Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Rich

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“Public opinion has to be something that doesn’t matter to us,” so says Catherine Hooper, fiance to Bernie Madoff’s son Andrew, on a 60 Minutes interview with where Ruth Madoff and Andrew speak with the intent of selling their book on Bernie and clearing the Madoff name.

I’m reminded of a common misquote:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

That exchange never happened, and is a confluence of two unrelated quotes, but it speaks to two philosophies on how we’re to deal with the trials and tribulations of our American aristocracy. If culture is a collective aggregation of how we cope with the necessities of life, then by very definition we can never share the same culture as those who are born into wealth. They, despite being the same species with the same reactions to the same stimuli, will always and forever be a foreign people, for their ‘stimuli’ are wholly alien to that known by the rest of us.

In a lot of the novels I have that are set in Gilded Age New York or Elizabethan London, the rich go out of their way not to mention money in any form – not to demean themselves with the acts of merchantmen. They were gentry, their wealth was assumed, and life was about maintaining social norms. This interview evokes accounts of many of those same views on life.

Indeed, Andrew said that Ruth, when told of the extraordinary theft, first asked, “what’s a Ponzi scheme?” She reportedly never suspected anything. The whole interview, despite – or perhaps due to – their every effort to distance themselves from Bernie, sounded like the account of an odd, decades-long practice of selective blindness. The conversation on the matter, according to Andrew, started and ended with Bernie stating, “you worry about your business, and I’ll worry about mine.” As such, the undercurrent in the Madoff household appears to have been, “I don’t care where the money comes from, so long as there is money.” It was never delved into too deeply. They could contentedly live with the proceeds without ever asking any questions. They never thought to ask questions.

The rest of the interview is mostly Madoff’s wife and remaining son wringing their hands over having to cut back on the lifestyle his theft has allowed them – yet, indeed, Ruth gets to keep a $2.5 million stipend and the proceeds of the book mentioned. They’ve been demoted from fantastically rich to ‘merely’ rich. She’ll have to content herself with cruise ships instead of private yachts.

It’s a surreal juxtaposition: Their problems, even now, are not the same as what ‘normal’ people would have to consider given the circumstances. They’re still living comfortably, and Ruth Madoff declared, even now, that she didn’t know whether she’d report Bernie if she had to turn him in. She stated that she felt sorry for Bernie, for his prison term. That she would prefer not to have to deal with the shame of being recognized. As if they could turn to the public and say, “if you just leave us alone, I think we can get through this.”

If I could, I would ask her the (admittedly rhetorical) question, “why do you think he was put in federal prison?” To me, the answer is obvious: It’s not to defend society from the menace of Bernie Madoff. It’s to defend Bernie Madoff from society.

I wonder if they realize just how angry the public is. I wonder if they ever will be made to face that anger. But wealth is and always will be the ability to shield yourself from exactly that.

Occupy Whatever looks mighty white-bread

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so says the NYTimes. And I can only respond, “well, duuuuhhh


Now, again, I’m still not saying that the reason for their being there isn’t worthy of consideration, and indeed I do agree that our economic model at the moment seems blatantly constructed to, well, fuck us. That it really is college and fresh-from-college kids from middle-class backgrounds angry that they’re not given the piece of the pie they were promised isn’t in itself a bad thing. Reformations and revolutions tend to happen when the middle class views and aligns itself with the poor rather than the rich.

That said, there’s a social divide present and they have done very little to bridge it, and in that division speaks to the assumptions of those downtown that in some manner detracts poorer (and more diverse) constituencies. This must be addressed if this movement is to do more than evoke horrible and horrifying parallels to the Tea Party movement, tho I hesitate to even compare the two, or worse, evoke ridiculous I-live-in-a-bubble campus quad vibes like the Occupy Museums schtick.

Nevertheless, tangentially-related, being in a bubble myself in the form of living in Manhattan, I only come across such monolithic demographics in gamer cultures. Of course, being able to play computer games and afford them the time to get involved in the culture is itself a middle class conceit, but you look online and it’s predominantly white, young, and male, leading straight to the well-known racial epithet-laden cesspool that we know of as Xbox Live.

I was recently reminded of such by an event at Blizzard Entertainment’s convention, where they had commissioned a band that went up and peppered their speech and music with the sorts of casually homophobic language you simply can’t say in mixed company. Not that they played in front of mixed company, if you know what I mean. The backlash was surprisingly muted online, where many stepped up to defend their bigotry by declaring ‘free speech’ and arguing that despite using the terms “gay” and “fag” pejoratively, they were not directing their ire towards homosexuals per se, and therefore were not homophobic.

That such an argument could even fly speaks to the sorts of circles these people hang out in.  Indeed, having played Blizzard’s World of Warcraft for over four years, nothing of what these guys said sounded out of the ordinary to me, because the general decorum on trade or barrens chat is that of a suburban middle school lunchroom. Needless to say, these particular idiots “may not” have been explicitly directing their language towards homosexuals, but their language cannot be construed as anything but offensive to homosexuals, if for no other reason than that nobody is innocent to the connotations of those words and nobody says those words in regular speech except within the monolithic demographic enclaves of suburban American teenagers.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but such communities have never been known for being particularly friendly towards homosexuals or, for that matter, any other form of otherness. Hell, the whole It Gets Better project is directed towards homosexual teens in closed, suburban enclaves because they could not escape the intolerance and homophobia until their majority and independence.

Now, that’s a far cry from the guys downtown, but I honestly believe that there is some similar conceit in their thinking and methodology that has precluded this from really representing New York instead of piles of bussed-in hipsters.

Not Shedding Any Tears

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I don’t understand articles like this. “It was a mistake to kill Qaddafi,” like we should have a say in the matter. Or, rather, a say is all we should have in the matter. They’re ultimately responsible for the doing.

Now, I’m not saying the rebels were thinking about it at the time, but if they actually thought, “do we do him now or take him to the Hague,” they’d probably have shot him a few more times in the face to make sure.

Yeah, let’s show our support for this populist uprising by making sure the guy who’s been killing them all these years gets to live a bit longer while northern Europeans – who, of course, always had North Africans’ best interests at heart – deliberate over how civilized they can be to a mass-murderer. How very paternalist, especially when his death now casts a shroud over the ‘trustworthiness’ of the new transitional leaders (at least, in the eyes of Republicans looking to qualify Obama’s foreign policy victory). As if our history in the region gives us any sort of moral high ground.

So it’s with this view that I wonder the motives of those looking to ‘temper’ Libyan hearts from afar; those who wax philosophic about their ability to self-rule. I’m not justifying revenge murders, but considering that this has been a success on all accounts precisely because of the considerable lack of force the United States has brought to bear – in effect, very pointedly not turning Libya into another Iraq – and as such has allowed the Libyans to effectively own their victory, they should, then, be allowed to own their transition.

We should support, not direct the proceedings.

Similarly, as we watch the Palestinian demand for statehood recognition die a slow death in the UN security council’s committee deliberations, it would seem that the question we should ask ourselves is just how much our sovereignty matters more than their sovereignty. I’m reminded of a Ted Rall comic on the matter: Just whose permission did we ask to exist?

In Defense of Obama

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Cynthia Gordy of The Root has written an article criticizing Obama’s efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor since entering office, in light of the White House’s recent report on the same. Her tone reminds me of myself and most liberals’ complaints about Obama – in short, we think he’s not strong-willed enough – and every topic ends with a quote from somebody making the same “yes, but…” argument. For instance, on Health Care:

Claudia Fegan, a physician serving low-income patients in Chicago and a spokesperson for Physicians for a National Health Program, says that Obama’s initiatives have good intentions. “But the process is too complicated for most poor people, who have fairly chaotic lives, to access,” she said.

Or Welfare:

Economist Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women, says there’s no doubt that Obama has provided assistance to the poor, but cites challenges. “There are some really good things that the administration has done around poverty, but they have not been proportionate to the extent to which the problem has increased,” she said.

Or Foreclosures:

“The foreclosure crisis hit the African-American and Latino communities in 2002, so we’re talking about a problem that is really entrenched,” said Lisa Rice, vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “I think the administration has done some things well, but we’re playing catch-up to a large degree.”

Each topic reads almost exactly the same: Progress, but not enough. Yeah, okay, okay. We get it. We’ve been steadily edging back from the brink – and dear god, there most certainly was a brink – we haven’t turned around and started walking away from it.

But, honestly, we know that. We knew that implicitly. Making a four-page article about it seems… redundant, especially considering it fails to make a single mention as to why he may have failed to live up to his campaign promises on all these fronts. There’s lip service towards the end of the article that dismisses his “playing politics,” but let’s get real: That 400lb gorilla in the room is an elephant.

It really does take getting all your ducks in a row in order to effect substantive political change. Obama didn’t have much to build upon, so the fact that he made any progress at all – against a party that’s out for his blood, has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions, questioning the legitimacy of his presidency, and has shown an ardent and effusive desire to sabotage the government and the country until he is out of office – is a testament to his ability. But, quite simply, he cannot do it alone, and we don’t have all that many strong leaders in the Democratic party.

As pointed out by Robert Caro, it took nearly ten years of concerted effort to create the sort of situations in which Lyndon Johnson could pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964. It wasn’t just a rush to curry votes book-ended with a tense face-off against Strom Thurmond. It was the result of a great long deal of “playing politics.”

By contrast, the relatively quick and decisive policy rehauls – to make a grand understatement – during the tenures of Lincoln and both Roosevelts were nothing if not tumultuous, fraught with peril, and very, very illegal, as far as the expansion of executive power went. Their actions saved this country from some horrifying crises, and in some cases were victorious against severe opposition, but I seriously doubt we’d let Obama – to say nothing of the GOP – do anything remotely as bold without metaphorically lynching him.

So, much as I complain about the protesters downtown, and much as I’ve also railed against Obama’s seeming reticence to work the system with some elbow grease, give them credit: At least they’re doing something. But no good deed, however, goes unpunished.

Oh God Please Stop, Part 2


Theft has apparently become a concern downtown for the #occupywallstreet protesters, as I predicted. Interesting tidbit:

“Stealing is our biggest problem at the moment,” said Nan Terrie, 18, a kitchen and legal-team volunteer from Fort Lauderdale.

“I had my Mac stolen — that was like $5,500. Every night, something else is gone. Last night, our entire [kitchen] budget for the day was stolen, so the first thing I had to do was . . . get the message out to our supporters that we needed food!”

A $5,500 Mac. (It’s possible: You just have to get all the luxury add-ons.) How’s that for wealth redistribution?


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I hate the labels politicians slap on hot-button issues to make them more palatable, because it’s propaganda of the most base kind, and I hate even more that such painfully obvious maneuvers are done mostly because they work. ‘Pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice,’ for instance, instead of ‘pro-abortion rights’ and ‘anti-abortion rights.’ ‘Sanctity of marriage,’ instead of ‘anti-gay marriage.’ Each label is bathed in assumptions about the in-defensibility of its opposite.

Among these is ‘right-to-work,’ as opposed to, I suppose ‘forced-unionism.’ At least, as far as libertarians wish they were called. There was a Daily Show rerun on with Ron Paul espousing the “strength” of the Southern economy thanks to its right-to-work laws, backed up by such statistical mindfucks as the fact that the South has gained jobs and its average wages have risen faster than the North. The only problem is… the South had fewer jobs and a much lower wage rate to begin with. It has more to gain. As pointed out in my last blog, average wages nationwide have gone down and national job growth has been anemic for a decade. This sort of business tomfoolery has been instrumental in depressing wages in this country overall, much like casinos only work when there’s a larger neighboring economy to mooch off of.

But most of all, I’m sick of the freakin’ label. ‘Right-to-work’ just means that workers that receive benefits from collective work bargains don’t have to pay into the unions who got them those benefits. Here’s the thing: Does anybody really give a shit about the piddling union dues? I have lots of stuff taken out of my paycheck – or did, at any rate – and union dues were one of the smallest parts of it. I can’t imagine that workers are fighting so hard to get rid of that charge. I can see why businesses would want to get rid of them – because they starve unions – but, honestly, what in the fuck?

See, here’s the thing: If my job sucks and pays shit and all that, and I’m pissed off that I’m paying $22 every paycheck for the union, my preferred solution is not that I stop paying $22 every paycheck. My preferred solution is that the union do something to stop my job from sucking and paying shit. This sort of proposed solution in right-to-work is the exact opposite of rational sense. I want better unions, not dead unions. And that’s the crux of the issue: This ‘right-to-work’ premise was invented not by workers, but by businesses, who do not have workers’ best interests in mind.

But, then, I’m one of those guys who thinks the only social worth of private business in this country is to provide the highest living standards possible for the most people possible. Y’know, the latter half of that Henry Ford quote. Instead, we seem to be getting Alabama as an ersatz Mexico of the North.

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