Are identity politics progressive?

From First World War: Still No End in Sight (2014) by Frank Furedi:

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics tended to reflect a conservative sensibility that celebrated the particular and regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. The politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. It was and continues to be the politics of “it’s all about me.” Even when self-identity was expressed through a group form, the imperative of recognition by others remains its axial principle. As the historian Tony Judt stated, the doctrines that were developed to express the politics of identity were directed towards psychology and were often indifferent to the “traditional projects of social revolution.” Indeed “they sought to undermine the very concept of the human subject that had once underlain them,” argues Judt. People whose identity is defined by their biology, emotional disposition, history and culture have as their focus what they are rather than what they could be. As we shall see, such low expectation towards the exercise of human subjectivity interlocked with a tendency to devalue the ideas of progress and development.


Unaccountable, Part two

From The Bling Ring (2013) by Nancy Jo Sales:

By the 1980s, kids were looking around at a country where lawbreaking and lawlessness were no longer conditions of poverty and life in the inner city alone. Now these were omnipresent aspects of American business, politics, and the media at the highest levels. “There were no rules governing the pursuit of profit and glory,” Michael Lewis wrote of the culture of Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. “The places was governed by the simple understanding that the unbridled pursuit of perceived self-interest was healthy. Eat or be eaten.”

“Today,” writes Glen Greenwald in With Liberty and Justice for Some (2011), “in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all.” It gives one pause to consider what the Founding Fathers would have thought of the pardoning of Nixon after the Watergate scandal; the overturning of the convictions of Lieutenand Colonel Oliver North and former National Security Advisor John Poindexter after the Iran-Contra scandal; or the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, politicized prosecutions, torture, and “black sites” — for which no one was ever prosecuted. Every step along the way has been an even bigger departure from the insistence of the framers of the Constitution that in a democracy everyone must be equal before the law. Meanwhile, Greenwald laments, “the media [directs] its hostility toward those who investigated or attempted to hold accountable the most powerful members of our political system.”

And then there was the financial meltdown of 2008 that brought the world economy to its knees. While its causes have barely been investigated or made transparent, it has become sufficiently clear that the crisis was largely the outcome of widespread fraud and lawbreaking. Yet there has been virtually no prosecution of those responsible. “There is no fear of individual punishment,” Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi said in an interview in 2012. “That’s the problem.”

So why did Rachel Lee think she could get away with stealing celebrities’ clothes? Maybe Vince was right, after all: ‘Cause she hadn’t been caught. Yet.

See here for Unaccountable.

The dead zone

I’m an early to bed, early to rise kind of guy. Very early. In fact, I live close to a gym that’s open 24-hours and I often go there to exercise at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I usually have the place to myself at that hour, though there are a few other regulars. I’m never sure if they’re getting up as early as I am, or if they’ve stayed up late.

I’ve always been a bit this way. I enjoy the dead hours of the morning when there’s no traffic on the streets. When I lived in the country you could really feel like you were the last man on earth, though I had one farmer friend who would pass me on the road at 3 o’clock and mention wistfully how this was the greatest time of the day. A true kindred spirit.

The reason I bring this up is because this week I’m supposed to be filling out one of those TV viewing surveys. I told the survey company that I didn’t have a TV and they said that didn’t matter. I do, however, watch the TVs they have at the gym. So, being the responsible person I am, I figured I would enter this in the journal they gave me, in the column “Watched TV Out of Home.”

But no! You see, each diary page begins at 4 in the morning. And each day ends at 2 the next morning. So from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock is a TV-viewing dead zone. Which is the only time of the day, at least most days, that I watch any TV. I don’t even exist within a measurable viewing demographic, despite the fact that stations no longer “sign off” at the end of the day. Sure they repeat programming, but they’re not just broadcasting a test pattern.

This is what life is like on the other side.

Why do we think rich people must be smart?

In the last few weeks the news cycle has run headlines about a couple of prominent rich guys behaving badly. Or perhaps not badly but certainly stupidly. First Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, went public with being blackmailed after sending “dick pics” to a girlfriend (that is, a woman other than his soon-to-be ex-wife). Then Robert Kraft, billionaire owner of the Superbowl champion New England Patriots was charged with soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlour (his lawyers deny Kraft was engaged in any illegal activity).

One question that was often asked in the wake of both scandals is how two people who had so much money could be involved in such behaviour. Bezos practically owns the Internet, did he not understand that exposing himself in emails was a bad idea? And why would someone with as much money as Kraft be caught dead going to a massage parlour, where the sexual favours on the menu start at $70?

Part of the problem is in our understanding of intelligence. People can be smart in very different ways. Many academics, for example, have no practical common sense at all. I’ve known prominent scientists, considered among the greatest minds in their field in the world, who are totally incapable of carrying on a conversation. Business people know how to make money, but that may be it. Someone who is mechanically inclined might not know how to read. Intelligence comes in many different forms.

Perhaps an even bigger obstacle though, especially when it comes to thinking about the situations Bezos and Kraft found themselves in, is our belief that anyone who is rich must be smart, as there is no clearer marker of success in our society than having a lot of money. Donald Trump has exploited this misconception as much as anyone, despite the fact that (1) he’d have far more money if he’d just invested his massive inheritance in the stock market instead of getting involved in the real estate business, and (2) he’s declared bankruptcy many times. It’s also believed that he vastly overstates his personal wealth in order to make himself seem richer (and hence smarter) than he is.

Instead of acknowledging that rich people might not be all that smart (most rich people, after all, were born rich) we see other explanations offered for these latest incidents. Like the sense of privilege billionaires have: their belief that they are somehow above the law and that normal rules don’t apply to them. I think there may be some of that at work. Rich people do live in a bubble, surrounded by people who flatter their vanity and who would never dream of telling them when they’re doing something wrong. Still, I think the most likely explanation is that a lot of rich people are smart when it comes to making money but not so much with regard to other things. That should not surprise anyone.

Miles to go

I think most of us still know the words to some poem, favourite or not, that we learned years ago in school. I have a few, and one of them is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But just like we all “know” the words to a pop song whose lyrics we’ve never actually looked up but that we’ve sung along to countless times, we might not always have the words right. In the case of songs the results can be hilarious. I remember hearing of one fellow who turned U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into the far more threatening “Someday buddy, someday.” And it worked for him.

I was reminded of this recently when thinking of Frost’s poem. I found myself reading it and was surprised to find I didn’t have some of the words right. Surprised because it’s really a very simple poem.

For starters, I’d remembered the third line — “He will not see me stopping here” — as “He will not mind me stopping here.” I guess that’s pretty bad, but the thing is, I kind of like my version better. Why would the person who owns these particular woods see the traveler? Presumably he and his horse are some ways out from the homestead, and it’s night out in the country, where there are no streetlamps. Also I think the point of the line is that the property owner wouldn’t be bothered by some minor trespass. What difference would it make even if he did see the man and his horse? Would he be upset? Why? Are they up to something they shouldn’t be?

Then, at the end of the second stanza, I’d always read “The darkest evening of the year” as “The coldest evening of the year.” And again I prefer my replacement word. What does the darkest evening of the year even mean? Any night with a new moon? But on a snowy winter night it’s always a bit lighter than at any other time of the year because the snow reflects whatever light there is. And there has to be some light because the man is watching the woods fill up with snow. Or does he mean it’s the darkest evening of the year because it’s the shortest day of the year? That may be, but it’s not what he says. Meanwhile, since it’s winter and the man doesn’t want to dawdle, having it be the coldest night of the year makes some sense.

Unlike a song whose lyrics I may have misheard, I don’t know where these revisions to Frost’s poem came from. I guess my brain replaced these words at some point many years ago, and because I liked them better they stuck. It makes you wonder how much of this goes on in any oral culture, and whether such indeterminacy is always a bad thing.

Thomas Crown’s affairs

Free at last.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my notes on the two film versions of The Thomas Crown Affair: 1968 and 1999. Both are slick, but thin on substance, which I think is their point. They offer impressions of the good life, which is all about expensive toys and being free. And this isn’t just the freedom to jet off to wherever you want, and do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it, but freedom to be a total scofflaw.  Thomas is, after all, a criminal who gets away with it. In fact, he probably gets away with more than just the heists he likes to pull on the side. I can’t imagine Crown’s business, whatever it is it does, being squeaky clean.

In the 1968 version Thomas was a rebel, and thirty years later a libertarian. Is there some hypocrisy in the political right criticizing the Woodstock generation for its “freedom, baby!” attitude while presenting itself as the upholder of law and order? I think so. From Steve McQueen to Bill Clinton to Pierce Brosnan to Donald Trump: hasn’t Thomas Crown just got older, without changing party?