Saturday, March 28, 2015

More on Envy, or, I Have So Much of it I Can't Stop Writing About It

I hate taking so long to do each of these posts, but I feel obligated to try to work through to some extent any theme I have felt a compulsion to take up. Also the new baby is currently providing still another (temporary) distraction preventing me from being able to immerse myself in thinking and writing.

I am clearly bothered by this question of envy from below being the real ugliness and cancer afflicting economic and political life, and the horrible suggestion that I am myself afflicted and necessarily even further reduced by this poisonous condition. It is a condition I have always wanted very much to avoid succumbing to, knowing how much it is despised by the enviable in all ages. This avoidance involves in most instances a fair amount of self-persuasion (if no credible reassurance from one's own social community is forthcoming) that one's life is to some degree a success, his occupation and romantic life and intelligence worthwhile. My success as far as this self-persuasion goes wavers. When one has reached this state, he has no ground on which to defend himself against charges of envy. If you concede your own life and thoughts to be entirely inadequate, and yourself to have failed to attain any degree of self-mastery, but must confess that those of another are perfectly adequate, even powerful, it seems inevitable but that you must be overcome by envy, to some degree.

The alleged envious reveal themselves to be resistant to what the markets and other competitive measures ubiquitous in society have determined to be just, and refuse to take responsibility for their shortcomings in these areas, it is strongly suggested. They have been granted the liberty, and encouraged besides, to develop desires that have proven to be unattainable for them, and they have no alternative, more solid self to contrast against the slightest demonstration of wealth, before which they fold immediately in tacit acknowledgement of their essential worthlessness. "How much of what I earn do you think you are entitled to?", says the productive citizen to the redistributionist. Nothing, nothing, provided we are not speaking of contracts and obligations already in place, though personally I would prefer to live in a society where the powerful few were not quite so dominant, and the mass of the population did not appear to be, and was not treated as quite so weak and insignificant. In brief I should like the general organization and tone of whatever society I inhabit to tilt more favorably in a direction where I could claim more of a sense of identification with and participatory role in its successful functioning. This does not seem to me envy, but basic human nature.

The distortion in the extremes of income and general remuneration that different individuals have access to while being forced to spend/pay for the rudiments of life, as well as legalities, fines, etc in roughly the same economic milieu at some point leads to a situation and society that is highly undesirable and unpleasant to inhabit. It is a sign of how confused and muzzled the spirit of the American commoner is that he has such a difficult time standing up for his own self-interest, even though he can sense that the most brazen capitalists are not nice men who care nothing for him and would have him and his entire family impoverished or imprisoned or even killed and think nothing of it if his/their continued existence became too inconvenient to their interests. Yet there is a fear of making any demands on or heartfelt criticisms of these people, who make endless demands on the American public to accommodate and enrich them beyond what most other first world societies find it necessary to do, because you will expose yourself to their ridicule and brutal judgement, though judgement passed by way of a very narrow vision of acceptable humanity that most people by definition have no hope of attaining.

I keep harping on this point, but the ability of certain individuals to generate these massive sums, equal in some instances to the GDP of entire nations of 10 or 20 million people, and keep  nearly all of this money for themselves, with which they are able to dominate and distort national political and civic life to an uncomfortable extent, should be resisted and stopped by the mass of the populace for their own preservation, and dignity.

The global inequality issue, which compares the American middle class with slum dwellers in India and Brazil, and asks, what has the average American ever done to deserve the lifestyle he has? and concludes from this that the American needs to be reduced to a considerably more humble diet and material existence, is little more than a brazen ploy to further attack, under the guise of reason, the confidence of the American citizen to believe that his life and labor have little more value than that of an animal, and to sap his will to insist upon being treated as a free and noble citizen, which all people have difficulty doing when they are financially weak, but Americans especially. The American continues to have to live, be educated, receive health care, go to prison, etc, in a specific economy where these things remains expensive and that are not showing indications of re-adjusting their costs (and the consequent salaries of the leaders in those industries) in anything like a satisfactory manner to accommodate the reality of a declining personal income. It is certainly possible to lead a worthwhile and even a serious life at a material level far below that of the American middle class, but the culture of capitalism that prevails in the country will make it very difficult for the rank and file to ever do this.

Maybe there is a germ of an essay somewhere in these two attempts to deal with my feelings on this subject, which did not however much get at what bothers me so much about it. However I need to leave it off and move on to something else now.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Long Post Nominally About Envy

The idea is commonly put forward by lovers of the idea of free markets that any expression of dissatisfaction with the degree of income inequality generated by the economy in its current form is attributable to nothing more than envy; and envy being a base emotion that can by definition only have origin in inferiority, either inherent or demonstrated, and failure, it is not a ground from which legitimate complaint or criticism can be launched. Given the variability in thought and behavior among human beings generally, as well the widespread concern permeating even into relatively thriving quarters of the population that at least some aspects of this inequality are contributing to serious problems, this dismissal is a little too aggressively simplistic for my liking. To the extent that envy is ever the ruling passion it is asserted as being here, my sense is that it tends to surface rather higher than lower on the scale of accomplishment, among people who actually have attained some desirable position relative to the general population, but simply not desirable enough to themselves. To be truly consumed with envy about another person's money in the sense that free market champions want to ascribe to its critics would appear to require a certain degree of passion or obsessiveness about, and the conception of oneself as a genuine competitor in, that arena. In most instances, and certainly at my level of society, I suspect that the prevailing emotional response to the spectacle of ever-phenomenally expanding wealth for the few who have grasped either how to create or lay claim to a share of some torrent of revenue while the remainder of the cognoscent feel more palpably the extent to which they are being left behind not just financially but intellectually, socially, politically, etc, every day, and the non-cognoscent descend into a state of existence only tangentially related to any kind of advanced civilization at all, would properly be described as anxiety rather than envy. Anxiety does not carry with it the same sting of reprehensibility that envy does, and is a deeper set state of mind, less susceptible to being overcome by mockery or dismissal as well. Grown large enough, unlike the rank envy of petty individuals, I do not see how it will not have effects on the public mood and discourse.

Still, this does not address the popular arguments that are always pressed, such as that income inequality, or at least the amassing of incredible wealth by the savviest people, is not a problem and not only has no significant effect on the life of anybody else, but in fact improves the lives of the lower orders in ways that they are usually too dense to perceive.

First I will speak for myself, since with regard to envy I suppose I might be considered by the productive class a prime example of a person who must be seething with it towards every more realized person around him based on the disparity between my private self-conception and actual demonstrated value. And when placed in very near proximity to men with some similarities of background to myself who are very popular with women, who live in New York, who work or are otherwise involved in the arts or Bohemia to some extent (and consequently socialize frequently with the sophisticated and artistic women of those circles), who seem to be able to travel a lot, who are notably brilliant or at least are widely considered to be so, I have probably felt some twinges of jealousy for the things they are able to do that I am not, though in doing so I am usually acknowledging the superiority of these rivals and not attributing their success to undeserved luck or scheming how to cut them down to my level. But I am rarely in proximity to such people, especially in recent years, and real envy seems to have little pull when remote either in physical space or cultural background. Again most of what might be attributed as envy on my part seems to me much more like anxiety.

Around the time I began plotting this essay, I came upon this nasty article, which gives some examples of this attitude that petulant envy is driving most of the expression of discontent with the current direction of economic life. Like most people who hate anyone with the vaguest leftish sympathies, the aiuthor's ardor is mainly directed towards people who are as worked up on behalf of their own world views as he is for his own; still I don't like the overall tone of the piece and think the point with regard to inequality concenr is as usual missed entirely.

First there is the inevitable comparison of inequality complainers to Holden Caulfield, whose supposedly  whiny and passive aggressive, competition-averse persona has long since become a cliche for manly right wing pundits to tag their enemies with. Holden Caulfield is a teenaged character in a novel who suffers a nervous breakdown because his mind is out of step with the prevailing society all around him. I suspect he would have had little more use for modern day leftists than he would even for Republicans. The idea that there is a large class of adults, developmentally delayed or not, in 2015 that deeply identifies with this character to the point that he informs their politics to a delusional and unhealthy degree, strikes me as improbable. His book retains its popularity among some reasonably intelligent people because it is a good read, is funny, and nowadays evokes strong nostalgic associations about things like New York City and boarding schools and the 1940s, though the book nominally does not intend for them to be regarded in this light. Perhaps it appeals to people who lean somewhat leftward to begin with (though the boarding schools and the socially unjust world of the 1940s would seem to be counterintuitive or at least problematic as sources of leftist nostalgia), but its main character hardly represents the default personality of all people who are not absolutely worshipful of capitalism in the form it has taken over the last twenty years.

The hostility about the supposedly misattributed Balzac quote was bizarre. I admit I assumed that Balzac was the source of the "behind every great fortune there is a great crime" quote since everyone has always attributed it to him (the author implies that he knows this because, unlike all of the people who flourish this statement as if it contained any truth, he has read a great deal of Balzac's corpus; for my part I must confess I have only read Pere Goriot, though I did perceive the genius in it, and  Cousin Bette and Eugenie Grandet at least are on my list for someday--what I gathered from Goriot was again that the author tended to view everybody as more or less equally petty, selfish, and slavishly striving after social status, regardless of political orientation). Anybody who is a semi-conscious adult  has seen examples of moneyed interests using their resources to circumvent or otherwise protect themselves from the consequences of breaking existing laws to preserve and expand the wealth that they already possess, so it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the same ethos might in some instances have been applied in the course of amassing the original fortune. But even granting that the origins of all great wealth are founded purely in solid business acumen, at a certain level of the game artificial advantages begin to accrue to existing wealth that considerably aid the multiplication of that wealth, and enable its possessor to generate sums of money in a hour that a laborer could not make in ten or twenty years. It is this aspect of the business that I most dislike because it seems more excessive and unnecessary in its unfairness. The unfairness lies in the circumstance that all people need money, and most have a devil of a time trying to get any of it, while some few have access to sums larger than the economy of entire nations or regions. Surely there is some point at which this becomes ridiculous, if it cannot be demonstrated to be wrong or applicable to any moral system at all. But there is at present no unified movement of capable people able to apply any restrictions on its practice, which dearth of ability devoted to organizing a more empowered and juster mass society I think will eventually bring our civilization to doom.

With regard to his point about Harvard and Yale and a handful of other prized colleges, while it is true that I know a few people, albeit in my own generation, who made it into those schools from relatively ordinary backgrounds as a result of their talent and hard work, I do not know that their efforts, coming from a similar background, would be sufficient to land them there now. There does seem to be more of a suspicion than there was thirty years ago, at least when it comes to native born Americans beyond the first or second generation, that if the family has not been able to accede to some prominence by now that perhaps there is something deficient in its genetics that the top institutions would be better off not associating themselves with, apart obviously from the very rare cases where some overwhelming talent has been demonstrated during the teenaged years. I do not see how people can claim that having important or significantly wealthy parents is not a marked advantage in being admitted to these schools, even if the talented aspirant without good connections is perhaps not completely devoid of hope. I am not even going to argue in this instance that it is wrong that the children of the best people are given some priority, since wherever they congregate is naturally going to be desirable. However the entering classes at the most coveted schools remain so small that after they accomodate all of these people there are not very many spaces for the remainder of the top 1-3% of the intelligence distribution that is scattered out in the hinterlands. Despite the fearsome reputation for snootiness of Oxford and Cambridge, something like 2% of all 18 year olds in Britain matriculate at one of these two universities. That is ten times the percentage of US 18 year olds in the entire Ivy League. The anxiety about the Ivy League among people in these top few percentiles of the intelligence distribution clearly stems from the circumstance that graduates of these schools, which are inaccessible even to most people in the very top percentile of smarts and achievement, appear to be disproportionately represented among the powerful and influential (and the merely gainfully employed) in government, journalism, finance, certain fields of the arts and so on, and in many instances offer a much surer entry into these professions vis-a-vis other individual schools, many of which have many times the number of students. Part of this effect is exaggerated because media such as The New York Times cannot resist identifying people as Harvard or Princeton educated even in stories where it is not otherwise relevant (such as people taking winemaking seminars in France) which they do not feel a need to do if the person is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. There is also a degree of hype regarding products of these schools that gives them an aura of being almost superhuman in intellect and ability compared to everyone else just as a result of their school connection which is decidedly more pronounced than it was thirty years ago. All of this contributes to anxiety among people who want to be recognized as mentally capable but do not know any surer way than through academic credentialing.

He also states that the middle classes inherit a much higher percentage of their wealth than the mega rich. I am not sure where the cutoff between one class and another is in this instance, but this seems like one of those sleight of hand arguments aimed at people without any grasp of mathematics. There is a lot of ground here on which to shift. Some relevant data here would be actual figures of cash dollars, which are not given. Obviously if a middle class person has no essential wealth from his $50,000 a year income, any inheritance will make up the vast majority of his overall wealth. I do not pretend to know anything about the finances of whenever constitutes the wealthy in this statistic, but it makes it sound as if either no one is passing on these massive fortunes, or they are being passed on to people who are independently even more successful than the original bequeathers, all of which sounds suspicious to me...  

Right wing thinkers really do seem to crave a docile underclass that eagerly and cheerfully works for low pay, with no hope or expectation of that pay ever increasing unless the worker demonstrates such truly superior skill that his employer determines him to merit it, goes devoutly to church, marries in the traditional sense and sets a sober, humble example of behavior for their lower class children, asks for nothing in social services or assistance of any kind, seeks no health care or retirement that is not self-funded, and does not demand schooling for their children at government expense. That kind of society requires the underpinning of a serious and fairly deep cultural structure, which on the whole business is not commited to nor interested in developing or upholding. So that isn't going to happen anytime soon.

I have not even addressed the argument that in global terms the American middle class is the 1% and that their wealth and income, if we want to be truly just, should be cut down and redistributed to people in Indonesia and the like. But after two weeks of trying to write this post I need to end it and move on...

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Luis Bunuel/John Huston/James Joyce/Andy Williams

The Dead (1987)

I had seen this about twenty years ago, and I still think pretty much what I thought then, that if you are familiar with the story, the movie doesn't add anything to it, though it is certainly watchable and not an abomination. It is famous for being John Huston's last movie. It is comparable to another literary adaptation he made about ten years previously, of the Flannery O'Connor book Wise Blood. That did not add much to its source material either, though I thought it was mildly more interesting as a movie due to the casting and a slightly more off-kilter approach with regard to its presentation. The Dead is almost a straight transliteration of the events and settings of the book to the screen. Huston's daughter, the famous, or at one time famous actress Angelica, does not come off to me as Gretta, which character I always took to be more of an idealized Celtic type, earthy, but in a particular Irish way that is not quite so heavy and earth-motherly as this usually implies and allows for a suggestion of an inner etherealness that is largely undetected by non-poetic types. I had also always pictured Molly Ivors as being more attractive, in an athletic, vivacious way, than the actress they had playing her here, though both of these are doubtless my personal prejudices at work. The most striking characters in the movie to me were the hard-drinking duo of the protestant Mr Browne and especially the wretched and hopeless but not wholly uncharming alcoholic Freddy Malins. Freddy Malins types seem to have been fairly common in society at large when I was young, but I do not recall coming across one in years. Certainly they would be shunned by any company frequented by high-functioning and respectable people, presumably even in an extended family setting such as that in The Dead.

This is, all in all, a pleasant enough little movie, and depicts a higher level of civilization and conversation than most people experience on a day to day basis. I think if it were not directed by the Great John Huston, one would be more fully satisfied by it. But being directed by the Great John Huston, one feels that it is lacking some extra push or flair properly characteristic of that Greatness.

Born Free (1966)

This is, apparently, a widely known movie, considered by some to be a children's classic, though I had never heard of it. I was certainly familiar with the hit theme song, made famous by Andy Williams among others, which is to this day a staple of AM golden oldies radio stations, but again I had no idea of its being a movie theme, especially for the kind of movie it was, whatever it was: for it does not fit naturally into any genre of contemporary entertainment, though I do like it, partly for that very reason.

My sense of its not fitting into any contemporary genre are due to the following points:

1. While the movie is clearly aimed somewhere at the 10 to say, 16 year old market, which was a big market in the mid-1960s, I think the younger end of that age group would have trouble following the story, especially today, while the whole presentation of the movie is nowhere near cool enough to attract the attract the interest of more than a handful of kids at the upper end.

2. Vestigial colonial attitudes. I joked at one point, after an African women washing clothes along the river had been mauled to death by a lion (not shown on camera), that there should have been a disclaimer stating that 'No caucasians were injured in the filming of this motion picture', because it was fairly obvious by the whole tone of the production that the British naturalist and his blonde wife, while lovers and custodians of nature, were also at all times able to exercise and maintain control over it no less than over the human society around them. They were not going to be overwhelmed or caught off guard by the inferior life forms among which they had thrust themselves, though they affected a respect for them within certain parameters dictated by their conditions of life.

3. I touched on this some in point 2, but being a movie scientist and nature lover in the 1960s involved considerably more recourse to firearms and celebration of carnivorousness than sensitive animal lovers, especially children, would probably be comfortable with nowadays. Our naturalist has to put down (with his rifle) at least 3 lions in the course of the film whose behavior has crossed the line of decency with regard to aggression towards humans, and this without it being suggested that perhaps the people need to remove themselves from proximity to the lions' habitat. Another major part of the plot is the need of the young lioness brought up in captivity to learn how to feed itself by hunting down and devouring zebras and wart hogs and other traditional lion fare. It seems to me it would be hard for a good-hearted contemporary thinker to embrace this facet of development, even in an animal, with any very robust enthusiasm.

The unironically heart-warming ending may represent a kind of peak in the expression of the postwar bourgeois sentiment. There wasn't really anywhere to go after it.

Nazarin (1958)

A Bunuel film from his Mexican period, evidently little seen in the United States, not released here on DVD and available on VHS, which is how I saw it, in very limited supply. I am a true believer in the greatness of Bunuel, but I have become resigned to the understanding that I will probably need to see any of his films three or four times at least before I can perceive and experience this greatness in each individual instance. I watched Nazarin through twice. It is in the somewhat overly stark black-and-white that seems to be especially particular to 1958 (The Defiant Ones and Separate Tables are two examples coming immediately to mind where the film itself has this less than normally striking quality) and which gives the whole work a more artificial quality on a first viewing than other movies in this general period. The subtitles, on the version I saw anyway, come and go very quickly, and as, as might be supposed, there is no inconsiderable degree of weight and subtlety contained within this dialogue, it is something of a chore to keep up. Also I am more than usually tired lately, due to the new baby, and probably my age, and the first time I tried to watch I struggled from about minute twenty through minute sixty to remain awake and alert before finally succumbing to sleep in my armchair; the second time I made it through all the way to the end, though I faded again in the last hour, and the next day when I tried to recount what happened to the main character at the end I could not remember at all for several minutes before my brain, scanning its own recesses desperately for some image or clue, came upon the ox or horse-drawn fruit cart that does appear in the last scene. Needless to say I have to consider my assessment of this movie incomplete for the time being.

I suspect that after another viewing or two (at some future time) something that binds together its to me still disjointed and not wholly coherent parts will become clearer to me and the movie will attain for me a whole that I have not yet been able to grasp.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Check-In & Commemoration

I haven't been able to sit down at a computer for any length of time in a few weeks. I have a lot to catch up on, though for me the process of actually writing anything requires me to slow down and just let the essays come out at the pace they need to come out at. Before my recent week off (winter vacation, though due to the new baby we did not go to Florida this year), I saw that Lloyd Fonvielle, a writer whose blog I had linked to and who was a friend of this site insofar as he linked to it and one or two visitors a week drifted over from his site, died, suddenly from my vantage point as I do not know what the cause of death was, he had been posting on his page up to about a week before he died, and had gone on a pretty active road trip around the southwest as recently as the Christmas season. I liked that guy, or at least I liked his site. There aren't many blogs, to be honest, that consistently deal with the kinds of things I am interested in, and even fewer that do so in a congenial way. So I feel a mild compulsion to acknowledge that. When I was looking at the pictures of his road trips, where he seemed to have all the time in the world out among those open spaces in the west and was able to go out to bars at night and eat in cool-looking restaurants I was quite envious and thought, oh, for the day, if it ever does come, when I will be able to do that sort of thing, some of it again, some of it almost for the first time. But the nature of things for most men anyway is to be occupied with some other business than what you want to be occupied with right up to the very last. It is necessary, for you at least, if nothing else.

Anyway I hope to be putting up more posts here soon. I have not quit the blog.