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If Moby-Dick were the only Herman Melville book I’d ever read, I would have assumed that he was a mediocre writer with great ideas. Having gone through all of his shorter works, however, I know he could be a precise and cogent talent. He seemed to have reached for everything with his most famous novel–aiming to fashion a sort of Shakespearean Old Testament story of good and evil–and buckled under the weight of his ambitions.

The far better Moby-Dick is Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, a horse opera of Biblical proportions, a medicine show peddling poison, which takes an unsparing look at our black hearts and leaves the reader with a purple bruise. Twenty-five years on, it remains as profound and disturbing as any American novel.

The British writer David Vann reveals he’s similarly admiring of this McCarthy work in a “Twenty Questions” interview in the Times Literary Supplement. He’s also despairing of what he believes is the bleak future of literature. I believe as long as humans are largely human, we’ll always enamored by narratives. My fear is mainly that sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

An excerpt:

Question:

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

David Vann:

There are hundreds, but the foremost from this time is Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian, which I think is the greatest novel ever written in English.  He’s not a dramatist, and I write Greek tragedy, so I never could have imagined skipping the dramatic plane and going straight to vision.  I do write in the same American landscape tradition, extending literal landscapes into figurative ones, but I’ll never do it as powerfully as he does.

Question:

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

David Vann:

Less money for sure. We’ve already lost so much to piracy and shrinking readerships and economic downturns. Publishers will be less brave, editors will edit less, more books will be published online for nothing, we’ll continue to lose experts and have to put up with even more reviews from unqualified idiots, and as entire generations learn to read without subtext about what someone had for lunch, we can expect literature to look more like an account of what someone had for lunch. There is absolutely no way in which the technology or literary theory of the past decades will enrich literature.  We should be honest about what is crap. …

Question:

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

David Vann:

I should never answer this kind of question, because I’m only shooting myself in the foot, but when Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time as the Great American Novelist, who could not have thought of McCarthy, Proulx, Robinson, Morrison, Oates, Roth, DeLillo and at least a hundred others far better than Franzen?  And to call The Corrections the best book in ten years?  Really?•

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I’ve read the full canon of the deeply humane short story writer and journalist George Saunders to this point, and I’m three books (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, My Struggle: Book Five and Difficult Women) from digging into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Even at his most outlandish, Saunders never seems to be writing about the future but instead providing social critiques about contemporary life. What is the quiet nightmare The Semplica Girls Diaries about if not the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Digital one, the way technocracy removes the friction from our lives and disappears the “downsized” from our minds?

In that same vein, the New York Times T Magazine published, in 2014, new notations the writer made about his 1996 collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. An excerpt: 

Closing thought: I like the audacity of this book. I like less the places where it feels like I went into Auto-Quirky Mode. Ah youth! Some issues: Life amid limitations; paucity. Various tonalities of defense. Pain; humiliation inflicted on hapless workers – some of us turn on one another. Early on, this read, could really feel this young writer’s aversion to anything mild or typical or bland. Feeling, at first, like a tic. But then it started to grow on me — around “400 Pound CEO.” This performative thing then starts to feel essential; organic somehow – a way to get to the moral outrage. I kept thinking of the word “immoderation.” Like the yelp of someone who’s just been burned.

Sadly those sick feelings have fully metastasized in the intervening 20 years, and now CivilWarLand isn’t the only thing in bad decline. 

In a Guardian essay, Saunders does a brilliant job explaining the process of creative writers, though I think he actually explains creativity more broadly. It’s largely about noticing small details and extemporaneously making connections between them.

An excerpt:

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”•

Margaret Atwood is in an odd position: As our politics get worse, her stature grows. Right now, sadly (for us), she’s never towered higher.

Appropriate that on International Women’s Day and the A Day Without a Woman protests, the The Handmaid’s Tale novelist conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything to coincide with the soon-to-premiere Hulu version of her most famous work. Dystopia, feminism and literature are, of course, among the discussion topics. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Thank you so much for writing The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book that got me hooked on dystopian novels. What was your inspiration for the story?

Margaret Atwood:

Ooo, three main things: 1) What some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are); 2) 17th C Puritan New England, plus history through the ages — nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere and 3) the dystopian spec fics of my youth, such as 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc. I wanted to see if I could write one of those, too.


Question:

What would you be doing right now if you were an American? Would you run for office? Would you protest? Would you be planning to resist ICE?

Margaret Atwood:

I would make a very bad politician, so no, I wouldn’t run for office. But I would support those who were running. I would certainly turn out for protests, as I did here in Toronto, wearing a rather strange pink hat. I don’t know what else I would do! We are in a time when reality seems to shift every day…


Question:

What is a book you keep going back to read and why?

Margaret Atwood:

This is going to sound corny but Shakespeare is my return read. He knew so much about human nature (+ and minus) and also was an amazing experimenter with language. But there are many other favourites. Wuthering Heights recently. In moments of crisis I go back to (don’t laugh) Lord of the Rings, b/c despite the EVIL EYE OF MORDOR it comes out all right in the end. Whew.


Question:

How, if at all, has your feminism changed over the last decade or so? Can you see these changes taking place throughout your literature? Lastly, can you offer any advice for feminists of the millennial generation? What mistakes are we making/repeating? What are our priorities in this political climate?

Margaret Atwood:

Hello: I am so shrieking old that my formative years (the 40s and 50s) took place before 2nd wave late-60’s feminist/women’s movement. But since I grew up largely in the backwoods and had strong female relatives and parents who read a lot and never told me I couldn’t do such and such because of being a girl, I avoided the agit-prop of the 50s that said women should be in bungalows with washing machines to make room for men coming back from the war. So I was always just very puzzled by some of the stuff said and done by/around women. I was probably a danger to myself and others! (joke) My interest was in women of all kinds — and they are of all kinds. They are interesting in and of themselves, and they do not always behave well. But then I learned more about things like laws and other parts of the world, and history… try Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn, pretty massive. We are now in what is being called the 3rd wave — seeing a lot of pushback against women, and also a lot of women pushing back in their turn. I’d say in general: be informed, be aware. The priorities in the US are roughly trying to prevent the roll-back that is taking place especially in the area of women’s health. Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care — many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful. Then there is the whole issue of sexual violence being used as control — it is such an old motif. For a theory of why now, see Eve’s Seed. It’s an unsettled time. If I were a younger woman I’d be taking a self-defense course. I did once take Judo, in the days of the Boston Strangler, but it was very lady-like then and I don’t think it would have availed. There’s something called Wen-Do. It’s good, I am told.


Question:

The Handmaid’s Tale gets thrown out as your current worst-case scenario right now but I read The Heart Goes Last a few months ago and I was surprised how possible it felt. Was there a specific news story or event that compelled you to write that particular story?

Margaret Atwood:

The Heart Goes Last — yes, came from my interest in what happens when a region’s economy collapses and people are really up against it, and the only “business” in which people can have jobs is a prison. It pushes the envelope (will there really be some Elvis robots?) but again, much of what was only speculation then is increasingly possible.


Question:

How did your experience with the 2017 version differ from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Margaret Atwood:

Different times (that world is closer now!) and a 90 minute film is a different proposition from a 10 part 1st season series, which can build out and deep dive because it has more time. The advent of high-quality streamed or televised series has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for longer novels. We launched the 1990 film in West and then East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down… and I started writing book when the Wall was still there… Framed it in people’s minds in a different way. Also, then, many people were saying “It can’t happen here.” Now, not so much….•

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In his NYRB review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Thomas Nagel is largely laudatory even though he believes his fellow philosopher ultimately guilty of “maintaining a thesis at all costs,” writing that:

Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Nagel draws an analogy between Dennett’s ideas and the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and other mid-century psychologists, a theory that never was truly satisfactory in explaining the human mind. Dennett’s belief that we’re more machine-like than we want to believe is probably accurate, though his assertion that all consciousness is illusory–if that’s what he’s arguing–seems off.

Dennett’s life work about consciousness and evolution has certainly crested at right moment, as we’re beginning to wonder in earnest about AI and non-human-consciousness, which seems possible at some point if not on the immediate horizon. In a Financial Times interview conducted by John Thornhill, Dennett speaks to the nature and future of robotics.

An excerpt:

AI experts tend to draw a sharp distinction between machine intelligence and human consciousness. Dennett is not so sure. Where many worry that robots are becoming too human, he argues humans have always been largely robotic. Our consciousness is the product of the interactions of billions of neurons that are all, as he puts it, “sorta robots”.

“I’ve been arguing for years that, yes, in principle it’s possible for human consciousness to be realised in a machine. After all, that’s what we are,” he says. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re incredibly complex, trillions of moving parts. But they’re all non-miraculous robotic parts.” …

Dennett has long been a follower of the latest research in AI. The final chapter of his book focuses on the subject. There has been much talk recently about the dangers posed by the emergence of a superintelligence, when a computer might one day outstrip human intelligence and assume agency. Although Dennett accepts that such a superintelligence is logically possible, he argues that it is a “pernicious fantasy” that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems. In particular, he worries about our “deeply embedded and generous” tendency to attribute far more understanding to intelligent systems than they possess. Giving digital assistants names and cutesy personas worsens the confusion.

“All we’re going to see in our own lifetimes are intelligent tools, not colleagues. Don’t think of them as colleagues, don’t try to make them colleagues and, above all, don’t kid yourself that they’re colleagues,” he says.

Dennett adds that if he could lay down the law he would insist that the users of such AI systems were licensed and bonded, forcing them to assume liability for their actions. Insurance companies would then ensure that manufacturers divulged all of their products’ known weaknesses, just as pharmaceutical companies reel off all their drugs’ suspected side-effects. “We want to ensure that anything we build is going to be a systemological wonderbox, not an agency. It’s not responsible. You can unplug it any time you want. And we should keep it that way,” he says.•

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Ezra Klein of Vox has an excellent interview about meditation and much more with Yuval Noah Harari, though I don’t know that I’m buying the main premise which is that the Israeli historian can so ably communicate such cogent ideas because of his adherence to this “mind-clearing” practice.

If that’s so, then I would have to suppose Harari was meditating far less while writing Homo Deus than when composing Sapiens, because the follow-up, while still worth reading, is not nearly as incisive or effective as his first book. (Jennifer Senior had a very good review of the sophomore effort in the New York Times.)

What separates Harari from other historians trying to communicate with a lay audience is his ability to brilliantly synthesize ideas in a very organic way. Even when I’m not sure if I’m totally buying one of these combinations (e.g., Alan Turing created a test in which a computer could pass for a human because he spent his brief, tragic life trying to pass for heterosexual), it still provokes me to think deeply on the subject.

I would assume this talent is more a quirk of his own brain chemistry and diligent development of natural gifts than anything else. Of course, meditation could be aiding in the process, or, perhaps, the practice of Vipassana is more correlation than causation. I doubt even Harari truly knows for sure.

The two opening exchanges:

Ezra Klein:

You told the Guardian that without meditation, you’d still be researching medieval military history — but not the Neanderthals or cyborgs. What changes has meditation brought to your work as a historian?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Two things, mainly. First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

My main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what’s really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or in order to control what’s happening in the world.

Ezra Klein:

One of the ideas that is central to your book Sapiens is that the central quality of Homo sapiens, what has allowed us to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can’t. And what you count as fiction ranges all the way from early mythology to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I wouldn’t have connected that to the way meditation changes what you see as real, but it makes sense that if you’re observing the way your mind creates imaginary stories, maybe much more ends up falling into that category than you originally thought.

Yuval Noah Harari:

Yes, exactly. We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction. This is most clear in the case of religion, especially other people’s religion. You can easily understand that, yes, millions of people come together to cooperate in a crusade or a jihad or to build the cathedral or a synagogue because all of them believe some fictional story about God and heaven and hell.

What is much more difficult to realize is that exactly the same dynamic operates in all other kinds of human cooperation. If you think about human rights, human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights. If you take Homo sapiens and look inside, you find the heart and the kidneys and the DNA. You don’t find any rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories that people have been inventing.

Another very good example is money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value. It’s not like a banana or a coconut. If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t wear it. It’s absolutely worthless. We think it’s worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, “You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana.”

If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works. It actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to a complete stranger who I never met before, give him this piece of paper, and he in exchange will give me a real banana that I can eat.

This is really amazing, and no other animal can do it. Other animals sometimes trade. Chimpanzees, for example, they trade. You give me a coconut. I’ll give you a banana. That can work with a chimpanzee, but you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? That will never work with a chimpanzee.

This is why we control the world, and not the chimpanzees.•

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New Texas Monthly EIC Tim Taliaferro was quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review as saying that “Texans don’t care about politics,” so the publication was moving in a new and softer direction. Oil itself couldn’t be more Texan than politics, so the editor quickly found himself sliding around in a slick and backpedaled as hastily as possible. Who knows what the future holds for the legendary long-form magazine, but it doesn’t sound hopeful.

One of the linchpins of Texas Monthly reportage–and, more broadly, of the New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s–was Gary Cartwright, a Dallas-Fort Worth gonzo who just passed away. The hard-drinking, freewheeling writer was an exquisite prose producer and confidante of Jack Ruby, who spent many of the days leading up to his murder of Lee Harvey Oswald planted, along with his stripper girlfriend Jada, on Cartwright’s couch. The scribe wrote of the two-bit assassin who dreamed of global fame: “He didn’t make history; he only stepped in front of it. When he emerged from obscurity into that inextricable freeze-frame that joins all of our minds to Dallas, Jack Ruby, a baldheaded little man who wanted above all else to make it big, had his back to the camera.”


From Manny Fernandez’s New York Times obituary of the writer:

In the 1960s and ’70s Mr. Cartwright belonged to a group of writers — including Mr. Shrake, Dan Jenkins, Billy Lee Brammer and Larry L. King, one of the writers of the hit Broadway musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” — whose hard, boozy living and freewheeling prose captured and exemplified the era.

“It seemed like they were living lives of joy and engagement and with a sense of recklessness that was beyond the reach of most of us,” Joe Holley, a columnist and editorial writer for The Houston Chronicle, said in an interview. “They lived hard. They wrote well, and they seemed to be intensely alive.

“What we didn’t realize until later, when the heart attacks began and when they started writing confessional memoirs, was that hard living exacted a price.”

Mr. Cartwright published another memoir, The Best I Recall, in 2015. He also wrote screenplays and novels.

He was born in Dallas in 1934 and grew up in the tiny West Texas oil town of Royalty in the late 1930s. With defense plants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area hiring after the start of World War II, the family moved to Arlington, the Dallas suburb, where his mother worked in a dress shop. His father worked at a defense plant in Fort Worth.

After high school Mr. Cartwright attended Arlington State College and the University of Texas, enlisted in the Army for a two-year stateside stint and earned his bachelor’s degree afterward at Texas Christian University.

He got his start in journalism in the mid-1950s, covering the police and sports for newspapers in Fort Worth and Dallas. He became the anchor of Texas Monthly and mentored a generation of young journalists, including Nicholas Lemann, the author and former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“Gary was a Texas news guy to the core — somebody who grew up in old-school, smoke-filled, blue-collar newsrooms and went on to become one of the first Texas journalists to make a national reputation in long-form journalism,” Mr. Lemann said.


The opening of Cartwright’s great 1976 Texas Monthly profile of notorious Dallas stripper Juanita Dale Slusher, aka Candy Barr:

On the road home to Brownwood in her green ’74 Cadillac with the custom upholstery and the CB radio, clutching a pawn ticket for her $3000 mink, Candy Barr thought about biscuits. Biscuits made her think of fried chicken, which in turn suggested potato salad and corn. For as long as she could remember, in times of crisis and stress, Candy Barr always thought of groceries. It was a miracle she didn’t look like a platinum pumpkin, but she didn’t: even at 41, she still looked like a movie star.

For once, the crisis was not her own. It was something she had read a few days earlier about how the omnipotent, totalitarian they were about to jackboot the remnants of the once happy and prosperous life of a 76-year-old Dallas electrician named O. E. Cole. Candy had never heard of O. E. Cole until she spotted his pitiful tale in the Brownwood newspaper. She didn’t know if Cole was black or white, mean or generous, judgmental or forgiving. She only knew he was in trouble. For nearly fifty years Cole had been an upright, hardworking citizen of a city Candy Barr had every reason to hate; then his wife Nettie suffered a stroke and lingered in a coma for eighteen months while their savings were sucked away. According to the newspaper account, Cole spent $500 for Nettie’s headstone, which left him a balance of $157. Before he could use that money to cover mortgage payments on his home and the electrician’s shop at the back, a gunman shot and robbed him. Now, when he was too old to apply for additional credit, they were prepared to foreclose.

“This is a goddamn crime!” Candy raged, throwing her suitcase on the bed and barking a string of orders to her houseguests: Scott, her 22-year-old boyfriend of the moment, and Susan Slusher, her 17-year-old niece who had recently come to stay with “Aunt Nita” from a broken home in Philadelphia.

Scott and Susan had been around just long enough to know that when Candy blew—as often as she did without warning—to look not for explanations but for something sturdy to hang onto. Try to imagine a hurricane in a Dixie Cup. The laughing tropical green eyes boiled, and the innocence that had made that perfect teardrop face a landmark in the sexual liberation of an entire generation of milquetoasts became the wrath of Zeus. They say she once sat waiting in a rocking chair talking to sweet Jesus and when her ex-husband kicked down the door she threw down on him with a pistol that was resting conveniently in her lap. She shot him in the stomach, but she was aiming for the groin. When she caught mobster Mickey Cohen talking to another woman, she slugged him in the teeth. She carved her mark on a dyke in the prison workshop: this was not a lovers’ quarrel, as an assistant warden indicated on her record, but a disagreement stemming from Candy’s hard-line belief that a worker should take pride in her job.

Candy had a cosmic way of connecting things, which to the more prosaic mind might appear coincidental. So it was that the ill-fated placement of a Citizens National Bank of Brownwood ad next to the article outlining the plight of O. E. Cole ignited her fuse. The bank ad suggested that had it not been for a Revolutionary War banker named Robert Morris, we might all be sipping tea with crumpets and begging God to save our Queen. What the average eye might take as harmless Bicentennial puffery hit Candy’s heart dead center.

“I watched the bastards do the same thing to my daddy,” Candy fumed, removing her mink from the cedar chest and raking bottles and jars of cosmetics into her overnight bag. “I sold my hunting rifle three times to help my daddy. It’s a crime what they can do to people, a goddamn crime. Don’t call me a criminal if you’re gonna be one.”

With the skillful employment of her CB radio, “The Godmother” and her two young companions made the 160 miles to Dallas in less that two hours. Candy hocked her mink for $250, then called on dancer Chastity Fox and other friends to help raise another $150. Then Candy painted her face with soft missionary shades of tan and gold and called on O. E. Cole, introducing herself as Juanita Dale Phillips of Brownwood and presenting the goggle-eyed electrician with $400 and a copy of her book of prison poems, A Gentle Mind … ConfusedCole couldn’t have been more confused if he had found Fidel Castro in his refrigerator. When I spoke with Cole two weeks later, there were still some blank spaces behind his eyes, but the crisis had passed.

“I didn’t know who she was till I saw her name on that little book,” he told me. “Oh, yes, I knew the name Candy Barr. You couldn’t live in Dallas long as I had and not know that name. But it wasn’t for me to judge her. What is past is past. It’s what a person is now I go on, and she was awful nice. We sat around and talked for hours. In fact, we talked all night long.”•

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Rebuilding the world has to rank at the top of economic low-hanging fruit of the last century. America, its forces marshaled, played a leading role in piecing together the shattered globe in the wake of WWII. Yes, four decades of unfortunate tax rates, globalization, automation and the demise of unions have all abetted the decline of the U.S. middle class, but just as true is that the good times simply ended, the job completed (more or less), the outlier ran headlong into entropy. The contents of this half-empty glass finally spilled all over the world in 2016, provoking outrageously regressive political shifts, with perhaps more states becoming submerged this year.

As An Extraordinary Time author Marc Levinson wrote in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The quarter-century from 1948 to 1973 was the most striking stretch of economic advance in human history. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people were lifted from penury to unimagined riches.” In “End of a Golden Age,” an Aeon essay, the economist and journalist further argues the global circumstances of the postwar era were a one-time-only opportunity for runaway productivity, a fortunate arrangement of stars likely to never align again.

Well, never is an extremely long stretch (we hope), but the economic-growth-rate promises brought to the trail by Sanders and Trump, which have made it to the White House with the unfortunate election of the latter candidate, were at best fanciful, though delusional might also be a fair assessment. If I had to guess, I would say someday we’ll see tremendous growth again, but when that happens and what precipitates it, I don’t know. Nobody really does.

An excerpt:

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.•

Was planning on stopping by my favorite bookstore on Wednesday or Thursday to pick up a copy of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Just as an extra nudge, the author published an article on the topic today in The Atlantic. As you might have guessed from the subtitle, it is not a hopeful piece. “With the rarest of exceptions, great reductions in inequality were only ever brought forth in sorrow,” the author writes.

No candidate was particularly honest about the economy and wealth inequality in the recent Presidential election. In one debate during the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton argued that the free markets had allowed post-war America to create an upward trajectory for those seeking a solid middle-class existence. Well, not exactly.

The free market was important, sure, but it can’t be forgotten that progressive tax rates reached 90% during the Eisenhower Administration, a figure even your average liberal today would say is draconian, and that money was redistributed via investment in those who had less, often through education, social welfare and infrastructure development. Without flourishes from both capitalism and socialism, the level playing field that inched into the 1970s never would have existed for more than two decades. And if you remove World War II from the equation, it never would have happened at all. 

Scheidel doesn’t relate his thoughts on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in this article, though hopefully he does in his book.

The opening:

Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.

The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.

This equalizing was a rare outcome in modern times but by no means unique over the long run of history. Inequality has been written into the DNA of civilization ever since humans first settled down to farm the land. Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.•

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One troubling aspect of globalization is that those not adversely affected by the flow of international trade and actually helped by it (most Americans) are often opposed to a smaller world because of prejudice or some other irrational fear.

While financial concerns in the Rust Belt may have put Trump over the top (along with Russian hacking and FBI machinations), the bigoted President’s voters enjoy an overall higher household income than the average U.S. resident. Many were turning the lever for something else, and that was nationalism, which is sadly something most dear to many among us.

In an excellent Five Questions interview, Lawrence Summers discusses the strictly economic repercussions of globalization. He acknowledges that while he thinks the process still works in the big picture, our bumpy ride is just beginning, meaning we’ll need to strengthen “systems of social insurance,” something which seems to not be on the horizon in the U.S. Sooner or later, though, people will tire of bread and Kardashians.

An excerpt:

Question:

Finally, a title from last year. Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence (2016). Please give us a precis.

Lawrence Summers:

It’s the newest of the books and it’s a very powerful description of the newest phase of globalization. Two ideas about this newest phase of globalization that Baldwin emphasizes are hugely important.

The first is that we used to think very much in terms of trade in goods—some country exports washing machines, some other country exports dryers. Increasingly, goods are produced with global supply chains. Part of a good is produced in one country, part of a good is produced in another country and assembly takes place in a third country. So trade is part of the production process, whether it takes place within a multi-national corporation or between companies. Trade is part of production through supply chains.

The other idea that is emphasized is the role of trade and globalization in sharing knowledge. Baldwin uses a very powerful analogy. He says it’s one thing for a soccer team in one country to play against a soccer team in another country. It’s a very different thing if the coach in one country starts to coach teams in many countries and therefore promotes convergence. Baldwin argues that the second type of openness may be more problematic than the first. And, increasingly, trade is taking that form.

Question:

Please explain the challenges to politics and economic policy presented by this “great convergence” he describes.

Lawrence Summers:

The challenge is that there are likely to be more winners associated with global convergence, but there are also likely to be more losers and more potential volatility. In this latest stage of globalization, ideas can be traded and support production elsewhere, leading to less identification of entrepreneurship with location. The example I like to give is when George Eastman invented the instamatic camera, he got rich and Rochester, New York, where he founded his company, had a strong middle class for several generations. When Steve Jobs made equally powerful innovations, involving the iPhone and the iPad, the result was that he got very, very rich and there was an increase in the demand for labor globally, primarily in Asia, with no similarly broad increase in local wealth.

Question:

In recent years, you have been sounding an alarm about the role of globalization in contributing to local dislocations and inequality. What caused your worries and what are your solutions for globalization going forward.

Lawrence Summers:

I’ve said, for some years, that global integration won’t work if it means local disintegration. Unfortunately, that proved prescient.•

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Speaking of immortality, former Transhumanist Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan is the subject of a well-written profile by Mark McConnell in the New York Times Magazine, adapted from his about-to-be-published book, To Be a Machine.

Unlike, say, Bobby Jindal, the newbie pol knew he had no chance of winning the White House, so he resigned himself to stump for radical life extension, gene editing and other futurist dreams–a CRISPR in every pod and a driverless car in every garage!–and ultimately vote for Hillary Clinton. He did so while acknowledging he didn’t dislike Trump, which seemed a puzzling stance to take on someone who was deeply bigoted, anti-science, wholly unqualified and seemingly unhinged.

In a pre-election Ask Me Anything, Istvan explained his preference for a traditional candidate like Clinton despite his outré opinions: 

One main reason is that if Trump becomes President, and gets assassinated, Mike Pence will take office and that could be a disaster for science and tech, especially in the gene editing and AI era.

Trump can live out his term in perfect health and science in the U.S. is still going to get clobbered, much to the delight of China and other countries competing with us.

McConnell, who traveled part of the way with Istvan during his campaign across America aboard the “Immortality Bus,” reflects on the unsettling and, perhaps, enlightening experience. An excerpt:

He confided that his wife, Lisa, a gynecologist who worked for Planned Parenthood, recently started to express a keen interest in his doing something productive with his life. Lisa had just given birth to their second child and, what with the exponentially growing cost of living in the Bay Area, she was becoming increasingly concerned about the need to begin saving for their two daughters’ educations. He explained to me that he was reluctant to fritter away money on such things, given that by the time the girls were in their late teens, it would be possible to upload the informational content of a Harvard or Yale degree directly to their brains and at a fraction of what such an education costs today.

Lisa, he said, was largely tolerant of his views, but drew the line at gambling their children’s futures on the fanciful notion of some imminent technological intervention.

“Obviously she’s a little resistant to transhumanist ideas,” he said, “because in the near future her entire profession will be obsolete. What with actual childbirth becoming a thing of the past. You know, with babies being produced by ectogenesis and whatnot.”

When, some months later, Istvan emailed me about his decision to run for president, I immediately called him. The first thing I asked was what his wife thought of the plan.

“Well, in a way,” he said, “it was Lisa who gave me the idea. Remember how I said she wanted me to do something concrete, get some kind of a proper job?”

“I do,” I said. “Although I’m guessing running for president on the immortality platform was not what she had in mind.” 

“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “It took a little while for her to come around to the idea.”

“How did you break it to her?”

“I left a note on the refrigerator,” he said, “and went out for a couple hours.”

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John Cassidy of the New Yorker, who’s been stellar during this dark period in America, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. In one exchange, he asserts that “some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances,” which is certainly true, though it doesn’t nearly add up to 63 million voters. Early in 2016, the Economist debunked the received wisdom of the Trump supporter as the struggling worker ignored by the “elites.” His voters, in the aggregate, had a higher household income than average. Those disrupted by manufacturing’s decline, positioned just so, may have put the GOP candidate over the top, but it was other factors that carried him to the tipping point. 

Cassidy also looks at the tinderbox that is U.S.-China relations, which could be the most dangerous international development since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese people are far more nationalistic than most Americans probably realize, and the White House Chief Strategist guaranteeing war in the near future in the South China Sea couldn’t have gone down smoothly. Both sides have a tremendous amount to lose, but that doesn’t ensure restraint. Wars aren’t always rational decisions about money.

A few excerpts follow.


Question:

The obvious ludicrousness aside, just how different is this administration from earlier administrations? In what way has the paradigm for administration and governance truly changed?

John Cassidy:

That’s an excellent question, which I haven’t thought about the way you formulated it. I’ve thought quite a bit about how different Trump is from previous presidents, and I don’t there is any doubt that he represents something new. In terms of experience, outlook, and temperament, there has never been a president like him before. In terms of the administration as a whole, it’s a bit different. If you take away Trump and some of the people immediately surrounding him, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, this administration could pass for a normal Republican administration. A very conservative one, certainly–Pence, Price, Pruitt, and DeVos are all right wing even by the standards of today’s GOP. But you also have generals and business leaders playing a big role, which we’ve seen in the past. The question is how the two parallel administrations gets along–or, equivalently, how Trump deals with his cabinet. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.


Question:

Does the threat of being called “fake news” ever run through your head while writing an article, or affect the style of writing? And in your opinion, how should the media be handling the President’s war on these, so-called, fake news organizations (like CNN)?

John Cassidy:

Being a columnist, I don’t worry much about fake news. I just write what I think, read it through, and put it out there. If there is a fact I am not sure of, I do try to check it, or, at least, point out its source. Obviously, news organizations have to take the whole fake news thing more seriously, but the main thing is not to let Trump intimidate them. So far, I don’t think they have. To the contrary, probably. Which explains why he seems to be getting more and more irate.


Question:

What is the biggest short term risk to global stability? What holds the best chance to improve people’s lives in the short term?

John Cassidy:

I think the two biggest short term risks are China and Trump–or, make that three risks: China, Trump, and China and Trump. The China risk is the same one that has been out there for years: a debt-driven financial blow-up that spills over into other markets. The Trump risk is that he does something that really spooks people and investors. So far, the markets have reacted favorably to his election, because they like tax cuts and deregulation. But I think there’s quite a bit of political risk that isn’t priced in, especially when it comes to the survival of an open trading system. And of course, there’s a danger he could do something nutty, such as spark a military confrontation in the South China Sea. In the interests of maintaining global stability and getting past Trump to another president, the Chinese government might be willing to give a bit of ground. But if Trump backs them into a corner, and brings Chinese nationalism into play, there could be a disaster.


Question:

Do you have any thoughts on how to explain to certain groups of voters that Trump, his administration, his policies and executive orders, etc. are opposite of their interests? How do you reach people who have their fingers in their ears?

John Cassidy:

I’m not sure there are many Trump voters reading the New Yorker, but your question is a serious one, especially for the Democratic Party. I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that although many of Trump’s policies–tax cuts for the rich, rollback of financial regulations etc–will hurt working class and middle class people, he did, during the campaign, tap into some legitimate concerns about globalization and trade. I keep going back to the fact that the average hourly wage of non-supervisory workers is lower today, in real terms, than it was in 1973. On top of that, there is now a good deal of empirical evidence that trade with China has taken a pretty heavy toll on manufacturing jobs. So, Trump knew what he was doing when he played the nationalist/protectionist card. The problem, of course, is explaining why his cures won’t work, and may well end up harming the victims. If I could do that, I’d give up journalism and run for office! Just joking. But I think the first step is acknowledging that some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances and trying to speak to them in their language: they aren’t all just racist deplorables.


Question:

What would you recommend for individuals to do to improve their knowledge of economics – even for people with degrees in economics? Any advice for people wanting to make a living studying economics/policy?

John Cassidy:

Ah, a bit of respite from Trump and politics! Thanks. When I was a student, I studied history and economics, and as a graduate I specialized in economics, so I read a lot of pretty technical stuff. I do have some interest in economic theory, but the books and articles that really stayed with me were the ones that went beyond individual theories and looked at the big picture. An obvious one is Keynes’s General Theory. On the left, Paul Sweezey’s Theory of Capitalist Development, which was an effort to combine Keynesian short run theory with Marx’s long run analysis, is a tour de force that I still go back to. On the right, Milton’s Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, is seminal and still central. All of these books are pretty old. If you want something newer and more up to date, the best textbook I’ve seen is by my old tutor, David Soskice and his longtime collaborator Wendy Carlin. It’s called Macroeconomics, I think. And if you want a history that covers a lot of ground and also includes the financial crisis and its aftermath, I would immodestly recommend my own book, How Markets Fail. Hope that’s helpful. As for advice, I would just plunge in and take some courses. There are some good online ones now, which are a good way of testing whether you really have a taste for a subject.•

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To take a break from this Trump-soaked moment in America, I highly recommend the just-published Issue #10 of The Lowbrow Reader, an excellent zine about comedy and more edited by Jay Ruttenberg. It’s only four bucks and filled with all sorts of interesting writing and art.

Hollywood writer-director Amy Heckerling offers a funny faux diary supposedly written by Joseph Goebbels about his boss and secret crush, only identified as “A.H.” I liked life so much better before this piece would have been considered timely.

Ruttenberg’s personal essay “White Light” explores the way serious and trivial art both shape us and sometimes intersect. The Velvet Underground, Steve Urkel, Menudo and Al Franken all come into play. The writer describes the focal point of the 1980s sitcom Silver Spoons this way: “Ricky Schroeder, its pipsqueak star, was seemingly scouted from his previous work, modeling for Hitlerjugend propaganda posters.” Wait a minute, that line also feels a little too timely!

Engel Schmidl penned a piece about Bill “the Balloon Man” Morrison, a wry monologist and sort of proto-Steve Martin who began twisting latex and ideas in the 1960s, and Brian Abrams recalls his eight-year-old self enjoying a very glancing (yet meaningful) relationship with Mel Brooks.

Drew Friedman shares a brilliant caricature of Shemp Howard, an original stage Stooge who rejoined the popular comedy team on film after his younger brother, Curly, suffered a stroke. Friedman, who regularly applies his photorealistic talents to entertainment legends, has been deservedly called the “Vermeer of the Borscht Belt” by Penn Jillette, who is a juggler or something. There’s more wonderful artwork by Gilbert Gottfried, Jeffrey Lewis, John Mathias, etc.

Order before the world ends, which will happen very soon!

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Fake news is a term that only recently entered the vernacular with the 2016 Presidential election, but Fox News has been selling just that for more than 20 years, overtly trying to imprison the truth inside a fog.

The GOP has headed further down this rabbit hole over time, but it buried itself–and the country, perhaps–with the rise of Trump, a candidate who ran a fact-free campaign. Traditional Republicans initially tried to distance themselves from the demagogue, fearing he would do long-term damage to their cause, but they had for decades prepped the party faithful for his arrival, peddling coded prejudice and bitter partisanship, even opportunistically embracing Tea Party nihilism.

After Trump’s unlikely Electoral College victory, his sociopathy and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart bigotry are looked at by some conservatives as less important than tax cuts for the highest earners and the slicing of social safety nets. Meanwhile, democracy itself hangs in the balance, as the White House attempts to destabilize truth and facts, things we must pursue earnestly and nobly if we’re to have a decent society.

Writer Ursula K. Le Guin weighed in on “alternative facts” in a letter to The Oregonian:

A recent letter in The Oregonian compares a politician’s claim to tell “alternative facts” to the inventions of science fiction. The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined —  and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it “alternative history” or “an alternate universe,” but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are “alternative facts.”

Facts aren’t all that easy to come by. Honest scientists and journalists, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make sure of them. The test of a fact is that it simply is so – it has no “alternative.”  The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie.

A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact. Lies are told in order to reassure oneself, or to fool, or scare, or manipulate others. Santa Claus is a fiction. He’s harmless. Lies are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous. In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Northwest Portland•

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I’m not on Facebook and once I stop doing this blog, I’ll quit the Twitter account associated with it. My last message will be: “I’d rather be reading than tweeting.”

Social media seems to me an unhappiness machine, mostly keeping us in touch with what we sort of know or what we used to know, distracting us from what we could actually intimately know. It’s a way of connecting people, sure, but not the best or truest way. And that downside that doesn’t even consider trolls, neo-Nazis and fake news.

We can’t go back nor should we, really, though there must be some respite. I don’t see any way we avoid being lowered gradually into the Internet of Things, a Platonovian pit, which will take the machines out of our pockets and put us in theirs, but there can be islands of retreat if we continue to utilize more tactile, lo-fi tools.

In Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books piece on David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, the critic writes that “the virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well,” and who could argue? McKibben focuses mostly on the renewed interest in vinyl and paper and Polaroids, which may prove a passing interest or something more lasting, but in one passage he thinks about education, which may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to digitalization. An excerpt:

Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”•

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As the Obama Presidency comes to a close, let’s remember for a moment one example of the ridiculous double standard he often faced, a criticism lodged in 2014 by Bill O’Reilly, who recently had sexual harassment allegations against him settled by Fox.

When the President went on Zach Galifianakis’ faux talk show “Between Two Ferns” to promote enrollment in Obamacare, legislation that has improved the lives of millions of Americans and created many well-paying jobs, O’Reilly accused Obama of besmirching the honor of the White House, declaring that “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.” 

But the fake-news host was happy during this election to throw his support behind a Reality TV buffoon and sexual predator who made fun of disabled people and our POWs. Imagine what he would have said about Obama if he’d fit any of those descriptions.

Additionally, O’Reilly’s claim about Lincoln couldn’t have been more inaccurate based on history. Honest Abe was a wonderful Commander-in-Chief who happened to have some deeply gross habits.

Excerpts about some of those peculiar behaviors from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:

Judged cockfights:

The Clary’s Grove boys called on [Lincoln] sometimes to judge their horse races and cockfights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. One story ran that Lincoln was on hand one day when an old man had agreed, for a gallon jug of whisky, to be rolled down a hill in a barrel. And Lincoln talked and laughed them out of doing it. He wasn’t there on the day, as D.W Burner told it, when the gang took an old man with a wooden leg, built a fire around the wooden leg, and held the man down until the wooden leg was burned off.

Wrestled for the entertainment of knife-wielding gamblers:

Offut talked big about Lincoln as a wrestler, and Bill Clary, who ran a saloon thirty steps north of the Offut store, bet Offut that Lincoln couldn’t throw Jack Armstrong, the Clary’s Grove champion. Sports from miles around came to a level square next to Offut’s store to see the match; bets of money, knives, trinkets, tobacco, drinks were put up, Armstrong, short and powerful, aimed from the first to get in close to his man and use his thick muscular strength. Lincoln held him off with long arms, wore down his strength, got him out of breath, surprised and “rattled.” They pawed and clutched in many holds and twists till Lincoln threw Armstrong and had both shoulders to the grass.

Drank whiskey from bungholes:

When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln’s helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. Bill hunted up the gambler and made the bet. Lincoln sat squatting on the floor, lifted the barrel, rolled it on his knees till the bunghole reached his mouth, took a mouthful, let the barrel down–and stood up and spat out the whisky.

Pressed barefoot boys’ muddy soles to the ceiling:

He put barefoot boys to wading in a mud puddle near the home trough, pulled them up one by one, carried them to the house upside down, and walked their muddy feet across the ceiling. The stepmother came in, laughed at their foot tracks, told Abe he ought to be spanked–and he cleaned the ceiling so that it looked new.•

Barack Obama is a poet, but Marilynne Robinson is a better one.

No offense to 44–I don’t think the Housekeeping author would be nearly as good a President. It’s just that sometimes a poet can see what a politico might overlook, especially one like Obama who rose on positivity even if he governed mostly as a pragmatist. Before winter had arrived in 2015–before it had arrived in America–Obama and Robinson talked literature and faith and nation for the New York Review of Books, and the novelist knew something ugly was taking hold in a very serious way, that a wall was being built. Like most of us, the President still resisted such a notion. He held on to hope.

I was reminded of this discussion by Michiko Kakutani’s smart New York Times conversation with the outgoing President about the significant role reading has played in his life.

An excerpt from the 2015 NYRB dialogue:

Marilynne Robinson:

Fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

President Obama:

Yes.

Marilynne Robinson:

Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

President Obama:

Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Marilynne Robinson:

But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

President Obama:

We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Marilynne Robinson:

But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.•

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According to legend, writer William Peter Blatty pretended to be a Saudi prince in the 1950s to get booked on the game show You Bet Your Life. He didn’t fool Groucho but did win $10,000, which helped him jump-start his career.

Blatty, who just died, enjoyed a long, successful run, but during the 1970 to 1973 period, when The Exorcist was a hugely controversial blockbuster as both novel and film, he was on the receiving end of a torrent of congratulations and curses seldom experienced by an American writer. If it wasn’t clear in those times that Blatty was correct and his critics (a mix of Catholic Church leaders and high-toned film critics) were not, it seems fairly obvious now.

In the inaugural 1974 edition of People, Blatty responded to the firestorm over the screen adaptation of The Exorcist. An excerpt in which he hit back at the critical elite, that quaint thing that used to exist before the fans fans stormed the gates. An excerpt:

Question:

How do you feel about some of the most negative reviewers of your film?

William Peter Blatty:

I would like to introduce Pauline Kael of The New Yorker to Father Woods and Father Cortes. They hate the movie because they say it is doing the church no good. Pauline Kael hates the movie because she says it is “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” I would like to put these people in a room together.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the film was not made without intelligence or talent. He said this only further infuriated him—that we should have wasted the intelligence, talent, money and budget of a lavish production on what he called elegant claptrap.

Question:

Why are they so negative?

William Peter Blatty:

They belong to a very small, elitist set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their egos that the world of reality outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function. They are malignant Miles of the field.•


Blatty and Exorcist collaborators Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, reconvened in 1984 for Good Morning America.

The French doctor-cum-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was always among the most troubling of artists, a brilliant writer and ardent anti-Semite. During the second half of the twentieth century, after the Nazis had been ground into dust, it was less a problem to embrace his brilliance. “Celine was my Proust!” exclaimed Philip Roth. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller agreed.

The author’s thorns have sadly again grown as pointy as daggers in this neo-Nazi 2.0 moment, with his old interviews being re-run on viciously bigoted websites with Hitler-appropriate names. His greatness shouldn’t be denied, but his awfulness shouldn’t be forgotten.

In the 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Journey to the End of the Night, his bruising, misanthropic war novel, George Currie writes of the rare level of fascination and controversy the book provoked in France.


A spectral, dissipated Céline cries during a 1957 TV interview. The following year, desperate for money as he always seemed to be, the author reluctantly allowed a re-issue of Journey, penning a preface in which he suggested the book’s graphic nature was the sole reason for the enmity he encountered, not at all acknowledging the role his numerous anti-Semitic tracts played.

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Had time during the New Year’s break to read eight books. That always makes me feel happy. Included among the titles were Annie Baker’s 2013 play, The Flick, which is about the million tiny muggings that occur among otherwise decent people when technology shifts, money grows scarce and lines are drawn; Zero K, an interesting if not top-shelf DeLillo, though it’s awfully difficult for a prophet in these breakneck days; and Henry Miller’s 1940s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, in which the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. 

I really enjoyed the latter title, except for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for great things that a slave culture can produce. Nightmare, a bookend to his later nonfiction tour de force Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, is perhaps best known for its piece about Weeks Hall’s New Iberia mansion, Shadows-on-the-Teche, but I’m partial to “A Desert Rat,” “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert” and “Hiler and His Murals.” 

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the Varèse chapter:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•

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Mentioned Freeman Dyson’s “Astrochicken” idea in the “Afflictor’s 50 Great 2016 Nonfiction Pieces” post and just realized last year was the one the physicist targeted for the realization this tiny spacecraft that would be not built but grown. Well, most futurists are too aggressive with their time frames. Still nothing theoretically impossible about it.

First encountered the thought experiment in Infinite in All Directions, a template of sorts for all Dyson’s great science-fiction-ish essays and lectures that were to follow (though he first proposed this noveau spacecraft in 1979’s Disturbing the Universe). In reviewing Infinite in the New York Times, Roger Penrose wrote: “His centerpiece is a one-kilogram spacecraft ‘astrochicken,’ which will be ready to launch in 2016. It will not be built but grown by the use of genetic engineering, and it will depend on artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion for its operation. Accompanying it will be a ‘Martian potato,’ a ‘comet creeper’ and a ‘space butterfly.'”

An excerpt:

The basic idea of Astrochicken is that the spacecraft will be small and quick. I do not believe that a fruitful future for space science lies along the path we are now following, with space missions growing larger and larger and fewer and fewer and slower and slower as the decades go by. I propose a radical step in the direction of smallness and quickness. Astrochicken will weigh a kilogram instead of Voyager’s ton, and it will travel from Earth into orbit around Uranus in two years instead {197} of Voyager’s nine. The spacecraft must be far more versatile than Voyager. It must land on each of Uranus’ moons, roam around on their surfaces, see where it is going, taste the stuff it is walking on, take off into space again, and navigate around Uranus until it decides to make a landing somewhere else. To do all this with a 1-kilogram spacecraft sounds crazy to people who have to work and plan within the constraints of today’s technology. Perhaps it will still be crazy in 2016. Perhaps not. I am dreaming of the new technologies which might make such a crazy mission possible.

Three kinds of new technology are needed. All three are likely to become available for use by the year 2016. All three are already here in embryonic form and are advanced far enough to have names. Their names are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion. Genetic engineering is fundamental. It is the essential tool required in order to design a 1-kilogram spacecraft with the capabilities of Voyager. Astrochicken will not be built, it will be grown. It will be organized biologically and its blueprints will be written in the convenient digital language of DNA. It will be a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components. The plant component has to provide a basic life-support system using closed-cycle biochemistry with sunlight as the energy source. The animal component has to provide sensors and nerves and muscles with which it can observe and orient itself and navigate to its destination. The electronic component has to receive instructions from Earth and transmit back the results of its observations. During the next thirty years we will be gaining experience in the art of designing biological systems of this sort. We will be learning how to coordinate the three components so that they work smoothly together.

Artificial intelligence is the tool required to integrate the animal and electronic components into a working symbiosis. If the integration is successful, Astrochicken could be as agile as a hummingbird with a brain weighing no more than a gram. The information-handling apparatus is partly neural and partly electronic. An artificial intelligence machine is a computer {198} designed to function like a brain. A computer of this sort will be made compatible with a living nervous system, so that information will flow freely in both directions across the interface between neural and electronic circuits.

The third new technology required for Uranus 2 is solar-electric propulsion. To get from Earth to Uranus in two years requires a speed of 50 kilometers per second, too fast for any reasonable multistage chemical rocket. It is also too fast for solar sails. Nuclear propulsion of any kind is impossible in a 1-kilogram spacecraft. Solar-electric propulsion is the unique system which can economically give a high velocity to a small pay load. In this system, solar energy is collected by a large, thin antenna and converted with modest efficiency into thrust. The spacecraft carries a small ion-jet motor which uses propel-lant sparingly and gives an acceleration of the order of a milligee.

Nobody has yet done the careful engineering development to demonstrate that the energy of sunlight can be converted into thrust with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 kilowatt per kilogram. That is what Uranus 2 needs. But solar-electric propulsion is probably an easier technology to develop than genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Since I am talking science fiction, I shall assume that all three technologies will be available for our use in 2016. I can then give a rough sketch of the Uranus 2 mission.

The mission begins with a conventional launch taking the spacecraft from Earth into orbit. Since the spacecraft weighs only 1 kilogram, it can easily ride on any convenient launcher. During the launch, the spacecraft is packaged into a compact shape, and the biological components are busy reorganizing themselves for life in space. During this phase the spacecraft is a fertilized egg, externally inert but internally alive, waiting for the right moment to emerge in the shape of an Astro-chicken. After it is in a low Earth orbit, it will emerge from its package and deploy the life-support apparatus needed for survival in space. It will deploy, or grow, a thin-film solar collector. The collector weighs 100 grams and collects {199} sunlight from an area of 100 square meters. It feeds a kilowatt of power into the little ion-drive engine which sends the spacecraft on its way with a milligee acceleration sustained for several months. This is enough to escape from Earth’s gravity and arrive at Uranus within two years. The same 100-square-meter collector serves as a radio antenna for two-way communication with Earth. This is ten times the area of the Voyager high-gain antenna. For the same rate of information transmitted, the transmitter power of Astrochicken can be ten times smaller than Voyager, 2 watts instead of 20 watts.

The spacecraft arrives at Uranus at 50 kilometers per second and grazes the outer fringe of the Uranus atmosphere. The 100-square-meter solar collector now acts as an efficient atmospheric brake. Because the collector is so light, it is not heated to extreme temperatures as it decelerates. The peak temperature turns out to be about 800 Celsius or 1500 Fahrenheit. The atmospheric braking lasts for about half a minute and produces a peak deceleration of 100 gees. The spacecraft leaves Uranus with speed reduced to 20 kilometers per second and passes near enough to one of the moons to avoid hitting Uranus again. It is then free to navigate around at leisure among the moons and rings. The solar-electric propulsion system, using the feeble sunlight at Uranus, is still able to give the spacecraft an acceleration of a tenth of a milligee, enough to explore the whole Uranus system over a period of a few years.

The spacecraft must now make use of its biological functions to refuel itself. First it navigates to one of the rings and browses there, eating ice and hydrocarbons and replenishing its supply of propellant. If one ring tastes bad it can try another, moving around until it finds a supply of nutrients with the right chemistry for its needs. After eating its fill, it will use its internal metabolic processes with the input of energy from sunlight to convert the food into chemical fuels. Chemical fuels are needed for jumping onto moons and off again. Solar-electric propulsion gives too small a thrust for jumping. The spacecraft carries a small auxiliary chemical rocket system for {200} this purpose. We know that a chemical rocket system is biologically possible, because there exists on the Earth a creature called the Bombardier beetle which uses a chemical rocket to bombard its enemies with a scalding jet of hot liquid. It manufactures chemical fuels within its body and combines them in its rocket chamber to produce the scalding jet. Astrochicken will borrow its chemical rocket system from the Bombardier beetle. The Bombardier beetle system will give it the ability to accelerate with short bursts of high thrust to escape from the feeble gravity of the Uranus moons. The spacecraft may also prefer to use the Bombardier beetle system for jumping quickly from one place to another on a moon rather than walking laboriously over the surface. While living on the surface of a moon, the Astrochicken will continue to eat and to keep the Bombardier beetle fuel tanks filled. From time to time it will transmit messages to Earth informing us about its adventures and discoveries.

That is not the end of my dream, but it is the end of my chapter. I have told enough about the Uranus 2 mission to give the flavor of it. The underlying idea of Uranus 2 is that we should apply to the development of technology the lessons which nature teaches us in the history of the evolution of life. Birds and dinosaurs were cousins, but birds were small and agile while dinosaurs were big and clumsy. Big main-frame computers, nuclear power stations and Space Shuttle are dinosaurs. Microcomputers, STIG gas turbines, Voyager and Astrochicken are birds. The future belongs to the birds. The JPL engineers now have their dreams on board the Voyager speeding on its way to Neptune. I hope the next generation of engineers will have their dreams riding on Uranus 2 in 2016.•

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“Progress isn’t always a straight line,” exclaimed President Obama in the wake of our stunning election, clinging as best he could to the audacious hope that’s always floated him in the past. 

True enough, but two things: 1) Progress isn’t at all guaranteed, not in a jagged course or in any other manner, and 2) During periods of regress, awful things can occur. We seem to be in one of those backwards times now.

From the conclusion of World War II to the day of the 9/11 attacks, Americans had the luxury of exporting violence abroad and controlling and commodifying it at home, with video games and big-screen blockbusters providing blood-soaked entertainment to go with the overpriced popcorn. With the nuclear codes and the Constitution now in the pocket of a man who’s promised to do “unspeakable things,” the gloves might come off and the “games” may begin.

Following up on the Guardian essay Ece Temelkuran penned about the post-truth threat to Europe and America, here’s a piece from a recent Culture Trip Q&A that Simon Leser conducted with the Turkish author:

Question:

Years of repression, an attempted coup, and now an unprecedented crackdown… and all this time the main opposition party (the social-democratic CHP) seems very silent. Two of its most prominent members, Gürsel Tekin and Sezgin Tanrıkulu, came to London last January, and they seemed particularly defeated… to say the least.

Ece Temelkuran:

Yes, this is what they do. I mean, they politely ask the Turkish government to release all those detainees (laughs)… Erdoğan is a brilliant politician, and I mean it, he paralyzed every section of the opposition in just a few years, so I wouldn’t blame the CHP really for not doing enough. The CHP have their own difficult experiences.

For the past 10 years the same thing has been happening to the Turkish intelligentsia and the opposition: They go on TV, say, talking about something, criticizing something — doesn’t matter what — and all of a sudden this AKP guy brings up a completely different subject. For instance: ‘so what are you going to say about your support for the previous coup?’ The answer, of course, is that the conversation isn’t about that. But then the AKP guy goes again: ‘because you don’t want to’. And at some point the presenters turn around, and you have to ask: so are we going to talk about that, change the whole conversation for it? This is extremely ruffling. The opposition has to be on the defensive. This is how they manipulate, and all you’re left with is to ask yourself… what’s happening?

Question:

This sounds similar to the political rhetoric many Western countries have started to see — ’post-truth politics’, as it’s called here. In your book you talk a lot about history being forgotten, is that how you think it got started?

Ece Temelkuran:

I should say that I really think neo-liberalism, at the end of the day, stupefied the whole planet — and this is what you get if you worry about free-market democracy, and only free-market democracy. If the Turkish story goes back to the 1970s, the whole mess for the world started in the 1950s, I think, when they thought it was a brilliant idea to kill all the progressives in the Middle East and Africa. We ended up with all these conservative, right-wing, ignorant masses… You see, progressives weren’t only there to promote socialism, as everybody feared, but they were also the seculars and, as it turns out, the pro-reason faction! Now we’re left with post-truth and post-reason.

Progressives are on the retreat everywhere; intellect is pretty much a failing narrative, and has itself been disappointing. I read this article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about Voltaire and Rousseau, and it was saying that Voltaire has been defeated by history, whereas Rousseau, who was in a way against elites, is now on the rise. The world is going to be witnessing this anti-elite political discourse much more. And we are seeing the consequences: a gigantic sweeping motion going from south to north, and the European Union countries — Britain as well — experiencing the consequences of the Syrian and refugee crisis; the idea of a uniform world, unipolar world, is not working. But I think it’s kind of too late — I am famous for my pessimism, by the way. I do think that we’re going to be living in a Mad Max kind of world with less, you know, style (laughs).•

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War may seem to favor those with a clear head and steady hand, but strategy is only half the battle. A sense of invincibility must be achieved in the combatants, at least until technology allows all the killing machines to be actual machines.

Human beings are no angels, but genocide and beheading, for instance, are not, thankfully, our default mode. Such heinous courses can be decided on by sober if sinister minds but their commission sometimes requires moods altered either by hysteria and brainwashing or, more simply, pharmaceuticals. The Nazis favored crystal meth and ISIS Captagon, these forms of amphetamine not only helpful with focus and energy but also able to disappear inhibitions.

Crimes against humanity can certainly occur without speed, but oftentimes you’ll find a pervasive drug culture in close proximity to such atrocities. It’s not the source of evil but a way to lubricate the war machine.

An excerpt from “Don’t Fight Sober,” Mike Jay’s London Review of Books piece on new volumes on the topic by Łukasz Kamieński and Norman Ohler:

The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’

In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines.•

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Henry Miller was oft thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way. Maybe Peter Thiel’s disgraceful political pivot will enable a marriage between the despotism of tech and a government even more autocratic. 

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!•

In 2011, I quoted something from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The Angels don’t like to be called losers, but they have learned to live with it. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said one. “But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.”

It’s an odd outcome because the Angels emerged from America’s great triumph in World War II, as it and other motorcycle gangs were formed from the wanderlust of our war vets. But the love of the road turned into hatred for the self, and then, the other.

Five years ago when I published that excerpt, I was more concerned about militias and a scary strain of right-wing backlash that seemed awakened by the election of our first African-American President and gains made by women and other minorities. I never expected those on the fringes to make such gains on the center–to win it. And I’m not exactly someone who spends my idle time at Berkeley cocktail parties.

The ones who wanted to make America white again formed a faction with those who felt adrift in the modern economy, with its wealth inequality and bruising technological shift. The latter group had always looked on others as the “losers” and didn’t want to join them, even if the scoreboard said they already had. Together the haters and the backsliders made a hell of a scene in 2016.

From Susan McWilliams’ Nation piece about Thompson forecasting the rise of Trumpism:

It has been 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published the definitive book on motorcycle guys: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels.

Most people read Hell’s Angels for the lurid stories of sex and drugs. But that misses the point entirely. What’s truly shocking about reading the book today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.

What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter.•


Sonny Barger terrorizes Thompson in 1967 on Canadian TV.

Ad for Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970.

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In 1969, the year of the Apollo moon landing, Oriana Fallaci said this about John Glenn: “The second time I saw him, after his fall, he was a better man, I thought, not playing the Boy Scout so much.” 

The fall she spoke of was literal, mostly.

That was five years after the astronaut’s forced retirement by NASA, the government fearing a Gagarin-ish demise in space for the Viking hero would be too severe a stress test for the program and the country itself. Glenn, a civilian again, decided to reinvent himself through politics, vying for a Senate seat in Ohio. Early in the campaign, he tumbled in his bathroom at home, sustaining a serious head injury, one that wrecked his equilibrium. Glenn, who was confined for two months in the aerospace medical clinic in San Antonio, said, “I only ask this: that I may walk a little in a room that isn’t a merry-go-round.” He knew he would never step on the moon and it seemed dubious whether he’s be able to pace a rug.

Glenn eventually healed, returned to politics, failed at first, then eventually achieved success in that realm and in business. But in the latter ’60s, as Fallaci described him, he was a “used astronaut, an unsuccessful politician, a tired, sick disappointed man.”

The first time the two met, Glenn was still an astronaut and he sat for an interview with Fallaci for what would become her excellent book on the U.S. Space Program, If the Sun Dies. At one point the discussion turned to religion and the alien life forms that astronauts, perhaps even the devoutly Christian Glenn himself, might encounter. The passage:

“Science in general has never proved that there is life on other planets. But space flights can–and how. And the day you meet unimaginable creatures on another planet–let’s call them ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’–how will you explain the Genesis story, Colonel, sir?”

“The Bible doesn’t deny life on other worlds. Indeed, I’ll tell you I’d be very much surprised to not find what you call ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’ on other planets. We’ll find them–perhaps in the form of beings or worms, although you can be certain that one day, among the millions and millions of celestial bodies, we’ll find man too. But I can imagine creatures that don’t develop with our cycle of water and carbon, creatures that feed on rocks, for example, and have no blood or tissues or organs: and the Bible says nothing to deny this. It doesn’t deny that God might have created them too in His own image and after His likeness. It doesn’t deny the possibility of loving them as true Christians.”

“And what if it were necessary to kill them, to exterminate them, these worms or rock brothers who have no blood or tissues or organs…would you find that painful, Colonel?”

Again he leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair. Again he raised his hand to his forehead. Bradbury was so far away, Father.

“No, I don’t think so. It would be sad; it grieves me even to think about it. But I could do it. I’m a man who doesn’t want to see anybody die, not even in war. But some expeditions will be like going to war, and the essence of war is death. And then, excuse me, but what makes you think we might have to exterminate the ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’ on other planets?”

“Because they might be hostile to us. They might be far from happy to see us come, Colonel.”

“I’m optimistic: they might be completely friendly. They might also be good, pleased to see us, and we might not have to exterminate them at all. Of course…of course I would be suspicious when I saw them, ready to defend myself…I don’t know…Certainly, if some exist in our own solar system…My God…they surely exist in other solar systems, but we won’t be going to other solar systems in your lifetime or in mine. At best this will be a hundred, two hundred years from now, and a hundred or two hundred years are not many, I know, but enough to leave me with painful questions.”•

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