Stupidity Wins Again

The Conservative party’s decisive win last Thursday in Britain, and the consequent path forward to a massively misguided Brexit, is only the latest in a series of increasingly ominous events circulating through the 24-hour news cycle.

Nationalism wins again. Ignorance wins again. And so the West (and indeed the world at large, cf. India) continues to march backward, steadfastly ignoring science, history and common sense.

Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.
Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.

The similarity of what’s happening in the US and the UK cannot be ignored. In both cases, discord, ignorance and resentment—and sometimes downright hatred—are ascendant. In both cases, the less educated, less affluent rural districts manage to dictate results to their more informed “betters” in urban areas. In the UK, a plurality of voters would prefer not to leave the European Union. In the US, a plurality of voters would like to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office. Neither electoral system will permit the plurality to have its way, and yet the right-wing victors on each side of the Atlantic continue to trumpet the virtues of “democracy.”

This devolution of the “special relationship” contributes nothing to progress in the world at large—see, for example, the latest failure to adequately respond to the global climate change emergency.

At the end of this year and decade, here are three wishes for a smarter, healthier decade to come:

  • That the European Union, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest political achievement, remains intact despite Brexit and other pressures;
  • That the American people, despite a skewed electoral system, manage to elect a Democratic President and Senate; and
  • That a new American administration will act quickly to tackle climate change in a meaningful way.

Happy holidays.

Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

A Divided Nobel Prize: One Questionable Choice, One Great One

Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.

The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.

“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”

However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.

Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.
Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.

As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”

The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:

  • “Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
  • “[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
  • “It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.

Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:

The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.

Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.

If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.

An Important First Step

In the nearly three years of our omnipresent Trump dystopia, it has grown to seem as if he would be with us, floating noxiously through our background thoughts, forever. The possibility of change finally arrived last Tuesday, when Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings.

This, of course, is long overdue. Arguably, Trump deserved to be removed from the get-go. He is manifestly unfit, and despite the muddled, legalistic and stretched-out Mueller report, it is clear that he asked for and received Russian assistance in perverting the 2016 election.

But after the momentary uplift many Americans felt from the impeachment announcement, our current ugly reality is beginning to reassert itself. Disinformation is going to flood the airwaves and the internet like never before. Tribalism will harden further. Trump’s supporters will become an even greater danger to the ideals of our democracy, and perhaps to life and limb as well.

The problematic 40%.
The problematic 40%. Photo: foxnews.com.

In addition, it is unlikely that impeachment will actually succeed in removing Trump, given right-wing Republican control of the Senate. Even if it did, we would wind up with the toady Mike Pence, another disgustingly inappropriate person to hold our highest office.

The Democratic argument is that impeachment will lay bare Trump’s corruption and his betrayal of country and office alike. And it could well do that: Trump himself acknowledges the main charge against him, in soliciting foreign assistance to turn next year’s election. It’s pretty damned straightforward. I agree with those who argue that this latest transgression made impeachment unavoidable—it had to be done.

Yet Trump’s impeachment will unleash a dangerous new period of instability in American political life. If Pelosi and her party manage the process tightly and hammer home the need to remove a corrupt and dangerous President from office, there could yet be a happy outcome in next year’s elections. But if the Democrats prove ineffectual against the Republicans’ Goebbels-like propaganda machine, as they have so often over the past few years, next year could be grim indeed.

The best course, now that we’ve embarked on it, is to stay calm and stick to the truth: Trump has betrayed his office and his country and needs to go. Deflect far-right disinformation whenever you have the opportunity. Focus on selecting the best candidate to face Trump (or, God forbid, Pence) in next year’s election. We have a chance here—let’s seize it.

A Modest Proposal

It’s often said that America has not been this divided since the Civil War. Indeed, some prognosticators even suggest a new civil war may be in the offing. To this I say: nonsense. There is always a way to resolve problems, even the most intractable ones.

For example, take guns. That’s a pun, as I am literally suggesting to take the guns. But I do not suggest this merely as a progressive who would like to see a degree of sanity restored to American society by reducing gun violence. Of course not—I recognize that there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate. That being the case, it will be necessary to provide each side with something of what they want.

Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.
Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.

So, let’s start by envisioning a Democratic landslide in the election next year. Warren or Sanders as President, a solidly Democratic Senate and a Supreme Court which has been expanded to 15 members, now under Democratic control. The first step will be to abolish the Second Amendment and the second step will be to establish a mandatory buy-back program for every gun in America, all 300-400 million of them.

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim, if you happen to be a Republican. “Everything you’ve just described is part of a far-left Democratic wish list! What do Republicans and gun nuts enthusiasts get out of this?”

I’m coming to that. I’ve anticipated your concerns, and I have some answers I believe you and the Proud Boys will like.

Obviously, a great many patriotic right-wing Americans will defy the new buy-back program. The new socialist government will offer them, and anyone who wants to join them, an attractive cash incentive to relocate to the great state of Idaho. And that’s only the beginning.

Once ten million gun owners and their 350 million guns are in Idaho, the real fun begins!

Now everyone knows guns are only one topic which sorely divides today’s Americans. Race, religion, economic status, climate change and immigration are a few of the many others. Well, I have a plan for that. It’s called The Great American ShowdownTM, and it will enable these brand-new Idaho residents to resolve their differences in the most direct and down-to-earth way possible: with their guns.

Every Idahoan who kills someone with an opposing viewpoint will receive $50 cash. That might seem a meager amount, but with ten million people involved the rewards can add up fast. Not only that, but the victor gets to claim the deceased’s weapons, adding to their stash of guns that are illegal in the rest of the lower 48.

But wait, there’s more—The Great American ShowdownTM will be televised! It’s going to be the biggest program of all time (bigger even than “The Apprentice”), and it will be available for streaming and on network TV. Imagine the thrill of watching real-life bloody shoot-outs in the comfort of your own living room. And imagine the gigantic advertising revenues that will result!

Your new government will be nothing if not fair. Advertising revenue will be divided between renewable energy programs (45%), universal health care coverage (45%, for the other 49 states) and the Republican National Committee (5%). I will retain 5% as the originator of the concept, but the RNC will be able to use their dollars for any purpose they see fit (except firearms).

Idaho will benefit, too. Tourism will increase dramatically, as our more adventurous citizens venture to the Gem State (who knew it was called that?) to witness the mayhem firsthand. And eventually, when all the shooting is over, one lucky Idaho resident will wind up with 350 million guns and a substantial fortune to call their very own.

I call this a win-win! So be sure to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren next fall and do your part to make it happen.

My apologies to Jonathan Swift.

American War

As the Fourth of July approaches, here is a brief, belated review of a book apparently inspired by our present dysfunction.

American War, by Omar El Akkad, is a couple of years old now. It was widely reviewed when it appeared (the reviews were largely favorable, although some prestigious outlets—the Times, the Guardian—pointed out many of the book’s considerable flaws). There have been mutterings about a second American Civil War ever since Trump’s flawed and fraudulent election, but fortunately these have so far remained in the background. Nevertheless, the book has obvious resonance with our current moment.

American War by Omar El Akkad.
American War cover © Penguin Random House.

I wrote a draft novel during 2016’s NaNoWriMo based on Trump’s election, but reality has since far outpaced the still optimistic plot strands in that effort (the book requires a complete overhaul). El Akkad errs in the opposite direction: his novel offers plenty of pessimism (war as the universal human language is a central theme), but has very little relevance to the state of the country today. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The novel is set more than 50 years in the future. One of the causes of the second American Civil War is the South’s refusal to give up gasoline and other fossil fuels.
  •  Fifty years is a long time from now. It is highly unlikely that gasoline could ignite a war that far into the future, especially since the novel notes that much of the South has been washed away by climate change.
  • The war is once again between the North and the South. Much of the West has been annexed by Mexico (this goes unexplained). There is a new, united Arabic superpower in Northern Africa and the Middle East (also unexplained, except by noting that the 5th Arab Spring succeeded).
  •  The great divide in the country today is not between North and South (though remnants of that history still exist). It is between the cities and the countryside, between educated “elites” and credulous have-nots, between truths and “alternative truths.” American War has nothing to say about social media, fake news or the visceral hatred and contempt MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters and college-educated professionals in our major cities feel for one another.
  • The writing is just passable. Clichés abound and the characters are not fully realized. The plot is elaborate but full of unlikely coincidence. American War is fairly well-paced but never really takes off, never seems fully real.

Still, one has to give El Akkad some credit for writing one of the first novels built around America’s unraveling. Truth seems stranger than fiction in Trump’s America, so today’s writers face some large challenges indeed. But there will be other novels inspired by the country’s dissolution, and many of them will have more to offer than American War.

Life Goes On

Sometimes, particularly when it comes to American politics and society, I wonder what the point of these monthly musings of mine actually is. Well, that’s not strictly true—I do know what the point is, and that is to explore and express my own feelings about what’s happening in this country.

Is this any more productive than going to a demonstration, volunteering for a candidate or posting to like-minded friends on Facebook? Perhaps, but only in this regard—writing for this blog forces me to confront my beliefs honestly and express them to the best of my ability in a more considered way than other options permit. Otherwise, no. The blog probably has less practical impact than making a donation would have. I don’t expect to change many minds or have any effect at all on our current dire circumstances.

Still, I feel that “getting it out” rather than suppressing what I feel about the current state of the country is an essentially healthy thing to do. One of the positive things I continue to admire about the United States is the freedom of expression it still largely permits. We haven’t yet reached the point where individuals, or media at large, are censored. One can see that possibility on the horizon, though.

The Mueller Report—an Unfortunate Copout? Photo: Politico.
The Mueller Report—an Unfortunate Copout? Photo: Politico.

Which brings us to the dispiriting Mueller Report. Why spend 22 months on a 300-plus-page report only to stop at a wishy-washy conclusion? Particularly when Trump, the person at the heart of the report, has said and done enough in public view to suggest obstruction charges would be valid? Everything considered, Mueller’s long-awaited report (and its subsequent brisk downplaying by a biased Attorney General) is another indication of the failure of American governance.

Yet life goes on. Other investigations are underway, by entities perhaps less inclined to bow to the current federal power structure. Many, many American citizens (a majority, I believe) are appalled at our situation and want to do something about it. The Democratic Party race for 2020 is on, albeit with far too many candidates announcing far too early.

Trump is a freak of nature and circumstance; he can’t be self-sustaining. The real threat should be viewed as the right-wing Republican Party at large, which is insidiously increasing its hold on power by the day. The focus must be on stopping and reversing this, by targeting voter suppression, gerrymandering and the anti-democratic influence of the Electoral College. And of course, we must also aim to prevent foreign power interference next time around.

State of the Union

The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.

Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.
Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.

To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.

To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:

“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”

“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”

“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”

Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.

The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.

Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.

We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.

Time Out

If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.

Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.

Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.

The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money.
The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money. Photo: Pinterest.com.

The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
  • Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
  • One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).

If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).

I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.

My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.

Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.

Break It Up

As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.

I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.

Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.
Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.

Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?

Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.

Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.

What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.

We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.

With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.