Friday, February 27, 2009


America is Flight 77: chained to the target
by remote control, all power of decision gone,
both engines blind, slaves to the digital bullwhip,
the hardware’s nightmare cabinet of silicon and wire,

the guts of old man Cheney’s dark equipment—used at last!
on Tuesday morning in the well below the White House,
white fat fingers flicking history’s helpless switches.
Happy now, a hidden king directing everything. AA 77

folding into flaming liquid, metal vapor, gypsum dust.
The blast-wave rips the coke machines like paper:
glass and candy everywhere, glass wet with fire,
as rainbow Skittles perforate the intern’s legs.

Insulation: burning horsehair packed between the floors
by Truman’s engineers—great holes—ten thousand crates
of files baked to ashes; tides of black smoke pouring
down the hall from higher floors, beams; where it’s quiet,

vortices of poison smoke pool white like cream. The Kevlar
windows blunt the bouncing axes of the firemen, unbreakable.
America is WTC 7, rigged to burn and then collapse, free-fall.
Beyond the giant day, the smell hung on, deep into Winter.

On New Year’s Eve we heard from Robert Lowell’s ghost:
Clamavimus! O depths, we are poured out like water.”
All year we breathed vapors of the dead; asbestos, ash.
Draped in one enormous rag of black, the DeutscheBank

building hid beneath its canvas veil
and processed trades,
shifting giant numbers in the dark, Wall Street’s great black
cube of pure authority, dreaming of the Reichstag’s flames.
Do not compare it with the hollow granite cube in Mecca,

draped in its enormous black silk veil, the Kiswah,
with its tracery of holy verses spelled in spun gold thread.
Algae blooms in vast profusion; 90 million years go by;
Cheney sends the Air Force off on drills because he knows

what’s coming; wants it to succeed, wants to start the game.
So white investment bankers and Honduran janitors
burn for his fermented ancient slime. His, ours, theirs,
De profundis, we are poured out like petroleum,

into an undisclosed location.

A New Trailer, Wherein JFK Takes It All Very Personally...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Allen Grossman Has Won the Bollingen Prize


He deserves it.

I have an essay on one of his poems in this book: Poetry's Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman, edited by Daniel Morris.

The new issue of Tikkun (March/April 2009) has a poem of mine which conveys a sense of what it was like to study with him. It's called "Grossman's Tooth."

He is one of two persons to whom my new book Limousine, Midnight Blue is dedicated.

He was, more or less, the model for the genius professor in The Crazed, a novel by National Book Award winner, Ha Jin. Without Grossman's personal heroism, as Ha Jin often acknowledges, he would never have left China.

Generations of us were trained by him, astonished by him. I'm only 40 now, but I was 21 when I met him and I've never met anyone like him before or since.
"He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again."
And so on.

One more -- from Plato's Phaedo:
"After tomorrow, it will be difficult to find another such enchanter."

Wash Day Allen Grossman

July, 1947, Gibbon, Minn.
Soiled thoughts heap up
like rags in a basket.
Time to do a wash.
The weather's right,
bright and windy.
A quick-dry day.
First, soap. Not store-bought.
But stone-hard pig fat
and lye mixed with
oatmeal in a pail.
Then hacked with a knife
into Lux-like flakes.
Then the washer, gas-powered.
Hard to start in the
kitchen, but too heavy
to lug outside.
"Fumes!" (There's
a word for you!)
The blue-enameled kitchen
stove burns corncobs
gnawed clean by pigs.
After the pigs have done
their damnedest,
the cobs burn hot.
Water. Well-water
is real cold.
No stove, pigs or not,
is hot enough to bring
well-water to blood heat.
For that you need a heart.
In the root cellar
beneath the kitchen
potatoes sprout
dead white—
because there's
no light.
Outside, on wash day, are
two galvanized steel tubs
for rinsing in the lovely air.
Rinse Tub One: rainwater, sheer joy.
Rinse Tub Two: the blueing,
too cold to be true.
Then, everything dries on the line
in the winds of July.
What dries first?
Handkerchiefs and lady's underwear.
What dries last?
The farmer's overalls
heavy with desire.
On the bib,
where the heart beats,
his everlasting snuff tin
has inscribed an unwashable
perfect circle forever.
At noon, the naked truth descends
offering her stunning breasts.
Also here comes the prophet
Amos, with something in hand.
In fact, a basket of summer fruit.
Ch. 8, vss. 1,2. (Check it out.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Robert Kuttner on Why Obama Surrounds Himself with Rightists (So Far)

This guy was a guest on FOX NEWS one day late last year, and as Hannity began to try to bully him in his typical, militantly stupid manner, Mr. Robert Kuttner fired back "The economy is tanking! You gonna deny that too, you fool?" Thus I became a fan.

But I'd never heard Kuttner speak in a forum where his host was actually interested in what he had to say, until I came across this 2-part interview on YouTube:

I like it for a few reasons, though the dude is pro-stimulus and I'm very skeptical of it. Perhaps the best feature of this interview is the insight it affords -- or if not quite insight, at least a coherent narrative -- to the vexing question of why President Obama has hired the same criminals who created this current financial mess to clean it up.

The whole interview -- including the remarks of the host, journalist Paul Jay -- is quite good, with plenty of non-obvious ideas. The outfit that produced it is called "THE REAL NEWS."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Addicted To Oil. Recovery?

"America is addicted to oil," said the oil guy in 2006.  For twenty years (1981-2000), this truism was only stated openly by a few contrarian souls lingering from the 1970's. But here it was again, and in the State of the Union Address. There may or may not be an "economic recovery," depending on umpteen things (including climate change), but if recovery means something other than economic growth, there will likely be one. The USA (chiefly the State, but also corporations, and the People) can't forever mainline petroleum, plastics, and petrodollars; eventually there will be a recovery in the AA sense: the fossil fuel addict will go through the agonies of withdrawal from economic growth and the raw materials that drive it, especially oil. This is still something which the Beautiful People do not talk about. There are alternatives, but they remain neglected because the whole issue is treated as toxic, intolerable like talk of AIDS, or aging, or death. Better, it is what sex was to the Victorians: a dangerous contagion, the mention of which marked a person as coarse. In America since 1981, there are certain facts one generally does not discuss, e.g., infinite growth on a finite planet is omnicidal. Someday soon, maybe a State of the Union Address will include that sentence.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bad Faith: Bogus Pluralism

Here's a book about which I made some remarks on a few months ago.

Jamey's review
rating: 1 of 5 stars1 of 5 stars1 of 5 stars1 of 5 stars1 of 5 stars
status: Read in January, 2005
This is a bit like reading Paradise Lost -- but with none of the pleasure -- in that you're watching the contortions of a Christian as he struggles to deceive himself and his naive readers, and you sense that somewhere beneath all this casuistry the guy knows that what he's saying just cannot be true.

A special aspect of the disingenuous hokum in this book and others in its little posse -- the recent Christian "worldview" books, for instance To Every One An Answer by Norman Geisler, or Naming the Elephant by James Sire -- is this: they figured out that you irritate people and look foolish if you stick with the claim that your religion is uniquely true, but they remain committed to the premise that, well, their religion is uniquely true. So they creep up to the edge of the terrifying abyss of relativism (which is actually the edge of intellectual maturity) and then stop short because they're just pretending to respect other worldviews.
Just as "intelligent design" is a sneaky extension of creationism, this worldview-Christianity uses the language of pluralism to smuggle-in its own soiled security blanket.

Well, I recently discovered that someone had posted a very intelligent response to my remarks:

comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (1 new)

message 1: by IW (last edited 06/15/2008 11:03AM)
05/15/2008 04:47PM

960924 Well, I’ve read this book and I don’t consider myself to be a naïve reader; in fact you read this book (seemingly) and I’ll bet you don’t consider yourself a naïve reader either.

All we know from your review is that you attack the personal beliefs of the authors, and you attack intelligent design as a sneaky extension of creationism, which you presumably associate with the authors' beliefs as well. That's not a review.

It appears that you gave this book one star because you don't like that the authors are Christian, for nothing you’ve stated is a relevant analysis of the content of the book in question.

Perhaps your review would be more persuasive if it included some examples of Craig and Moreland's arguments that you take to be instances of mere deceptive casuistry. Perhaps you could present them in a charitable light, and then show that, nonetheless, their arguments fail to meet the necessary requirements for soundness and cogency.

Your review, however, fails to provide anything constructive and, hence, is merely a diatribe against the fact that the authors are Christian.

If you are going to claim Craig and Moreland are deceiving themselves and their readers, then you ought to show us, by explicating these so-called deceptive arguments, that indeed that is the case. It is the quality of their arguments (the ones you did not evaluate in your review) that ought to be considered, not their religious beliefs or otherwise. Instead, we are perfectly clear about your feelings, but let’s not pretend those are about the book in question.

Furthermore, you criticize the authors for being committed to the claim that their beliefs are true. Well, this is a mere triviality as far as belief goes: People are psychologically convinced of the beliefs they think are true; this does not preclude, however, the possibility of rejoinder nor the recognition of error in one’s beliefs. But insofar as one thinks all the relevant information and counter evidence doe not add up to a defeater of one’s beliefs, then it remains the case that one is committed to the truth of one's beliefs. In addition, since Moreland, and Craig in particular, are continually informing themselves of new research and evidence in the areas of which they write, it hardly is reasonable to imply that they simply are deceived.

Let's take your method of review and apply it to, say, the present spokesperson for the recent proliferation of popular level anti-religious books, like The End of Faith, and God: The Failed Hypothesis, and so forth. This is a hypothetical exercise, and I'm not claiming that you have read the book I mention below.

Dawkins is an atheist, and he has written a book called The God Delusion. Suppose we substitute all the salient derogatory terms you’ve used in this review and apply them in a similar review of Dawkins' book. The result would look a lot like this:

{“This is a bit like reading the Origin of Species -- but with none of the pleasure -- in that you're watching the contortions of an Atheist as he struggles to deceive himself and his naive readers, and you sense that somewhere beneath all this casuistry the guy knows that what he's saying just cannot be true.

A special aspect of the disingenuous hokum in this book and others in its little posse -- the recent Atheist "worldview" books, for instance Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, or God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens -- is this: they figured out that you irritate people and look foolish if you stick with the claim that your scientific naturalism is uniquely true, but they remain committed to the premise that, well, their scientific naturalism is uniquely true. So they creep up to the edge of the terrifying abyss of relativism (which is actually the edge of intellectual maturity) and then stop short because they're just pretending to respect other worldviews. Just as "scientific evolution" is a sneaky extension of Darwinism, this worldview-Atheism uses the language of pluralism to smuggle-in its own beshitted security blanket.” [sic].}

Would you consider this an unbiased, reasonable review of Dawkin's book?

PS: I am not a Theist of any kind; nor am I a deist, or a polytheist, nor a pantheist, nor a panentheist. I am not an Athiest, either. Nor am I any sort of friend of religion, of any sort; but I am not its enemy either. I respect a great many religious people, but less so because of their religion and more so because of their character and intellectual caliber. I am, however, an agnostic (in the epistemic sense).

PSS: Dawkins' The God Delusion is an incredibly poorly argued book. It consists of the weakest formulations of Dawkins' opponents' views, is full of informal logical fallacies (the kind any typical freshman could enumerate in a lower division critical thinking class), and unsupported dogmatism. It is far more an instance of third rate polemics, than anything near a scholarly inquiry into the subject.

I responded:

Hello IW,
Thank you for your thoughtful and measured reply to my remarks about Craig & Moreland's Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I'd like to respond to your response.

1. I agree that my remarks did not constitute a review. I'm not sure this book merits a review.

2. I share your disdain for Richard Dawkins' work on this issue. I think the comparison between Dawkins and the authors of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview is a limited but suggestive one.

3. You are correct in your inference that I am hostile to the authors of what I called "the disingenuous hokum in this book and others in its little posse -- the recent Christian 'worldview' books..." I regard these people as guilty of a cultural vandalism that has grossly diminished the cultural riches of our species.

4. I, too, am an agnostic. If you are interested, I refer you to a video I made depicting my position:

5. I regret that for the moment I cannot seem to find my copy of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I have, however, come across my copy of an allied work by the same editors, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, called To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press, 2004). It's a collection of essays by divers hands, the most relevant of which would be David Clark, "Religious Pluralism and Christian Exclusivism."

Clark begins his essay this way:

"Today's supermarket of religious ideas overflows with enticing products. It offers intellectual shoppers countless religious options -- everything from agnosticism to Zen. But which product is a Consumers [sic] Digest 'Best Buy'? Is it crucial for a wise spiritual consumer to buy into the one right religion? Or should he feel free to select any religion at all?"

This is the discourse of marketing research, not scholarship; advertising, not pastoral care; boosterism, not philosophy. He writes as if the living of a spiritual life were parallel to the search for a suitable brand of shampoo. Though he occasionally remembers to distance himself from that attitude, he exemplifies it; he writes as if all this is indeed a shopping trip, but that none of the products on the shelves is effective except the one he recommends. He also assumes, as only an American market-head could do, that religion is a business in which each "customer" is a blank slate upon whose breast the winning Brand will be incised as soon as the caveat emptor phase of the process is concluded. Nobody in this "marketplace" of religions seems to arrive with any historical roots in a tradition, nor any living relationships to a family or a community: his subject is an atomized individual in a mental S.U.V.

Here is his second paragraph:

"Many today say that every religion is right. But my claim is that wisdom does not lie with the easy assumption that all world faiths lead to God. That idea is fashionable, and it's initially attractive. But it runs into a buzzsaw of rational difficulties. Wisdom encourages a more difficult challenge: finding the one true pathway to God."

Thank goodness we have Mr. Clark to inform the rest of us what wisdom encourages. I repeat that the essence of "Christian worldview" discourse is a fake pluralism. Clark's essay is unusual for this genre in that it shows an open contempt for pluralism, though it's included in a book that claims to demonstrate the same pluralism. How could this happen? Because pluralism was never really the point. The idea of these books is to draw readers who would be affronted by a frank Christian claim to religious supremacy, lull them with lip service to pluralism, and then attempt to neutralize the pluralist scaffolding and leave the desired "Christian exclusivism" (Clark's phrase) standing.

"Buzzsaw of rational difficulties"? This is a person who claims to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was dead as a stone for three days and then came back to life. Again, I refer interested readers to a YouTube video I made in response to this sort of thing:

Here are Clark's definitions:

"Religious pluralism states: Any (or perhaps all) religions lead to God or salvation. Following any religious path enables believers to reach the religious goal. [his emphasis]

"Religious exclusivism says: Only one true religion leads to God. Attaining the spiritual goal requires a believer to find and follow the one true faith, for other religious paths will not lead to the spiritual goal." [his emphasis]

Christians of this type simply cannot get it through their heads that the frame of reference in which they live and think is just an artifact, one that has no meaning outside of particular parameters of cultural space. For example, such a person tends to think that the Christian truth lies in the proposition that Jesus is the Messiah. But the very notion of "Messiah" -- the Messianic idea -- is just one local and very strange ripple in the fabric of Jewish thought. Mr. Clark writes about "the Salvation Question," asking which religion can "really" provide "salvation." From what? From yet another local funky little idea, "sin." He simply cannot imagine that these categories are not universal.

The God of the Jews began as a wild, warrior figure who defeated His rivals; eventually He became a unique, bodiless God with no competitors and no limitations; He was not subject to the laws of nature, nor to its dimensions of time and space, nor to the logical relations which seem to govern it, such as causality, nor to the ethical categories upon which human welfare seems to depend (see Job, for example). All of this is utterly irrational, of course, but it might somehow be true anyway.

However, the notion that such a God might copulate with a young girl on a given day, in a particular town, and have her give birth to someone who is somehow identical with Himself, yet fully God and fully human, is worse than irrational. It is a head-on trainwreck of two unrelated cultures: that of the Hebraic God described above, and that of the Greek Zeus who did this same sort of thing quite often: descending from the sky to mate with mortal women, including Io, Europa, Semele, Callisto, and so on.

To stake one's self-respect -- and one's ability to cope with the anxiety of mortality -- on the claim that one actually believes this story, is to choose a position so unenviably excruciating as to require what Freud called a "hysterical defense." To everyone an answer.

In my view, astrology is to astronomy as Evangelical writers like these are to real Christian thinkers -- among whom I would place Augustine, Kierkegaard, mystics like Meister Eckhardt and Jacob Boehme, and that small handful of Christian intellectuals who are interested in behaving like Jesus of Nazareth, e.g., Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, James W. Douglass, S.J., and the late Archbishop Romero (though of course this does not imply that I agree with all, or even most, of what those deed-focused writers say; I simply find them respectable and admirable, whereas I tend to experience faith-focused Evangelicals as self-deceptive people or, sometimes, charlatans). Being kind to people in need is good. Trying to escape a Hell and get into a Heaven -- especially by striving to convince oneself (let alone others!) that propositions X, Y, and Z are true -- is just medieval. Because it is also a homogenizing force of cultural aggression, it seems to me permissible to meet it firmly.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Men 18 through 25: "Do the Right Thing: REGISTER for the Draft."

Here's a quirky feature of our culture's gender roles... if your reproductive organs constitute an outie, you have to sign up for a draft; if you've got an innie between your legs instead, you don't have to sign up.

And what is the draft?

It's an arrangement where you're forced to acquiesce in your own kidnapping by the government, after which you run the risk of exposure to at least three very, very bad things: (1) getting wounded or killed; (2) wounding or killing somebody; and (3) signing away your inherent right to make your own decisions about what to put up with, what to do to others, and whether or not your actions constitute murder. Any one of those three can destroy a man's soul, but we have to sign up anyway.

Ours is, for the moment, an imperial nation rather than a stable one; it has to expand in search of new markets and new raw materials; it has to persuade more and more people to love the petrodollar system that keeps the greenback on the throne as the world's de facto reserve currency; it has to hold onto all the peoples and territories it controls. That requires military overstretch.

An empire is like a truck that's moving down the highway at a constant speed: it's always accelerating, just to maintain 65mph, because if doesn't keep the gas flowing through the engine, then friction and air resistance will eat away at the truck's inertial motion and slow it down to an eventual stop.

The inputs for our empire are, of course, new debt from the Federal Reserve; new debt from the sale of Treasury Bills to China, Japan, South Korea, and the big pension funds; petroleum; natural gas; freshwater; topsoil; forest "products"; seafood "harvest"; copper; iron for steel; cement; industrial silver and platinum; taxes; endlessly expanding military appropriations; cheap Asian imports; overseas markets for what little we still produce and export; cheap Mexican and Chicano labor throughout the Lower 48; suburban sprawl and the servicing thereof by Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart; the domestic market for cars; mountains of precious grain to waste on 300 million hogs, cattle, and chickens; millions of people engaged in unproductive "guard labor"; millions more employed in the legal system to adjudicate disputes; and millions more to work the colleges and universities by flowing through the graduate schools and teaching for peanuts sans health insurance.

In other words, Wall St. (the late Lehman Bros., the late Bear Stearns, the late Wamu, AIG, JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, the Central Intelligence Agency, and so on); the Pentagon (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, MacDonnell Douglas, Boeing, KBR/Halliburton, and so on), and Big Food (Monsanto, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland).

This is what is supported by the triangulation of Uncle Sam, bullets, and your dork. It's enough to make a guy go underground:
"Instead of kidney machines, they go for rockets and guns / And the public wants what the public gets..." Thus spake The Jam.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kissinger, "Realism," Political Theory, and Carnage

From the L.A. Times of February 8th, 2009 comes this charming photograph of our new Vice President in a geriatric Vulcan mind-meld with none other than Henry Kissinger, that loathsome tub of guts who killed a million people in East Timor, knocked over the Arbenz Administration in Chile (setting loose Pinochet's agents of death), sabotaged the Paris Peace talks that could have ended the Vietnam War in 1968, and so on.

That sabotage of those talks handed Nixon the presidency by a margin of less than one percent. Kissinger's magic espionage & treason in Paris was the second half of an astonishing, demonic miracle without which Tricky Dick could never have become President -- the first half was the murder of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The relevant part starts at about 6:38 in this video:

...and continues in this one:

Kissinger is always associated with a school of political thought called "realism." If I understand it rightly, the central premise of this realism is that nations cannot be expected to behave ethically, nor should they be judged by the ethical standards we apply to individuals; instead, it is in the nature of nations -- both "nation-states" of the 19th Century and after, and ethnic "nations" from Antiquity to modernity -- that they must behave as animals do in an ecosystem. Apart from occasional episodes of symbiosis and altruism, the general pattern in Nature as in geopolitics is predation. Root for the gazelle if you want to, but if the lion does not kill him then her cubs will starve. As for the python, he has to eat, and so the piglets must die. So it is when God Himself sends the Hebrews (that's me) into Canaan to do some genocide and settle down in the Promised Land; and so it is when the Jews (that's me again) return there and crush the Palestinians. When the Babylonians smashed the Temple and the rest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and beat the crap out of us, that was the same dynamic, as was the Roman disaster of 70CE, and so on. Whether we tell ourselves that we lost any given war because God was punishing us for our disobedience, or that we lost because our attackers perpetrated an injustice while God was mysteriously biding His time, the "realist" view remains that power simply seeks its equilibria among nations -- just as the numerical populations of the arctic wolf and the arctic hare move in tandem, without the oversight of some outside meddler (like God or a game warden), and without appeal to morality or its lack.

The Nazi example does not fit, because the Nazi's did not generally engage in chattel-slavery to exploit the labor of their prisoners; instead they engaged in death-slavery, deliberately working their unfed prisoners to death; a campaign of scientific extermination, a celebration of maximum cruelty in which family members are forced to shoot one another, and so on. When the philologist-philosopher wrote of the "blond beast," his notion of animality was not just leonine but psychotic [see Simpson, 1995, first paragraph].

Any discussion of the Nazi period, for example, that makes no reference to the psychology of that movement and of its unique depths of human depravity, is little more than a heap of inert data. The Nazis were a defeated people, beaten and humiliated by their parents at home, by their fellow Europeans in WWI, and by the miserable indignity of a hyperinflationary depression caused in large measure by American and British demands for reparations long before the German economy had recovered any ability to provide them. As a result of all this -- especially the physical and verbal abuse of German children by German parents -- those Germans who embraced the Nazi movement were people who "wanted to drown the world in shit." They (a) engaged in classic Freudian defense mechanisms like splitting and projection, and combined them with (b) emergent technologies (IBM's punch-card computers and the various gizmos of war, death camps, and so on) and (3) supremacist ideology of pseudoscientific racism. This created a unique mixture whose toxicity was and remains unmatched. That sketch is itself an argument against "realism," since it shows that some nations behave in ways that are unspeakably worse than the mere amorality of the "animal kingdom." Although some non-human animals occasionally inflict the kind of gradual violence that resembles torture, it seems fundamentally dishonest to frame Kissingerian "Realism" as analogous to animal behavior. It isn't.

Conversely, some nations behave in ways that are far better, though this is rare. There's the quietism of introverted and stable societies, and then there's also the fleeting efflorescence of pacifism that occasionally blooms in a sublime individual leader of a great bloody imperial power -- Ashoka in ancient India, and President Kennedy in 1963, are the only two I can think of.

So: I think this "realism" of Kissenger and his ilk is a seductive mistake, a warm bath of bad faith perfectly suited to excuse all manner of butchery. It's one thing to be armed with more weapons than anyone else and then behave like a good neighbor out of prudence and sheer decency; it's quite another to make what JFK condemned as "a Pax Americana enforced on the world with American weapons of war," slaughtering millions of people for five kinds of money: corporate profits from 3rd world slave labor; war profiteering from Pentagon appropriations; tax-free & interest-free narco-dollars; direct plunder of the assetts of the conquered; and tribute/protection money.

So I am hoping Joe Biden can find someone else to pal around with.

Friday, February 6, 2009

When Will The Gasoline Panic Return?

Here's a 'tog I snapped in Pacific Palisades last year, when the phrase "Peak Oil" was just beginning to break into the consciousness of Joe Sixpack and his sister Tammy Sixpack (from the Hittite, Zhichspoq, meaning "dumb-ass").

Then came demand destruction, a crucial phrase which refers to the drop in the number of available paying customers for a given commodity, brought about by the lag time between the sharp price increase for that commodity, and the ability of would-be customers to get enough money to pay the higher price. Without dollars to spend, people who need goods are merely the needy, not customers; their presence in the market is either an invisible specter, or a riot -- but not "demand." When gas costs $4.83, less of it sells and there is less money to be made selling it. The trick for the petroleum business is to manage the price within the constraints of (1) real demand, (2) geopolitics, and (3) geology. That last one trumps the other two, and the most striking thing about the current moment is that oil scarcity seems to be a non-issue for the moment. Haven't heard a thing about it in a dog's age.

As my dear friend Mike Ruppert says (and he attributes the remark to someone else, and so on -- it's like saying, "My Uncle Budy [rhymes with "goody"] says do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Everyone says that unto everyone's nephew):
"Until you change
the way money works,
you change nothing

So... here we are, in a fragmenting civilization which obliges each of us to live his or her life along multiple parallel tracks: on one track is the old self, with its dreams of artistic achievement, fantasies of financial liberation, civic pride, all manner of cultural ambitions and so on; in short, the radiant embodiment of all the grown-up gendered images of solid selfhood ever tendered unto little Person McPerson. On the other track, there's your inner adult, nursing a growing awareness that none of those dreams is really possible anymore, because the collapse will make them utterly irrelevant to your shrinking circle of urgent concerns. You don't have to read the great Joseph Tainter (the very good Jared Diamond will do fine) to know that a civilization descends into a Dark Age when the diminishing returns of social complexity come up against the failure of natural systems. As scarcity of "resources" becomes excruciating, the division of labor begins to break down until nobody is left doing a specialized niche job like goldsmith or violist, lighting designer or chandelier cleaner. Everyone is just another sod-busting humpbacked dirt-farmer, trying to eke out subsistence from nature on the mung-bean farm without getting cholera and farting one's spleen straight into the compost heap. Perhaps that was a bit vivid.

Since the economy is now contracting, fuel is cheap. The same contraction means nobody can afford it. At some point, however, demand destruction will no longer be enough to depress the gas price; the supply will keep shrinking, exceeding the ability of each successive demand group to meet the new price. It seems to me, we will probably return to $4/gallon long before any commercial recovery puts that kind of money in the pockets of Us the People. Whatever happens with the horserace among financial collapse, climate change, and Peak Oil, the result will be a de-monetized real economy of local food, community gardening, handicrafts, barter, a-smokin' an' a-drinkin', street theater, bad dentistry, looting, riot control, semi-futile rebellion against The (F.E.M.A.) Man, and reading Whitman by the side of the lake while Ma and Pa Zhichspoq sip a jug of ripple by Old Man Keester's frog pond in the June dawn breeze.

Any questions?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Financial Professionals vs. The Laughable Remainder of Humanity

One of the blogs I follow is Ashes Ashes All Fall Down, a very clever and irate blend of insight, perspective, and vitriol from a guy I've never met named Dan W. The post I've linked here is about one of his many conversations with sundry persons whose allergy to the facts of our shared predicament gives them carte blanche to be, well, semi-polite jerks. These are ladies and gents who consider themselves skeptics when met with any critique of the conventional wisdom, forgetting that the term skeptic means much more if applied only to critics of that conventional wisdom. They strike up conversation; it somehow gets serious; they make a vaguely condescending sidestep and go back to their exquisitely tasteful feng-shui of the deck chairs on the S.S. Big-Ass, pre-iceberg.

You may want to read Dan's original post first, which is, once again, here: Case In Point: Denial.

Here's my comment, pajama-clad & cozy at home in the bosom of my own blog:

What strikes me about your conversation with the Good Guy is that he dismissed your offer of a fresh hypothesis because you are not a professional in the finance business. He believes that grown-ups should only listen to people whose credentials exactly match the discipline at hand. Let's say you work at, oh, I don't know, a medium sized literary small press in a major metropolitan area... or, the library system of an elite liberal arts college in New Hampshire... because of your research and experience you somehow become aware of the rapidly diminishing distance between the fan and the poo. It's 2007. Derivatives are fake. The DOW is a basket of 30 stocks and whatever underperforms gets yanked out of the basket and replaced. The gold price is rigged (GATA, etc.). The Plunge Protection Team is on the scene. China will tire of buying our debt, especially when their own domestic consumer market can afford the goods they produce. Peak Oil. The Long Fricking Emergency. And so on. So you urge your organization to invest in precious metals, since the forces destroying the dollar are far stronger than the forces suppressing the gold price.

At this point they laugh in your face (obviously I'm describing my own experience here, or rather, that of... uh...a friend), because "it would be insane to take financial advice from anyone who was not a licensed financial advisor." Now, some financial advisors must surely be Good Guys, as well. But in general they make a living by collecting commissions for selling stocks to clients whose level of sophistication (and vigilance) is low enough that they'll buy securities that no broker wants to own. The majority of the people who swallowed the housing bubble and felt it burst their bellies open like a Ridley Scott alien were just following the advice of their F.A.'s, who wanted to make money for themselves and their clients by riding the ponzi scheme which wound up riding them instead.

Professionalization, the fetishizing of assessment and credentials over insight and experience -- is a big element in the way denial works, it seems to me. If you've got no PhD -- or a PhD in subject XYZ and a robust & diverse publication record about XYZ, ABC, DEF, and so on, but reality suddenly demands that you get up to speed real quick regarding PDQ -- say, the coming default of US Treasuries -- and you aint got no credential to comment on PDQ, prepare to be pathologized.

If Dick has a credential in finance, and he tells me to jump off a bridge, it isn't my fault when I do so and break my legs: I was following the advice of a trained pro. (That is what grown-ups do; to do otherwise is to be, or be the dupe of, one of various kinds of impostor.)

If Jane says it's a bad idea, but Jane is like me in that neither of us has a finance credential, how can I forgive her for perceiving something I should have been able to perceive? I can't say my blindness was due to my own lack of institutionally documented expertise, since Jane didn't have any more of that than I did --- yet she saw what was coming, whereas I'm the schmuck who listened to Dick and wound up lame on the couch, covered in popcorn watching Bonanza reruns.

Consider inviting your colleague at the library to read HOW THE UNIVERSITY WORKS. Amazing, mind-blowing book.I've only started following your blog a few days ago, and your tone is that of a person who knows a lot of what's really going on, so for all I know you may have already read this book seven times. If not, I urge you -- and Mr. Good Guy -- to check it out. He will never trust administration numbers again. @@@@@ END OF COMMENT.

Well... it occurs to me now, that the financial slime-bomb whose corrosive goo is now all over everybody was on the radar of my pal Mike Ruppert seven years ago: two days before 9/11/01, when -- where I was later Senior Staff Writer from 2003 till closing in 2006 -- published this story:

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sugar Taoism and the Secret of Wealth

There is no good reason to watch the interminable (8 minute) video below. A summary will do. An inarticulate man in a posture of improvised authority --out in nature, on a woodbridge over a stream, and wearing what appear to be archaic robes of some kind-- makes an extemporaneous list of things which were formerly thought impossible but which have since become routine.

After listing a few formerly "impossible" things, such as a terabite disc, cell phones, "a person of African descent as President," and so on, the magician (his word -- the title is "Taoism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Impossible") unveils his marvel of insight: "It was all possible all along!" The implication is of course that anything which currently seems impossible might be --and perhaps he means must be-- possible already and likely to occur in the future. Applying this to one's own life, one ought to assume that anything one really, really wants to possess or achieve is in fact within one's eventual grasp, despite all appearances to the contrary.

This will not do.

Elsewhere in this same video, he makes a claim that pops up almost every time somebody engages in this sort of thing: "I am sharing a big secret." Of course there was recently (in 2007) a mountain of money made by one Rhonda Byrne, Executive Producer of The Secret, a book and DVD (and so on) whose central premise was that, in the words of Jiminy Cricket (as quoted often by James Howard Kunstler), "When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true." The premise of that film was so obscene that it prompted formidable responses from critics who were shocked by its vulgarity. Here's an example of what The Secret looks and sounds like, before we return to our Taoist hierophant:

As I watch this, I can hardly believe that it isn't a parody. The schmalz music, the soaring camera techniques, the commanding all-caps typeface are enough to suggest that it must be a joke, but those elements come down to taste (and to targetted marketing aimed at the people who enjoy that sort of thing -- remember the snazzy computer graphics logos from the network news shows during the 1991 Gulf War? Classy!) Quite apart from that dopey decor, the sheer absurdity of the words is staggering. I use words like "vulgar" and "obscene" because from my perspective, one ought not to admit that one's chief concern is merely to become wealthy; one ought not tell others that one is unacquainted with everything that keeps us sane and safe: the limitations of human nature; the boundaries of the ego; the competing claims of altruism, cooperation, and competition; and perhaps most importantly, the consistent and universal physical characteristics of the world which make its behavior partially predictable and amenable to human plans, prudence, and adaptation. The person who holds all boundaries in contempt -- regarding them as either unjust or illusory -- is a bad neighbor, because he will think nothing of crossing the threshold of your home in the night and eating your stash of jelly donuts. Such a person tends to believe that he is entitled to break boundaries because he has ceased to respect them. Only belief is real: I no longer believe that what's yours is not mine, but I still believe that donuts are yummy; ergo, I eat your puffy little friends right out of your refrigerator. I "manifest" your donuts right into my tummy.
The Secret comes from the same intellectual black hole that brought those ubiquitous Marlboro matchbooks of the 1990's that shouted: "NO BOUNDARIES." The phrase was supposed to suggest --in the words of Nicholas Cage's character in Wild at Heart-- "individual liberty and personal freedom": to wit, the freedom to kill oneself with cancer & to enjoy the genuinely pleasurable effects of tobacco (if there were boundaries, there would be no second-hand smoke). Fine. The interesting part of "No Boundaries" was that we were all expected to regard it as an obviously good thing. In marriage, no boundaries means adultery and betrayal; in the workplace, inadequate boundaries permit union busting, child labor, the 12 hour workday, and embezzlement; in the family, no boundaries means incest and madness; in the state, lawlessness; in the market, thievery; in finance, deregulation and the resulting orgy of fraud amid whose consequences the floating fragments of the American economy are even now washing toward the sea of oblivion. I doubt that the Marlboro Red smokers who identified with "NO BOUNDARIES" would be content to see that slogan implemented along the lengthy area where the Arizona desert meets northern Mexico.
But The Secret is easy to attack, and as I mentioned, it's been done well many times already. I'm more interested in the fake Taoist guy. The Secret was 2007, before the crash began to accelerate. This dude is doing his thing in 2009, whistling "Wish Upon A Star" while the roar of reality's cat-5 shitstorm is more deafening every day. Although this fellow presents himself and his work as an Asian phenomenon, it has little-to-nothing to do with the originary and mature Taoism of Lao Tze, and much more in common with, well, The Secret, which itself derives from the business classic by JFK-bashing bigot Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). That book was a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson's sermon/essay "Self-Reliance" (1830), with the difference that Emerson's essay was vividly aware of its own contradictions and ironies, heroically integrating them into the grand sweeping arc of its argument. In Emerson there is tragedy and joy; in Peale, a desperate utilitarian cheerfulness nearly bursting with repressed hostility.
The fractal, protean, generative and dialectical quality of Emerson has something in common with the Tao Teh Ching of Lao Tze -- perhaps the best book ever written. Both are texts in which striving and loss are somehow seen to be aspects of the same thing; with the difference that whereas the ancient Chinese founder of Taoism seems to suggest that one ought to avoid loss by refraining from strife, the 19th Century Methodist American draws the contrary conclusion: that one must strive in such a way as to accept the inevitable losses which come with ambition and desire.

The claim that everything is always already possible amounts to contempt for the facts, and contempt for the adults whose work represents serious engagement with the Real. As the Aristotelian Stephen Daedalus says about his Platonist bosses in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, "That they may dream their dreamy dreams, I carry off their filthy streams."

It's 2009. Everybody's getting swamped by tidal waves of debt. The old game can no longer be counted upon to continue indefinitely. Keen observers have been writing and speaking for years about the pathology of endless economic growth, its similarity to cancer, to a Ponzi scheme, to the Roman Empire that collapsed because of military overstretch, ecological depletion, and the diminishing returns of complexity and expansion. These days, subscribers to and are no longer the only ones who realize that endless growth on a finite planet is suicide. One need no longer be Joseph Tainter, William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Mark Robinowitz, Jared Diamond or James Lovelock to realize the real secret hidden under miles and miles and miles of industrial & "post-consumer" waste:


Now along comes our friend the magician with the claim that wealth comes from pretending that you are about to receive it. He is, of course, an example of the truth of his own claims (which is why he believes them). After all, with no inherently valuable goods to offer for sale -- such as clothes, bread, novels, furniture, and so on -- nor any services of unimpeachable value -- such as sewing, baking, writing, craftsmanship -- he creates wealth out of thin air plus cheerful ambition. How? By persuading other people -- for a fee -- that wealth comes from a combination of thin air and cheerful ambition: