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frank rich’s problem and ours

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Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…

This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.

Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

[…]

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.

I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.

Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….

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December 7, 2008 at 11:33 am

when i hear the word “narrative”…

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Some of the American whateverocracy caught on tape discussing Sarah Palin:

Peggy Noonan: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this — excuse me– political bullshit about narratives —

Chuck Todd: Yeah they went to a narrative.

Mike Murphy: I totally agree.

PN: Every time the Republicans do that, because that’s not where they live and it’s not what they’re good at, they blow it.

The rise to centrality of narrative as a term of electoral art this time around is interesting. (It’s been there before, but now it’s all over the place). What’s further interesting is that when these people say narrative, this year at least, they actually mean Bildungsroman. There are of course other forms of narrative that can be yoked to a political cause, but when it comes to Obama and Palin, we’re definitely talking about that form, according to Wilhelm Dilthey way back in 1906, in which a

regulated development within the life of the individual is observed, each of its stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage. The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary growth points through which the individual must pass on his way to maturity and harmony.

I won’t rehearse the narratives in question, but both Palin and Obama’s enact one of the standard lines of passage – basically the unlikely beginnings to unlikely ends sort of story. America loves a good Bildungsroman – it’s sort of the founding national mythostructure, which is no wonder given the period when the country was born.

It was hilarious to hear Palin slap at Obama’s memorimania in her acceptance speech

We’ve all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers. And there is much to like and admire about our opponent. But listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform – not even in the state senate.

– just after she delivered her own memoiristic self-framing as true Daughter of the Redneck Revolution.

At any rate, there’s a lot to say about the political unconscious of the form, but a few things stand out. First of all, it’s always been a form invested (whether consciously or unconsciously) in class legitimation. Whether focused on the emergence of a newly literate bourgeoisie out of the hovels of the artisans (think Great Expecations, Mr Pip learning his letters and the like) or informational workers from the ranks of the selfsame bourgeoisie or petty bourgies (oh, just about all of them – Portrait is a good example), it does the work of showing the work – the work of self-elevation, the rise from meagre roots whether financial or educational or what have you. And while it’s easy to say that every American election has been about class legitimation – or even that the American democratic political form is a form based on annual selling the populace on the virtues of being led by this particular set of betters – it’s clear that the current crisis in capitalism has forced the narrative of meritocratic legitimacy to the absolute foreground of the electoral stage.

Noonan is of course right about Republicans traditionally having a hard time with “narrative.” It’s easy to see why: the stories are generally fucked-up arcless little numbers, or if they have arc, it comes in spots and is hard to synthesize the “dissonances and conflicts” of these priviledged lives into a coherent story. (Once the Democrats realize that they are most certainly going to lose this election, they’ll hopefully go to work, Rove-style a la 2000, on the semi-narrative of McCain’s Vietnam capitivity, begging the question of what sort of longterm psychological effects trauma like this has on an individual, an individual with his finger on the red button and the like). But she’s undoubtedly wrong about Palin herself (who has been drawn from outside the usual lineup of Yale aristrocrats and Haliburton fixers) who will likely win the election for McCain, so long as they negotiate the tricky issue of fronting the VP candidate because the P candidate is so goddamned awful on stage.

At any rate, all of this is basically the superstructual echo of the basic point of this piece by Aziz Rana on n+1’s site about Obama, the election, and meritocracy.

Throughout our history there have always been multiple versions of the American dream. These accounts held in common the hope that hard work, discipline, and self-reliance would allow those recognized as citizens not only to improve their economic lot and achieve personal happiness, but to participate fully in political life. Today, however, only one version of the dream continues to make sense as a sustainable personal project. This is the dream exemplified by Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as by their former rivals Hillary and Bill Clinton—a dream of success through higher education and a life in professional work. It is a vision of social advancement that leaves little room for historically important narratives of blue-collar respectability.

Rana’s piece, when seen in the light of the “narratives” I’ve been discussing here, exposes a foundational contradiction in the American political system. Or, if not a contradiction, at least a fatal blindspot, an entrenched impossibility. In a system that’s weighted (perceptually if not practically, and perception leads the praxis here) toward the president as the embodiment of popular will, it’s very very difficult to imagine how a “narrative of blue-collar respectability” could ever make its way to the definitive foreground of American politics. Obama may be as close as we could ever get, what with the community organizing and the like. The system is attuned to, and has always predicted, rule by meritocracy, which we all know has never been and will never be based on equal-start merit. And even if it were, would it change matters all that much?

Think of all of those countless numbnuts Hollywood films about unlikely characters bumbling their way into Washington power – the donut eating prole, the dumb blonde, the black dude who didn’t go to Columbia… The tagline of the one pictured above: “In a country in which anybody can become president, anybody just did…” Their disneyfied absurdity, their thumb-sucking popcorn munch, is a register of the fact that none of us, down deep, believes that another narrative is possible here, not at least given the system that we have.

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September 6, 2008 at 11:18 pm

act now to save our chubby children

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MoveOn.org’s latest ad is tailor-made to fuel the usual semi-automatic exchange of fire about “hating our troops,” “loving our troops by hating the war,” and the rest of the dreary playout. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to think this ad is awful. Could the organization have come up with a clearer materialization of the class gap that undergirds any ideological question in this country? Is it possible to show more clearly that the sides of the struggle have formed, that that the game is played between the right and the wealthy center?

(I’m afraid that Obama is yet another vivid materialization of the situation… But let’s hope for the best as we take what we got…)

Alex, I’m afraid, will never fight this war. Not in eighteen years, not ever. He and his mom have been cast as relatively well-to-do (see the hardwood floors, and her BKLYN yummie mummie-ness, and the antique-ish chair in the corner), and the well-to-do will never fight wars again, not in America. There are, however, lots and lots and lots of people with more immediate reasons to worry about what is going on – among other things, their kids are there now. It’s a bit like one of those Save the Children ads, except recast with chubby American kids. “What would happen if the food supply ran out? What would become of young Timmy here? Where would he find his daily bag of Cheez Doodles, his four liters of Mountain Dew? What if, in eighteen years, Timmy can’t afford his snacks?”

It would be an offensive ad, of course. But really, not much more offensive than this one.

(Actually, there is probably a simple fix. Think of how much more sneakily effective an ad would be with a different mom and kid, this time from the sticks, and he’s seventeen, and he wants to enlist because he’s a patriot and there’s shit all else to do in Nowheresville, the plant closed long ago, and now there’s just the hotdog stand at Walmart etc etc. But he can’t enlist, or mom doesn’t want him to, because rather than actually defending the country, he’ll be sent into some quixotic imperialist meat-grinder, come back scarred psychologically like his cousin or in little pieces, and for what??? Wow, that’d be fucking amazing – make that ad MoveOn. Or just Obama – you could be properly dialectical for once, and do a turn on the “against our troops” flag wavers. And then we can talk about my consulting rates…)

Obviously, the well-to-do have just as much reason, and perhaps even a greater duty, to resist the war. But it might be helpful to think through the gut reaction semiotics of your response, what it signals about you and your investments, and what it tells others about where your head and heart really are.

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June 24, 2008 at 11:19 am

Posted in ads, america, uspolitics, video

grand right-wing conspiracy

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Well, there’s the image that we’ve all been waiting to see all these years.

(via here, which i reached from here)

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March 26, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Posted in uspolitics

the what now?

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From Diane Abbott’s column in today’s Independent:

But, if he survives, the prize for the Democratic Party is not just winning a presidential election. Obama can take the South away from the Republicans on the basis of the huge black turn-out that only he can guarantee. And he can combine that with urban America and the intelligentsia to recreate the old FDR Roosevelt coalition that enabled him to win four presidential elections. Term limits would restrict Obama to two but Washington would be transformed, not just for a presidential term, but for a generation.

Since when did we have one of those?

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February 7, 2008 at 6:54 pm

Posted in uspolitics