Monday, October 20, 2014

Language and Its Uncanny Ways

In this past weekend's NYTimes "Book Review," as I read a review of a book on the history of American political corruption, I suddenly became aware of something I hadn't realized all these long years dealing with language.  I suppose one might call it a declension experience, but I think it has more to do with the way we bastardize language as we stumble through disconcerting and disastrous times.  We want a word to fit our subjective purpose, and, even though it doesn't actually fit, we mangle and maul it so that it might fit, we hope, that is, depending on the reader, we hope.

So there I was, reading along in the 19th century syntax and semantics of a Supreme Court justice's 1854 opinion on lobbyists, their contracts and how they defile and debase democracy.  He wrote about lobbyists, "Speculators in legislation, public and private, a compact corps of  venal solicitors, vending their secret influences will infest the capital of the Union and of every state, till corruption shall become the normal condition of the body politic."  (emphasis added, and he goes on to associate this corruption with the fall of Rome by using a Latin phrase.)

What shocked me was that I had never made the obvious bond between venal/venality and vending/vendor.  This led me to my handy Online Etymology Dictionary, where I discovered how the closeness in meaning had come to be a bit distanced.  Indeed, "venal" and "venality" in 1650 had all the salacious associations that we think of today, and its association with "vending" or "vendor" had a secondary usage.

The point made in the article and in the Justice's statement was that political corruption is motivated by venality, and is executed by vending.  The venality is about power and money, and the vending is about the sale of integrity.  We assume that vending and the vendor have the consumer's interests and welfare at heart, and the only time we even consider accusing them of venality is if it is exposed.

The sad part of my personal enlightenment and its connection to the uncanniness of language is that I immediately became aware of how much we take corruption for granted in our political culture.  How much politicians expect us to wink and nod at the pay-offs and pay-backs that are the key strokes of governance.  I suppose we accept that as the cost of being Americans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

We All Need A Heavy Dose of Flannery O'Connor

This November 2 Flannery O'Connor will be inducted into the American Poets Corner at the Catherdral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.  She will join the likes of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  Who was this person who rises to the level of the favorite writers of our adolescence?

When I discovered this news today and began recalling her stories and novels that I used in my classes, I gradually began associating her rugged and tricky characters and themes with our current social malaise...which I suspect she would be wryly smiling about if she were here.  I began hearing that verse from Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" about Joe DiMaggio, replacing Flannery's name for Joe's—"where have you gone...our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."  At least, perhaps our nation would do that if they knew about Flannery O'Connor and how her work peels back the nation's comfort in bad faith and blind hubris.  At this point in our history, O'Connor's work should be required reading for all people who think they understand who we are.

Two things about O'Connor's personal life substantially inform her work—she suffered from lupus, and she was a seriously devout Roman Catholic (not merely a mass attendee).   These two traits continually show up in her characters, who demonstrate soft or bad faith and the hubris of intellectuals who denigrate the naive believers.  Her stories also often involve a stranger (in the mold of Twain's "mysterious stranger") who functions to taunt and manipulate the weaknesses of those who accept the superficial for the actual.  As one critic has said, she portrays people confronting "the world as it is—without vision or knowledge" and thus setting themselves up to be played by these grifting strangers, or in the case of The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find", to be slaughtered.

To become aware of this unusual American writer, go here and select some samples.  I would recommend "Good Country People," "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and the novel Wise Blood.

Why do I say we need a good dose of O'Connor?  We live in a society that is continually bombarded with the hucksterism of feeling good about ourselves and others, of believing that all people are worthy of our sensibilities, of believing that justice will prevail and niceness means acceptability.  What O'Connor's writing shows (and here she strongly aligns with Twain, Melville and Ambrose Bierce) is that these attitudes express weakness, not strength.  These attitudes don't make for better neighborhoods and a better nation.  What matters is not what we say we believe and hoping that others will accept that because we hope they believe the same.  What matters is what we do for ourselves and for others.  Lupus is a painful physical prison.  I think that O'Connor learned that no amount of believing would free her from that prison.  But I think also that she held to a faith that her God brought that to her to help clarify her understanding and vision of what being truly human was about.

We all could use some reflection on that idea, whether we are "religious," faithful, irreligious or atheists.  O'Connor shows that having faith or grace is not easy or part time and has nothing to do with hope [cf. Zeus, The Trickster]  (the delusional mother in "Good Country People" js Mrs. Hopewell); for O'Connor, hope leads to self-delusion.

For O'Connor, this apparently suggests that life is necessarily painful, but human goodness is possible.  That is to say, we cannot hope our way to salvation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

American Masterpiece: Part 2—"A Battle For Scraps"

How many Americans would you say have "a debt in collections" reported in their credit file?  The answer is approximately 100 million.  That's a third of us.  In an excellently understated article on the "art" of debt collection, the author, Jake Halpern, offers a subtext of what nobody is willing to shout from the rooftops: we are a nation of financial sleepwalkers, so heavily numbed by the hucksters and "opportunity" grifters that we create our own insular perditions.

Of course, everyone assumes stuff like this is going on.  But, as with so many of our little murders (thanks, Jules), we all seem to chalk it up to "well, that's their fault for not paying attention or buying too much or not realizing their limitations or whatever."  In other words, they're not like us good folks (to use our president's down-home nomenclature).  So we don't talk about the little murders.  They are for others, the "thems" whoever they might be.

The specifics, the grainy texture of our Masterpiece, are very telling.  Debt collection is extremely profitable at the corporate collection level.  For example, one of the largest collectors, Encore Capital Group (a nicel nuanced title) has seen its revenues leap from $316 million in 2009 to $773 million in 2013.  Think about that in its context.  As the economy was ostensibly crawling along its path of improvement, the citizens' debt—apparently whether employed or not—more than doubled (including the increased revenues of the lesser companies).  Speaking of which, the country harbors 9,677 agencies, who spend their days harassing and threatening those among us who want or think they need all the stuff they see and hear about.

Whatever we might think of the "thems," and whether they deserve their plight, I think we might want to take a step back and see how they represent the hidden cancer that's thriving in our culture. Mr. Halpern says it best.

"Make no mistake about it: This is a battle for scraps.  It is middle-class and poor people, being pitted against even poorer people, to the benefit of much richer people."

Monday, September 29, 2014

American Masterpiece: The Invisible/Visbles and The Invisibles

Today's edition of the NYTimes, either fortuitously or by design, captured the despond of current U.S. society.  The bookends for what's left of the "middle class" are the "have-it-alls" extremely privileged  minority and the over-employed and underpaid masses.  This is not news.  But what might be news are close ups of the lives of these people.

First, as Paul Krugman points out in this edition, the extremely privileged make sure they are not ready for their close up.   In more ways than one, they are skilled artful dodgers, who don't travel the way you and I travel, don't eat where you and I eat, and don't live within visibility of where you and I live.  In fact, in the consciousness of the average American, they don't exist at all.  We can't see through the tinted windows of their passing limos, we can't speculate if they are in the helicopters strafing overhead in our neighborhoods, and even if we care to view their notices in the society pages, their names mean nothing.  And that's exactly the way they want it.  They want to be known and acknowledged only by their makers, their facilitators—the attorneys, the judges, the politicians, the media whores who grease their skids.  Thus is the conscience of the universe they master.

The majority bookend, on the other hand, is highly visible, doing things everywhere, but, for the most part, we don't see them.  Thus, one of the pathetic ironies of our culture.  Our government quite diligently accounts for those among us who are unemployed, but they don't say much about those who are under or multi-employed.  These are the unseen visibly among us.  We see their hands or feet and hear their voices, but we lack an awareness of them as people.  And they earn the highest minimum wage—$10.10 (a rarity)—or less.  They are 21,000,000 (as of July, 2014) among us.  And 50% of them are the primary or only wage earners in the household.

What do the lives of these invisible/visibles look like?  That's the other bookend of today's NYTimes.  Her name was Maria Fernandes, and she worked at three different Dunkin' Donuts.  She passed away August 25, while napping in her car between two of her three jobs, apparently from gasoline fumes or carbon monoxide or both.  She smiled at and thanked probably hundreds of people a day.  But I doubt that many would recognize her on the street.  They also didn't see how she gave some leftovers to a homeless person.  They also didn't hear her tell of her dreams to become a hairstylist and settle in small town Pennsylvania.  Like so many of us in her situation, she clung to her dreams, because the dreams got her through her exhausting days.  Those dreams, the ones that fund the billion dollar lottery industry, are the cotton candy of our days

Is this what we mean by the "American Dream" that we so highly tout, especially during these cynical election weeks?  Is the pursuit of the American Dream what got the invisibles to their perch out of sight, out of mind?  Or did they get there some other way?  Is the Dream mostly or exclusively for the Marias, for the marks in our con game?  The Marias think gritty toil is the way to get a leg up and to lift the latch on the Dream.  Yes, and being a "good person," doing good things for others.  No, the invisibles and their lackeys use the do-gooder story to secure their invisibility, to allow them to dissolve into the so-called fabric of this "great land of opportunity."  Oh yes.  Tell it again and again to the Marias while you keep your hands on their heads, settling them in place.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Forever War" Redivivus

In the wake of Barack Obama's decision to become our next war president, many commentators on the 24/7 info-networks are vocally pondering his message of a long, globally transformative war.  In his UN speech, Obama wrapped all sorts of issues around his war rationale, including the necessity of all Arab nations-tribes-clans-sects to ignore their millenia of differences and create solidarity against the "network of death" among them.  He also included the necessity of all peoples to reverse climate change—possibly an easier task, when you think about it—as well as to cure Ebola's developing pandemic .  The commentators seem to be in Oh-gosh mode—Is it possible the greatest nation in the world since The Flood can't provide a quick fix for the ills of that world?  Oh, gosh, oh, golly!

Perhaps I'm being cynical.  But perhaps not.  Three years ago I posted Our Forever War, an account of the development of a song lyric I was working on.  At the time, I had the sinking feeling that our country's intrusion into the miasma of the Middle East would effect us all whether or not we had a conscious awareness of it.  Song writing being what it is (a constant reduction to bare essentials), we finally got to that point—our country was/is ignoring a festering wound that can continue in perpetuity, at the cost of countless lives, treasure, and, most importantly, our national soul.  I would insert the song here if I could, but I can't figure our how to do it.

At this point in my life, I want to think that the people of the world won't continue to be as they have been, that their reaction to struggle and suffering won't be to create more struggle and suffering, that their lives in the tangible world, the lives of their families and friends, are paramount above the adherence to some mystical, vision of what might be.  On this point, I have been noticing (as I review my visitor account) how one of my posts from 2008, Zeus, The Trickster" is experiencing a second life.  Originally, it was meant as a sarcastic statement about how "hope," especially audacious hope, is, if not delusional, at least can lead to disillusionment...and at worst to death.

I suppose, partially out of conceit and partially out of curiosity, I'm finding a connection between these two posts as they occur to my visitors.  Perhaps there's an itch that can't be scratched in our brains, a sense of actual foreboding about what's going on.  Perhaps.  On the other hand, our willingness to plunge into the suspension of disbelief seems to be calcifying into a way of life to the point where it has become the only way of life for most of us.  We seem to have become a band of Eliot's whimperers.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Role Modeling and Its Absurdities — A Follow Up

In case you were wondering about some of my observations in yesterday's post concerning role models in our culture, please read the following insight about the role of women in the home by the chief marketing officer of the NFL.   Apart from the obviously antediluvian attitudes he expresses, please notice the convoluted syntax leading to vacuous content, which, I suppose, is the whole point of this form of articulation by an obviously extremely overpaid person.  I realize that marketers are rarely concerned with meaning, but this patch truly underlines the absurdity of those who play with any concept of role modeling.
“The matriarch of the family predetermines an awful lot that goes on, from what sport you play to what media you watch to what products get bought,” Mark Waller, the N.F.L.’s chief marketing officer, said in explaining why women were important to the league. “The role of the female in the household is huge. On the emotional side, the role that the female builds that a family can gather around is fundamental. That sort of communal aspect, which is such a part of the game in America.”  Five years ago… [the] N.F.L. set out to court women, “listening to their needs much more aggressively and really trying to get under the skin of what needs they have and what can we do better,” Mr. Waller said." (NYTimes, 9/18/14)

So the communal aspect of the female built role in a family is such a part of the game (professional football) in America.   I think that's a fair untying of  Mr. Waller's linguistic knot.  (Don't wince too much at the "trying to get under the skin of what needs they have" reference; sometimes linguistic cuteness gets one tangled up in Freud.).   The bottom line, as Mr. Waller might say, in all this jumbled context, strongly implies that professional football, and by extension, the entire NFL is grounded in the principles of matriarchy.  

So now, I hope you see why it is so foolish and sometimes dangerous to blather about role models.  Let's all just shut up and try to be as kind and supportive to one another as we can, even though that can be very trying at times.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Role Modeling

"Role model"  Really?  Any phrase that can be used with equal papering to express fawning adulation or contemptuous aspersion is meaningless.  Why do people use it then?  People use it because it has self-aggrandizing meaning to the user who has no concern that it has no meaning to his or her audience.  That's why practitioners in so-called information media use it so cavalierly.

For those of us who do care about actualities, why don't we begin with the word "role."  Merriam-Webster's first definition is "a character assigned or assumed."  In the politically correcting jargon that means at best it has socially constructed meaning, which, in their point of view, means it is mendacious in origin as well as application.  But let's consider it at that level for purposes of discussion.

In our lives we "play" different roles.  That is, we assume the characteristics that have been assigned to us, either through life choices or the authority of the assigner.  Parents are great assigners.  And to assure peace in their homes, most children are compliant assumers.  That gets us through the fledgling stage of life.  Once we reach (assume?) the role of adulthood, our choices begin to form our multitude of roles.  For example, all the professions (attorney, physician, teacher, nurse, etc.) have certain role identifiers associated with them; that is, people inside and outside a particular role have expectations (call them parameters if you like) regarding attributes and behaviors associated with that role.  Unfortunately, these expectations may or may not be accurate by anyone's standards.  You should now be getting the idea behind the opening paragraph.  In the US society, especially, with its mounting diversity of cultures, whatever cultural standards associated with roles that once existed (mainly according to Euro-centric practices) have long since been diluted to being non-existent.

But does that mean we have decided to cast aside the phrase "role model"?  No.  We need it to continue in our delusion of our high morality, our capacity for salvation.  That is where the word "model" comes in.  We want the word to represent (whether it does or not) the highest standard, the epitome, as it were, of our various roles.   The attorney is the model of uncompromising adherence to the principles of balanced justice; the teacher is the paragon of the dedication to learning; the physician is morally concerned with the health of her patients and so on.  So that, no matter where these people appear and under what circumstances, they are the model of behavior for all others in that profession.

But this applies not only to professions but also to life roles.  So we have role models for fathers, for mothers, for grandparents, and for siblings.  Lots of models for lots of roles.  And we all play in many roles.  But issues can arise for those of us who are not so conscious of our obligations to our roles.  The fact is that we are continually being judged from the outside by those observing us according to a role set of standards that we probably are not thoroughly aware of.  For example, I challenge anyone to delineate the role standards for fatherhood.  It does not come naturally, it is learned and it requires almost daily regeneration of consciousness.  In many ways it grates against the natural male proclivity for selfishness.

Now to the point of this ramble.  As I discussed in my post of 9/14/14, "In Bounds and Out of Bounds", lots of people speaking about professional athletes' outrageous behavior pontificate about how the athletes must be conscious of and accept their lives as "role models."  Even if that were true, the question immediately arises:  Which role?  And, by the way, while they are "in bounds", if they are to be role models in that context, their behavior needs to be outrageous by "out of bounds" standards.  Turning it on and off is the sticking point.  Just as a role model mother's nipping at the vodka, or the attorney's boosting his billing time, or the nurse's filching some uppers to get her through the 15 hour day—all of them are turning the modeling on or off because they are human, because they are not acting.

I would say that to identify a person as a role model is in this sense a way of condemning the person to a false life, a life of play acting in a permanent, fabricated role, not a human role.  It could even become a devastating tragedy.  All of us might spend some good time considering the roles we live and identifying how we feel about our adherence to the cultural expectations of those roles.  This could be what makes the adulthood role so terrifying.