reader request: Marcel Duchamp

CaptureAnother donor request: “Who’s a historical figure you really admire, and why?”

There’s many people I could write about here; it’s always easy for me to come back to Debs. But today I’ll talk about Marcel Duchamp.

You can consult Wikipedia for a biography of his life, Google Images for pictures of his work, the great storehouse of human information for the data you need to know his story. I’m more interested in what Duchamp meant than who he was; Duchamp stood for things. Most notoriously, he was a man firmly of the avant garde. His work still stands as a symbol of what the plastic arts have become. That this symbol is invoked more often as a matter of scorn than of respect would have suited Duchamp fine. The fact that his notorious “Fountain” remains notorious speaks to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his remarkable artistic career: that his work has, nearly 50 years after his death, maintained its capacity to offend. Of course, the people offended by that urinal today like to imagine that their offense is somehow different than that of the prudes of the past; they think there is some sort of meta distance that separates them from those who respond with religious or conservative offense. But in fact all artistic conservatism is the same. There is no real difference between the horrified provincialism of the local church elders and the studied “that’s not art” rejection of aesthetic populists. It’s why I value poptimism even as I reject it; in their efforts to ridicule the challenging and the experimental, they have helped to restore the capacity of the challenging and the experimental to inflame. They’ve helped make the avant garde dangerous again. For Duchamp, all the art was in the danger.

He also stood for a kind of freedom earned through ruthless discipline and asceticism. Early in his career, like a lot of artists, he was often entirely destitute. Yet he was able to survive, to thrive, thanks to a minimalist lifestyle — spending as little as possible, consuming as little as possible. Duchamp epitomized a strategy for dealing with all of the petty corruptions of modern life, a strategy of needing as little as possible and thus being beholden to as few as possible. Living through the horrors of the early half of the 20th century, like many Duchamp was forced to confront a world in which his ferocious ethical and aesthetic beliefs seemed to make no difference. I often think of him in that way, his perfect willingness to make grand statements on the meaning of art and life and his unwavering commitment to those ideals as a means of combating the pure horrific incomprehension of a world in which the individual soul stands utterly disarmed against war and genocide. Duchamp could not change the world, but he could master himself; he could need little, he could ask for less, and he could retain utterly inviolate control over his own self. Duchamp is a study in self-possession, and it’s that quality that all of us can possess even as someone like myself can only admire his profound artistic talent. You are yours; take that gift seriously. Stand for something in a world of cruelty and indifference.

Here’s a story that speaks to who Duchamp was. I first read about it in a book by Lewis MacAdams. Jackson Pollock’s adult life was pretty much always in crisis, but in one period in particular he was facing really abject poverty, to the point where he might not have been able to keep working. He was, as usual, also on the brink of falling into total alcoholic collapse. Peggy Guggenheim, the great patron of the arts, was considering whether or not she should sponsor him financially, and in so doing, more or less save his life. She decided to send Duchamp to decide if Pollock’s work was worth it. This should have been terrible news for Pollock; he had publicly and loudly disparaged Duchamp’s art, and had even drunkenly accosted him at one point. But Duchamp was not easily rattled. He went and saw Pollock’s work and came back to Peggy Guggenheim and said, “pas mal” — not bad. Guggenheim immediately cut Pollock a very large check.

I’m always moved by this story, for two reasons. First, because Duchamp’s personal integrity and commitment to the value of art and aesthetics trumped his ego. To be able to set aside someone else’s dislike of you, and to like them and their work anyway, to understand that some questions are bigger than the high school bullshit that so often affects adult life…. I find that admirable. To never let someone else’s opinion of you dictate your opinion of them, and to be the kind of person who can listen to someone else insult you and your work and turn around and tell only the truth about what you think of them, is freedom, is self-ownership. And, second, to be such an impressive human being, even in the eyes of someone as formidable as Peggy Guggenheim, that your “not bad” carries that much power, is extraordinary. It comes from her recognition of Duchamp’s genius, of course, and their history as friends and lovers, but also from her understanding of the cold fury of his intellectual life, her belief in his taste, his talent, what he stood for.

Most of us, I’m sorry to say, will never know what it’s like to enjoy Duchamp’s talent or intelligence. But we can all have his integrity. Every human being alive has the capacity of self-possession, to resolve to own themselves and to keep their own counsel. Contemporary life trivializes and degrades; it convinces people that their ethical and artistic commitments are something to feel shame over, to deride as pretense, and too many people are willing participants in this self-injury. Lives like Duchamp’s should remind us: in a world which is indifferent to your existence and immune to your efforts to create change, you can maintain inside of yourself the spirit of refusal, and if you feed it, that fire will burn and burn.

a few thoughts on liberal smugness

A few scattered thoughts on this treatise on liberal smugness by Emmet Rensin.

  1. The piece describes a real thing. It’s a real facet of American liberal life. It has real, profoundly negative consequences, politically and morally,  for the broad left-of-center. It really is underdiscussed. It really is key that we confront these issues as we move forward as a coalition.

  2. This is the most important paragraph:

    The consequence was a shift in liberalism’s center of intellectual gravity. A movement once fleshed out in union halls and little magazines shifted into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves. Minority voters remained, but bereft of the material and social capital required to dominate elite decision-making, they were largely excluded from an agenda driven by the new Democratic core: the educated, the coastal, and the professional.


  3. The critique is in my wheelhouse, and I frequently make similar critiques of my own. What’s being indicted is a certain slice of American post-collegiate urban striving types who are overrepresented in our media, in large measure because they write such a large part of it. I have profound criticisms of that group, as a group (many of them are lovely individually), and think they cause a not-insubstantial portion of our culture’s problems. But I should be clear: I am a member of that culture. I don’t live in New York or LA, and I don’t have a job in media, and there are a lot of little ways in which I feel distinct from that culture. Still, I can’t deny that I’m part of it, that the conditions that influence people within it largely influence me as well, and that I am closer to them in myriad ways than to the working class people who I frequently argue must be the central concern of any genuinely left-wing movement.

  4. I am the last person to say an essay is too long, usually, and I totally reject the popular faux-contrarian take that people write too long these days. There’s no such thing as a “right” average length for essays, which should be as long as they should be and no shorter or longer. But this piece is perhaps too long. Then again, who am I to criticize someone else for that?

  5. It’s hard to get liberals to take problems seriously because Democrats currently hold the presidency, which always instills liberals with overconfidence. But the Democratic party has major structural problems. State legislatures do more to determine the day-to-day life of average Americans than the federal government, and Democrats have lost 900 state legislature seats since 2010. It’s a crisis happening under the nose of the liberal intelligentsia, but as long as the White House stays blue, they’re unlikely to notice.

  6. Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter that Democrats lost the white working class in large measure because of civil rights and racism. That’s true, and important to point out; it’s an essential historical addendum. But there’s a few essential points. First, “white working class” is a vast and shaggy designation that pulls in huge numbers of people who share very little in common, a very large number of whom are not motivated by racial animus. Which doesn’t undermine Bouie’s important and correct historical point, but should lead us to use caution here. Second, I sometimes see an argument play out concerning these issues: we shouldn’t worry about the white working class because Democrats lost them thanks to racism, so therefore they don’t a) deserve our help and b) deserve to be in our coalition. Which, I think, is just an attitude that makes no sense in democracy. In democracy, your job is always to convince those who you disagree with. That’s true even if you have profound moral problems with them. This is especially true here because, despite how often people in progressive media reflexively talk about a “majority minority” country, white people in America continue to enjoy huge numerical superiority and even greater political and economic influence. Simply to say “arrivederci” to this huge group isn’t politically sensible, even setting aside our moral responsibility to improve the lives of everyone in our country.

  7. And, let’s not forget, it’s rich white elites, not the white working class, that perpetuates the status quo, including the status quo of structural racism.

  8. I kept wanting to get to the word “meritocracy,” at some point, in this essay. That’s what I think is missing. Because a great deal of the phenomenon described in this essay is a product of what I’ll call meritocratic liberalism. (I’m going to avoid  the neo-word because it’s always so controversial for some reason.) One of the prevailing tendencies within contemporary liberalism (though not, thankfully, a universal one) is a liberalism that embraces meritocracy, and which argues that it merely needs to be reformed to be more inclusive. That is, such people recognize that racism and sexism lead to inequality of access to the elite, and think that we need to make access to the elite equitable. It’s still fundamentally an attitude consonant with the existence of not only a class hierarchy, but of a class hierarchy of massive inequality. This is precisely what Walter Benn Michaels critiqued in his book The Trouble with DiversityIt’s essential to say that, though this diversifying of the elite is posed as being good for people of color and women, it ultimately leaves the vast majority of them behind. Because there’s only enough room in the 1% for… 1% of people. On the margins, yeah, it’s better to have a diverse elite than not, I guess. But the whole point is to tear down the elite altogether.

  9. Anyway: the conditions Rensin describes stem in part from the embrace of meritocratic liberalism because that philosophy is ultimately a means of justifying certain people’s success — and in this case, it’s people who happen to consider themselves liberals. That correspondingly means that it’s also a justification for other people’s pain and hardship. The brutal logic of meritocracy, combined with liberal righteousness about diversifying Goldman Sachs and Harvard, plus the narrative about white working class people being universally bigots, combines to give you something like what we have: a lot of people who grew up affluent, have reached financial security, consider themselves worldly cosmopolitans, and think of themselves as part of a left-wing tradition, who evince contempt and hatred for the uneducated and the poor.

Freddie Classics: “What class.”

In honor of his piece “How Not to Disrupt Politics,” I’m reprinting this piece about Ron Fournier from my defunct blog L’Hote . Enjoy.

Ron Fournier:

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer walked into the media cabin of Air Force One on May 24, 2002,
and dropped identical envelopes in the laps of two reporters, myself and Steve Holland of Reuters. Inside each was a manila card – marked by a small presidential seal and, in a simple font, “THE PRESIDENT.”

Handwritten in the tight script of President George W. Bush, both notes said essentially the same thing: “Thank you for the respect you showed for the office of the President, and, therefore, the respect you showed for our country.”

What had we done? Not much, really. An hour earlier, at a rare outdoor news conference in Germany, Steve and I decided to abide by the U.S. media tradition of rising from our seats when the president entered our presence. The snickering German press corps remained seated. “What a contrast!” Bush wrote. “What class.”

 

I dug out Bush’s thank-you note this week while contemplating the opening of his presidential library Thursday, a milestone that most journalists will use to assess the 43rd president’s legacy. The record includes Bush’s responses to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – all worth exploring skeptically.

But I’m going to take a few paragraphs to discuss something that gets less attention from the White House press corps – the essential humanity and decency of our presidents.

Bush’s note, a simple gesture, spoke volumes about his respect for the office of the presidency. He did not thank us for respecting him. He knew it wasn’t about George W. Bush. He was touched instead by the small measure of respect we showed “for our country.”

The same sense of dignity compelled Bush to forbid his staff to wear blue jeans in the White House. Male aides were required to wear jackets and ties in the Oval Office.

He was a stickler for punctuality. Long-time adviser Karen Hughes asked him years ago why he was always early for appointments. “Late is rude,” Bush replied. He thought that if people were going to take the time to see him, he shouldn’t keep them waiting.

He remembered names of the spouses and children of his staff, and insisted that hard work at the White House not be an excuse to let family life suffer. One steamy summer day in 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush called me with an exclusive interview and interrupted my first question. “What’s all that noise in the background, Fournier?” he asked.

“I’m at the pool with my kids, governor.”

Bush replied, “Then what the hell are you doing answering your phone?”

Damn good question, sir. We quickly ended the interview.

His record as commander-in-chief will be long debated, as it should be. But for this story, at least, let’s remember that Bush insisted upon meeting U.S. troops and their families in private and after his public events, so that he could give them undivided attention.

He told his staff, “I never want to look at my watch and say, ‘I’ve got to go.’”

Presidents Clinton and Obama also visited troops, in private and for hours at a time. I could tell you many stories about their basic decency, too – of then-Gov. Bill Clinton quietly helping the family of an ailing state employee or of Obama reading 10 letters each night from ordinary Americans.

 

For as much time we spend understanding our presidents’ policies and politics, relatively little effort is spent trying to understand them as people. We mythologize them as candidates and demonize them as presidents, denying our leaders the balm that soothes mere mortals: Benefit of the doubt.

Disclosure: I am the worst offender. I get paid to hold leaders accountable, not to walk in their shoes. Conversely, I am also a bit biased. Presidents Bush and Clinton agreed last year to meet privately with my autistic son for a project on the presidency. But that is the point: Neither man had anything to gain by agreeing to meet Tyler. They’re not running for office. I don’t cover them anymore.

Fact is that both Bush and Clinton do small acts of kindness every day, with little or no public notice.

Why? Because, like past presidents, they realize the office is bigger than they are. Because they are deeply grateful for the job we gave them, and they feel obliged to return the favor.

Our presidents and ex-presidents are not perfect. You won’t always agree with them. You might not even think they’re worthy of the office. But try to remember what Clinton told me a few days before he left Arkansas for Washington (and a few years before the Lewinsky affair made it sadly ironic): “You don’t check your humanity at the Oval Office door.”

Remembering that is to respect the office. And it’s the decent thing to do.

ah, civility

The story of the 2016 Democratic primary has not chiefly been about major policy differences between a centrist candidate and a left-wing candidate, nor about fundamental visions of change, nor the incongruity between American liberals’ acknowledgment of the depth of our problems and their resistance to actually fixing them. It hasn’t been about healthcare or college tuition. It hasn’t been about the finance industry and the cozy relationship it enjoys with establishment Democrats. It hasn’t been about economic populism vs. “meritocracy.” It hasn’t been about a empowering workers vs. pity charity liberalism. No, it’s been about civility, a complex notion that seems to shift constantly depending on who is endorsing and when. You see, Bernie Sanders and his fans are perceived by our media elites as lacking civility, and this is portrayed as the single most important criterion for this election by Hillary Clinton’s advocates, our political media. Apparently the need to be civil trumps every issue of substance at play in this primary, thanks to the impossible fragility of people who make lots of money expressing political opinions.

Well! Today, it came to light that a Hillary Clinton campaign official said, and I quote, “Fuck Bernie.” That would seem to be a rather harsh break from the norms of civility! And where are all of those loud, angry members of the civility police, calling out the Hillary Clinton campaign for its clear lack of decorum and civility? Where have been all the Democrats falling on their fainting couches, clutching their pearls in disbelief at this clear lack of propriety?

 

Why, it’s almost as if civility is an empty concept that inevitably functions as a means to silence criticism of the powerful and the connected. It’s almost as if supporters of a centrist candidate have used the endless discussion of civility to distract from their candidate’s record of terribly regressive policy decisions. It’s almost as if the media has spent such abundant time covering this angle because they are reflexively anti-left and will take any opportunity to distract from actual left-wing arguments. It’s almost as if our media class is made up of affluent, incurious people who care more about their careers and social standing within the media kaffeeklatsch than they do actual political substance, which thanks to their privilege has much less connection to their actual lives than to those of regular people. It’s almost as if civility was and is a dodge, and that no one who has droned on about it for the past six months has sincerely been concerned about the concept, but has instead had a clear political agenda in bringing it up again and again. It’s almost as if this is all about power and not at all about civility.

Almost.

it really is not complicated

I am confused by liberal confusion over the attraction many people feel towards Bernie Sanders’s candidacy.

We have seen, in the past decade or so, a flowering in popular understanding of the world’s deep inequities. Philosophies like intersectionality have entered the popular discourse. The term “white supremacy,” once popularly reserved to describe societies like the pre-emancipation American south and apartheid South Africa, are now routinely and correctly used to describe the present-day United States. Patriarchy, a concept once rarely encountered outside of academic feminism, is now an assumed part of the intellectual landscape of contemporary culture. Meanwhile, the glaring reality of economic inequality and the great divergence between economic growth and the wages of average people has become impossible to ignore. It’s true that much of this talk takes place within a small and over-represented elite. But it’s undeniable that consciousness of this type is spreading. More and more people seem to recognize that we live in a system of massive and entrenched injustice. The world is broken.

And yet as this primary has demonstrated, among many there is a profound disconnect between the diagnosis and the prescription. It would be natural to assume that, as people become more aware of the depths of our system’s problems, they would necessarily become radicalized in their perception of how to fix them. That is, after all, the only moral and logical conclusion: that extreme problems call for extreme solutions. But as we’ve seen, many people have arrived, strangely, at the opposite conclusion. For many, recognizing the depths of our problems has led them to a perverse embrace of a politician who exemplifies the self-same establishment that has presided over all of this injustice, and to visceral anger towards those who have asked for genuine change. Such are the wages of our system.

I am a socialist; Bernie Sanders is not. Socialists believe in communal ownership of the productive apparatus of society, which Sanders has not called for. There is no question in my mind that a Sanders presidency would disappoint me. But there is also no question that Sanders represents the most meaningful break from the status quo on offer in 2016. And in a broken world, that’s good enough. In any event, the message has to remain the same: it’s not about Bernie Sanders, and it’s not about 2016. Win or lose, the real fight is still to come, and win or lose, the cross is still bending. So let’s go.

Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style

510+zGpSIKL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Continuing on with my days of gratitude for my (newly arrived, weeks ahead of schedule!) new laptop, here’s a reader request, submitted by an anonymous donor.

“What’s the one academic book that you encountered in graduate school that you would recommend, more than any other, to a general audience? Specific to your field, please, so something from linguistics/writing/assessment.”

There’s tons of great academic books I recommend to a general audience all the time — Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work, for example, or Ralph Cintron’s Angels’ Town, among many others — but I knew the answer to this question immediately and without hestitation: Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. It’s one of the most deeply fascinating books I’ve ever read, an entire education in style, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, and the history of the English language in a single text. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rhetorical Style undertakes a kind of analysis that I wish was more prevalent in academia: meticulous explorations of how specific language choices impact the persuasive effects of an argument. How do syntactic choices such as subordination and active or passive voice impact an argument and its effectiveness? How do lexical choices, such as the relationship between a word’s language of origin and its connotations, impact our ability to convince? In what ways do metaphor and symbolism work rhetorically, rather than just aesthetically or literarily? How do skillful writers and speakers utilize the individual affordances of the English language to make their points more effectively? Fahnestock answers these questions brilliantly, demonstrating an impossible breadth of familiarity with different traditions of analysis. I think I’m most impressed by her methodological promiscuity. Academics are often guilty of siloing themselves, speaking only one kind of disciplinary language, for reasons both professional and personal. But Fahnestock moves from one analytical frame to another with skill and grace, borrowing liberally from all manner of sources to demonstrate why a particular sentence might have much more power than another even when the alternative shares the same denotative meaning. In particular, the book is historically rich; many of the topics it discusses are subjects on which I consider myself deeply read, and yet I constantly learned new things.

Throughout, she pulls out relevant examples, some of them from among the most famous speakers and moments in American history. Here is a paragraph from an excerpt that Oxford UP published on their website, which I have linked to often before because it’s just so good. Note that the passage as a whole is a little less technical than much of the book, which makes sense for an excerpt:

Lincoln’s awareness of this synonym richness is also on display in his progressive restatement of what he and his audience cannot do at Gettysburg: they cannot  dedicate — consecrate — hallow the ground they stand on. All three verbs denote roughly the same action: to set apart as special and devoted to a purpose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first two came into English in the fourteenth century as adjectives and in the fifteenth as verbs, both formed from the past participle of Latin verbs. The second of these, however, has a twelfth century French cognate, consacrer, in use when French was the language of England’s rulers. The third word, hallow, comes from the Old English core and carries the strongest association of a setting apart as holy. Lincoln’s progression then goes from the Latinate layer to the core, a progression in service of the greatest goal of rhetorical style – to amplify, to express one’s meaning with emotional force. Lincoln’s series of synonyms, simply as a series, distances the living from the dead, but as a progression it rises from the formulaic setting apart with words of dedicate, to the making sacred as a church or churchyard are of consecrate, to the making holy in martyrdom of hallow. Forms of consecrate and dedicate appear again, but hallow only once, mid-speech.

The book is sometimes quite dense, but is accessible to a general audience provided readers are willing to do some work. Unlike some other academic books that I often long to share with others, this one doesn’t require any particular prior reading beyond what you absorbed in high school. (Lewis Gordon’s Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism may be the single book that most influenced my ethical and political reasoning in my life, but it requires deep exposure to French existentialism, to pick one example.) Rhetorical Style isn’t for everyone; you’ve got to really love language and to crave understanding of how minute choices have major impacts on the sound, sense, and power of texts. If you’re one of those — if you’re one of us — you need to read this book. It’s a beauty.

Guest Post: Amber A’Lee Frost on the Financial District Denny’s

[As a show of gratitude for my recent successful laptop fundraiser, I present to you this dining review of the hottest upscale establishment in New York City, Denny’s, by the brilliant and hilarious Amber Frost. Enjoy. – Freddie]

101958026-DennysNYC.530x298Three days after our dinner at the Denny’s in the Financial District, my roommate Felix went to the Bellevue emergency room for gastric pains later diagnosed as pancreatitis, and our friend Nick’s home was visited by FBI agents, who unconvincingly tried to assure his landlords that he was “not in trouble.” I cannot definitively prove a causal connection between these incidents and the Denny’s restaurant chain, but it would be naive to rule it out.

In the summer of 2014 a brand new Denny’s location was opened up at 150 Nassau St, just a short walk from City Hall, in the Financial District of New York City. Chain restaurants in New York have been creeping in for some time now, and while they’re still generally met with resistance from locals, they’re hardly a shock. But the first Denny’s in New York was different, and not just because of the Wall Street neighborhood or the strangely manufactured Middle American wholesomeness that woos patrons into consuming 2,000 calories in a sitting.

First of all, 150 Nassau Street is the American Tract Society Building, an absolutely beautiful 23-story Beaux-Arts historical landmark–if you’re in the market, you can snag a two bedroom. condo for around $2.4 million. Or perhaps a studio for a mere $2,500 a month? In keeping with the opulent architecture, the Financial District Denny’s offered a promotional “Grand Cru Slam” special on its opening day, which consisted of two Grand Slam breakfasts, a bottle of Dom Perignon and–I’m not kidding here–a high-five from the bartender. Unlike the Denny’s in, say, Dubai (yes, there is a Denny’s in Dubai), the marketing behind the new location diverged from the traditional Denny’s brand: yes, it’s all the same comfort food of a down-home Denny’s, but with a ritzy aesthetic, craft cocktails and Prosecco on tap.

As a fan of diner food and breakfast food in particular, I was intrigued by the idea of a Denny’s in the heart of the only part of New York where the prevalence of cocaine appears to have left a dearth of decent restaurants. No one seems to eat in the Financial District, at least not beyond the purely necessary caloric intake required to live and work, which begs the question: who did they expect to patronize their establishment? Wall Street Denny’s isn’t too far from the World Trade Center, but the good people at Denny’s HQ couldn’t possibly be expecting patriotic patrons mourners to saunter over to a chain restaurant diner for a somber and reflective plate of Moons Over My Hammy® , especially when the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Cafe was right there, ready to serve them mediocre pastries. No, Financial District Denny’s had to be for the local workforce.

I pictured 23 year old day traders kicking in the door and demanding Grey Goose bottle service with their country fried steak, so jacked up on the stimulants they needed to get through their 70 hour work weeks that they had to set alarms on their phones to remind them to eat.

It was a non-traditional investigative story, but Freddie agreed to run it and my fantasies ran wild: I will drink the Prosecco on tap. I will be the Seymour Hersh of American chain restaurants. I will be the Gay Talese of heartburn. I will be the Joan Didion of diarrhea.

I invited my roommate Felix Biederman and our friend Nick Mullen to come along. I didn’t want to go into the wilderness alone, and I figured a few people ordering different things would allow me to sample multiple dishes. Felix and Nick were the natural choice, as they are both, like me, more gourmand than gourmet, as I had enjoyed disgusting food with them both on prior occasions. I got there first, and past a rather grand-looking, well-stocked bar of deep wood, I was seated in a booth in an abrasively lit area by the drink machine and a roaring hvac system.

Three pretty young girls in clothes that suggested a they had just left some sort of high school sports practice sat at the booth catty-cornered to me. The waitress tried to entice them into dessert with jokes–”but I made a pie! Just for you!” — to no avail. When they paid their bill I was thankfully reseated upstairs, where it was dim and quiet. Dark lighting, Edison bulbs, tufted high-backed booths in rich maroon, wrought-iron chairs at the smaller tables with a slightly blonder wood grain, and sections divided by deep brown false walls with wainscoting on the bottom and windows on top frosted in a gradual ombre, so you’d have to stand up at your table to actual identify an object or figure on the other side. They were colonial-style, of course, but homied up with false muntins arranged to make a single large sheet of glass look as if it was actually made up of many smaller panes. It was Denny’s… but instead of faux-diner, faux-bespoke eatery.

Nick and Felix soon arrived, but beyond us three, there was only man and his teen daughter, who quickly finished their meal and left. When I pointed out that the tiled brocade pattern above our heads was actually cheap drop ceiling obscuring the otherwise industrial bones of the building, Nick mentioned that they were covering external pipes. He said that the first time he ever remembered seeing exposed pipes was in a Starbucks, where exposed pipes are a design aesthetic as fakey as the Denny’s drop ceilings. But Nick remembered thinking it was cool at the time, that “it looked like New York.”

We also noticed what had originally appeared to be wood flooring was actually a sort of wood-grain patterned tile. Probably easier to clean, but less attractive at a second glance, engendering in me an affection. (Don’t most of us look better in low lighting anyway?)

The ambiance wasn’t really bad for all the ticky tacky attempts at swank. At least away from the HVAC section it was quiet without being stifling. The two massive TVs over the bar were turned all the way down. “The Cisco Kid” played softly on overhead speakers, and we’d be treated to the sounds of the seventies throughout our stay. Then our waiter arrived.

“They call me The Restaurant Slut,” he said, on account of his long career as a waiter, primarily at chain restaurants.

“They call me that too, but for different reasons,” I said.

He laughed too, which was a relief, since you’re never sure when you’re overplaying your hand with the bon vivant floozy material. We all liked The Restaurant Slut immediately–excellent service and utterly charming. Shockingly so, really, when you remembered he was working for tips in a nearly deserted restaurant. Nonetheless, he cheerfully took our drink orders and left us to our menus.

It was at this point that Felix announced that he was wrestling with a bad case of “Jew stomach” before downing half a sleeve of Rolaids–a grim gesture for a man looking at a menu that featured something called a “Pot Roast Melt,” which is basically the same principle as a Tuna Melt, but with pot roast. Looking over the menu thoroughly, we confirmed that it was the same as any other Denny’s menu, which was an odd relief.

I decided against debasing a classic, and when our faithful Restaurant Slut returned, I just ordered the traditional pot roast — no melt necessary. Figuring I was obligated to try the Prosecco on tap, I also added an eight dollar Bellini — you know, for that classic pairing of stone fruit, sparkling wine, and beef gravy. Felix went for the club sandwich, a sandwich being the safest option in suspect establishment, and as the most daring, Nick ordered the South by Southwest skillet, a mass of greasy breakfast food featuring chorizo and lots of cheese. The Restaurant Slut took our order without judgment.

As we sat in that desolate chain restaurant, well after dinner time, amidst all the potemkin luxuries, it occurred to me what absolute fucking dirtbags we all looked like at that moment.

My dining companions both wore identical black Adidas tracksuits. This unplanned wardrobe coordination plus their notable facial hair and their shared tendency to hunch over the table gave the impression of two low-rent Ukranian mobsters splitting the meager profits from the sale of fewer than 20 nearly expired vicodin. I felt the odd girl out. Normally in these situations I could pass for the slightly busted Kazakh chippie, but the day had started out too warm for my white rabbit fur coat, so I substituted a tuxedo shirt instead, leaving me a little too butch to pull off “Eurasian gun moll.”

“I’m thinking about buying padlocks in bulk and selling them outside of parking lots” said Nick.

He explained that production companies always need padlocks to keep the equipment in the trucks safe. Nick lives in Chinatown in a one bedroom apartment with a Chinese family of eight. He sleeps in a bunk bed.

“I bet you could get free shipping with Amazon Prime,” I said.

Our gracious Restaurant Slut brought our food, and — angel that he was — deigned to answer my questions about his place of employment. It turns out that the Financial District Denny’s is every bit the boondoggle anyone with a tiny bit of sense would assume. It’s essentially been empty since it opened, attracting neither Wall Street locals (they really don’t eat), nor tourists. Sometimes students from Pace University across the street pop in, but they’re hardly loyal or even repeat customers. The Restaurant Slut was quitting Denny’s to work primarily at his other job soon (Applebee’s? Chili’s? I can’t remember), but recommended to us a family-owned Dominican diner in his neighborhood before leaving us to our meals.

The food was so much worse than I remember Denny’s ever being. Massive portions of gelatinous stew with strangely textured beef on dry mashed potatoes. The bellini was made nearly impotable by vinegary, flat Prosecco. Felix’s consumed his mediocre sandwich slowly, and Nick’s ate his entire mound of food, the flavor profile of which can best be summed up as  “fried.” None of the meals were what you’d call “good” but it was clear to me that mine was the least good and that I should probably go to church or AA or something.

Nick polished off the whole thing before pulling his feet upon the booth and assuming a squat position. “Really embracing the track-suited squatting Slav thing, huh?” I asked.

He replied that the position aided in digestion. “I’m worried I’m going to have diarrhea for like, four hours,” he said seriously.

Restaurant Slut came back bearing dessert menus and for some reason we ordered pecan pie a la mode.

“I can’t eat a whole piece of pie. I’m just going to have a bite of yours. Sorry. I’m doing the girl thing.”

“Everyone hates that girl!” laughed the Restaurant Slut over his shoulder. He came back with an extra piece on the house, just for me. Out of pure midwestern protestant obligation I cleaned my plate, simultaneously relishing the sticky-sweet pecans and fighting back the nausea. We all finished and sat with our shame, awaiting the inevitable gastric anguish. When we were sure we weren’t going to die, I paid the bill, Nick walked home and Felix and I took a cab back to Brooklyn.

All of us felt like tragic garbage, but while my own dyspepsia was not negligible, in retrospect I realize I got off light–no hospitalization or visits from the authorities, at least.

What mostly strikes me about the experience is how disenchanted I am in the bourgeoisie’s sense of identity, namely what tacky fools they are. How could they allow a Denny’s–already an ersatz Middle American diner–mutate into an ersatz establishment for the affluent directly under luxury condos, right next to where all the money is.

I wish I had some clever Marxist bow I could wrap the moment up in–something about the nature of luxury regarding labor theory of value, or fetishization of commodity, or the affective labor of our delightful restaurant slut, but alas, my analytical brain was numbed into immobility by the grease of it all, leaving only my aesthetic brain to work through the trauma.

 

one simple link that shows why Vox is unserious

Vox.com comes in for a lot of abuse from me, for a variety of reasons. In large measure this stems from the fact that “explaining the news” is the kind of resurrection of the View From Nowhere we really don’t need in media. The whole notion of ideology-free explanation of complex subjects is of course itself ideology-laden. In fact, the pretense of neutral explanation simply deepens the potential dangers of bias. And it becomes even more frustrating when it gets wielded against particular candidates and particular political positions, as it has this Democratic primary again and again.

So here’s an absolutely classic example. It shows how Vox cooks the books in its anti-Bernie Sanders, anti-socialist narrative. The piece uses polling data to argue that Sanders supporters are unwilling to pay for his policies in higher taxes, without actually diving in to how voters routinely act in such situations.

  • We know almost nothing about the methodology of this poll. Such polls are notoriously sensitive to how these questions are asked. Glaring gaps in information about methodology is common at Vox.
  • The political incoherence of voters is a universal aspect of politics. All polls show that voters have inconsistent policy preferences. In any given poll asking about policy preferences and tax rates, you’re likely to get vast numbers of voters who both call for the government to do more and to pay less in taxes. Conservatives are notorious for wanting smaller government and lower taxes but also to preserve their entitlements. Liberals want a robust social safety net but don’t particularly want to pay higher taxes to get it. That’s human nature. Michael Kinsley wrote an entire book about it. To somehow spin this as unique to Sanders voters is just flat dishonesty. And as the piece itself acknowledges, Sanders voters are most willing to foot the bill!
  • These policies include cost savings for most people, and yet there’s no indication that these savings are discussed in the polling. Of course people are going to blanch at paying higher taxes if you aren’t demonstrating to them how you’ll save them money over time! And there is a mountain of research suggesting that single payer health care will be cheaper than our current system in the long run. Why isn’t that factored into this piece?
  • You know who’s out to raise taxes by a trillion dollars, by her own admission? Hillary Clinton! That’s not a bad thing in and of itself — we need to raise taxes to pay for our austerity-starved country. Indeed Clinton’s plan doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that Vox doesn’t go out of its way to demonstrate that HRC supporters wouldn’t support her tax raises either. Not in a vacuum like this. It’s simply manipulative to present voters with these kinds of questions and take their responses seriously. Yet there’s no indication that Hillary Clinton supporters are equally hypocritical/deluded, even though we can be sure, based on the very same results of this poll, that they would similarly reject the necessary tax burden of her plan. That’s just dishonesty; it’s playing into a particular media narrative about Sanders voters by choosing to pick on them about a universal aspect of American political life.

And that is why the notion of supposedly objective data journalism is so dangerous: data is never neutral. It always exists in a framework that is laden with ideology. That’s not postmodern rejection of science; it’s an acknowledgement that the questions you ask and how you investigate them influence the results you get. Polling is important, and crunching numbers is valuable. But the results can always be bent into a particular narrative by those who are committed to doing so. I don’t mind anti-Sanders pieces; that’s politics. What I mind is the pretense of objectivity and “explaining” when married to a piece designed to embarass one candidate’s voters.

success!

  • The laptop fundraiser was a smashing success, thanks to all of you. I raised more than twice of what I was asking for. It’s my great privilege to have loyal and generous readers like you. In addition to donations, I received several offers to send me laptops and a lot of advice on what to buy. I’m so grateful for all of you. After a lot of deliberation I ended up ordering a Lenovo Thinkpad P50s. Here’s the relevant specs:
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    The essential thing here is just power, in terms of processor and RAM — a Core i7 and 8 gigs of DDR3. I favored this stuff, and chose a workstation-style business laptop over a more portable Ultrabook, simply because I find slowdown to be the bane of modern gadgetry. I imagine that you have all had the experience of buying a new laptop, phone, or tablet, enjoying the snappy responsiveness for a few months, only to have it start to grind as you install programs, the operating system or firmware gets updated, and the device generally ages. For whatever reason, efficiency just isn’t a priority in modern operating systems and software (especially browsers). So I’m going with something that has raw processing power to spare. In the long run I’d much rather have a heavier laptop that is responsive than some skinny thing that I have to wait on constantly.

    And now the waiting is the hardest part.
    Capture

  • I have a few things planned to pay you guys back. First, one of my favorite writers will contribute a post to this here blog on Friday. I can’t wait to share it with you. Next Monday, I’ll be posting a piece on the academic book that I think is most useful and enjoyable for a popular audience. Mayyyyyyyybe I’ll also post my magnum opus on intelligence, educational testing, and human value under capitalism next week, too. The following week, I’ll finally do my “a book review a day for a week” project that I’ve wanted to do for ages. And don’t be shy about sending in requests for posts.
  • I was approached by a magazine called the Towner to contribute a piece about West Lafayette recently. It’s a lovely little publication that runs essays on particular towns and cities. They gave me carte blanche in terms of how to approach the assignment and they paid well. Nice web design too. Check it out!
  • I recently did a Bloggingheads episode with Aryeh Cohen-Wade, who’s always a good sport. We talked Bernie, leftism as distinct from liberalism, the problems with performative politics, and the future of the Sanders movement. Give it a watch/listen if you’re inclined.

the truth is good enough, again

Here is a passage from Samuel Redman’s recent book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums that reflects on Samuel Morton’s discredited claims that skull measurements demonstrate biological differences between racial groups and Stephen J. Gould’s attempt to debunk them:

In 1981, the biologist Stephen J. Gould reexamined Morton’s collection and argued that Morton had intentionally distorted data in order to present Caucasians as an intellectually superior race. Gould presents Morton’s conclusion alongside numerous other examples of scientists attempting to reach similar conclusions about race-based intelligence, namely, that whites were naturally more intelligent than blacks or American Indians. Gould’s high-profile work was part of a new wave of scholars who continued to deconstruct racial classification theories, describing them as distinctly pseudoscientific and racist. Some in the anthropological community have since challenged Gould’s argument that Morton intentionally distorted measurements, while other scholars agree the data was skewed on purpose.

To begin with: Morton’s work, and craniometry in general, are indeed bunk. There are no differences in intelligence between races. There are no such meaningful biological categories as races, in the way commonly understood, given the amount of within-group variation compared to between-group variation. Gould’s conclusions to that effect were correct, and Morton’s work has deserved the various debunkings it has received. And yet this passage is still deeply distorted, to a degree that makes me surprised it passed the editing process at a major academic press.

Because while the book of Gould’s in question, The Mismeasure of Man, did indeed reach the correct conclusion in terms of rejecting race science, it did so with methodological errors that are so significant they could not be ignored even by those who support that conclusion, as I do. Gould simply got it wrong, over and over again. His work was sloppy and, at times, seemingly dishonest. The last sentence in the passage I quoted above is particularly egregious, in that it suggests that later research has only challenged whether Morton was guilty of research fraud. But in fact, there has been considerable disagreement about whether Gould was guilty of such fraud. At the very least, he has been proven to have badly misread data, and has been shown to have made elementary statistical errors in his analysis. These criticisms have not come from among those who advocate race science but in fact often from those who are strenuously opposed to it, like James Flynn, who has done tremendous work in rejecting the race-IQ link and yet was a vocal critic of Gould’s work on the subject.

A study by a team of highly respected researchers from institutions like Stanford, Columbia, and Princeton analyzed Gould’s work and concluded that he was guilty of misrepresenting Morton’s data. But did those researchers endorse the conclusions of those who claim inherent biological superiority or inferiority for some races? They did not:

In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science [6] or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases [16]. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or “racial,” and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations [11],[17]. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes [18]. It is thus with substantial reluctance that we use various racial labels, but it is impossible to discuss Morton and Gould’s work without using the terms they employed.

This is exactly how I have made the case against race science in the past, at least in part: it is effectively meaningless to talk about discrete races in the human population because there is enormous within-group variation between what people typically think of as a “race.” Races are thus social constructs; although there are certainly phenotypical markers such as skin color that we can identify, and these phenotypical markers are the product of distinct genotypes, the category of a race includes vast phenotypical and genotypical variation. To argue that someone from Papua New Guinea and someone from India are part of the “race” of Asian people is to traffic in absurdities. And even within a given nation, of course, there is enormous within-group variation. Even within a given family, the basic processes of genetics result in powerfully dissimilar outcomes in a whole host of metrics. We don’t need to accept Stephen J. Gould’s bad reading of skull data to forcefully reject those who believe in “scientific” racism.

It should not be at all difficult to simultaneously reject race science and yet at the same time acknowledge the serious problems with his work. Yet Redman does not present any of that information to his reader; an attached endnote adds little to help readers understand the ensuing debate about Gould’s book. But this information is hardly difficult to find. Subsequent criticism of Gould’s book was discussed in many prominent general interest venues. Even the Wikipedia page for The Mismeasure of Man contains numerous citations about these criticisms. I have a hard time believing that an academic researcher could have undertaken the work necessary to compose Redman’s book without having come across the ample and accessible information about Gould’s failures. This glaring omission is especially frustrating because so much else in Redman’s book is carefully researched, not to mention fascinating. If Redman believed the many criticisms of Gould’s book to be in error, he was at least obligated to note those criticisms to his readers.

As someone who has argued against those positing a race-IQ link for years, I would like to say emphatically: this does not help us. Race science types thrive on conspiratorial thinking; they constantly argue that the facts are out there but are not discussed because of guilty liberals who control the academy and the media. When prominent arguments about race science endorse Gould’s work, it simply opens up a line of criticism for those who hold the very beliefs we are working to debunk. Because the implications of the race-IQ argument are so damaging to the pursuit of both the truth and social justice, we should be ruthless with criticizing weak or dishonest arguments against it even as we acknowledge its fundamental racism and inaccuracy.

If I am making too much of this, it’s simply because I’ve seen this issue used as an example of when we should be willing to fudge the facts to support a larger truth. I have been told that criticism of Gould should be ignored or minimized because the larger battle against race science is so important. Indeed, the fight against race science could hardly be more important. That is precisely why we need to know the facts and tell the truth. When the stakes are high, the need to tell the truth only intensifies. I am troubled by the number of people who seem willing to misrepresent the facts, or to deny the existence of facts entirely, to pursue a particular cause even when I find the cause righteous. For example, in my own academic work I frequently interact with people who claim that the SAT does not predict college success. They often have noble, egalitarian aims in saying so. But the SAT does predict grades, graduation rates, even career success, quite handily for human research, and denying that fact merely plays to the advantages of those who would make such tests even more important. I believe you can make a strong case against high-stakes testing and so-called meritocracy even while you acknowledge the simple facts about what tests like the SAT are capable of predicting. If you really want to prompt real reform, you have to.

We can acknowledge the facts and tell the truth even while we pursue a more just and equitable world. Indeed: we’ll never get a more just and equitable world any other way.