Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Dark Side of the Bright Side

From In These Times

In her new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan/Holt, October 2009), Barbara Ehrenreich traces the origins of contemporary optimism from nineteenth-century healers to twentieth-century pushers of consumerism. She explores how that culture of optimism prevents us from holding to account both corporate heads and elected officials.

Manufactured optimism has become a method to make the poor feel guilty for their poverty, the ill for their lack of health and the victims of corporate layoffs for their inability to find worthwhile jobs. Megachurches preach the “gospel of prosperity,” exhorting poor people to visualize financial success. Corporations have abandoned rational decision-making in favor of charismatic leadership.

This mania for looking on the bright side has given us the present financial collapse; optimistic business leaders—assisted by rosy-eyed policymakers—made very bad decisions.

In These Times recently spoke with her about our penchant for foolish optimism.

Is promoting optimism a mechanism of social control to keep the system in balance?

If you want to have a compliant populace, what could be better than to say that everyone has to think positively and accept that anything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault because they haven’t had a positive enough attitude? However, I don’t think that there is a central committee that sits there saying, “This is what we want to get people to believe.”

It took hold in the United States because in the ’80s and ’90s it became a business. You could write a book like Who Moved My Cheese?, which is a classic about accepting layoffs with a positive attitude. And then you could count on employers to buy them up and distribute them free to employees.

So this picks up more in the early ’80s and even more so in the ’90s when globalization really took off?

I was looking at the age of layoffs, which begins in the ’80s and accelerates. How do you manage a workforce when there is no job security? When there is no reward for doing a good job? When you might be laid off and it might not have anything to do with performance? As that began to happen, companies began to hire motivational speakers to come in and speak to their people.

Couldn’t this positive thinking be what corporate culture wants everyone to believe, but at the top, people are still totally rational?

That is what I was assuming when I started this research. I thought, “It’s got to be rational at the top. Someone has to keep an eye on the bottom line.” Historically, the science of management was that in a rational enterprise, we have spreadsheets, we have decision-trees and we base decisions on careful analysis.

But then all that was swept aside for a new notion of what management is about. The word they use is “leadership.” The CEO and the top people are not there so much to analyze and plan but to inspire people. They claimed to have this uncanny ability to sense opportunities. It was a shock, to find the extent to which corporate culture has been infiltrated not only by positive thinking, but by mysticism. The idea is that now things are moving so fast in this era of globalization, that there’s no time to think anymore. So you increasingly find CEOs gathering in sweat lodges or drumming circles or going on “vision quests” to get in touch with their inner-Genghis Khan or whatever they were looking for.

The same things are happening in foreign policy. We’ve abandoned a sense of realism. You had this with Bush and also with Obama, although he is more realistic. Is there a connection between optimism and the growth of empire?

In the ’80s, Reagan promoted the idea that America is special and that Americans were God’s chosen people, destined to prosper, much to the envy of everybody else in the world. Similarly, Bush thought of himself as the optimist-in-chief, as the cheerleader—which had been his job once in college. This is very similar to how CEOs are coming to think of themselves: as people whose job is to inspire others to work harder for less pay and no job security.

Would you say that Obama is our cheerleader-in-chief?

I haven’t sorted it out. He talks a lot about hope. And as a citizen I’d rather not hear about “hope,” I’d rather hear about “plans.” Yet he does strike me as a rational person, who thinks through all possibilities and alternatives.

You write about the science of positive thinking having taken root at Ivy League universities. It’s amazing to me that a course in happiness at Harvard would draw almost 900 students.

That was in 2006. And these courses have spread all over the country—courses in positive psychology where you spend time writing letters of gratitude to people in your family, letters of forgiveness (whether or not you send them doesn’t matter), getting in touch with your happy feelings, and I don’t think that’s what higher education should be about. People go to universities to learn critical thinking, and positive thinking is antithetical to critical thinking.

Anis Shivani

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Random Transmissions 14 ~ S.J. Perelman

Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin .. it's the triumphant twang of a bedspring.

Their the waiters' eyes sparkled and their pencils flew as she proceeded to eviscerate my wallet - pâté, Whitstable oysters, a sole, filet mignon, and a favorite salad of the Nizam of Hyderabad made of shredded five-pound notes.

A dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched.

Fate was dealing from the bottom of the deck.

On director Ernst Lubitsch:
(he was) "smoking a cucumber and looking cool as a cigar."

A case of the tail dogging the wag.

There is such a thing as too much couth.

I tried to resist his overtures, but he plied me with symphonies, quartettes, chamber music, and cantatas.

I have Bright's disease and he has mine.

The main obligation is to amuse yourself.

The whistle shrilled and in a moment I was chugging out of Grand Central’s dreaming spires followed only by the anguished cries of relatives who would now have to go to work. I had chugged only a few feet when I realized that I had left without the train, so I had to run back and wait for it to start.

Nature, it appears, has been rather more bountiful to Paul’s body and purse than to his intellect; above the ears, speaking bluntly, the boy is strictly tapioca.

I’ve always taken my liquor mixed and my peril neat, and I see no reason to switch now.

“I love people from the East,” she went on. “There’s so much more to them.” Uncertain whether I was supposed to hail from Jubbulpore or Newark, I decided to play it safe and adopted an inscrutable global expression.

The moment Audrey’s tongue touched bourbon, it began wagging in a key just resonant enough to drown out the music.

“In France,” Marcel said with wintry dignity, “accidents occur in the bedroom, not the kitchen."

The showing (of the movie Foolish Wives) roused me to neither vandalism nor affection; in fact, it begot such lassitude that I had to be given artificial respiration and sent home in a wheelbarrow.

As for consulting a dentist regularly, my punctuality practically amounted to a fetish. Every twelve years I would drop whatever I was doing and allow wild Caucasian ponies to drag me to a reputable orthodontist.

"Great-grandfather died under strange circumstances. He opened a vein in his bath."
"I never knew baths had veins," protested Gabrilowitsch."
"I never knew his great-grandfather had a ba—" began Falcovsky derisively.

Before they made S.J. Perelman they broke the mold.

I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws.

"Oh, son, I wish you hadn’t become a scenario writer!" she sniffled.
"Aw, now, Moms," I comforted her, "it’s no worse than playing the piano in a call house."

And finally, a quote from Groucho Marx on Perelman:

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.

That Old Feeling: Perelmania

from time.com

Am I alone these days in regarding S.J. Perelman as a formative font of 20th century wit?

...summon his name on Google, and you will find only about a third as many references for him as for his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, who published only four short novels in a six-year career, compared to 20-some volumes in Perelman's public half-century. Ransacking the Internet, I could discover no Perelman parties, no memorial readings from the canon, no revivals of the Broadway shows he worked on, no retrospectives of the films he helped write. I think of the Perelman story, "Who Stole My Golden Metaphor?" and wonder: who buried my Perelman beyond price?

But, kids, before you consign one of my favorite comedy writers to Corliss' mausoleum of lost causes, take a moment to roll naked in some Perelman prose. I choose, almost at random, a few verses from the "Acres and Pains," his magnum opus — or minimum opus, for it consumes fewer than 40 pages when reprinted. The book is Perelman's account of a city boy who, in 1932, acquired and tried to run a rural property in Bucks County, Pa.:

"A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bound by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn't know enough to stay in the city."

"I began my career as a country squire with nothing but a high heart, a flask of citronella, and a fork for toasting marshmallows in case supplies ran low. In a scant fifteen years I have acquired a superb library of mortgages, mostly first editions, and the finest case of sacroiliac known to science.... I also learned that to lock horns with Nature, the only equipment you really need is the constitution of Paul Bunyan and the basic training of a commando."

"When I first settled down on a heap of shale in the Delaware Valley, I too had a romantic picture of myself. For about a month I was a spare, sinewy frontiersman in fringed buckskin, with crinkly little lines about the eyes and a slow laconic drawl.... After I almost blew off a toe cleaning an air rifle, though, I decided I was more the honest rural type. I started wearing patched blue jeans [and] mopped my forehead with a red banana (I found out later it should have been a red bandanna).... One day, while stretched out on the porch, I realized I needed only a mint julep to become a real dyed-in-the-wool, Seagram's V.V.O. Southern planter.... I sent to New York for a broad-brimmed hat and a string tie, and at enormous expense trained the local idiot to fan me with a palmetto leaf."

"Today, thanks to unremitting study, I can change a fuse so deftly that it plunges the entire county into darkness.... The power company has offered me as high as fifteen thousand dollars a year to stay out of my own cellar."

I don't see today's kids busting their allowance to find buy Perelman books on ebay; in fact, the name name retrieves only 12 items, and four of them are other Perelmans. I think I know why the writer's short comic pieces, so influential in the last century, have little resonance in this one. It's because they are written in a dead language: English.

I should refer to it as Perelman English: a cocktail of Victorian and Edwardian sentence structure, Jazz Age slang whose sell-by date had long since expired, and a veritable Mount Meron of Yiddishisms. "Sid commands a vocabulary that is the despair (and joy) of every writing man," proclaimed his New Yorker colleague E.B. White. "He is like a Roxy organ that has three decks, 50 stops and a pride of petals under the bench. When he wants a word it's there.... His ears are as busy as an ant's feelers. No word ever gets by him." The language was, for Perelman, a gentleman's orgy, and he was Petronius, knowing which wench to peel, which grace to savor.

His stock of references could have filled the Great Library of Alexandria, if that august edifice had housed every copy of Cap'n Billy's Whizbang. Even those introduced to Perelman in his prime had to cram for antique references. The man was an instant anachronist, peppering his stories with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, vaudeville dialect comics like Gallagher and Shean (Al Shean was the Marx Brothers' uncle), silent movies, and "the exact method of quarrying peat out of a bog at the time of the Irish Corn Laws." Add 50 years to these arcana, toss them at a collegiate today and he�ll expect a translation on the recto. (Buck up, young scholar. That's what Google's for.)

In his time, though — and why shouldn't that time be now, again? — Perelman was called America's foremost humorist, a comic genius, mein Yiddishe Aristophanes, a gift from Providence (he was reared in Rhode Island), but Perelman preferred the simple designation "writer." Even when his feuilletons don't stir a Gorgon to chuckle, they educe awe for the Wallenda grace of his prose, his solving of sentences. Attend to the choice of verbs in this relatively simple description: "Struggling into a robe, he reeled across the room, fumbled with the chain latch, and wrenched open the door." Action words, picture words, funny words.

Perelman's free-associative style spun fantasias out of girdle ads, tabloid tattle, sleazy pulp fiction and recipe prose. He was a Charlie Parker on tenor Underwood, running bizarre and beautiful variations on the tritest themes. With a difference: Perelman's prose was improv with agony. He perspired platelets to make it read cucumber-cool.

Richard Corliss

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Monday, November 09, 2009

The Bitter Tears of Johnny Cash

From salon.com

In July 1972, musician Johnny Cash sat opposite President Richard Nixon in the White House's Blue Room. As a horde of media huddled a few feet away, the country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform with the self-anointed leader of America's "silent majority." "Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us," Nixon asked Cash. "I like Merle Haggard's 'Okie From Muskogee' and Guy Drake's 'Welfare Cadillac.'" The architect of the GOP's Southern strategy was asking for two famous expressions of white working-class resentment.
"I don't know those songs," replied Cash, "but I got a few of my own I can play for you." Dressed in his trademark black suit, his jet-black hair a little longer than usual, Cash draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of "Okie From Muskogee." With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer's rendition of the explicitly antiwar "What Is Truth?" and "Man in Black" ("Each week we lose a hundred fine young men") and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash's fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself -- a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.

More here

Antonino D'Ambrosio

Thursday, November 05, 2009

James Ellroy on Blood's a Rover

Blood is a Rover ~ James Ellroy

From nybooks.com

Fever Dreams of Your FBI
By Norman Rush

James Ellroy's astonishing creation, the Underworld USA Trilogy, is complete. Its concluding volume, Blood's a Rover, has just been published. The three long thrillers that make up the trilogy (American Tabloid, 1995; The Cold Six Thousand, 2001; Blood's a Rover, 2009) present a brutal counterhistory of America in the 1960s and 1970s—the assassinations, the social convulsions, the power-elite plotting—through the lives of invented second- and third-echelon operatives in the great political crimes of the era. The trilogy is biblical in scale, catholic in its borrowing from conspiracy theories, absorbing to read, often awe-inspiring in the liberties taken with standard fictional presentation, and, in its imperfections and lapses, disconcerting.
Ellroy, who is in his early sixties, is the celebrated, prolific, and popular author of a body of genre crime fiction, crime journalism, and a forensic memoir dealing with his own dark family history. His work has been made into movies and television shows, and widely translated. There are Web sites devoted to Ellroy, and he connects with his fans through Facebook.

The Underworld USA Trilogy is generally regarded as Ellroy's magnum opus. It is unique in its ambitions, and proceeds at a level of art distinctly above that attained in his famously lurid and violent but more conventional books. It is a fiction unlike any other.

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The Heart of Nixonian Darkness
By Bill Sheehan

"Blood's a Rover," like the volumes that precede it, is clearly not a conventional thriller. It is, rather, a rigorously constructed, idiosyncratic novel that uses the materials of crime fiction to examine the forces that have shaped -- and warped -- our recent history: racial tension, ideological warfare, greed, corruption and unbridled fanaticism in all its forms. Ellroy's bleak, brooding worldview, his dense, demanding style and his unflinching descriptions of extreme violence will almost certainly alienate large numbers of readers. But anyone who succumbs to the sheer tidal force of these novels will experience something darker, stranger and more compelling than almost anything else contemporary fiction has to offer.

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The Age of the Informavore - A Talk With Frank Schirrmacher

From The Edge

We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning...

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Escape from Facebook

Ewan McNaught does not propose to subject you to yet another instantly obsolescent facebook status update. Not for me the "unreflective instantaneousness" and shallow insights into unremarkable lives of this particular milieu. I'm temporarily relocating to the blogosphere, an almost equally ephemeral and narcissistic construct, yet it beckons rather beguilingly to the marginally more reflective virtual persona. "You too can live in a chat free world" is it's siren song.

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Nicholas Lezard: So You're Eating Lunch? Fascinating

from the independent

Where does one start with the momentous news that Stephen Fry was considering leaving Twitter? Apparently someone, although broadly sympathetic to Fry in general – no, better, someone who admired and adored him – complained that some of his tweets, as I gather they are called, were "a bit... boring." Fry took hurt, and announced his intentions before having a re-think.

Now, I have nothing against Stephen Fry, although one questions the wisdom of someone with an easily-bruised ego telling 800,000 people that he's eating a sandwich and expecting every one of them to be thrilled by the news, but I certainly have something against Twitter.

The name tells us straightaway: it's inconsequential, background noise, a waste of time and space. Actually, the name does a disservice to the sounds birds make, which are, for the birds, significant, and for humans, soothing and, if you're Messiaen, inspirational. But Twitter? Inspirational?

No – it's inspiration's opposite. The online phenomenon is about humanity disappearing up its own fundament, or the air leaking out of the whole Enlightenment project. In short, I feel about Twitter the way some people feel about nuclear weapons: it's wrong. It makes blogging look like literature. It's anti-literature, the new opium of the masses.

Its unreflective instantaneousness encourages neurotic behaviour in both the tweeters and the twatted (seriously, the Americans have proposed that "twatted" should be the past participle of "tweet", which is the only funny thing about the whole business); it encourages us in the delusion that our random thoughts, our banal experiences, are significant. It is masturbatory and infantile, and the amazing thing is that people can't get enough of it – possibly because it IS masturbatory and infantile.

Answering the question: "Why do so many people seem to like Twitter?" Twitter itself does not say: "Because people are idiots with a steadily decreasing attention span, and 140 characters is pretty much all anyone has space for in their atrophied brains any more," but instead, "People are eager to connect with other people and Twitter makes that simple."

Twitter asks one question: "What are you doing?" (It also adds, in the next paragraph, that "Twitter's core technology is a device agnostic message routing system with rudimentary social networking features", and I hope that clears everything up for you.)

Oh God, that it should have come to this. Centuries of human thought and experience drowned out in a maelstrom of inconsequential rubbish (and don't tell me about Trafigura – one good deed is not enough, and an ordinary online campaign would have done the trick just as well). It is like some horrible science-fiction prediction come to pass: it is not just that Twitter signals the end of nuanced, reflective, authoritative thought – it's that no one seems to mind.

And I suspect that it's psychologically dangerous. We have evolved over millions of years to learn not to bore other people with constant updates about what we're doing (I'm opening a jar of pickles ... I'm picking my nose ... I'm typing out a message on Twitter ...) and we're throwing it all away. Twitter encourages monstrous egomania, and the very fact that Fry used Twitter to announce that he was leaving Twitter shows his dependence on it. He was never going to give it up. He's addicted to it.

Nicholas Lezard