On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

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I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

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Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

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Democrats Can’t Run on Immigration.

According to fivethirtyeight Trump’s biggest gap in approval/disapproval (-20 points) happened when GOP was trying to repeal Obamacare and when they were passing tax cut bill (July and Dec of 2017). His most narrow gap (under minus 10 points) happened during the whole immigration debacle. (I’m pretty sure it was a brainchild of a couple of guys named Steve). You see a pattern here? Immigration in the news plays into their hands; Healthcare and tax cuts going to 1% is what can bring people to the polls.

Add the issue of corruption to the mix, as it has been gaining traction with voters, and you have a winning formula.

 

Quiet Hardball vs Loud Weakball.

Here’s the news you won’t hear about, but the one that shapes our laws in discreet but powerful ways. The other day California legislature have ceded to Big Soda companies’ campaign to ban soda tax in the state until 2031. You might wonder how did it happen in California, of all places? This is how: because of CA ballot initiative system. A proponent of an idea, no matter how outlandish, can collect signatures to put any issue on the ballot in November. Many interests groups (especially conservative and business) use this tool to gain leverage over the local legislature by threatening to put an idea, tailored in such a way that it has a pretty good chance of passing, on the ballot and then use it as a cudgel to hammer concessions from the legislators.  They also have an option to then withdraw this initiative, if their demands were met in the legislature. Which is what happened with the soda tax: The beverage lobby ‘proposed’ to limit all new taxes and tax increases in the state to two-thirds, knowing full well that when people, even liberal Californians, see something like this on the ballot they will check ‘yes’ box. It’s the equivalent of Democrats in a red state, putting a ballot initiative that proposes to give everyone free Medicare coverage in that state – the implication being that it has such a high chance of passing that the local GOP legislature will be hard-pressed to cede to whatever Democrats demand. This is what happened in CA except it was the business lobby that forced the Democrats to bend to their will.

This is what Democrats lack: a killer instinct, the readiness to play dirty, to play hardball. And it doesn’t have to be illegal: all of the tools used by business lobby above are perfectly legal. They exploit local ballot dynamics to their advantage.

Also, if Democrats play this kind of hardball, it will be hard for the other side to accuse them of incivility (not that it matters at this point). This kind of hardball is played by men and women in suits in air-conditioned offices. It is not TV friendly, which is how they (and us, if we knew how to play it) want it. There’s no cinematic value in filing paperwork, but it delivers the results. Plus, nobody really knows about it. Quiet hardball.

I saw a meme today, a graph showing how many Democrats vs Republicans were either convicted or indicted while in office. In short, it’s not even close: GOP is a party of habitual criminals. I guess the point of the meme was to show how much more honest the Democrats are while in public service. But I read this meme in a different way: it shows how ruthless, how driven, and charged the GOP is, how they possess the sense of urgency when it comes to politics (not policy, politics!), that even if they cross a few lines it’s all worth it in the end. If so many of them are caught, think of how many of them were not and never will be. They are not deterred by the law, by the possibility of jail, where we, Democrats, still playing ‘civility’. Except Maxine Waters, she understands it.

SCOTUS Retirement and Its Implications.

Well, we’re fucked. Now that I got it out of the way, I see three possible scenarios with regard to new SCOTUS and Roe vs Wade. One, unlikely, is that the new appointee will be a copy of Kennedy on social issues. It’s unlikely because Trump and those who will whisper SCOTUS candidates’ names to him take special pleasure in inflicting pain to liberals. They’ll make sure that what we get is going to be in the mold of Clarence Thomas, which is the second, more likely possibility. He (or she) could promptly vote to outright overturn Roe vs Wade (which will then throw the issue back to the states, many of which will immediately outlaw all abortions). But there’s a third possibility.  John Roberts is not stupid. He realizes that overturning this particular decision would, aside from breaking the previous precedents (namely Planned Parenthood vs Casey), would also cement his legacy. Is this the kind of case he wants to be remembered for? Does he want to be responsible for creating a winning issue for Democrats to run on for decades? So what is more likely to happen is that the court will continue to chip at reproductive rights by imposing all kinds of restrictions on women, doctors and facilities – a proverbial slow boil. RvW will stand, but will be hollowed out. I think this last possibility is the most likely. Still, I would not underestimate Trump’s and pro-life forces’ desire to stick it to the libs. And in some twisted way, I say, bring it on. Remember the circumstances under which California turned solid blue? Proposition 187 – a ballot initiative that got passed, but then proved unconstitutional. True, Trump administration is incapable of considering second order (let alone third order) effects of their actions. But SCOTUS, and John Roberts in particular can. Are they prepared to have their name on mobilizing Democrats for a generation?

And final observation. Trump voters are drunk with power, they’re agitated with possibilities. They are high on expectations. Evangelicals had to put up with a lot, and dog whistles won’t do anymore. They want red meat. The effete, urban tax cut crowd (the larry kudlows, the ivankas, the peter thiels, you know the type) thought that with Trump they were getting buffet-style, pick-and-choose policies that are good for business. They thought that no one was really serious about all that abortion stuff. Well, not this time, fuckers. This time you getting a full menu. FULL FUCKING MENU.

Lol, Nothing Matters.

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First Lady Melania, while visiting a refugee center in Texas today, wore a jacket with the message ‘I don’t really care. Do you?’ written on its back. This fashion statement is really the culmination of ‘Lol, nothing matters’ type of public discourse. Today, it’s uncool to care. It’s as if the punk culture made it into mainstream and has then been hijacked and wielded by public servants. Those of us who do care – about conduct and norms and just basic human decency – are routinely mocked. That is, attempts of public to be citizens (and not workers/consumers) are mocked and ridiculed. Culturally, the virtuous are those who just shut up and go shopping and do brunch and pretend to ‘stay above’ the mud-wrestling below. Well, only dust floats above the battlefield.

“Lol, nothing matters” is an especially widespread sentiment in Russian community. It’s this strain of cultivated nihilism that we all saw living there, now made its way across the ocean. It’s this attitude that there’s no right and wrong, good and bad, that everyone is corrupt and that you can’t trust anybody. And if this is the case, then why not simply resign from public life? Why not bury yourself in work or pleasure? Which Russian among us hasn’t heard a phrase: A tebe eto nado? (Do you really need this?) from a friend or a colleague, as if the next trip to Italy or to a Michelin restaurant or Bergdorf Goodman will somehow cure that nagging but ungraspable disquietude.

‘Is shopping, and eating, and traveling not life?’ someone would ask. Tolstoy, in his treatise ‘On Life’ called these activities ‘senseless agitation’ – distractions with which we try to fill our lives so as to avoid thinking, to avoid having to define right and wrong, good and bad, and as a result, to avoid caring.

“Tunnelling through mountains, voyaging round the world, electricity, the microscope, the telephone, war, parliament, philanthropy, the strife of parties, universities, learned societies, museums – are not all these life?

All the feverish complicated activity of men with their trade, their wars, their ways of communication, their science, their art, is for the greater part nothing more than the senseless agitation of the crowd struggling on the threshold of life.”

Caring about a matter, in this case a public matter, puts you into an unenviable position of having to defend it from people who refuse to take a stand, as if that refusal gives them some kind of ‘above-it-all’ wisdom. But ‘Lol, nothing matters’ position is a comfortable spot, sort of like a financial talking head who always has an opinion on market but doesn’t have, well, a position, in the market.

But then again, when did Trump or his entire cabinet, ever took a position or held an opinion that lasted for at least a few days? Or when was he ever held accountable by his base for doing a 180? Lol, nothing matters. Suck it libs!

Impunity As a Result of 80s and 90s Pop Culture.

“The wicked flee when no one pursueth.”

Being an adult in the room has not been cool for several decades, since about 1970s, I’d estimate. The last movie about an adult in the room – a sober, responsible government official who defeats the bad guy was probably ‘Jaws’. Since then it’s all been downhill.

The 1980s were the worst offender. “Why do you have to wreck the company?” Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglass in ‘Wall Street’. “Because it’s wreckable!” he snaps back. And with this, he embodied the spirit that has been haunting us ever since.

In the beloved 1980s teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ we’re asked to sympathize with Ferris – a rebellious but smooth teenager whose quest to skip school is impeded by numerous antagonists: school principal and his nagging sister. It’s a cool, funny movie that I used to enjoy watching. But the more I think about it now (thinking is really a fun killer – you’ve been warned) the more I sympathize with a worry-wart Cameron and Ferris’s older sister, rather than a free-wheeling, fuck-the-rules Ferris. Cameron is actually a much more complex character because he had some semblance of a development arc. Ferris ends up his day in the same way he started it: a spoiled brat never to be held accountable by anyone. This movie, along with a bunch of other classics like Animal House and Caddyshack are 1980s version of ‘move fast and break things’ mindset of a modern day.

Then came the 90s with Goodfellas (still watch it every time it’s on), Glengarry Glenross (Alec Baldwin kills it!), and again, we were asked to relate to and even hold as paragons of a certain postmodernist virtue, characters who break the rules and/or assert power by sheer force or insult. But it is written so well, by such talented writers, and played so brilliantly, that it’s hard to look away. It’s just fun, it’s over-the-top for dramatic effect, why even bother overanalyzing it?

Even more recently, in The Hangover, one of the villains was a character’s nagging wife, bent on spoiling the guys’ fun. The existence of such a caricature makes it easy for a male character to abandon responsibility when there’s a ‘big bad mommy’-type out there whose sole purpose is to stifle guys’ (and they’re almost always guys) freedom and fun. ‘Big bad mommy’ represents not necessarily a female force, but is a stand in for an overweening government, a ‘big brother’. If you want to write a buddy comedy, but have to adhere to basic screenwriting rules that require you to have an antagonist, such a trope villain (a nagging wife, an obsessive school principal) is the lowest hanging fruit, but it always works. It’s easy to write, easy for an audience to understand, and easy for many to relate to, as in their daily grind they, too, fight their own version of a ‘big bad mommy.’

But who and what’s there to rebel against now? Who is the ‘nagging wife’ in our lives today? A ‘Big bad mommy’ doesn’t run things anymore. Evil clowns from ‘It’, like Stephen Miller, do. But the appeal of rebelliousness didn’t go anywhere. A man has been told that he has to rebel against someone or something, otherwise his life will lack meaning. If, instead of being a feckless high school student, you’re finding yourself to be an adult in the room, to hold all the reigns of power, the game stops being fun because then you are asked for accountability. But, as we learned over the decades of pop-culture message, guys can not be held accountable and should, instead, be praised and even mimicked for their unorthodox way of skirting responsibility.

The late Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with women’s ability to kill a man’s fun. Oh, I used to love Hitch, I thought he was, like, the smartest guy I ever read. (Made me think that if I was 25 today, I’d probably be reading up Jordan Peterson and marveling at his brilliance). Hitch was incredibly skillful with words and precision, and gave his thick sentences double, triple meaning. Now, since I’m in the middle of deconstructing our treasured pop culture icons, I find him to be an example of incredible talent and rare wordsmanship wasted on the service of excusing one’s anti-social behavior by manufacturing an artificial villain.

Of course, a ‘big bad mommy’ prototype does not have to be a literal mother or a wife. It is a gray-suited government official, an SEC bureaucrat, a DMV worker, even a Nurse Ratchet – anyone who makes the proverbial trains run on time, keeps order in an institution. I added Nurse Ratchet on the list because the villain of an iconic Milos Forman’s movie (my favorite movie for a period of time) was a metaphor for totalitarianism, but today we suffer from a different ailment: chaos. We do not live in a world where our dreams of freedom are being stifled by sadistic nurses; we live in a world where the lunatics have overtaken the asylum. Again, I invite you to think of Jack Nicholson’s character – a rebellious man totally devoid of any responsibility. And again, this is the kind of role models we grew up with and internalized. Is there any wonder then that people ‘running’ things (I intentionally put ‘running’ in quotes) prefer to think of themselves as victims yearning to break free? Break free from what? From liberals calling them names?

Hillary was an ultimate stand in for a ‘nagging wife’ type. She was that school principal that could, should she have won, hold at least some of the ‘Ferris Buellers’ accountable. She presented not just political but existential threat to our schoolyard order (or rather lack of it). And this could not be allowed to happen.

So, who should be the villain then, you might ask. Good scripts and good stories are those that, in addition to or rather instead of, external villain, focus on the internal demons of the character. Someone’s fear manifesting as aggression. Someone’s insecurity manifesting as bravado. Someone’s ‘unresolved childhood trauma’ manifesting as cruelty. The dark forces we fight are within us. The bottom line is, no one is really trying to ‘get’ us. “Wicked flee where no one pursueth.” But how do you have fun then, when no one ‘pursueth’ you?

Girl Power

The other day a senior White House official, Kelly Sadler, made a comment about ailing Sen. McCain: “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Sadler was referring to McCain’s advanced cancer in the context of his opposition and thus a possible ‘no’ vote on a confirmation of another woman of questionable morals, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director. One wonders: how can a public official or just any human being display such a lack of basic decency? What is it that has the capacity to make us into such assholes?

A moment of self-reflection brought back the memories of my early days on Wall Street. Back in a heyday, long before the shit hit the fan, there was a feature in the mortgage bonds called ‘prepayment penalty.’ Prepayment risk was one of the several risks of holding a mortgage bond. Still innocent about the ways of Wall Street, I couldn’t initially grasp what exactly was the problem when the borrower pays off the mortgage early. I was quickly disabused of my naivete by a shrewd and seasoned co-worker: that risk meant that a bondholder would have to reinvest that money at a different, probably lower rate. So naturally, the bondholders wanted to get compensated for carrying that risk. Thus Wall Street, he enlightened me, came up with a brilliant solution: prepayment penalty paid by the borrower. With this observation he accomplished two things: he revealed how the real world works, and how still unprepared I was for being a player in that world. As this new piece of info sinked in, I gazed upon the buzzing trading floor in embarrassment at my own inadequacy: these were all killers and I didn’t think like a killer.  This is how you were supposed to think: if a borrower is late on his mortgage – he pays a penalty; if he’s early – he still pays a penalty. You get to write these rules, you get a chicken for dinner every time. It’s almost like these masters of the universe WANTED the unwitting borrower to make a mistake; no, worse – in a cruel twist they also wanted to punish him for a prudent individual conduct. Why? Because this way they collect more fees. Of course, this industry would soon forget how it sought to punish a borrower for his attempt at paying off his debts and would blame the whole thing on him being a shiftless deadbeat. But that reckoning was still years away. At that moment, I was determined to become a killer like them.

Where am I going with this? Once I learned about this clever mechanism I didn’t feel outraged. It didn’t cause any internal conflict. What it produced instead was a self-satisfied chuckle, a realization that I was on the other, winning, side of this trade. It felt like an initiation into a special club. That it was I who, directly or indirectly, stood to benefit from all those poor schmucks who played by the rules written by ‘us’. Yes, at that point I have considered myself to belong to ‘Us’, the winners. I mean I was smart and worked 14-hour days and took plenty of abuse to get there, so, surely, I deserved it. In a set up like this it was just a matter of time before a disparaging word or a caustic comment towards the losers would slip off the tip of my tongue. I became a good cog.

Women like Kelly Sadler – also a good, loyal cog, blond and pretty and useful to the regime in many capacities, are often predisposed to not understand a toxic dynamic happening before her eyes, because her current status and a future lobbying career depend on not understanding it. She can smell that power the way I could smell that money.

The moment of initiation into a special exclusive club is the moment you lose your internal moral compass. Grateful of the rare privilege you want to prove being worthy of the membership. In the company of powerful men the misfortunes of the distant others is an odd topic to bring up. At best it will create suspicion about you having the right qualifications, about you having an understanding of the mission at hand. At worse, you’ll risk expulsion. Smart club administrators seek to invite new members from humble origins, minorities, women. They know those will be the best, most ruthless and most dedicated defenders of the club’s mission. The sense of belonging, of a need to belong, will trump the sense of right and wrong in most people most of the time. And indeed, throughout the history, women, especially white, privileged women, have been the loyal foot soldiers and defenders of the worst atrocities.

Kelly Sadler’s comment, put in that context, is a logical and totally predictable occurrence. She wasn’t thinking about McCain, or his family or even about how this will sound, should it ever come out, to an outside public. All she did was channel what everyone in that room was thinking. Judging by those standards she’s proved worthy of the membership.