The Promise of American Life

This is a guest post from Jack Werner, aka Jack Ryan on Facebook.  He’s the “former student” I mentioned at an earlier post.  I walked him up to the subway.  This is what he remembers.  I can’t vouch for it, but I was there.



“That’s where Billie Holiday used to sing in the 1930s and where Malcolm X hung out in the 1960s, right there.” He points to the Lenox Lounge, a now dilapidated bar. “I wanted to make it my bar, you see, but…there was this lady, Cassandra, and…” he trails off, looking ahead at something with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face.

“This is the epicenter of, you know, Harlem,” he hesitates and looks around, “the black cultural center of the world. I used to teach about black nationalism. And I would say this is where the American promise was realized.”

“Re-realized, you mean?”

“No, realized.” He turns my body to face the street, his left hand resting on my shoulder and his right hand gesturing outward. “Imagine, you’re standing at the intersection of Lenox and 125th, it’s 1926 and you’re a young black intellectual, you look around and you can see the entire history of your people, which is the entire history of the country – peasants immigrating from the South, workers on their way to the stores and the factories, your fellow intellectuals, all of them, and they’re all just one generation removed from slavery – they’re all condensed, no, squeezed, into this moment, real time. Just imagine that.” He pauses and looks ahead. “I used to lecture about this shit, but I never came here. But then I moved here.”

We’re engulfed in a crowd as people struggle to walk around us. But we’re also embedded in imagination – his portrait of 1920s Harlem and my vision of Malcolm juxtaposed with his lectures at Rutgers. The memories keep mixing, past and present collide.

“What was it like?”

“Christ, I mean…” and his eyes wander again somewhere else, maybe history itself. He takes his hand off my shoulder. “You’ll have to cross for your subway back to Penn Station.”

“You sure you don’t want to come back to New Jersey? Drive that new car and hit the bars and all?”

We laugh and he shakes his head. “I’m sure.” He turns to start walking. “It was good to see you again.”

I turn, too, ready to walk away. But then I stop. I can’t leave yet. It can’t be over already. I turn back to where he was standing.

I see him disappearing in the brief distance that is Lenox Avenue. He’s gone, just like that.

I look downtown, at the Manhattan skyscrapers. You can see the Empire State Building from 125th and Lenox. Keep moving or die, I think.

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So you’re a liberal?

Yesterday I taught corporate liberalism in my 100-level survey course (yeah, I assigned the intro of Sklar’s Corporate Reconstruction, pp. 1-40).  I began by asking the students how they identified, liberal or conservative (or . . .). Three people in a class of 37 claimed to be liberals—roughly the same proportion of avowed feminists in this class—and five claimed to be conservatives. Everybody else was waiting, on rational grounds, to see where this discussion was going before they committed themselves.

I began with a rudimentary taxonomy of liberalism, partly because all the comrades on the Left and the Right think of it as something mildly disgusting and immediately disposable, like a rotting vegetable you stumble on when you open the wrong drawer of the refrigerator.

What is it, anyway? That is, what assumptions animate the liberal attitude in the US? Here’s how we worked it out in class, more or less.

(1) The supremacy of society over the state.

(2) Thus, the site of self-discovery and self-determination is society—not the state, not politics, not citizenship, as per the specifications of classical republican theory and practice, nor abstention and release from worldly affairs as per the specifications of Stoic philosophy and pre-Protestant Christian theology.

(3) Individuality is an achievement, not the result of ascription by ethnic origin, class position, official designation, or any other census measure.

(4) Individualism is a valuable constraint on collective definitions of genuine selfhood, regardless of their provenance.

(5) The collaboration of private and public sectors is essential to economic growth and political progress.

(6) Departures from the customary practices of the past are natural. Crisis becomes the norm. Precedent is to be honored but not necessarily obeyed.

(7) Liberty and equality aren’t the terms of an either/or choice, because liberty can’t be reduced to freedom of contract. The original intent of the founders was to make these commitments equivalent obligations, on the assumption that liberty, however defined, could not survive the demise of equality.

In these terms, the differences between liberals and conservatives don’t get incommensurable until we reach (7).

Why, then, are we so devoted to these divisions, and, more to the point when it comes to the comrades, why is “liberal” an epithet? OK, so I’m a liberal social democrat, a democratic socialist like old Bernie, and, not incidentally, like Eduard Bernstein, the original “revisionist.”  Does Weimar follow?


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I Am A Vampire

I am a vampire. There, I’ve said it. It’s not easy. To be honest, I’d rather be a werewolf. Those guys kill people for fun, not for a living. The full moon rises, they go out and chew through some morons who don’t know any better than to walk around at night without a bodyguard. Wander in the woods, in the dark, who does that anymore?

Me, I have to suck their blood because it’s fucking nutritional, you know what I mean? If I don’t bite them, I don’t live. The werewolf, OK, I suppose he’s committed, in his own way, but it’s once a month, and he doesn’t remember. I’m out there every day, selling. Every night, I mean, I don’t go out during the day, the sunlight and all, that would hurt. Really hurt, like incinerate me. That’s the life. I accept it.

The werewolf, look, he’s got a part-time job, but me, I’m full-time, if I don’t suck somebody’s blood every day, what happens? I’m losing weight, I get dizzy, I can’t concentrate. I start eating potato chips, and I already know they make me sick.

So why am I telling you this? I want to come clean. All right, not exactly clean. When I’m done talking, I will bite you, I can’t help it, it’s what I do, I’m actually scared of myself, but for now I want you to know how this system works, yeah, you’re about to die, but you’re going to know why, you see what I mean?

I suck your blood because I have none, there’s nothing moving in there, you have value to me because you got this thing I don’t, and it makes you valuable, or edible, I don’t know there’s any difference. If I consume you, I stay alive, you see what I mean? I get what I pay for, you pay for what you get. The price is life, yours or mine. If I don’t kill you, I’m dead. I have no choice in the matter.

Now, consider the werewolf. He doesn’t have to worry about any of this. He’s excitable, OK, murderous, at a certain time of the month, but mainly he’s just a regular guy, maybe more hairy than most. He doesn’t have to ask about the relation between the supply and demand of blood every day, like I do, he just goes out there once in a while, all angry, and spills as much as he can, and then he goes home, he looks at that full moon and he wonders what happened.

Not me. I know how this thing works. The werewolf isn’t the problem. I am. You fear us both, and now you’ve also developed a taste for zombies, a distraction from everything that lives. But now you’ll die because I’ll suck you dry.

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Faith, Hope, Love: Paul Was Wrong

I’ve been reading and thinking about Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, a shifty fellow with several avatars in later centuries—you know him, he’s the evangelist of early Christianity who, in a letter to the struggling little congregation in Corinth, told us that faith, hope, and love were the essentials of human being.

He’s also the literary critic who told us how to read the Gospels. His letters are the bulk of the so-called New Testament, and they appear immediately after those Gospels, explaining their bizarre genealogies—the figurative connections to the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament—in eloquent detail.

I’ve been reading and thinking about this man for two reasons. Long ago I insisted that my children go to church with me, even though I’m an atheist. I wanted them to know the Bible. I don’t know what they took from the experience, but I learned a lot in that Dutch Reformed Church, a distant echo of Calvin’s yearning.

More recently, I wrote a play that is set in Rome, in 399, when the church fathers Augustine and Jerome were contemporaries and acquaintances, and when the great historian of the Empire, Marcellinus Ammianus, an anti-Christian Stoic, knew both of them. The premise, my conceit, is that they meet at the home of Marcellinus.

I rewrote the play over the last week because I realized that Pelagius, the outspoken heretic denounced by both Augustine and Jerom–because he advocated “free will”–was a resident of Rome in this same formative decade, the 390s as we would call it.  Pelagius now makes an appearance, and he makes a splash in the play—reading him let me understand Augustine’s astonishing effect on his fellow Christians, and later writers, because Pelagius shows us how Augustine himself was lifting the dead weight of the past from the brains of the living.

Pelagius and Paul come together in my thoughts on this unbearable Sunday morning because the comical contretemps between Pope Francis and The Donald looks serious, worth contemplation, through those ancient eyes.

Donald Trump is a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” according to Pope Francis. I agree, but then who among us moderns is not? Who doesn’t want to be Promethean, neo-Pelagian?

At that moment, when I ask myself this question, I read Corinthians again, 1:13. Faith, hope, love, “but the greatest of these is love,” says Paul. Why? Another question I can’t answer, not when my heart is breaking, except by saying this . . .

Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, was wrong. In Hebrews 11, he wrote that faith is “the conviction of things unseen.” Love is like that, it requires untested and unverifiable belief in another person—it’s faith in a hereafter but it’s a promise to be realized on this earth, so it has a temporal limit.

Love and faith are based on the same groundwork, then, which is nothing. You heard me right.

Hope is different. It makes you an empiricist, someone who says, OK, but what about tomorrow, what are my chances? It makes you want to know, not just believe. It makes you ask, do these wonderful new ideas reside in and flow from the experience I share with my fellow human beings, or am I just making shit up because I can’t stand them?

Faith in God can turn you away from this world. So can love, as it encloses you in the wonderful insanities of intimacy. Hope will not turn you away—not if you have faith in the neighbors you’re supposed to love.

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Leon Wieseltier Has Lost It

Speaking of malevolent, arrogant men who have ruined many mornings, Leon Wieseltier needs to take a vacation from real life, or finally announce that he is God. I’ll vouch for him either way, dead or alive, because I don’t believe in God. He is more arrogant than I was at 25, and that’s saying a lot.

I here limit myself to his Atlantic review of A.O. Scott’s book, Better Living Through Criticism.  This review is the most pompous text I’ve read since I forced myself through Tacitus because Erich Auerbach urged me to.

Leon is the middlebrow equivalent of Antonin Scalia. I hope to meet him some day, and tell him this to his face. On that occasion, I want to say as well that I hope he will writhe in Hell with Tony—Scalia, not Scott—where they can exchange pronouncements about they way things are supposed to be.

Leon begins and ends with Rilke, who was notoriously useful, but also stupid, along with D. H. Lawrence, about the sources and consequences of art as such. They believed it was life-changing, a kind of Kantian imperative—“The essential function of art is moral,” Lawrence intoned, “not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation, but moral”—or it was pointless. They were wrong. So is Leon.

Scott’s book is a meditation on what it means to be a reader and a critic, of books or movies or whatever, at a moment in human history when everyone can be. What is the point, why do you get paid to do it if everybody on the planet does it? As I understand him, Scott claims that the critic is the person who completes the author’s argument, whether that is conveyed without obvious apparatus, as narrative—in a story, say, or a movie—or by the serious, rhetorical intent of the academic writer. The critic is the person who discovers and explains the surplus of meanings most of us won’t find in whatever we’re reading or watching or minding.

Scott also insists that this surplus can be found, and measured, almost anywhere you look. The task of the critic is to seek it out, not to assume that it’s produced only in certain highbrow precincts, where an inherited stamp of approval already lets you pretend that you know how to separate the good from the bad—the high from the low.

Leon lives in and for that separation, where elevation and elocution are the insignia of seriousness. Listen to him, speaking from somewhere on high, as if he’s a pretender to the throne of the snot we try to remember as a poet because most of what he said as a critic was foolish, or cruel, or stupid. That would be T. S. Eliot.

“When it comes to the question of what bearing the lower realities of American culture should have upon its higher ambitions, Scott regularly acquiesces in too much . . . The fight for the integrity of aesthetic experience is not over. Scott is not a fighter, he is man on the scene.”

Now parse these sentences with me. The “lower realities”? What can that mean? The ones Leon doesn’t care to observe or indulge, like, say, the Super Bowl, or hip-hop, or popular music in general, the conversation you might hear and the insight you might find on the street—the stuff of everyday existence, what he calls the commonplace? How can you separate yourself from this plane of existence if you intend to express or amplify the possibilities of life as such, as people actually live it?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had something to say about that plane of existence: “One of the cardinal objects in poetry consists of faithful adherence to such characters and incidents as will be found in every village and its vicinity.”

Leon disagrees. He wants us to know that those lowly characters and incidents neither intersect nor interfere with what he calls art and criticism. He wants us to know that he, at least, has been able to rise above this world, and to judge it from the Scalian heights afforded him by distance from New York City.

The “integrity of aesthetic experience”? Since when was there just one way into or out of any work of art? Doesn’t the experience of modernity, and modernist art, reside precisely in their incalculable echoes, how they multiply as they move us? When painters could sail away from the safe harbor of hushed religious ardor and begin to worship the most mundane objects—we call that still life—they freed us all from the comforting complacencies Leon thinks we still need.

Leon excels at removing himself from the fray, rising always to a God-like vision of the fallen world we inhabit. In the second paragraph of this execrable review, he uses “Perhaps” as his exit sign and his phony plea for the reader’s trust. Listen now. He’s praising Rilke and condemning Scott. He’s anointing himself a saint in the church that consigns itself to relevance in the next life, when the masses have better manners and reading skills.

“Perhaps there is nothing ridiculous, after all, about grandeur and consecration and transcendence and a single view of the world. Perhaps one should not return unchanged from a museum. Perhaps a decision does have to be made.”

Perhaps Leon is entirely ridiculous because he does not merely wade, he wallows in such idiocy. Perhaps Leon needs to shed the costume of grandeur and consecration and transcendence—he’s not the fucking Pope of Art, and neither is Rilke. Perhaps Leon should stop going to museums. “Perhaps a decision does have to be made”?

By whom, Leon? How did you evacuate these premises? This is the Wieseltierian procedure, you see. It reminds me of the much better critic James Wood, who speaks of indirect discourse in the 19th-century realist novel. But Wood speaks of fiction, how it works. Wieseltier absents himself as he accuses Scott of writing non-fiction that makes many decisions, not just one on behalf of “a single view of the world.”

Who exactly stands convicted, then, of “methodological shiftiness”? A. O. Scott, who is almost too honest about his intellectual origins and destinations—the guy who makes you uncomfortable by telling you he’s unsure of where this ship is headed, or Leon Wieseltier, who stands there telling you the Titanic will never sink, even as it floods?

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My girlfriend and I went to see “Hamilton” last night at the magnificent Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street.

For me it was a moving, even exalting experience, even though I disagree profoundly with the show’s portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. I was in tears for about half the show’s three-hour running time—not during the love scenes, although these were tenderly scripted and performed (bringing everybody in the house back to Broadway). No, my tears flowed when Hamilton and his posse were announcing their insane ambition, to carve a “mighty empire” out of people like themselves, nobodies from nowhere who made their way to New York.

We had first-row mezzanine seats (her online skills), perfect for watching a musical. Except it wasn’t a musical. The only departure from the rhythmic and lyrical conventions of hip-hop was the moment when George Washington’s “Farewell Address” is recited by what seemed the entire cast, including the outgoing president himself. This show is almost an opera—there’s no exposition or dialogue without music, or at least the rhyming that gives speech rhythm and makes it musical. Or maybe it’s a ballet—you can always see sinuous, sometimes athletic movement that performs and punctuates the words themselves.

Who cares? It’s another great American mash-up of received traditions—transformation by repetition, the essential attitude of hip-hop and before it the blues, is enacted on this stage as a celebration of the American Revolution and the politics it enabled.

But that’s why watching this show moved me to tears. I suppose it’s no surprise that second-generation immigrants are devout believers in the American Dream, and that they locate its source in the Revolution. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics—he also plays Hamilton!—is exactly that, the son of a penurious if not penniless man who fled Puerto Rico for New York City. Miranda says that when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, the man who invented this post-colonial itinerary, he was reminded of his father.

Why do they believe? Why do I? And, for that matter, why would African-Americans? These are questions I’ve been grappling with lately as I ‘ve tried to defend Ta-Nehesi Coates—who thinks the American Dream is a joke—against his critics.

All the major roles in this show are played by people of color. This is not the cute kind of change in complexion you expect from a regional theater that’s restaging, say, “Romeo & Juliet,” as a racialized drama. No, we’re on Prospero’s contested terrain now, where Caliban was both chorus and prophet.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are played by black men, who are, in real life, descendants of the slaves these founding fathers owned as chattel property. Washington is a compact, charismatic DJ in the second act; Jefferson is a dandy and a rapper, equipped with apprpriate cane; Madison is the large but quiet follower. How can this arrangement work, except as a truly “alienating effect” as per Brecht, or a “theater of cruelty” as per Artaud, reminding us either way of the absurdity embedded in the Declaration of Independence?

It works, I think, because, as hip-hop culture itself demonstrates, the possibility of projection and identification across lines of race (or class or gender)—what the arts have always given us, if we were in a position to receive the gift—has become necessary to our survival as a nation and people, and this necessity is a function of new notions of equality.

Rappers and hip-hop artists from New York City reinvented this country in the 1980s and 1990s, as they watched their neighborhoods decay and burn. Their new notions of liberty and equality, stirred by and embodied in identity politics, these are the raw materials of Miranda’s musical revaluation of the Revolution. His ideas about what that moment means are more important than any historian’s, mine included.

So what are those ideas? To begin with, Liberty and Equality can’t exist apart from each other. The freedom to “take my shot,” as Hamilton puts it, requires your freedom to do the same. None of us can become what we want unless all of us are equally equipped with the same rights. Equality is the enabling condition of Liberty. And Liberty is pointless in the absence of Equality, unless you want to be all alone with your crown jewels, like the hilarious King George III on this stage.

Then here’s the crowd-pleasing line: “Immigrants get the job done.” The audience last night was somewhat suburban, mostly middle-class, mostly white, and they roared. Miranda portrays Hamilton as an orphan, an immigrant, a castaway who shouldered his way into the highest circles of power, and everybody identified.   Why not? That’s the miracle of this country, or this city—we all come from somewhere else, but this is where we stand, what we believe in.

Of course we move on, unless we arrive in New York. And of course we know better than to think that hard work will get us what we want. But we remember the promise, and we act on it.

And then there’s the strange idea, which is foreign to left-wing thinking of our time, that the Revolution is not just a great event in the history of freedom, of Liberty and Equality, but an abiding presence in every way we think about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, and our futures. It’s not a distant past in the Richard Rodgers Theater on 46th. It’s right there in front of you.

I don’t mean Miranda brings this past alive. As far as he’s concerned, it was never dead.

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NYT Zombie Sighting

Talk about the walking dead. The op-ed in this morning’s Times by David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru on how the Fed caused the Great Recesssion—you read that right—is a hilarious parody of the argument made by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Scwartz on how the Fed caused the Great Depression. In their execrable book of 1960, these two claimed that by raising real interest rates in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, the Fed destroyed confidence in the assets held by the banks (stock market shares), and thus undermined the banking system as such.

Beckworth and Ponnuru make precisely the same argument about the Great Recession. When the housing market faltered in 2006-07, the Fed could have eased real rates, but no, they kept nominal rates the same and even talked about raising them (citing inflation), destroying confidence in the assets (mortgages) sold by the banks downriver, to fund managers.

See, government is to blame for the mess. Between them, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac inflated the bubble by pouring money into housing, thus lowering mortgage rates, and then the Fed got stupid . . . by not lowering rates as the bubble collapsed! Impeccable reasoning, as long as you know nothing about logic, the place where conclusions are supposed to follow from premises, or about history, the place where real events outside of banks often take place.

This is not the first time persons of dubious political provenance have tried to resuscitate the rotting corpse of monetarist “theory” as the explanation for the Great Recession. Anna Jacobson Schwartz herself told the Wall Street Journal the same story peddled here by Beckwith and Ponnuru. And of course Niall Ferguson, the man who understands nothing except his own ambition, did, too, in a long article for Time magazine.

If you would like to sample their quaint idiocy, and read the best available explanations for both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, see my Against Thrift (2011) and subsequent pieces here at the blog.

But the question for today is, why does the Times put up with shit like this from the likes of Beckwith and Ponnuru? To seem objective? Engaged? Important? Up to date with the zombie fetish of popular culture? Or, in view of Ted Cruz’s candidacy, is the paper of record trying to tell this Republican that his ideas about the Fed’s perfidy and the gold standard aren’t too far-fetched for its pages?

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