tried to get my feel stuck in my Shimano SPD clipless pedals, and take that obligatory fall, but I can’t seem to manage it. My feet always come out effortlessly, and I have a hard time believing that anybody else has had a different experience. So how did it become such a truism on the Internet that getting your feet stuck and falling off your bike is part of the process of learning how to use clipless pedals? I suppose maybe somewhere, sometimes, one person did. Perhaps it was the ghost of Buster Keaton rehearsing for a new silent film somewhere in cinematic heaven. Then he posted it on a cycling forum. Somebody else reposted it, then someone else reposted it again. Eventually it became conventional wisdom. People started to believe it happened to other people even though it never happened to them. Then maybe they made up stories about getting their feet stuck in their clipless pedals (even though they never did) just to feel like part of the crowd.

I’ve away from my ongoing experience with clipless pedals sure of only two things. They work. I’ll never take a long ride without them again. But above all this. People on the Internet are full of shit.

How Did We Get Here?

There’s nothing new about an American politician calling for police violence. Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California partly on his promise to crack down on those dirty hippies at Berkeley, a promise he kept. But let’s not underestimate Trump’s fascist thuggery. He’s much closer to George Wallace than he is to Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, both of whom seem restrained by comparison.

How did we get here?

People on the far left, whom I mostly number as my political allies, will say don’t kid yourself. We’ve always been here. The United States of America is a settler colonial nation built on stolen land. President Donald Trump is simply the latest manifestation of our brutal, white supremacist id. While I certainly think the far lest gets closer to the truth than liberal Democrats — who argue that Trump is a foreign, specifically Russian, plant — I don’t think simply pointing out the history of slavery and native American genocide fully explains why the quasi-fascist, far-right completely took over the American government in 2017.

Let’s look at the Trump Administration along three different historical timelines.

The long term: 1607 – 2017

The medium term: 1945 – 2017

The short term: 2001 – 2017

The far left explains Trump mostly along the overall, grand arc of American history.  Trump isn’t even the most blatantly white supremacist President we’ve ever had. That title would probably go to Thomas Jefferson, a man who raped his underage slave, Woodrow Wilson, a patron of the second Ku Klux Klan, or Andrew Jackson, who organized the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from the old southeast. Smarter liberal Democrats tend to see figures like Trump and Sarah Palin, not as a Russian conspiracy, but as part of the backlash against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which culminated in the election of the first African American President in 2008, and which produced toxic political movements like the Tea Party and the Birthers. Rick Perlstein, perhaps the preeminent historian of postwar American conservatism, has recently attempted a synthesis of the long and medium term explanation of the rise of Donald Trump. Trump, he argues, is the immediate product of the deep, reactionary undercurrent of “liberal” New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1960s and ’70s New York in which Donald Trump came of age, as much as Klan-ridden Indiana in the 1920s or Barry Goldwater’s Arizona in the 1950s, was at conservatism’s cutting edge, setting the emotional tone for a politics of rage. In 1966, when Trump was 20, Mayor John Lindsay placed civilians on a board to more effectively monitor police abuse. The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — responding, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups and their gripes and their shouting” — led a referendum effort to dissolve the board that won 63 percent of the vote. Two years later, fights between supporters and protesters of George Wallace at a Madison Square Garden rally grew so violent that, The New Republic observed, “never again will you read about Berlin in the ’30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces.”

Perlstein’s article is incisive and well-worth reading. I’m old enough to remember Trump’s call to lynch the Central Park Five. Trump is eerily reminiscent of the New York City of Bernhard Goetz and the fascist 1970s film Death Wish. Nevertheless, I also think it’s important to look at Trump’s rise in the very short term. With many liberal Democrats calling for an alliance with neoconservatives like John McCain and David Frum, I think it’s important to remember that there are two events that made the 2017’s apotheosis of the extreme right almost inevitable.

The first, of course, was 9/11 and George W. Bush’s use of the worst terrorist attack in American history to manipulate the American people into standing behind his invasion of Iraq. 9/11 was, perhaps, the greatest day in the history of the post-war American right. 9/11 made racism and Islamophobia respectable again. It ended the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the skepticism of militarism and the American empire that came out of the antiwar movement of the 1960s, for good.

The unwillingness of the American media to fully investigate the baffling success of a small group of Islamic terrorists in penetrating the security of the most powerful military the world has ever seen also gave rise to a whole new generation of antisemitic conspiracy theorists, the best example being Trump’s crude, almost demented, yet widely popular supporter Alex Jones. The “9/11 Truth Movement” not only revitalized the John Birch Society’s hysterical views of post-war American history, it also gave a new lifeline to classical antisemitism. For Jones, every event in recent American history, from 9/11 to the Sandy Hook Massacre, is a hoax played on the American people by a small cabal of “Illuminati,” Jews. Trump’s constant drumbeat about “fake news” in 2017 would have been impossible without Alex Jones’ wild accusations of “crisis actors” at Sandy Hook back in 2012.

The second event is the financial crisis of 2008 and the betrayal by Barack Obama of his progressive supporters. If 9/11 made the federal government look ineffective in the face of a well-organized terrorist conspiracy, the Wall Street bailout of 2008 made it look corrupt. By essentially declaring Wall Street and the banks to be above the law, “too big to fail,” Obama drove a wedge between black Americans and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and the American left. You could support the first African American President, or you could condemn Wall Street. You couldn’t do both. In spite of Bernie Sanders’ strong run in the 2016 Democratic Party Primary from the left, a run that was constantly undercut by charges of racism and sexism by the Clinton campaign, by 2017 the extreme right had already captured the anti-establishment anger that has been simmering since the Republican and Democratic Party elite got together behind closed doors, overruled their own rank and file congress members, and funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to the corrupt oligarchs who had destroyed the housing market, and, not incidentally, an entire generation of black, middle-class wealth. In the 1960s, if you said “down with the man” you were almost certainly on the left. In the 2010s, it’s not so clear.

If we don’t understand these two short term causes, I fear, an alliance of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans in 2018 and 2020 will simply try to paper over the deep fissures in American society the election of Donald Trump has made visible in 2016 and 2017, and set us up for someone in the not too distant future who might be even worse.

Wall Street Comes to the White House

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Like anybody from Jersey with a vowel at the end of his name, I’ve learned almost by necessity to appreciate a good ethnic slur. What’s more, there’s no question newly appointed White House Communications Director would be right at home in the world of The Sopranos. If Donald Trump Jr. is a grown up version of A.J., then Anthony Scaramucci could be Christopher Moltisanti with a law degree from Harvard.

Nevertheless, I can’t but help think that even after Scaramucci’s vulgar tirade about Steven Bannon “sucking his own cock” went public, people making jokes about “mafia thugs” are missing the point.  Anthony Scaramucci is not a product of Italian immigrant America, or Long Island, or “bridge and tunnel” New York. The new White House Communications Director, who grew up in the ritzy north shore town of Port Washington, and who has degrees from two elite universities, is the product of Wall Street.

When I say “Wall Street Comes to the White House” I’m not arguing that Wall Street’s ever been absent from the White House. In fact, Federal Hall, the very first White House, was actually *on* Wall Street. From breaking up the Homestead Strike to the Taft Hartley Act to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the United States government has always done the financial industry’s bidding. What makes Trump and Scaramucci different is not only their class loyalty, but their style. Unlike Bill Clinton, who started the process of transforming the Democratic Party into a party of the oligarchy, or Barack Obama, who completed it, Donald Trump and Anthony Scaramucci don’t pretend to “feel your pain. Loaded with “fuck you money,” either of them could have walked right off the trading floor at Salomon Brothers in 1980s. Don’t kid yourself that just because Hillary Clinton took big payoffs from the banks that Wall Street is in any way “woke,” or socially progressive. Unlike the young Bernie Sanders supporters slandered as “bros” by the Clinton team on social media, the typical Managing Director at Goldman Sachs really is a “bro,” loudmouthed, racist, sexist and homophobic.

I was originally going to write that Trump’s mistake was in hiring the CEO of a Hedge Fund, not its public relations director, as his new Communications Director, that even on Wall Street, there’s always been some decorum in dealing with the media. But this terrific article by Heidi Moore would seem to indicate that it’s even worse than I thought, that Wall Street’s been openly bullying journalists for awhile. I suppose that you can never been cynical enough. It’s not so much that Scaramucci is a Wall Street CEO and not a gangster. It’s that Wall Street CEOs are literal gangsters. The mask is off. Mafia capos with Harvard Law degrees are making reporters offers they can’t refuse.

There’s every reason to believe that the White House team sees this as a model: It will not worry about the accuracy of what is published, only whether the tone is Trump-friendly. Of his new job, Scaramucci says, “It is a client service business, and [Trump] is my client.” Wall Street’s methods of fighting negative coverage are more extensive, brutal and personal than Washington’s. The reigning philosophy is: “I can win only if you lose.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/scaramucci-learned-his-press-tactics-from-wall-street-theyll-only-get-uglier/2017/07/28/aa085a3a-72e4-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html?tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.f24d4b1fda05

Get a Job You Damned Hippies

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Everybody who’s ever gone to a protest has, at one time or another, been told to “get a job,” and I’ve always wondered about the origins of this particular form of heckling.

I wonder no more.

A statute of the first year of his reign, 1547, ordains that if anyone refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth and such refuse meat as he thinks fit. He has the right to force him to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains. If the slave is absent a fortnight, he is condemned to slavery for life and is to be branded on forehead or back with the letter S; if he runs away thrice, he is to be executed as a felon.

https://libcom.org/history/bloody-legislation-against-expropriated

The passage quoted above, is from the 28th chapter of Karl Marx’s Capital, and it’s too bad Marx never got to see the Internet.

These days I spend a lot more time on social media than I do protesting, and the online equivalent of “get a job” is “you can’t criticize capitalism on an iPhone.” Every leftist on social media has heard it. Every conservative on social media thinks that by repeating it he’s already won the argument. So how can you respond?

I suppose you could answer with something like “so you just made a homophobic joke on a computer, a device invented by Alan Turing, a gay man,” but these kinds of snappy comebacks rarely affect iPhone trolls. Conservatives believe that we the little people must defer to our betters, capitalists like Steve Jobs, and Alan Turing, an intellectual who invented the computer, but failed to profit by it, doesn’t qualify. In other words, “you can’t criticize capitalism on an iPhone” is a statement of loyalty by an already enslaved individual to his master. The social media iPhone troll won’t get an immediate reward like the medieval Englishman who denounced an idler but deep down inside conservatives believe that if they worship the billionaire class hard enough they may some day get to be part of it.

Dunkirk (2017)

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This is what I felt like watching Dunkirk

As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as it is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. As an early member of Generation X — so early that I’m almost a Boomer — I’m old enough to remember the classic disaster films of the 1970s. All through Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed reimagining of the almost miraculous evacuation of the defeated British army from France in May of 1940, I kept thinking of movies like Airport, The Towering Inferno, Heatwave, Tidal Wave, and the film it most closely resembles, The Poseidon Adventure. Dunkirk says nothing about the Second World War, the Battle of France, the conflict between fascism and democracy, or the politics of France or the United Kingdom in 1940. Some malevolent force is attacking 300,000 British and French soldiers stranded on a beach less than 100 miles from the British Isles but it’s not the Germans, whom we never actually see. To paraphrase the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek, Dunkirk, like Jaws, is an expression of a sort of “free floating anxiety.” The Germans aren’t a rival nation. They aren’t fascists or Nazis. They could be just about anything the English speaking world currently dreads.

We have, Zizek argues, a laundry list of fears about corporations, immigrants, the environment and so on . “The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can, in a way, trade all these fears for one fear alone.” He continues to note that fascism worked in precisely this way.

“You need to generate an ideological narrative which explains how things went wrong in a society, not as the result of the inherent tensions in the development of this society, but as the result of a foreign intruder…It’s the same operation as with the shark in Jaws.” This, for the Nazis, was the figure of the Jew.

http://www.critical-theory.com/watch-zizek-jaws-fascism/

Zoller Seitz’s review is intelligent and ambivalent. He quite rightly observes that Dunkirk is a combination of both the best and worst of Christopher Nolan. The problem is he never quite gets at just how bad this movie is. I’m not sure exactly why it’s received such universal acclaim. Maybe, as Zizek observed about Jaws, and as Rick Perlstein observed about 1970s disaster films in his great book The Invisible Bridge, it expresses some of the nihilistic despair of the age. But unlike Jaws or the Poseidon Adventure, Dunkirk is a nasty, elitist, and almost unwatchable piece of dreck with no sense of humor, no faith in the “common man,” and no desire even to entertain the poor innocent viewer who, like me, paid $12 dollars to have his head fucked with for two hours.

Dunkirk is not even a good piece of filmmaking in a purely technical sense. Christopher Nolan insists that we see Dunkirk in an IMAX theater, but why bother? The evacuation of the British Army from France in 1940 was a epic feat by a flotilla of small boats piloted by ordinary British civilians but Nolan captures little of its scale or its significance. All through the final third of the film, when the rescuers finally arrive, I kept thinking “where are all the boats?” Indeed, there only seemed to be about 20 of them, hardly enough to transport 300,000 men from almost certain death — or a POW camp in Germany — back to Merry Old England. By the end of this ludicrously overpraised movie, Nolan just seems to be phoning it in, not even bothering with a bit of CGI even to fake the sight of the over 700 ships that made the Channel crossing that May.

While it’s true that most soldiers are just ordinary men, and that it was the Soviets, not the British or the French who won the war against Hitler, Dunkirk is one of those rare films that made me want to see even some heroism on the part of the western allies. Alas, there is none. While it must be admitted that Nolan’s film does express some of what it must be like to be part of a defeated army that’s lost its discipline and moral, he’s no Tolstoy or Thucydides. It’s difficult to imagine that the army on Nolan’s beach ever had any discipline or moral. They seem sheep by their very nature, passive observers of their own imminent death running around like ants who have just escaped a broken ant hill. Nolan’s neoliberalism and right wing worldview is also on prominent display. Some soldiers do indeed get up off their asses and try to find a way to survive, but it’s always as selfish individuals, and almost always frustrated.

Dunkirk does have one man of heroic stature. Naturally, in a conservative movie, it’s a white, upper-class, middle-aged yacht owner, a soft-spoken man played by Mark Rylance who risks his life, and his son’s life, to rescue as many British soldiers as possible? How do they pay him back?  A troops of exhausted, terrified, and dirty soldiers muck up his boat with oil. A shell shocked infantryman played by the great Irish actor Cillian Murphy murders his young apprentice. For Nolan, it seems, the war against fascism was not about the British people pulling together to beat Hitler. It was about an innately decent bourgeoisie doing its duty to save the world from their own working class. I think we can all pretty safely assume that once the war is over, Rylance’s character will never voluntarily give any dirty, oiled covered proles a ride in his boat, ever again. In the end Dunkirk is just rich man’s paranoia about how the working-class will act when society breaks down.

My God I hated this movie.

The 401k: Free Stuff for the Rich

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The section of the Internal Revenue Code that made 401(k) plans possible was enacted into law in 1978.[4] It was intended to allow taxpayers a break on taxes on deferred income. In 1980, a benefits consultant named Ted Benna took note of the previously obscure provision and figured out that it could be used to create a simple, tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. The client for whom he was working at the time chose not to create a 401(k) plan.[5] He later went on to install the first 401(k) plan at his own employer, The Johnson Companies[6] (today doing business as Johnson Kendall & Johnson).[7] At the time, employees could contribute 25% of their salary, up to $30,000 per year, to their employer’s 401(k) plan.[8]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/401(k)

My late mother left my brother and me two cars, a largely worthless house, a checking account, some debts, and a retirement account that just about covered the debts. My plan was to cash in the retirement account with no delay, and clear the debts. My brother advised against it, insisting that I “roll over” my half of my mother’s retirement account into my own retirement account. Since my brother was taking the time (and time off from work) to deal with the paperwork, I agreed to do it his way. Later, when the bank called in the outstanding debts, he reversed his position and agreed that I should cash in my half of the retirement account to clear my mother’s outstanding loans. A month, and a “small” brokers fee later, all of my mother’s old debts have been cleared.

My brother insists that he wanted to “roll over” my mother’s retirement account to avoid paying taxes, and that’s probably true. Part of me, however, also believes that he was trying to teach me “financial responsibility,” something that I, as the family loser and black sheep, have never had. The more I think about it, the more I realize that they’re both true, that the 401k is basically a gift by the federal government to the rich made possible by brainwashing a large part of  the middle-class that “financial responsibility” means setting aside a little part of your paycheck each week and giving it to Wall Street.

What do I mean? I’m no financial expert, but I do know that the IRS enacted the law that made the 401k possible in 1978, at the dawn of the neoliberal takeover of the American political system. A few years later, Ronald Reagan put the Social Security trust fund into the general revenue . Remember how people laughed at Al Gore for saying it should be put into a “lock box?” In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton had planned to partially privatize Social Security, a plan that was derailed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bush tried, and failed, in 2005. Obama attempted to make Social Security privatization part of a “grand bargain” in 2013, and none of this would have been possible without the 401k, the idea that our “retirement” should be part of an overall investment strategy managed by a public, private partnership between Wall Street and the federal government.

Even though it’s presented as a favor to the middle-class — you don’t have to pay taxes on your income as long as you save it for retirement — it’s really a federal subsidy to the banks. If it were really about “saving” you should have the option to specify a part of your paycheck each month that you can take tax free and hide under the mattress, but you can’t. You need to put it in a fund that will then be invested on Wall Street. Try to imagine just how much money ordinary middle-class people have fronted Wall Street since 1978. Try to imagine what would happen if something went wrong, if those banks helping us to “plan responsibly” acted irresponsibly?

We don’t have to imagine. After the repeal of Glass-Steagall in the late 1990s, the banks did just that. When it all came crashing down in 2008, Wall Street used those retirement accounts as a gun to the head of the American people. Bail us out or the whole system comes crashing down, and you lose everything. The 401k gave the American people a stake in the survival of their own ruling class. At the moment we should have been letting the banks fail and dragging the rich out of their mansions to the guillotine, we suddenly discovered that if the rich failed, we failed. If Mr. Fat Cat McScumbag lost his penthouse on 5th Avenue and his yacht, little Johnny Middle Class lost his college fund. We had been made hostages, not only by the repeal of Glass-Steagall, but by a decades old law that had been presented to us as a gift.

In other words, the 401k is basically free stuff for rich people. Act irresponsibly. Take that money and spend it on hookers and beer.

Feeling Anglophilic

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Last year I cycled 500 miles through New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut on my road bike. I traveled as lightly as possible, bringing only a very small backpack and a handlebar bag. On the whole it was a good experience, but there was one thing I couldn’t stand, walking around in cycling shoes (I used clipless pedals).

So I bought a Carradice “College” saddlebag from Carradice of Nelson, handmade (and signed) by a genuine British person named “Emma.” It seems well made and has a ton of room, enough for a heavy texbook, my raingear, and a pair of running shoes. I may regret not buying one of the smaller bags. I only bought the huge one because it was on clearance, 31 pounds plus shipping, about 65 bucks overall, but then again, I probably won’t. My bike is a “large” and fits someone between 6’0″ and 6’3.” So I don’t raise the saddle that high. But the bag still seems to have plenty of clearance. I’m a little surprised at just how well engineered this thing is. I test road carrying at least 10 pounds and barely knew it was there.

So why not just buy a touring bike with a rack? Well, they’re expensive and hard to find, for one. But they’re also heavy and slow. Doing 100 miles a day requires you to travel as light as possible, and what I’ll mostly be taking on long trips are clothes and spare shoes (not particularly heavy). This bag seems to fit the bill.

So why don’t Americans make more stuff like this? Who knows. American bike stores seem mostly interested in selling you carbon road bikes that weigh 12 pounds or full suspension mountain bikes. This saddlebag is a product of an English cycling (and touring) culture that goes back 100 years. Young Franklin Roosevelt probably used something very much like it on his long cycling tour of Germany.

The End of Zionist Propaganda in America

s.720

When it comes to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, I usually divide people into three categories. Supporters of Israel are my political opponents. Supporters of the Palestinians are my political allies. Yet — and for the moment let’s put aside progressives except for Palestine like Alan Grayson and Elizabeth Warren — I also have a third category, antisemites, people who support the Palestinians for all the wrong reasons. You can usually pick them out of a crowd by asking a simple question. “Do you believe that Israel controls the United States government?”

Alas, I feel that I may have to revise my litmus test. The recently introduced S.720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, sponsored by Ben Cardin of Maryland and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a progressive except for Palestine if there ever was one, would make it a felony for “U.S. persons engaged in interstate or foreign commerce” to support the BDS, Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions, movement. Say what you want about Ronald Reagan, for all his nonsense about “constructive engagement” with South Africa, he never tried to out and out criminalize the anti-Apartheid movement in America.

The usual, neoconservative suspects were quick to weigh in. The Daily Beast, for example, denies that S.720, criminalizes the BDS movement. The bill is vaguely worded and has a lot of room for plausible deniability, and seems to target the The United Nations Human Rights Council more than individual Americans. Also, let’s face it. The typical American couldn’t care less about what happens to the Palestinians. We all know who Cardin and Gillibrand, under the tutelage of AIPAC, are really going after, Arab immigrant and Muslim organizations.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but suspect that this ham handed bill is really about the ever diminishing effectiveness of Zionist propaganda in America. Just because most Americans couldn’t care less about the Palestinians doesn’t mean they care anymore about the Israelis. Baby Boomers did. I never cease to wonder how brilliant, spiritually liberating artists like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen fail to wrap their brains around the inescapable reality that Israel is a white supremacist state with a intricate, yet harsh system of ethnic and religious apartheid. I suppose it’s generational. For Baby Boomers, the memory of the Holocaust has always been fresh in their minds. Anything, even support for an oppressed people like the Palestinians, that smacks of being anti-Jewish, is suspect. Millennials are different. Young people simply don’t buy the idea that Israel represents the Jewish people against the ever present danger of antisemitism. They don’t accept the argument that because Hitler locked Polish Jews behind a wall that also gives the Israelis the right to lock the Palestinians behind their own wall. The Israel Lobby’s recent attack against the Chicago Dyke March, for example, largely fell flat. The ongoing campaign against Linda Sarsour seems to be going nowhere.

In other words, when persuasion no longer works, the state always turns to brute force. Make no mistake, as soon as Americans no longer believe in capitalism, in upward mobility, and in the meritocracy, they will see storm troopers at their doors and tanks in the streets. I can’t help but think that S.720 represents the end of Zionist propaganda and the beginning of Zionist repression, right here in the United States.

A Ventriloquist’s Dummy

puppet

As a very early member of Generation X – so early I almost qualify as a Boomer – I had the good fortune to grow up without the Internet. I always had access to computers. Anybody who went to Rutgers in the 1980s will remember the fifty or so original Macs, each in its own cubicle, in the Owls Roost study hall. But that instant community you can get these days simply by opening your laptop and logging into social media would have to wait until AOL in the mid-1990s. I was in my late 20s before I ever posted a thought online. Back in the 1980s, unless you got involved in a college newspaper or literary magazine, you largely wrote for yourself.

During my troll attack last week, one of the ring leaders kept repeating that she couldn’t believe I had twice as many followers as she did. I have about 1200 followers on Twitter. It’s a respectable number for a nobody, I suppose, but it’s also highly misleading. Even though I cull my followers list of sock puppets and spambots, I rarely interact on a regular basis with more than nine or ten people. Social media provides the illusion of an intellectual community more than the reality of an intellectual community. If you spend enough time tweeting you will get followers. That doesn’t mean you’ll get readers. The vast majority of “hits” I get on this blog come from Google searches, not social media, and even here, I doubt the ratio of people who actually read the posts compared to the people who just look at the first few sentences and then go onto the next search result is very high. I have trivial 1200 word film reviews that have gotten over 10,000 “hits.” Four people read my undergraduate thesis on Joseph Conrad, a committee of three professors, and myself.

To acquire “followers” on Twitter or “friends” on Facebook is not so much to get readers, but to enter the corporate “hive mind.” Indeed, on Twitter, if more people actually comment on the tweet than simply like or retweet it, that’s considered a “bad ratio,” and evidence you’re an idiot or a troll. It’s easy to feel popular and smart on social media, especially on the Twitter left. Just find some establishment boob with a blue check mark, wait until he says something stupid, and retweet him with a snarky comment. If your comment taps into the hive mind, you’ll get hundreds of likes and retweets. Or just say something like “smash the state” or “fuck the police” or “that’s racist,” and you can almost imagine that you’ve just written the Communist Manifesto. Argue that people should read the actual Communist Manifesto, on the other hand, or, God forbid, Capital, and you’re just as likely to be accused of being a “privileged” college educated, “ableist” white male.

Twitter and Facebook are both based on a clever lie. You imagine you’re expressing yourself through the software. In reality, the software is expressing itself through you. The more your thinking conforms to a narrow range of acceptable opinion, the more popular you become. The more complex and informed your thought, the more you will be ignored, or even “dragged.” Just about the worst thing you can do on the Twitter left is to start a sentence with the word “actually” – to basically say “I disagree” – or to point out that “not every member of this group fits your description,” the infamous “not all men” cliché. On the Twitter left, you can be more radical than Lenin, but you must never say something like “we should judge people as individuals, not as members of their gender or ethnic group,” and it makes sense. Twitter is not the megaphone of the people. It’s a corporate advertising platform designed to break people down into demographic profiles that can then be sold to advertisers. The more I act as a “white male” or an “American” or a “college graduate from the northeast” and the less I act as “Stanley Rogouski” the more useful I am to lords of Silicon Valley. If I spend enough time on the Internet, I may eventually get more readers than Herman Melville ever got for Moby Dick during his lifetime, but I will in no way be a great, a good, or even a mediocre writer and thinker. I will be the perfect ventriloquist’s dummy.