Fuck Tragedy, or, Comedians All!

Laughter is subversive. That’s why I want to get over the morbid, to move beyond the tragic, and to argue that comedy is what we need in addressing His Anus, the asshole who now occupies the White House. We have to learn to laugh at him. I understand that the tragic sensibility is the costume of the serious academic or intellectual, and I want to wear it—woe is fucking me–but I’ll be goddamned if that hairshirt fits. I just can’t bear it.

Herewith, then, a primer on comedy. Not to worry, this is self-help in the most literal sense–I write to instruct and improve myself. If you feel better having read what follows, and please remember that I don’t yet know what follows, good for you. Maybe good for me, too. I’m making this shit up as I go along.

Alexander Herzen, the crazy Russian sort-of anarchist once said: “Only equals may laugh.” He meant at, and with, each other. We all laugh at our bosses and our superiors, the ones who can give the orders, but only behind their backs. We all know what would happen if we laughed in their faces: “Do you think this is funny?” Then we’d get fired, demoted, reprimanded, or court-martialed, depending on our station.

Herzen knew that laughter is the solvent of social hierarchies, and that silence, civility, reverence, and lofty purposes sustain them.

Another crazy Russian, Mikhail Bakhtin (a.k.a. V.N. Volshinov), a 20th-century linguist without limits, wrote a whole history of this corrosive laughter by way of his book on Rabelais, the 16th-century author of Gargantua and Pantegruel, a novel that makes “South Park” seem Victorian. It contains these liturgically inspired lines, which I memorized when I was in junior high school:

“Squirt hard, fart hard, turd in us:/Thy bung has flung its dung on us.”

Bakhtin is honored among serious academics and intellectuals for his treatment of the carnival, the strenuous but still occasional holidays of late medieval Europe, as compensation and reversion—as ratification of existing social hierarchies: today we party, tomorrow we go back to bowing and scraping because that’s real life. Same old servant of power shit, right? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Serious intellectuals want to know that the carnival is a sham—they need to know that they must lose, because if they won, they couldn’t have been serious to begin with.

I keep reading Bakhtin precisely because I’m not a serious intellectual: fuck that tragic sense of life, I want to win this thing, I want to take power away from the dickheads and the rednecks and the CEOS—I mean, let’s kick their asses. Also, I admit, because Bakhtin was writing utopian literary history under the most suffocating intellectual conditions, in the USSR of the mid-20th century. He couldn’t be any more serious than I am. Here’s a sample from Rabelais and His World (1965, trans. 1968):

“This [the city, the marketplace, where a social consciousness of historical time flourishes because one experiences other bodies of different ages, races, social classes] is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.

“Medieval laughter, when it triumphed over the fear inspired by the mystery of the world and by power, boldly unveiled the truth about both. It resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy. This laughing truth, expressed in curses and abusive words, degraded power.”


In these terms, comedy is not merely more fun than tragedy, it’s more useful if you want to speak truth to power—if you want to get political in the here and now rather than wait on a better world to come. Berthold Brecht, a deadly serious playwright, explained that proposition as a kind of paradox when contemplating the ridiculous spectacle of Adolf Hitler:

“The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. . . . If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature. One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.”

Hello? How’s that? Kenneth Burke, the American literary critic, translator, historian, and bon vivant, a man who wrote about comedy and tragedy at the same moment, in the 1930s—and in exactly the same way as Brecht—explained the matter as a forensic problem. Tragedy, he wrote in 1937, “deals in crime,’ so it proliferates at moments of sharp and deeply felt change: “any incipient trend will first be felt as crime by reason of its conflict with established values.”

Burke argued that comedy transcended tragedy because it, too, “warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity.” Comedy depicts people as mistaken, not vicious. “When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.” Comedy “requires the maximum of forensic complexity,” and so it refuses the deus ex machina that often regulates tragedy. “Comedy deals with man in society,” as Burke put it, “tragedy with the cosmic man.”

The originary gangster movies of the early 1930s, and their gradual displacement (in time, in space, in words) by westerns in the grand cinematic style pioneered by John Ford, demonstrate Burke’s point. John Wayne/Ringo in “Stagecoach (1939) is no less beyond the law than James Cagney/Tommy in “Public Enemy” (1932). Both of these self-made men are behind their bureaucratic, white-collar, rule-bound times, as any unruly individual will be under the regime of corporate capitalism. But “Stagecoach” is a comedy, and “Public Enemy” is, like “Scarface” (1931) and “Little Caesar” (1930), a tragedy.

So Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke were making quite similar arguments at the same time, during the greatest crisis of western civilization since the 17th century—not just a Great Depression, not merely the triumph of fascism, but also a European civil war that turned the entire continent into a charnel house, from Spain to Siberia. Yes, they said, this is serious business, but enough already with the tragic sensibility that protects us from the storm by assuming that it must end badly for us leftists. They were exhorting their comrades, telling them to liberate themselves.


I think that’s why Bakhtin lets the social force of laughter disappear into the interiority of each individual just two pages after explaining its public effects (as above): “Laughter is essentially not an external but an interior form of truth. . . . Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power.”

I know that’s why G. W. F. Hegel was a stand-up comedian. Seriously. Bear with me as I explain—just a few more paragraphs!

Hegel invented the category of the “unhappy consciousness” in trying to explain the passage beyond the integrated character of the ancient citizen, who was somehow at home in his world.  Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity served as both metaphors and historical instances of this passage—the secular chapters in the same story were Skepticism and Stoicism.  What they all shared, according to Hegel, was an inability, or rather an unwillingness, to read or inscribe their truths in the world as it actually existed. They shared a tragic sensibility.

Release or abstention from the corruptions of this world was, then, the path to salvation or enlightenment, because the world had become the impediment to—never the condition of—truth as such.  So the unhappy consciousness typically produced a “beautiful soul,” the man who would be in but not of this world, the man who couldn’t recognize his own implication in its corruptions. He’s the man who wouldn’t know a comic spectacle even if he were a cast member, and Hegel put it pretty much this way in 1807.

Now comedy, defined either as the happy stupidity of humor—can you believe this shit?—or more broadly, as the narrative form that refuses to let things end at the stage of tragedy, is the place where we decide to get ugly and acknowledge that no one is exempt from the corruptions of this world: no more beautiful souls, comedians say, whether they’re writing plays and novels, or doing stand-up, or making fun of FOX News.

You can’t abstain from sin, evil, or power, they insist, so you might as well know that there’s no sanctuary.  Comedians always have to produce ironic detachment from shitty circumstances because they begin there, in the world, in the same place the audience comes from.

Of course Hegel knew that a strictly tragic sense of life could issue from the disturbing idea that “the world is ruled by the Devil,” as Martin Luther, his chosen antecedent, explained the situation.  After all, once you acknowledge the universal reification and corruption of your time, intellectual resignation from it, and thus practical acquiescence to it, become perfectly rational: skepticism, stoicism, even cynicism and nihilism, then become the obvious retort to what we call faith, hope, or optimism.  In this sense, the “beautiful soul” isn’t a merely romantic conceit—every generation or so, it becomes a left-wing political imperative.  Ask Chris Hedges.

But Hegel, like Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke, knew that comedy contains tragedy, and by doing so it gives us good reasons to have faith in each other and hope for our futures.  As Hayden White puts it in Metahistory: “Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.”

Hegel himself was more circumspect in The Phenomenology, and, I would suggest, more devious. The “unhappy consciousness”—skepticism, stoicism, early Christianity, etc.—was the form of self-certainty that could appear, in history and in philosophy, when the slave understood that the master was a dimension of his own personality rather than an external figure with absolute power over him, and, accordingly, when the master understood that he had already bought the slave’s knowledge of the world.

At that historical and philosophical moment, however, each was able to realize only an “inner freedom,” an empty subjectivity that lacked material validation: “Self-consciousness which reaches its fulfillment in the figure of unhappy consciousness is only the torment of the spirit struggling to rise again to an objective state but failing to reach it.”  Or again: “It lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence.”

But comedy as a narrative form works exactly this way, by taking the outward oppositions of tragedy—over here the hero (good), over there the villain (bad), these shall meet ere long and die appropriate deaths, probably at each other’s hands—and making them inward, by making them discordant dimensions of every character in sight. That’s what Bakhtin was getting at when he said that laughter is an “interior form of truth.”

Where once we witnessed master and slave, we now experience and recognize ourselves.  No more beautiful souls, because no one can rise above or stand apart from the administered inferno that is “the modern time.”  Everyone is always already beyond good and evil, because everyone, having been created equal, just is good and evil.

Hegel explained in the Aesthetics that, like History itself, all dramatic action expresses the “one-sided aspect” of each character, actor, people or nation: “And this is so whether as in tragedy, they are opposed to such in hostility, or, as in comedy, they are displayed within these characters themselves, without further mediation, as a condition of resolution” (my italics).

Because the comprehension of the entire situation is unavailable to any character—and this is especially true of the great tragic heroes—passion, error, irony, and conflict are the regulative principles of both dramatic action and History itself.  But comedy gets beyond tragedy by treating these as matters of folly, evidence of our common experience, rather than evidence of concerted evil imposed on us from elsewhere by Fate, by the Gods, or by the corporate powers that be.

Toward the end of The Phenomenology, the Bildungsroman of self-consciousness, Hegel got pretty excited about the prospects of his comedic rendition of the human condition, even unto “the modern time,” which he dated from the 18th century.  Hereafter, he thought, we didn’t have to be the disport of the Gods, the willing victims of Fate, the mute objects of History made by great men.  The “comic spectacle” on offer here was “the return of everything universal into certainty of self,” he announced, “a certainty which, in consequence, is [the] complete loss of fear of everything strange and alien, and [the] complete loss of substantial reality on the part of what is alien and external.”

He concluded:  “Such certainty is a state of spiritual good health and of self-abandonment thereto, on the part of consciousness, in a way that, outside this kind of comedy, is not to be found elsewhere.”

I’m with Rabelais, Bakhtin, Brecht, Burke, and Hegel. Fuck tragedy and its non-heroic residue. His Anus doesn’t yet know that he’s the leading man in a comic spectacle. Let’s make sure that he finds out.



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The Ending of the American Century

I wrote this two weeks ago, but forgot to post it.  Imagine that.  I was on my way to Mexico.  It’s not up to the minute, but it’s still relevant, I think.  You can judge for yourself.


So much for the horror of that neoliberal bond between Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton. I hope your vote wasn’t cast as a result of such horror, because your favorite war criminal Harry the K is now praising as well as advising Donnie the T. (a.k.a. president-elect Donald J. Trump). From a CBS News interview as reported by Politico:

“Trump, Kissinger said, ‘has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president.’ Because of perceptions that Obama weakened American influence abroad, ‘one could imagine that something remarkable and new emerges out of a Trump administration,’ he said.”

Yeah, like an arms race or a trade war with China. Or, you know, like some more war in the Middle East, like maybe another Israeli invasion of Lebanon to teach Hezbollah not to pester those new settlements. Russia gets a pass, of course, because Trump and Kissinger agree that Vladimir Putin is a statesman.

Which raises serious questions. Like, why would Kissinger, the consummate “realist” among foreign policy-makers, embrace the gold-plated charlatan who will soon “occupy” the presidency, a man who obviously knows nothing about the world outside his own (literal) grasp?

Greg Grandin has the answer in his brilliant bio of the K, where Henry is properly portrayed as a Nietzschean who abuses history by taking the dare of making it. Kissinger isn’t Metternich—he has always been totally uninterested in conserving what is left of the ancient regime, or even in restoring order. Like his new client, he wants power, and the ends of its deployment are secondary to the existentialist possession of it. Diplomats have only interpreted the world differently. The point is to change it.

I have other questions, the kind Kissinger wouldn’t ask because he’s too excited, at the age of 93, to be center stage again. Why would Trump reassert the significance of military power in foreign policy after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Gaza, Yemen, and Syria)? Why would he threaten trade war with China? In short, why would Trump repudiate the principles that have regulated American foreign policy for a hundred years?

You got me, except to say that the world has in fact come undone, and nobody seems to know how to stitch it back together.

I have long argued that US foreign policy in the 20th century—the Open Door world—was a vast improvement on all its predecessors in the history of imperialism because it wouldn’t settle for the conquest of territory, the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and the appropriation of the products of their labor. Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri make a similar argument in Empire (1999); like me, they obviously learned something from William A. Williams, Bill Warren, Martin J. Sklar, Carl Parrini, and Richard Sklar.

Here’s the key. The foreign policies that accorded with an Open Door world insisted on development rather than exploitation, in keeping with the liberal notion that imperialism was not, by definition, a zero-sum game, but a reciprocal relation that could benefit all parties to the bargain. I’m not saying these policies accomplished this, only that their makers hoped they would.

According to the architects of the new imperialism at the State Department, ca. 1899-1919, European colonialism was inducing rebellion everywhere instead of development or progress anywhere. Revolution would surely follow, as in Russia (1905), Mexico (1910), China (1911), and elsewhere—and these events would soon seal off the entire Eurasian landmass from western influence (or investment). Then we would face world war, as the advanced capitalist nations scrambled to reassert their claims on global resources by military means. What was to be done?

Invent an anti-colonial imperialism, they answered—an Open Door world, where exclusive European spheres of influence in Asia and Africa, or anywhere else, would no longer limit either the flow of finished goods (trade) or the transfer of technology (direct investment). By this means, a post-colonial world would emerge, and hitherto subjugated peoples could then choose the path of modernity blazed by the US. Or not.

I know, it sounds idealistic, almost altruistic. But it was neither, and, in any case, they meant it. I used to think that the American Century, so conceived, ended with the militarization of US foreign policy in the 1990s and after, culminating in the insane war on Iraq. I said as much in a book of 2009. But now I think Donald Trump is a more likely candidate than George W. Bush for the title of the delusional twit who destroyed what remained of American credibility in a post-colonial world.

To see why I might be changing my mind, consider the assumptions that informed the original Open Door policies, again ca. 1899-1919.

(1) World peace depended on global economic growth in two senses: (a) the benefits of such growth had now to be redistributed to formerly colonized or less developed countries, because otherwise they would keep rising in rebellion against the imperial powers; (b) the volume of world income had to grow continuously so that no nation would decide that its share of world income was inadequate, and, accordingly, be forced to increase its share at the expense of other nations, by means of tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment, or by military means. (cf. Japan, Germany, ca. 1894-1945)

(2) Trade wars by means of tariffs, spheres of influence, etc., were the origins of war as such, even world war, as witness the carnage of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars ca. 1894-1904, and the skirmishes under way in Western Europe as early as 1906, at the Algeceiras Conference that validated German concerns about its access to African markets. The choice was simple: either exclusive spheres of influence or a new imperialism aimed at dismantling European colonialism.

(3) Colonialism and its cultural attendants, such as racism (“the white man’s burden”), were impediments to world peace—so conceived—because they were merely exploitative, aimed at extracting wealth from host countries instead of developing their resources. Again, the choice was simple: either share the wealth, redistribute global income, or face rebellion, revolution, trade war, and world war.

(4) Transfers of technology (direct investment) were much more important than trade in effecting this developmental sequence. In other words, the advanced nations had to provide the less-developed countries of the world with the capital they needed to manufacture goods for themselves and other nations. Of course the investors would profit from such transactions, but eventually the former colonies would compete with the advanced nations for opportunities in local and global markets. (cf. China, India, et al., since the 1970s)

(5) The seat of empire would keep moving East to West, but a de-centered multi-lateral world, with many such seats, was inevitable once development had become the goal of imperialism. Any attempt to arrest this movement—to reassert the standing of the status quo ante—would be a disaster, because it would necessarily involve tariffs, trade war, and war itself (although armed struggle would probably take the form of civil and/or regional wars).

In these terms, Trump, like his pal Putin, is a throwback to the intellectual hemisphere of the 19th century, when measuring the balance of military power was the only way of thinking about world power as such. He is no less an atavism when he claims that new trade agreements will change the balance of economic power. They won’t, and they can’t. Those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, regardless of what the twit-in-chief does about NAFTA. The US has been running trade deficits for 50 years because that’s what the seat of empire must do to maintain its leading role in the world economy (cf. the UK in the 19th century).

So the ending of the American Century does reside in the militarization of US foreign policy under Clinton and Bush, but also in the Trumpian notion that the Open Door must be closed. Or should I be citing Kissinger at this point, as the intellectual godfather of the thuggery required of these new men of power? After all, he’s the man who praised his old friend Putin in that same CBS interview, as follows:

“[He] is a ‘character out of Dostoyevsky,’ Kissinger said, a reference to the 19th-century author who chronicled the often bleak lives of Russians in novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Idiot.’ ‘He is a man with a great sense of connection, an inward connection, to Russian history as he sees it,’ Kissinger said of Putin.

“The Kremlin took it as a compliment. ‘Kissinger knows our country really well, he knows our writers and our philosophers so such comparisons from him are quite positive,’ a spokesman for the Russian government said, adding that Kissinger ‘has deep knowledge, not superficial.’”

These remarkable statements strike me as prompts for the casting director of the surreal scenes now unfolding.

Let’s say Putin is an imposing character out of Dostoyevsky—Rodion Raskolnikov, who murdered an old woman, or the Underground Man, who gambled on everything except the future, or the Grand Inquisitor, who demanded confessions from everyone without the sanction of God, an intelligence officer avant la lettre. Does it follow that Trump is the feckless lead from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but now stripped of the quasi-military, sado-masochistic equipment that befits the role? Or is the president-to-be now the stooge in a new reality TV show called “The Applicant,” co-hosted by Kissinger and Putin?

But Henry, oh Henry, what does your literary citation tell us about you? Have you finally become Dr. Strangelove, heiling whatever Hitler wanders into view?   Or, have you just decided that being in power is better than being dead, no matter what the purposes of the powerful might be?

All right, I admit these are rhetorical questions. The reality is that these people are so ruthless, and clueless, that they would raze the planet if that would keep them in power. They would gladly eat their own grandchildren, and, having deftly described the meal as if reviewing a restaurant, dutifully explain why they had to.

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The Anatomy of Populism

Is Donald Trump a fascist or a populist? I think he’s both. But it’s a question that can’t be answered without historical consciousness and reference. Robert O. Paxton wrote the definitive book, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). Here’s his list of its “mobilizing passions,“ slightly compressed for my purposes (see pp. 40-41)

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis
  • a belief in the primacy of the group as against the individual
  • a dread of this group’s decline due to liberal, individualistic, alien influences
  • a desire for closer integration of this group
  • a need for authority by “natural leaders”
  • a belief in such leaders’ instincts over abstract reasoning
  • an infatuation with violence

Paxton writes of the group in question as if the nation is its obvious source and grounding: “At bottom [fascism] is a passionate nationalism.” But then fascism was always a way of defining a nation in divisive, exclusionary terms, as a fixed, racially derived entity, so that, for example, German Jews, who had been crucial participants in the making of modern, cosmopolitan German culture—see Vienna, 1900—became aliens, outsiders, the Other.

Is Donald Trump a fascist in these terms? I now believe so, because by all accounts he represents, in every sense, white voters, women and men, who think the nation itself—now construed as a racially derived entity—is under siege. He’s trying to defend their American nation. His constituents don’t love their country, they love themselves.

The question I want to engage is actually more difficult. Is Donald Trump a populist? If you call someone a fascist, that’s a criticism, but to say the man is a populist, well, maybe that’s high praise. Ask almost any historian, from Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington to John D. Hicks and Fred Shannon, on toward Lawrence Goodwyn, Elizabeth Sanders, and Charles Postner. By their accounting, Populism in the 1880s and 90s was a mass democratic movement because it was dedicated to the abolition of the “trusts,” the late-19th century vernacular term for the corporations.

In 1955, with The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter started a brief revolt against this unanimity by claiming, on solid empirical grounds, that the Populists of the 1890s were prone to conspiracy theories, to anti-Semitism, and maybe to racism as well. This revolt, called “consensus history,” was joined by William Appleman Williams, an intellectual godfather of the New Left, who, like Hofstadter, understood corporations as integral, perhaps even organic parts of the American experience (see The Contours of American History [1962] and The Roots of the Modern American Empire [1969]). The revolt lasted exactly twenty years. Its death was announced in 1976, with the publication of Goodwyn’s huge book, Democratic Promise, a lavish paean to Populism.

I furnish these boring historiographical details because my quarrel with populism has been carried out in these professional precincts. Once upon a time, I agreed with Hofstadter’s critics. But it gradually, eventually dawned on me that the Populists were angry anti-modernists, and that their pro-corporate opponents, including the newborn AFL, were searching for a way into, and maybe beyond, modernity.

Now my quarrel with populism is public because it’s political. I do not believe that democracy means majority rule. I can’t because by this criterion the Jim Crow South was composed of democratic states. Herewith, then, my list of the “mobilizing passions” of populism, which, I believe, lets me characterize and indict—yes, that’s the word—Donald Trump as a populist.

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis
  • a belief in the primacy of the group (yeomen)
  • a dread of this group’s decline due to urban, corporate, cosmopolitan influences
  • a faith in the self-made man, the bourgeois proprietor of himself
  • a hatred of bankers (Jews?) and their alchemy
  • a suspicion of the higher learning, especially Darwinian science

You can measure the overlap of my list and Paxton’s. I will leave you with two more insights from his great book. First, “fascists can find their space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele.” (43) Second, fascism “has historically been a phenomenon of weak or failed liberal states and belated or damaged capitalist systems.” (81)

Are we sounding familiar?


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The small, bright lake shone every morning, even when it rained. You could see the sky without looking toward heaven. All souls were reflected there.

I walked its two-mile circumference every day for almost a month. I was in exile, estranged from my wife, waiting for her to move out of the apartment in the city. Only once was the water roused enough by wind to punctuate the surface with neat white-tipped commas. It was late in my stay.

That was when I noticed the withered forest in the lake. The trees were still standing, so I supposed their island had been recently swamped. They didn’t bend in the wind that day, they just broke off and hurried toward me in serried rows that looked like rafts. I bent to retrieve one sliver, crooked timber smoothed by drowning. I used it as a walking stick. It kept me upright, for a few days, anyway.

The dwellings facing the lake were all at a much higher elevation than the water, as if they had been warned by those trees. Some of these houses were serenely perched on hilltops, surrounded by green lawns and accompanied by wind chimes. Most were backed a hundred yards up into dark overgrowth, protected by chain-link fences against everything except the weeds and the saplings. All displayed the same blue sign: NO TRESPASSING.

The abandoned vehicles congregated on the eastern edge of the lake, where the wind arrives. An orange backhoe sat there, perfect testimony to the bankruptcy of the construction company that had started some renovation uphill. I climbed into it one day, just to see if I could remember the pedals and the levers I had once used to make a living, before I met my wife.

The key was in the ignition, so I started it. Everything came back to life. For the hell of it I raised it on the stabilizing plates, turned the shovel south and dug a grave. It took five minutes. I could have stayed there all day, digging some more, remembering the people I had buried, but I turned the shovel back east and climbed down.

The rusted white 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 was next door, if that’s how you plot a position in the middle of nowhere. It faced south. Somebody had backed it into this space hoping, or just wanting, to leave. The vehicle had settled in so far to the ground as to look like just another outcropping—a different rock formation, a forgotten sculpture, a jagged edge of modernity’s shale? The tires were sunk in the dirt to the point where nobody could kick them.

I opened the driver’s side door and climbed down into the seat. The key wasn’t in the ignition, but it dropped from the shade, like in a bad movie.   The engine started when I turned it. Now what? Drive away? Head south?

I sat there listening to the exhaust manifold protest its suffocation. The urgent sound expired after twenty seconds. The gas tank was empty, anyway. From the sunken driver’s seat I couldn’t see the lake, only the sky, and it was now blotted by random shards of mud on the windshield. In these dark shapes I saw two symmetrical creatures, arthropods, fight to the death.

The door wouldn’t open when I tried to get out. My weight had sunk the Cutlass even further into the earth it had defied all these years, more than thirty.   I was trapped, but that felt good. I steadied my breathing, thinking that I’d preserve the oxygen—I couldn’t open the windows—and fondled my walking stick.

When the sun pierced the windshield after noon and the temperature rose, I called my wife on the cell phone. I wanted to speak to her before I boiled alive.

“How you doing?”

“I’m fine. I’ll be out by the time you get back. “

“I don’t think I’m coming back.”

“Oh for god’s sake, would you just once in your life stop saying these stupid things, making the rest of us respond to your, what, your needs, your provocations?”

“I don’t think I’m coming back.”

“Fine, don’t come back. I’ll move back in. I like this apartment.”

“OK. I like this car.”

“What car?  What are you talking about?”

Two hours later, I broke the window with the walking stick and climbed out. When I started to pack for my return to the city the next day, I decided to leave everything behind, the clothes and all the books I brought. The walking stick, too. I left it deep in the woods, where everything decomposes.

When I got to NY 17, future Interstate 86, I turned right. I drove west.

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I’m spending a month in the Catskills with my girlfriend—it was her idea!—and so far, so good. Last night we were in Callicoon, on the Delaware River, eating great burgers, but mostly we just grill whatever animal spills from the freezer before noon.

We eat breakfast over the electronic Times, then go to work—OK, she works all goddamn day, she’s on a deadline, I just fuck around on Facebook for a while and maybe try to write the memoir—and then (when?) we take a walk around the lake that anchors the tiny borough of Smallwood, New York, founded in 1928 as a gated community reserved for Christian Caucasians. There are still covenants in the deeds, but there are only 566 residents and 129 households left here, according to the 2000 Census.

It’s a landlocked island worthy of anthropological attention. Its residents are marooned right now, because 300,000 Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish Caucasians from Brooklyn are taking their summer vacations right here, in Sullivan County, a desperately poor place that, like most of upstate New York, looks to have been abandoned right around 1973.

Does that number sound outlandish or inflated? In the 1950s, it was three times that large, because, according to the Catskills Institute run by Professor Phil Brown of Northeastern University—c’mon, could I make that up?—“more than a million [Jewish] people inhabited the summer world of bungalow colonies, summer camps and small hotels.” Remember the big hotels, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s (where Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, and Leo Spinks trained), the Concord?  They’re gone, but the bungalows remain.

Therein lies a political problem.  Or is it ethical?  In the last few years, certain townships have stirred local movements in Sullivan County to limit the building, even the maintenance, of the bungalow colonies where the Jews vacation. (There are 100 Orthodox summer camps in this county.) The logic is impeccable. The Jews mean more summer spending, to be sure, but less room for aesthetically pleasing apartments to house all the people clamoring to live here year round, even when it snows four feet and the only paying job in town is plowing it for the Public Works Department.

Sullivan County, like most places colonized by gambling, whether on the horses or the cards, is, empirically speaking, a desolate place, unless you think that Nature is something like the parents you wanted, a benign presence that let you live your own life, not reproduce theirs. Trees thrive here, but little else. Climate change notwithstanding, there are more of them in these parts than there were in 1916, or in 1816, because when human beings leave, the residual flora and fauna reassert their claims to the land.

Get off NY 17—future Interstate 86, there’s a kind of progress for you—toward the racetrack in Monticello, or yet further, to Smallwood and other vacation “resorts,” and you will find nothing open on 17B except antique stores and gas stations, the mini-marts where beer, aspirin, condoms, and potato chips are the featured items because every customer is presumably headed for that ideal one-night stand. Between Monticello and Smallwood, not even the strip club is open, although the Help Wanted sign still stands. (And who among us would not want to fill out the application form?)

Nobody shops in Monticello, the once-quaint little town six miles down the road from Smallwood, because there’s nothing left to buy, or rather no stores to sell what you might want or need to buy, except for the quiet CVS on East Broadway. Instead, everybody goes to the Shop-Rite and the Walmart on Route 42, between Exits 104 and 105 off NY 17, future Interstate 86.

In these places, you will feel the hustle and the bustle of the city—you will feel a seething, almost athletic energy—because these are the places where the young men and women, whether Orthodox or Hasidic, can have some fun. Otherwise they’re studying Talmud or caring for their siblings.

We hit the Shop-Rite on Friday night about 6:00, July 1, having already stopped at the Costco in Clifton, NJ. The lines at the registers here in Monticello looked like a mosh pit except that nobody was high, happy, or horizontal. It was the weekend of the 4th, a hallowed secular holiday, so the locals were stocking up on beer, painkillers, and ice—these items are always at the top of my list—but it was also almost Shabbas, a real holiday, and the sun was going down, so the vacationers were stocking up on . . . bottled water. It was bedlam because everybody knew the rules, and didn’t care. I certainly didn’t. Macy’s on Black Friday? I’ve been there, and this was far worse.

My girlfriend is a real shopper—she pays attention to the prices and the possibilities.  (I just buy shit.)  She was dismayed by the crowd, but not daunted, or rather panicked, as I was. When I said, “I gotta get outta here, this is making me crazy,” she said, “We will, calm down, buy some beer, and find the whole milk.” I didn’t calm down, but I accomplished the other assigned tasks. I bought a lot of beer.

On our return to Smallwood—we had unloaded our city cargo and then gone back to the Shop-Rite—I apologized to my girlfriend for being insanely impatient, seething in my own unathletic way.   She was uncharacteristically diplomatic. She said, “Well, that was a scene.”

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Unhappy 4th of July

The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left, which makes as much sense as mascara on nostril hair, is to argue that when the founders declared American independence, they were heading off “domestic insurrection”—the possibility of slave revolts, and with them the possibility that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration itself was not written with all men in mind, you see, nor intended to include them, but was meant to apply only to white men.

Quite apart from what I think of this newly fashionable argument, the fact is that it’s not even new.

As Abraham Lincoln reminded his audiences, the notion that the Declaration excluded black folk became the stock-in-trade of slaveholders and white supremacists—for example, Senators Alexander Stephens of Georgia and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—only after 1854, when the question of slavery became the central issue in American politics.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read Robert G. Parkinson’s op-ed in today’s 4th of July Times. This professor’s serene confidence in the unproven assumption that the founders were downright afraid of equality and inclusion—this confidence makes me think he’ll be celebrating today by lecturing his family and friends on why he won’t be going to see the fireworks. Here’s an excerpt.

“For more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights. . . .

“The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. . . . We like to excuse the founders from this [idea of racial fear and exclusion], to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. . . . [my italics]

“All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution—and lots did—were no match against the idea that they were all ‘merciless savages’ and ‘domestic insurrectionists.’ . . . Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.”

Actually, this notion comes not from the founders, but from later interpretations of the Declaration and Constitution, from jurists and politicians who feared the ideological implications of these documents—from people like John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Alexander Stephens. And now, from people like Professor Parkinson, who need, for reasons only their shrink can explain, to believe that the founders had no stake and no interest in universal rights or in equality.

The founders meant “that bit” about equality. We know this because they passed Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery from those trans-Appalachian territories that weren’t already settled, in 1784 and again in 1789.. It was the slaveholders and the white supremacists who insisted that black folk had no part in the founding, and that the equality of all men was a self-evident lie. Et tu, Professor Parkinson?

Lincoln got it right. Before 1854, no one except Calhoun could get away with saying that the Declaration applied only to white men. Here’s how he put it, in debate with Douglas.

“I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Indpendence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any president ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation.” (Charleston)

Lincoln wasn’t naïve about the meaning or the scope of equality, in 1776 or in 1858. Here’s what he said about it in the last debate with Douglas.

“Allow me, while upon this subject, briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, made more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:

“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all — constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated; and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” (Alton)

This nation is always in need of a new birth of freedom—something else that Lincoln got right, in speaking about an epic battle that the Union Army won on the eve of the 4th of July, in 1863. But its founders knew that liberty couldn’t survive the end of equality, and they—Jefferson included—hoped that slavery was in the course of ultimate extinction when they declared their independence.

The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left—to assert without evidence that the founders intended to exclude black folk from the promise of the Declaration—is at least ironic, because it exhumes arguments once made by slaveholders and white supremacists before the Civil War. But irony presupposes a capacity to understand tragedy. This new fashion begins and ends as farce.


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Businessmen and Reform

Citizens United (2010) was a watershed, to be sure, because it abolished the long-standing legal distinction between a natural person and a corporate person—the distinction the Supreme Court had sustained since Santa Clara (1886), which designated corporations “persons” as per the second clause of the 14th Amendment, thus affording them substantive rather than procedural rights of due process at the law.

The specious premise of the Citizens United decision was that money spent by corporate persons is the equivalent of speech acts made by natural persons—as if noise were music. Only penitent men in purgatory like Antonin Scalia can appreciate the simple fact, and the great irony, that this premise repudiated the “original intent” of the founders, which, in James Madison’s phrasing, meant balancing the “two cardinal objects of Government,“ the rights of persons and the rights of property. Madison spent his entire adult life trying to extricate the American polity from the mistakes of previous republics, ancient and modern, which “sacrificed the poor to the rich”—his words—by assuming that the rights of property were paramount.

Now, corporations are old news. You could say that the USA is a country created by corporations. The European invasion of North America was led, after all, by the Massachusetts Bay Co. and the Virginia Co.

But their sentimental and political significance was magnified in the 19th century, as the courts and the electorate woke up to the power of concentrated wealth. This awakening reached its apogee in the 1890s, when the Populist Revolt overlapped with a fiercely anti-corporate majority on the Supreme Court (the Harlan majority of 1897-1911, which ignored the “rule of reason,” that is, the common law distinction between lawful and unlawful combinations in restraint of trade).

Still, corporations as we know them are specific to the very late-19th century, when they were no longer chartered by states for specific public purposes—and, more important, when they spread from railroads and extractive industries to manufacturing. By then businessmen could consolidate their enterprises for just about any purpose without much supervision by state governments. The New Jersey statute of 1889, written by James B. Dill, a New York investment banker, was the template and the incentive. 80% of the 500 new industrial corporations created in the great merger wave of 1898-1904 (still the largest) were chartered in New Jersey.


The American Left has identified itself as anti-corporate since then, and has been incapable, accordingly, of understanding how businessmen would be interested in reform, then as now. It has ignored Marx’s copious remarks on the matter, and, if I may, it has also dismissed my explanation of why corporate executives wrote the signature legislation of the Progressive Era, including the Food & Drug Act, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Trade Commission—all of which created a new role for the federal government in regulating commerce and subordinating economic forces, including the market power of corporations, to social goals.

Marx first. In volume 3 of Capital, he emphatically claimed that the convergence of modern credit—banking as we know it, everybody using other people’s money—and modern corporations made for a new, socialized mode of production. The corporation accomplished “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself.” The historical standard Marx used to measure this epochal change was the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I’m not going to quote him yet again: see the Kerr edition, volume 3, pp. 516-19, or just wander around in chapters 27-32. The point is that Marx glimpsed the transition from capitalism to socialism in the rise of the corporation.

Now me. I have argued that capitalists were losing the class struggle of the late-19th century, in the US at least, where the scope of that struggle was wider, deeper, and more consequential than in Europe, and that they resorted to the legal device of the corporation as their salvation. The larger regulation and reform of the market was the alternative to subaltern triumph. Businessmen weren’t co-opting anybody, they were saving themselves. They invented the industrial corporation as the means to that end. Their question was not whether but how to reinvent the market so that its civilizing content might be sustained. But they did meanwhile sentence themselves to social death by separating ownership and control of corporate assets—just as the landed nobles of England did when they handed control of agricultural production over to rent-paying commoners in the 15th and 16th centuries.


Since 1898, businessmen are reform, in other words. They want to keep up with the times because if they don’t, they lose market share. Their “brand” suffers. But these truths apply most stringently, most consistently, to retail enterprise. A consumer backlash against or boycott of, say, a manufacturer of construction equipment is improbable, even inconceivable, because that manufacturer is selling his product to contractors, not to consumers.

Notice, then, that the more the economy is driven by consumer demand rather than investment decisions—as the Eastern European economists of the 1950s put it, when growth becomes intensive rather than extensive—the more reformist businessmen will tend to be. To the extent that consumers can amplify their demands via social media, whether mimeographed manifestoes or Facebook, this reformist imperative becomes unavoidable, no matter how politically backward these businessmen may be in person.

The new corporations invented at the turn of the last century socialized property and goods production, and led the way toward an intensive model of growth which grants priority to consumers rather than investors in deciding the shape of the future. In this sense, the legal device we call the corporation is something to be deciphered, not denounced as such. Its political valence is totally unpredictable.

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker captures that mystery in his recent column on corporate opposition to LGBT legislation in North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. He notes that executives from more than 80 companies signed a letter to the governor of North Carolina protesting the law he recently signed which would allocate bathroom privileges according to gender declared on birth certificates. The corporations ready to leave these three states include Disney, GE, Pepsi, Dow, Lionsgate, and PayPal.

Surowiecki also ponders the implications. Here’s the key passage:

“The emergence of companies as social activists is complicating traditional attitudes on both the left and the right. Progressives have long complained of corporate influence over government policy. They’ve pilloried companies that threaten to move operations in order to extract favors from state legislatures; they’ve attacked the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council for its role in drafting a slew of pro-business state laws; they’ve called for overturning Citizens United. Now, though, progressives are confronted with a situation where [corporate] meddling with the legislative process and overriding popular opinion seems desirable.” (my italics)

Which is to say that social justice and majority rule are now at odds, at least in these states—and that the monetized voice of large corporations here speaks on behalf of justice, not majority rule. The Jim Crow South was ruled by majorities, after all, and they sacrificed justice on the altar of white supremacy. Do the interests of the Left now intersect with the voice monetized by Citizens United? That’s Surowiecki’s real question—the bottom line.


Democracy prevails where the rights of persons and the rights of property converge—where state power is justified by the consent of the governed. But the practical embodiment of consent is public opinion. So, to ignore or override it is to discard democracy in favor of rule by the well-educated, the well-informed, and the wealthy, who must know better than the rest of us—you know who I mean, all those philosopher kings and queens from Harvard or Yale. To pay attention to public opinion it is to know that in a modern society, persuasion, not power, is the fulcrum of political change. “He who molds public opinion goes deeper than he who makes or enacts statutes,” as Lincoln put it.

Progressives, as we now call them, have always been willing to challenge public opinion, from the abolitionists of the 1830s to the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s. The question Surowiecki raises is more fundamental. Are they willing to make a pact with the devil to override it?

But that question raises two others. Can corporate persons be admitted into a body politic that defines itself as democratic? And, more urgently, is the Left itself committed to democracy, or is it willing to override public opinion in the name of better, scientific knowledge? The first question boils down to whether money is a form of protected speech specific to the corporate person. The Court said no until Citizens United. As late as Bellotti (!978), the most-cited precedent of the 2010 decision, the justices held that precisely because the monetary resources of corporations were both greater and more variegated than individuals—stockholders, those natural persons, have conflicting political views—their expenditures for political purposes could not be protected by the 1st Amendment as if they were unitary, natural persons speaking their minds in public.

The second question boils down to whether public opinion and majority rule are inviolable principles of democratic governance. A majority of money is no better than a majority of numbers or weapons, or a preponderance of intelligence, in the attainment of democracy. The Left rightly rejects Citizens United and its corollaries on these grounds. But how to make majorities that are not themselves undemocratic—the kind that reflect public opinion and yet lead directly to oppression?

And these questions leave us with the larger one of how to define democracy as such. I am one of those historians who think that the prospects of social democracy have improved since the rise of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1930. In other words, I think the Populists weren’t our last best hope. I think the cultural and political ferment of this period let us imagine the selves and the societies we can now demand without apology. The corporation was and is at the very center of our imagining, not least because it was and is an “artificial person”—something like ourselves, what we can remake in the image of the future we want.

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