Mind reading

Whew! I found a reading for my wedding on Sunday! Being all literary and such, it was pretty difficult for me to come up with something good (I’ll post it sometime after the wedding). In my neurotic way, I felt pressure to come up with a Really Good Reading. The search reminded me of an article I read once about how difficult real writers find it to do things like write a note for their kids’ schoolteachers.

Anyway, it’s a Really Good Reading. The friend who’s going to read it on Sunday tells me she cried when she read it this morning. Amy sez she got choked up, too. Dames. . .

Mo’ Woe

In January, I wrote about Anya Kamenetz’ book, Generation Debt, and Daniel Gross’ criticism of it. I was mean (enough to warrant a smackdown challenge from Mrs. Kamenetz), but hey. Buy a dog.

Today, we have more criticism of the book, by Kerry Howley at Reason:

Kamenetz, a 2002 Yale graduate, is the latest spokesperson for a paroxysm of anxiety among “emerging adults.” But you don’t have to accept Kamanetz’s absurd thesis—that a group of people among the healthiest, wealthiest, and most educated in human history deserve your pity—to get angry about the way their prosperity has been manhandled. The term Generation Debt is nothing if not apt: Young Americans come of age in a world where heaps of their as yet-unearned cash has already been promised away. They are embodied I.O.U.s to Medicare, to Social Security, to extended obligations in foreign countries with unclear objectives and no end in sight. A glance at the latest projections for, say, Medicare Part D is fair game for some righteous anger.

As a bonus, Chris Farrell at BusinessWeek has an article critiquing the arguments of another book in the “WAH! We’re going to be poor” cycle, Tamara Drout’s Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead:

Drout takes a hardline stand in her book. She argues that the younger American generation faces a life of “downscaled dreams.” The traditional middle-class life is out of reach for more and more young people. Going to college, owning a home, and having a child — or two — is increasingly expensive. Paychecks are increasingly meager, so more and more, the younger generation is taking on onerous debt. “They will be the first generation who won’t match the prosperity of their parents,” Drout writes.

Considering that a staple belief in American society is that each generation ends up a bit better off than the previous one, Drout’s charge is remarkable. And it’s also largely nonsense. For instance, she laments that recent college graduates, already burdened with student-loan obligations, have to rack up steep credit charges to furnish their apartments and buy a wardrobe for work.

Overthinking It

Amy & I are getting married in two weeks, and I’m still trying to come up with a good reading for the pre-game show. The following passage is a hoot, mainly because I always envision it on one of those “Love Is” fridge magnets, except it’d have to be about two miles long and has disastrously fascist overtones:

Love means in general the consciousness of my unity with another, so that I am not isolated on my own, but gain my self-consciousness only through the renunciation of my independent existence and through knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and of the other with me. But love is a feeling, that is, ethical life in its natural form. In the state, it is no longer present. There, one is conscious of unity as law; there, the content must be rational, and I must know it. The first moment in love is that I do not wish to be an independent person in my own right and that, if I were, I would feel deficient and incomplete. The second moment is that I find myself in another person, that I gain recognition in this person, who in turn gains recognition in me. Love is therefore the most immense contradiction; the understanding cannnot resolve it, because there is nothing more intractable than this punctiliousness of the self-consciousness which is negated and which I ought nevertheless to possess as affirmative. Love is both the production and the resolution of this contradiction. As its resolution, it is ethical unity.

–G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right

Gilgamesh and the Genome

It’s a blast from the past! Here’s a From the Editor page I wrote in March 2000, when I was a newbie on my pharma magazine! Enjoy

Nearly 50 years ago, Francis Watson and James Crick uncovered the double-helical structure of DNA. A little more than a century ago, the fragments of the epic poem of Gilgamesh were discovered in the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. The tablets on which the poem were written date only a few hundred years after the invention of writing, a discovery that fundamentally changed human culture. The four-letter alphabet of DNA contains the possibilities of life in all its aspects. In both cases, scholars and scientists have spent years trying to decipher these strange languages.

Both of these sources, in a sense, address the same issue, albeit from opposite directions. Through the mapping of the human genome and the discoveries we shall make of the secrets of individual genes, we learn about the myriad individual components that create a gestalt of human life. Through gene therapy and other advances in biotechnology, we are told, man will someday overcome aging and possibly transcend death.

Through translating the story of Gilgamesh, we learn that man has always tried to circumvent death. The greatest king of his time (two-thirds divine, one-third man) travels to the limits of the underworld to learn how to overcome mortality. He learns that nothing is permanent. Upon returning to his kingdom of Uruk, all Gilgamesh can do is praise the strength of the city’s walls. Today, not one person in a million could identify Uruk on a map. Nor do those city walls stand. The first hero in literature faces the same limitations as a garbage man in the year 2000. Time passes and unmakes us all.

Scientists today question whether that process is necessary, and whether it can at least be slowed. The mission of translating the genetic language and making genes into a manipulable objects may accomplish Gilgamesh’s quest, 5000 years later.

Before the flood

Just finished reading Rob Walker’s Letters from New Orleans, which I enjoyed much more than Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters. I found the latter to be far too preachy, bordering on a sort of “White Man’s Burden” for why no expense must be spared in rebuilding the city. Walker’s book, on the other hand, made me care much more for the city and what it means and has meant.

Maybe the big difference is that one writer was discussing NO,LA pre-Katrina, and the other post-Katrina.

Or maybe it’s that one writer is a journalist, and the other is a novelist.

Or maybe one guy is someone you could just chill out and have a beer with, and the other guy is a douche.

In a barrel

Nice post by Andrew Sullivan, ripping up Stanley Fish for “post-modern claptrap”:

Yes, Fish has read Nietzsche, hence his homage in the sentence: “The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously.” But this is a distortion of liberalism, as Nietzsche’s was. The defense of free speech is not a frivolous exercise, as Fish argues. In the context of a continent where artists and writers have been threatened with death and murdered for their freedoms, it is a deadly serious task. And maintaining support for the difficult restraint that liberalism asks of us — to maintain faith if you want, but to curtail its intolerant and extreme influence in the public square — is, pace Fish, not an easy or platitudinous path. It is the difficult restraint liberty requires in modernity. Fish, however, like many postmoderns, is skeptical of such ideas of liberty and, in a pinch, seems to prefer the Taliban’s authenticity to societies where writers dare to challenge religious taboos.

This cultural jiu-jitsu put me in mind of a passage from George Orwell’s great essay, Inside the Whale. I don’t think I’ve written about this passage before. Orwell has been discussing political trends among British writers: the modernists of the 1920s — whom he characterizes largely as fascists — and the Comintern-supporting writers of the 1930s. Since I can’t write anywhere near as well as Orwell, let’s just go with an extended passage:

[W]hy did these young men turn towards anything so alien as Russian Communism? Why should writers be attracted by a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible? The explanation really lies in something that had already made itself felt before the slump and before Hitler: middle-class unemployment.

Unemployment is not merely a matter of not having a job. Most people can get a job of sorts, even at the worst of times. The trouble was that by about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts, and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in. The debunking of Western civilization had reached its Climax and “disillusionment” was immensely widespread. Who now could take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way, as a soldier, a clergyman, a stockbroker, an Indian Civil Servant, or what-not? And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could not be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in. There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. If was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline. Here was a Fatherland and — at any rate since 1935 or thereabouts — a Fuehrer. All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Patriotism, religion, empire, military glory — all in one word, Russia. Father, king, leader, hero, saviour — all in one word, Stalin. God — Stalin. The devil — Hitler. Heaven — Moscow. Hell — Berlin. All the gaps were filled up. So, after all, the “Communism” of the English intellectual is something explicable enough. It is the patriotism of the deracinated.

But there is one other thing that undoubtedly contributed to the cult of Russia among the English intelligentsia during these years, and that is the softness and security of life in England itself. With all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the over-whelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. If you have grown up in that sort of atmosphere it is not at all easy to imagine what a despotic régime is like. Nearly all the dominant writers of the thirties belonged to the soft-boiled emancipated middle class and were too young to have effective memories of the Great War. To people of that kind such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.

Update: I zapped this post to Andrew Sullivan, who liked it enough to riff on it as his second Quote of the Day, and extend me a hat-tip! Much appreciated! New visitors: Enjoy the site!

Cola War on Terror

Last week’s reading in the Official VM Book Club Of One was The Other Hollywood; this week it’s The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel’s book on the value of aesthetic value, as it were. I just finished the third chapter, “Surface and Substance,” which ends with this passage:

When terrorists slammed two passenger jets into the World Trade Center on September 11, 200, Michael Bierut had his own moment of Nazis-to-Pepsi self-doubt. He was in London and returned home to Manhattan a few days after the attack. “As a designer,” he wrote me, “I am still reeling from the images of 9/11.” The act had been horrifying, but the images it created could not have been better designed: “The timing of the collisions, the angle of the second plane, the colors of the explosions, the slow-motion collapsing of the towers: could the terrorists ever dream how nightmarishly vivid this would be to the vast viewing audience?”

Amid the trauma of mid-September, this terrible juxtaposition — striking images in the service of death — recalled all the attacks ever made on surface for its own sake, and on the designers who create surface appeal. If an event so awful could look so vivid, even beautiful in a purely formal sense, how could we trust aesthetic pleasure? How could designers like Bierut justify their work, except when surface serves some grander substance? The attack, wrote Bierut, “makes me put meaningless content into beautiful packages. I will not approach my work the same way from now on.”

He knew better. The destruction of the World Trade Center was not a carefully composed movie scene, designed to around pity and terror within the same frame of fiction. It was the all-too-real muder of thousands. It was entirely substance. The attack was not packaging, not surface, not performance art. It had both meaning and political purpose. The striking images produced led viewers not to praise but to condemn the attackers who created them. Only those who embraced the murderers’ cause rejoiced in those images. Aesthetics did not prove a superweapon, justifying slaughter. To the contrary, the media images that followed were attempts to capture the events — and the horror and grief — of the day. Those images were valuable because they could say more than words. But the images were not the act itself.

In the horror of the moment, Bierut had forgotten the meaning and value of his work, falling into the puritanical mind-set that denies the value of aesthetic pleasure and seeks always to link it with evil. To wrap meaningless, as opposed to vicious, content in beautiful packaging does no harm. To the contrary, such creativity enriches the world and affirms the worth of the individuals whose pleasure it serves. Colas are not genocide.

Bierut soon had second thoughts. “One of the signatures of any repressive regime,” he wrote the following day, “is their need to control not just meaningful differences — the voices of dissent, for instance — but ostensibly ‘meaningless’ ones as well, like dress. It will take some time for people to realize that creating the difference between Coke and Pepsi is not just an empty pastime but one of many signs of life in a free society.” The Afghan women who risked the Taliban’s prisons to paint their faces and style their hair in underground beauty shops, and who celebrated the liberation of Kabul by coloring their nails with once-forbidden polish, would agree. Surface may take on meaning, but it has a value all its own.

Good Bad Books

A few years ago, I met up with a buddy from my freshman year of college. Over a bunch of drinks, he said to me, “Y’know, you gave me a list of books back when we were at Tulane, and I still have a stack of them sitting on my desk. But I’m gonna get through ’em someday.”

I blanched. “Oh, God. Paul, please just throw them out. I don’t know what books they are, but I can just about guarantee that you should toss ’em. Just please don’t tell me what books they are. I’ll even give you a new bunch of books to replace them.”

I’m pretty embarrassed by whatever I recommended when I was 18 (books, music, movies, etc.), but I’m shameless enough that I’m willing to include that roster in the list of all the books I’ve finished since 1989.

In that vein, ourgirlinchicago has a nice post about selecting what to read next. She wrote previously about calculating the number of books she could expect to finish reading based on the average lifespan, which was pretty depressing in and of itself. Now she wonders what proportion of those books should be devoted to fluff:

[W]hat percentage of that terribly finite amount of reading do you feel should be earmarked for incontestably Great books, and what percentage of fluff — elegant, witty, and delightful fluff, needless to say — are you comfortable including? I’m thinking a full 50%. But I have another wrench to throw into the machinery: how many of your 200 or 500 or 1,000 books will be books you’ve already read? For most of us, I’m guessing, this will be a non-negligible number.

Read the whole thing, but get back to me about this question of hers. Since my list of books is in spreadsheet format, it’s quite easy to put a check-box next to every book that we consider fluff. . .

Piss? Christ!

Matt Welch, a contributing editor at libertarian magazine Reason, is now assistant editorial page editor at the LATimes. The paper required him to give a urine sample to help keep the LATimes a “drug-free workplace”. Those of you who know anytihng about libertarianism know how funny this is.

Yet it’s been company policy for at least 18 years that every new hire excrete on command while a rubber-gloved nurse waits outside with her ear plastered to the door. Those who test positive for illegal drugs don’t get their promised job, on grounds that someone who can’t stay off the stuff long enough to pass a one-time, advance-notice screening might have a problem. (And yes, it has happened in the newsroom a handful of times.) This despite the fact that we generally don’t operate machinery heavier than a coffee pot, aren’t likely to sell our secrets to blackmailing Russkies and are supposed to be at least theoretically representative of typical Americans.

Because guess what? The typical American — and just about every journalist I’ve ever asked — has already tried marijuana at least once before the age of 25, according to the government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. What’s more, despite 35 years and billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-financed propaganda to the contrary, most of those who’ve inhaled didn’t collapse through the “gateway” into desperate heroin addiction or “Traffic”-style sex slavery. George W. Bush turned out all right (at least on paper), as did Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Walton, Michael Bloomberg and millions more.

Welch’s plight reminds me of a great comic strip by Evan Dorkin, called (something like) “Ayn Rand in Hollywood.”

It’s a 3-panel strip. In panel 1, Rand is typing away at her desk. A production manager runs in and says, “The director says we need to cut 2 pages from the last scene.”

Panel 2 is wordless, with Rand staring into the distance.

In panel 3, she says, “Sure thing!”