Making it

An attempt at redirection. (Reuters)

In what may be only the first of many legal shoes to drop, the controversial conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, who operates the fake-news website Infowars, has been ordered to pay more than $4 million in damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones claimed to have been a hoax.

The trial served up a lot of highlights and fodder for legal commentators to tear into, including the revelation that Jones’s lawyer had sent a copy of his client’s phone records to the plaintiffs in the suit. But what stood out for me was what one of the plaintiffs had to say when she addressed Jones directly:

“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son was killed at Sandy Hook, told Jones.

On the face of it, this does seem incredible. Jones was lying and knew he was lying, yet continued broadcasting his shtick about how the massacre had been a “false flag” operation with “crisis actors” performing in front of a green screen despite being told to stop. Why? The bottom line was that his lying was profitable. Jones apparently made tens of millions of dollars off of such nonsense, mainly through selling supplements and survivalist gear from his Infowars store.

I’m reminded of how Donald Trump, when told about the danger of his joining the marchers on the Capitol on January 6, as he publicly declared he would, excused himself by saying he “didn’t mean it literally.” Jones has since stated that the Sandy Hook massacre was “100% real,” essentially cloaking himself in the same defence. He said things because they were what his audience wanted to hear, not because he thought they were true. He wasn’t a reporter any more than Trump was a president; both were just entertainers, making a buck. To suggest that what they were doing was right or wrong, good or bad, was to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension, as though one were speaking a foreign language.

This link to the world of entertainment also made me think of something I’ve railed about for going on twenty years now. In terms of arts criticism (mainly book and film reviewing) negative voices have been drowned out by what’s been dubbed poptimism: the argument that any book that’s a bestseller, or movie that’s a blockbuster, or TV show with high ratings, is effectively beyond criticism because it has been successful at the only thing that counts, which is making money. Criticism isn’t just superfluous (this has always been the case when dealing with mass entertainment) but wrongheaded. A reviewer literally doesn’t have any right to be critical, the media having given in to what I described in Revolutions as “a sort of celebrity worship wedded to market fundamentalism, one that makes popular/commercial success the only criterion of aesthetic value.”

For “aesthetic value” we can substitute truth or morality. Faced with Lewis’s incredulity, I imagine Jones feeling only bafflement. Any messaging or conduct so profitable, “bought” by so many people, can’t be wrong, can it? There is no other legitimate standard of value. If it makes you money, it can’t be that bad. In becoming rich and famous Alex Jones put himself beyond good and evil, and very nearly above the law.

Criss-cross

From Chronicles of a Liquid Society (2016) by Umberto Eco:

A significant transformation came about in the opposition between the religious and secular worlds. For thousands of years, the spirit of religion was associated with a distrust of progress, rejection of the world, doctrinal intransigence. The secular world, on the other hand, looked optimistically upon the transformation of nature, the flexibility of ethical principles, the fond rediscovery of “other” forms of religion and primitive thought.

There were, of course, those believers, such as Teilhard de Chardin, who appealed to “worldly realities,” to history as a march toward redemption, while there were plenty of secular doom merchants, with the negative utopias of Orwell and Huxley, or the kind of science fiction that offered us the horrors of a future dominated by hideous scientific rationality. But it was the task of religion to call us at the final moment, and the task of secularism to sing hymns in praise of locomotives.

The recent gathering of enthusiastic young papal groupies show us the transformation that has taken place under the reign of Pope John Paul II. A mass of youngsters who accept the Catholic faith but, judging from the answers they recently gave in interviews, are far distant from neurotic fundamentalism, are willing to make compromises over premarital relationships, contraceptives, even drugs, and certainly when it comes to clubbing; meanwhile, the secular world moans about noise pollution and a New Age spirit that seems to unite neo-revolutionaries, followers of Monsignor Milingo, and sybarites devoted to Oriental massage.

From On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever (2021) by Andrew Potter:

For well over half a century, it’s been an article of faith, agreed to by all sides, that the right was the side of rules, order, tradition, and circumspection, while the left was the part of rebellion, individualism, freedom, and transgression. Now the political valences have reversed themselves, with the right setting itself up as the true countercultural opposition to the left’s restrictiveness and enforced conformity.

Coping

From After the Fact?: The Truth About Fake News (2020) by Marcus Gilroy-Ware:

Intolerable boredom, loneliness, precariousness and the disappearance of the future that is endemic to postmodernism, combined with a heavy emphasis on aspiration reduced to increasingly economistic terms, all produced widespread malaise that is hard to describe in specific terms for those that suffer it but is often demotivating or debilitating. The result is that we try to compensate, through the trappings of consumerism that have arisen to sell compensatory pleasure itself – the most obvious being the soaring popularity of delivery food, the seeming addictiveness of social media or gaming, or the quiet success of the sugar industry.

Maigret: Maigret and the Ghost

Inspector Luckless (that would be Lognon) gets shot in the gut while on a stakeout he’d been conducting so discreetly none of his fellow officers even knew what he was up to. So as the Paris police department’s resident sad sack fights for life in hospital it’s up to Maigret to find out what went down on the Avenue Junot.

One way that you can expect a series like this to go after so long a run is for it to become sillier. There are a lot of familiar elements in this one – Janvier had been shot in Maigret Takes a Room, a nosy neighbour played a key role in The Judge’s House, the dirty deeds done behind the façade of a great house is a staple – but they get rolled together here into a whimsical plot involving forged artwork, gangsters, and another ill-matched couple.

“You’ll find it hard to believe me because you’re not a collector,” the collector says as he tried to explain himself to Maigret. To which the detective chief inspector replies “I collect people . . .” His readers may be tempted to add, “I collect books . . .” This is what it’s sort of come to by this point.

Maigret index

Binstagrammed

Doing my part.

It’s been brought home to me by the online community that taking bins to the curb is a civic ritual in places ranging from Gateshead to New Hampshire. Even small villages in Scotland have blue recycling bins for cardboard, cans, bottles, and old film reviews that are occasionally reposted as “new” content.

Just remember that “reduce” comes before “reuse” and “recycle.” It’s a hierarchy, and your goal should always be to make do with less.

Squeezing the tube

A year or so ago I picked up a half-dozen tubes of my favourite toothpaste when it was on sale. I tend to buy in bulk like this when I find something I want at a good price that I know I’m not likely to ever get any cheaper and that doesn’t have an expiry date. Like certain articles of clothing, or water-softener salt. I just stock up.

I’m down to my last couple of these bargain toothpaste buys though and realizing that they do indeed have an expiry date stamped on them. This surprised me. Can toothpaste go bad?

I did some research and the answer is “Sort of.” It doesn’t go off to the point where it’s bad for you, but fluoride does break down over time. So it’s not harmful, just not as beneficial.

The shelf-life for toothpaste is about two years. But what I couldn’t determine was whether this holds true if the tube has never been opened. All the stuff I read had to do with finding an old tube of toothpaste that had been left in a suitcase or something after having been taken on vacation a year earlier. If I haven’t opened the toothpaste, does it still break down at the same rate?

I’m going to finish up using the toothpaste I have anyway, but I’m curious. I guess if my teeth fall out I’ll have an answer.

Maigret: Maigret’s Anger

Hard to believe, but Maigret’s good friend Dr. Pardon has finally sounded the alarm about the detective chief inspector’s drinking problem. In order to spare Maigret’s liver, he’s recommended cutting down to just quaffing the odd aperitif instead of hitting the bar at all hours of the day while on a case.

Perhaps it’s the lack of lubricant that has made Maigret even grouchier than usual (as if getting old wasn’t bad enough). Whatever the cause, he does, as the title indicates, get angry at the end of this one. I had a hard time figuring out where things were going, but as it turns out the villain was running a kind of fake protection scheme, which is something Maigret takes personally as the protection being offered was from the police. To be honest, I thought it was a pretty good scam, and the guy running it was sympathetic, so maybe Maigret really did just need a drink.

A minor effort, but not bad, at least by the standards of the later books in the series. One point that caught my attention was that when Maigret, who doesn’t know how to drive, wants one of his lieutenants to take the suspect’s car he has to first check if he has “ever driven an American car.” In what way would driving an American car in 1963 be different from driving a French car? I’m guessing most cars at the time would have been standard transmission, so he’s not talking about that. I don’t think any mention is made of what make of car it is, only that it’s American and “big” (naturally). Which is, something that might have set him off too, come to think of it.

Maigret index

The green economy

Canada legalized the recreational use of pot in October 2018, and there was an initial rush to enter the market. Early reports were that a lot of start-ups, and even the Ontario government, lost money on the business, and that the sheer number of stores opening was going to lead to “closures and market rightsizing” (according to the CEO of the province’s pot distributor in 2020).

I don’t know what the state of the green economy currently is, but I haven’t noticed any closures in my community. In fact, dispensaries continue to be built. There are at least nine now within walking distance of my house, and 26 are listed in the city of Guelph.

That’s a lot of pot stores! This leads me to wonder just how much money there is in the recreational cannabis business. Are most of these places going to go bust? What are the profit margins? And how many pot smokers are there out there in the first place? Has pot use gone up since legalization? I don’t even know anyone who still smokes cigarettes anymore. I’m sure there is a market, but is it big enough to keep all these places in business? And who is the average recreational cannabis user? Blue collar, white collar, student? The presence of so many stores gets me thinking about these kinds of questions.

Maigret: Maigret and the Tramp

A minor entry in the series, but perhaps better for not being as ambitious. It’s pretty easy to figure things out along the same lines that Maigret does.

And what we’re left with is another ending where justice is not so much denied as evaded, at least for a time. The killer walking free is pretty transgressive for a genre work, but despite avoiding a pat ending it’s not a very credible story and we never have any sense what’s making the tramp tick. I think he just wanted out of his marriage and found the most drastic solution imaginable.

Taking another step back, I read it as a parable, with the tramp being a holy man sent to point the moral, which is that final judgment belongs to God. “What’s impossible is to judge,” is all he’ll say. This fits with Simenon’s motto “Understand and judge not.” Not that I think Simenon always held to this, or that it’s the kind of attitude a detective chief inspector should adopt. Justice, at least of the human variety, requires judgment on someone’s part.

Maigret index

The golden age(s)

From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume One (1776) by Edward Gibbon:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.

From Arguing with Zombies (2020) by Paul Krugman:

If you had to identify a place and time where the humanitarian dream – the vision of a society offering decent lives to all its members – came closest to realization, that place and time would surely be Western Europe in the six decades after World War II. It was one of history’s miracles: a continent ravaged by dictatorship, genocide, and war transformed itself into a model of democracy and broadly shared prosperity.