Up, Down, Appendices, Postscript.
Threaded through a standard bourgeois upbringing were the (I imagine) standard iconoclasts: Van Gogh, Artaud, Regis Debray, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention in Montreal at a Sherbrooke Street club where the Holiday Inn now stands, the Fugs at Fillmore East, Michael McClure & The Beard;, never got to Captain Beefheart explicitly till now, except for a fascination with the 1969 tune which summed up Hot Rats for me - didn't know until today that it's called 'Willie The Pimp', and which music I did not even hear until I crashed in Courtenay in ... 1994 or so, and if I had heard the phrase 'Captain Beefheart' I just thought it was the name of a Zappa tune somewhere.
It started here, with Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NYT. 'Seminal' he calls it. And the next thing I saw was this film Some YoYo Stuff by Anton Corbijn.
The image to the right is from the unforgettable beginning of Luis Buñuel's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou (which the UbuWeb hosts of Corbijn's film use as a page header). Her name is Simone Mareuil - killed hersel, dramatically, at age 51.
There was a lot going on in the 20's that I have no idea about.
Reading Dreams in a time of war : a childhood memoir by Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo, and coming across some of the history around condemnation of the practice of female circumcision/mutilation. The white missionaries opposing the practice were apparently very active in the 20's - doh?! Who knew they had been at it for so long? Thiongʼo soft pedals on the issue, describing only the male circumcision rite in any detail. One imagines that, writing in 2009 while sitting as a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature in an American university, one has to be somewhat circumspect. I find it hard to imagine this man writing Matigari just 20 or so years before in 1987, but that's another story.
It seems that any Kenyan writer of a certain stature has to address the issue at some point, a rite of passage if you will; generally in terms of white cultural imperialism ... blah blah blah. Jomo Kenyatta was more forthcoming about it (and horrifying) when he was writing Facing Mount Kenya; the traditional life of the Gikuyu in 1938.
All of this simply hoping that you will take 10 minutes and watch Corbijn's film, because Captain Beefheart's observations are to the point; for instance, as he says of guys cutting up tigers for aphrodisiacs, "they have a pussy problem." He lays it on the Chinese - of course it is not just the Chinese ... seems to me there's a pussy problem in Kenya too.
So, back in the day ... almost a hundred years ago, there was a more-or-less organized effort to stop people from cutting off other people's clitorises. ... Keep in mind that having your foreskin cut off, barbarous as that may be, does not eliminate the pleasure of playing with your knob or of having it played with, some say it even enhances the sensation, I have no way of comparing; but cutting off your clitoris certainly does not enhance anything.
Sure, sex is not all or only about pleasure.
If you think that I am being critical of Kenyatta's political legacy ... I am not; and that's nevermind the 20 years of Moi that followed him; and that's despite Kenya making it onto the short-list of failed states in 2009, and moving up the ranks in 2010. OK?
There's more. I have no idea if Mama Ngina was cut or not - but I'll admit that I imagine she was. Do women who are cut ever smile as seraphically as she is smiling in that first photograph? Do men who participate in cultures which mutilate so fundamentally love their families? Look at the pictures of her with her children and Jomo - he looks attentive at least - my bet would be that he loved her in his way. Every culture mutilates; consider Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Goal:
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Frank Zappa ... I saw him a number of times up close & live-on-stage in that small venue on Sherbrooke; and thinking of his dying of prostate cancer captures my sensory imagination, firmly. Don Van Vliet gave way to these few paragraphs today because of the way he said, "Boo!" at the end of Corbijn's film.
A convincing view of the 'Cancún Agreements' and the events leading up comes from this Bolivian diplomat. Cancún was a fiasco.
Bill McKibben describes his 'emotional trajectory' to a smiling set of teeth occupying the mouth of David Kroodsma of Hub Culture, and tells us once again, again, again, again, again, again, again ... how he 'wrote the first book on climate change'. I provide these links so you can watch and think and decide and judge for yourself - I think they are blatant nincompoops but that's just me.
One thing is clear though:
"Though hee bee a cocke of the game, yet Euphues is content to be crauen and crye creake."
I have the same problem - how to reconcile the irreconcilable - I just deal with it differently. Their way is probably better, superior ... adaptive ... 'live to fight another day' and all that.
Speaking of pipe-organs, here's something in the Globe about empty pews.
Last Sunday was the Christmas recital at Metropolitan United. I didn't go. No tickets for The Messiah this year either. Choked. Parado!
There is a repetitive structure in Matigari in which various people are distracted from seeing who and what is immediately in front of them by rumours and stories of miracles. Here's an excerpt with examples.
It's like Cohen's "We asked for signs, the signs were sent: the birth betrayed, the marriage spent; the widowhood of every government - signs for all to see."
And then Axel Honneth writes an unforgettable sentence, part of a sentence actually, in the preface to his 2009 book Pathologies of Reason (On the Legacy of Critical Theory):
"... the living conditions of modern capitalist societies produce social practices, attitudes, or personality structures that result in a pathological deformation of our capacities for reason."The rest of the book seems to drift into swamps of equivocation; I couldn't make head nor tail of it; or maybe I am just showing deformed capacities for reason. But still ... What a thought to begin with!
And folding it into all the musings on the necessary tactics for dealing with nutbars & freaks; the behaviour of thirteenth fairies not provided with golden plates; and so on ...
If there is no light in the temple there is no reason to go in, or words to that effect; if the lights are off either no one is at home or they are all asleep; &etc. I heard this from a Bahá'í; though they too are deeply enthralled by cunning spiritual bureaucrats, this ray of light has, at least temporarily, escaped the black hole of their 'Universal House of Justice'.
The reason that people are not flocking to listen to these pipe-organs is that they are housed in churches; and the churches are filled with bureaucratic baggage instead of compassion; adolescent ideology & bourgeois sentiment instead of adult discernment; darkness and superstition instead of light.
Don't believe me? Then do the experiment: go to their churches, sit through their service, put a nickel on their plate, and watch how you pass through and out with no one ever asking, "Friend, what ails thee?"
You may have to do the experiment more than once to understand that it is nothing to do with incompetence, though that also figures in it & contributes. I have done it hundreds of times back and forth across this country in every kind of christian church ... but then; I'm a slow learner.
The lights are out and nobody's home.
The Bowen Beer Bottle Band with;
Angels We Have Heard On High, and,
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Funny how seeing a man weep will affect you.
I downloaded (stole - but IsoHunt was the only place I could find it) Leslie Iwerks's film Dirty Oil and watched it. I imagine that Lester Brown's consistent positivity does not come out of any ideology - he seems a thoroughly practical man. And he doesn't quite weep in this film either, but he gets close.
The effect on me was strange. I have been very down about what is going on for a number of years now; feeling worse and worse every week; it is all chronicled in this blog and the one before it. Watching him, I wept too. And then suddenly I was energized; wondering how to get other people to watch this film; wondering how to rent a theatre and organize a showing; how to arrange video links to Leslie Iwerks & Lester Brown for a post-viewing discussion; wondering about revenue models depending upon freewill offering afterwards instead of pre-paid admittance.
I remember being astounded that some of the busses used to take your ticket as you got off (true!) in Rio when I first got there.
Any montage reveals some of what is in the curiosity of the artist. If you watch the sequences of Lester Brown in Dirty Oil you may notice the skillful techniques around how his face is framed, but you also get a look at him complete in his short pants climbing gingerly over the tussocks in the windpark - maybe this is an accident but I don't think so. I think our Leslie has a heart and is becoming more and more skilled at revealing it. And part of that revelation is purveying a more-or-less complete vision of the individuals you are filming. Nibbling away (at least) at the edges of the ubiquitous 'talking heads' as it were.
There is an earlier documentary, Recycled Life. It is almost worthwhile taking the time to watch her films in chronological order to see how she is developing.
You can order an in-between film, Downstream by mail with a cheque for $24.95 (US) - the address is:
Leslie Iwerks ProductionsThere is a way of sort-of buying it on-line on the 'Merchandise' tab of Downstream, but I couldn't figgure out how to navigate it, maybe you can.
1322 2nd Street Suite 35
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Being as it is on the general theme of 'Bah humbug!' here's Paul Krugman's christmas message.
It is duly noted that the suicide bomber who killed 45 people in the town of Khar in Pakistan was a woman.
And that the land grab of farmland in African countries which do not have the wherewithal to say no by countries with cash and influence is going ahead.
And that Jim Prentice quit for whatever reasons but that he thought 4 million barrels a day of tar sand oil per day exported to the US is about the limit.
And that the Toronto Police thug, Babak Andalib-Goortani, who beat up Adam Nobody and who has now been charged (albeit very politely and with kid gloves on) is nothing but a scapegoat.
And that General Electric will probably weasel out of dredging all of the contamination in the Hudson River for which they are responsible (though anyone who imagines that dredging is really going to solve the problem must be overdoing their meds - so who cares anyway?).
And ... and ... and ...
And, oh yes ... Justin Gillis of the NYT published a good overview of global climate change with no more than the required number of fnords. The diagrams on the right are from that article. The link NYT posts to Keeling's article takes you to a pay-site - this one goes direct.
I have not included these articles in the Appendix per usual, oh well.
So ... let's just sing our way right on outa here ...
The line that caught me was, "Quando mentir for preciso, poder falar a verdade" / "When a lie is needed, to be able to tell the truth [instead]". Here she is: Maria Gadú, Shimbalaiê.
|Shimbalaiê, quando vejo o sol beijando o mar|
Shimbalaiê, toda vez que ele vai repousar
Natureza deusa do viver
A beleza pura do nascer
Uma flor brilhando à luz do sol
Pescador entre o mar e o anzol
Pensamento tão livre quanto o céu
Imagino um barco de papel
Indo embora pra não mais voltar
Tendo como guia Iemanjá
Shimbalaiê, quando vejo o sol beijando o mar
Shimbalaiê, toda vez que ele vai repousar
Quanto tempo leva pra aprender
Que uma flor tem vida ao nascer
Essa flor brilhando à luz do sol
Pescador entre o mar e o anzol
Shimbalaiê, quando vejo o sol beijando o mar
Shimbalaiê, toda vez que ele vai repousar
Ser capitã desse mundo
Poder rodar sem fronteiras
Viver um ano em segundos
Não achar sonhos besteira
Me encantar com um livro, que fale sobre vaidade
Quando mentir for preciso, poder falar a verdade
Shimbalaiê, quando vejo o sol beijando o mar
Shimbalaiê, toda vez que ele vai repousar
|Benediction, when I see the sun kissing the sea|
Benediction, each time he goes to sleep
Nature goddess of living
The pure beauty of birth
A flower glistening in the light of the sun
Fisherman between the sea and the hook
Thinking as freely as heaven
I imagine a paper boat
Going away never to return
With Iemanjá as guide
Benediction, when I see the sun kissing the sea
Benediction, each time he goes to sleep
How long does it take to learn
That a flower has a life to be born
This flower glistening in the light of the sun
Fisherman between the sea and the hook
Benediction, when I see the sun kissing the sea
Benediction, each time he goes to sleep
To be the leader of this world
To be able to wander without borders
Live a year in seconds
Not to believe silly dreams
That enchant me with a book about vanity
When a lie is needed, to be able to speak truth
Benediction, when I see the sun kissing the sea
Benediction, each time he goes to sleep
And here's the word 'Shimbalaiê' for you at Dicionário inFormal.
I might say that the Candomblé barracões in Brasil (thpough there are no pews per se) are full to the doors ... but I wouldn't ... and anyway, the Catholic churches down there are full too, and anyway, you would just say it is mere tribalism or superstition ... whatever.
Be well gentle reader, may all your broken eggs be sunny side up.
Comics from the 10's
The guy in cubicle 20 killed himself, Luciano. He did it the hard way - didn't take his sleeping meds.
He left a note calling us "drugged zombies on the huge ghost train of life."
What an amusing story.
I see you are taking your smiling meds.
Every week I get a few new words by email from Dicionário inFormal. This week it was: 'vindouro' yet to come, coming; 'tortôio' a serious punch in the eye; and, 'joça' bad quality, junk. So ... Neste ano vindouro, eu espero que alguem vai dar tortôio na fonte de tudo essa joça. In the context this could be myself, this could be the captains with their hands on the levers, this could be the pathetic hangers-on & fellow travellers, the pensioners if you will.
Not this guy though. This is the only picture I could find of Robert Grandjambe Jr. of Fort Chipewyan - I am not 100% certain that this is himself, but I think so. Robert Grandjambe Jr. is the man who sent photographs of abnormal fish from the Athabaska River and Lake Athabaska to the feds, proof which they apparently believed though there had already been enough and more than enough for any sensible person to know what has been and is going on up there in Fort McMurray and north, that's to say downstream from Fort Mack. Grandjambe runs a fish camp up there somewhere - I bet it's a good one.
Who Killed the Disneyland Dream? asks Frank Rich in the NYT. He sometimes does that, asks what seems like a good question and then half-assed answers it and finishes with a vapid rhetorical flourish. I put some links into his essay so you can navigate quickly and watch as much of the film as you can stomach.
In 1956, just a youngster like the kids in this film, I wanted Disneyland too. Someone talked me out of it. Who cares what happened to Disneyland? It was never desirable; their 'Tomorrowland' was never worth a rat's ptuie.
1. Don Van Vliet, Verlyn Klinkenborg, December 20 2010.
2. Why Bolivia stood alone in opposing the Cancún climate agreement, Pablo Solon, 21 December 2010.
3. The lonely tune of the mighty pipe organ, John Allemang, December 17 2010.
4. Pathologies of Reason (On the Legacy of Critical Theory) - Preface, Axel Honneth, 2009.
5. Matigari (Excerpt), Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo, 1987.
6. The Humbug Express, Paul Krugman, December 23 2010.
7. Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?, Frank Rich, December 25 2010.
Don Van Vliet, Verlyn Klinkenborg, December 20 2010.
Summer of 1969. Parents away. A 50-foot audio cable runs from the stereo through a window across the porch to the lawn, where it terminates in headphones with my head between them. I’m lying on my back in the Sacramento night. On the turntable is “Trout Mask Replica,” just released, which I’ve listened to again and again. It is the magnum opus of the Magic Band led by Captain Beefheart, a k a Don Van Vliet, who died on Friday at age 69.
I had never heard anything like “Trout Mask Replica.” I listened to it again when I heard that Van Vliet had died. It still feels like walking through a crooked house where every crooked room is a crooked art installation, every song a spirochete that nests in your brain. For years, I’ve heard in my head the syncopated hitch in the gait of this music, the meticulous noodlings of the electric guitars, the frantic drumming, and, above all, Captain Beefheart’s voice.
It rumbles and clatters like an avalanche of boulders. It squeals as if Beefheart had found some inner harmonic in the dog’s range. It makes Tom Waits sound like Julie Andrews. It veers between thoracic and nasal in a single note, every bit as surreal as the lyrics.
Captain Beefheart was a pure product of Southern California. Much of “Trout Mask Replica” was written and rehearsed over three years in a cabin in Woodland Hills on the edge of the San Fernando Valley — a residence that should be as famous as “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, N.Y., where The Band holed up. That was where Beefheart drove his band and was driven by them — Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, The Mascara Snake, Antennae Jimmy Semens, and Drumbo — into making one of the seminal albums of all time.
There is more to Beefheart than “Trout Mask Replica,” and far more to Don Van Vliet, who retired with his wife to Trinidad, Calif., where he painted and gradually succumbed to multiple sclerosis. He never made much money being Captain Beefheart. But he left an eerie and undying legacy.
Why Bolivia stood alone in opposing the Cancún climate agreement, Pablo Solon, 21 December 2010.
We were accused of being obstructionist, obstinate and unrealistic. But we feel an enormous obligation to set aside diplomacy and tell the truth
Diplomacy is traditionally a game of alliance and compromise. Yet in the early hours of Saturday 11 December, Bolivia found itself alone against the world: the only nation to oppose the outcome of the United Nations climate change summit in Cancún. We were accused of being obstructionist, obstinate and unrealistic. Yet in truth we did not feel alone, nor are we offended by the attacks. Instead, we feel an enormous obligation to set aside diplomacy and tell the truth.
The "Cancún accord" was presented late Friday afternoon, and we were given two hours to read it. Despite pressure to sign something – anything – immediately, Bolivia requested further deliberations. This text, we said, would be a sad conclusion to the negotiations. After we were denied any opportunity to discuss the text, despite a lack of consensus, the president banged her gavel to approve the document.
Many commentators have called the Cancún accord a "step in the right direction." We disagree: it is a giant step backward. The text replaces binding mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with voluntary pledges that are wholly insufficient. These pledges contradict the stated goal of capping the rise in temperature at 2C, instead guiding us to 4C or more. The text is full of loopholes for polluters, opportunities for expanding carbon markets and similar mechanisms – like the forestry scheme Redd – that reduce the obligation of developed countries to act.
Bolivia may have been the only country to speak out against these failures, but several negotiators told us privately that they support us. Anyone who has seen the science on climate change knows that the Cancún agreement was irresponsible.
In addition to having science on our side, another reason we did not feel alone in opposing an unbalanced text at Cancún is that we received thousands of messages of support from the women, men, and young people of the social movements that have stood by us and have helped inform our position. It is out of respect for them, and humanity as a whole, that we feel a deep responsibility not to sign off on any paper that threatens millions of lives.
Some claim the best thing is to be realistic and recognise that at the very least the agreement saved the UN process from collapse.
Unfortunately, a convenient realism has become all that powerful nations are willing to offer, while they ignore scientists' exhortations to act radically now. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that in order to have a 50% chance of keeping the rise in temperature below 1.5C, emissions must peak by 2015. The attempt in Cancún to delay critical decisions until next year could have catastrophic consequences.
Bolivia is a small country. This means we are among the nations most vulnerable to climate change, but with the least responsibility for causing the problem. Studies indicate that our capital city of La Paz could become a desert within 30 years. What we do have is the privilege of being able to stand by our ideals, of not letting partisan agendas obscure our principal aim: defending life and Earth. We are not desperate for money. Last year, after we rejected the Copenhagen accord, the US cut our climate funding. We are not beholden to the World Bank, as so many of us in the south once were. We can act freely and do what is right.
Bolivia may have acted unusually by upsetting the established way of dealing with things. But we face an unprecedented crisis, and false victories won't save the planet. False agreements will not guarantee a future for our children. We all must stand up and demand a climate agreement strong enough to match the crisis we confront.
Pablo Solon is the ambassador of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations.
The lonely tune of the mighty pipe organ, John Allemang, December 17 2010.
Pipe organs are a bad fit for the iPod age: Could anything be less portable and personalized than these hulking relics of a time when music stayed still and people came to hear it?
Yet it's the very hugeness of this unevolved sound that has drawn Linda Ward Selbie to a lunchtime recital in Toronto's Metropolitan United Church.
“It's such a thrill to listen to this spectacular instrument,” the avowed atheist said as she awaited the first reverberations of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. “Organs like this don't just fill the room – they become the room.”
The surround-sound vibrations from the organ's 8,323 pipes have a different effect on her husband Andrew Selbie, who's just slipped into the pew from his office in the city's financial district.
“This is half-an-hour where I can acquire a Zen-like state that lets me disengage from the crap I have to deal with,” he said. “The organ transports you to another place, it's like riding on a wave.”
An instrument that can offer both mystical transformation and sensory thrills ought to have some role in satisfying the needs of modern life. Yet the future of Canada's historic pipe organs doesn't look all that promising as churches of traditional faiths see their congregations shrink – in Montreal's recently shuttered Saint-Nom-de-Jésus church, the legendary organ made by the renowned Casavant Frères is languishing unused. Newer Pentecostal churches, meanwhile, often prefer rock-inspired “praise bands” that are more upbeat than contemplative.
And in a society that's increasingly secularized and multicultural, it's a challenge just to make people walk through a church door and discover the hidden wonders of the pipe organ.
“If you've never heard the instrument, you're never going to fall in love with it,” said organist William Wright.
Organs were once an essential part of life's soundtrack – not just in the churches of a more Christian society, but at the theatre, the movie house, the roller rink, the ballpark, the hockey arena. While sports venues of the nostalgic kind still make room for organ music, much of it is prepackaged and formulaic, a tinny, tiny substitute for the live concertizing of old. Letting an organ lead the dismissive, “Na, Na, Na, Na” chant on the rink's loudspeakers isn't going to win anyone over to the acoustic power of a Bach fugue as it bounces off the walls of a dark Gothic sanctuary.
Carol concerts, Christmas services and the occasional royal wedding expand the pipe organ's exposure. But many organists now believe they have to evangelize much harder on behalf of their instrument.
At Metropolitan United, organist Patricia Wright plays Bach's scary Toccata and Fugue in D minor at a cobweb-strewn Halloween concert – “We're the only church I know with a fog machine,” she boasts – and encourages children to sit at the console alongside her.
“They have no preconceptions that organ music belongs to the funeral home. Growing up in a technology age, they see the five levels of keyboards and the buttons all over the place and they get really excited.”
Music from Harry Potter and Raiders of the Lost Ark is deployed to win over listeners who may not appreciate what William Wright calls “the intellectualness” of the organ repertoire “where the rhythm is concealed in the sheer number of melodic lines.” More ambitious and impatient young musicians talk about invading shopping malls with compact digital organs, taking their music to the people instead of waiting for the people to come to them.
Yet the few people who do find their way to the churches where the big beasts of the organ world lurk get to hear a range of weird and wonderful sounds that have no match in the musical world. “The possibilities are limitless,” Andre Rakus said as he demonstrated a rapid-fire attack on the pedals at Toronto's St. James Cathedral that ends with his legs splayed across the console. “The organ can handle anything, and the only thing holding you back is your imagination.”
Listening to his first-ever organ recital at Metropolitan's Christmas concert, Ryerson University student Nima Shams still has some doubts. “At times it was beautiful,” he said, “at other times harsh. But what I really loved was the bass. You touched your leg to the bench and you could actually feel it vibrating.”
That sensation, which blurs the boundaries between physical and emotional and intellectual, is the simple result of air being pushed through the organ's massive 32-foot bass pipes.
“It actually passes through the skin and the muscles and your bones,” said McGill University cognitive scientist Robert Zatorre. “The physical vibrations are sending signals to the brain in league with the sounds coming in your ear, and that creates an overall effect bigger than the sum of the parts.”
The organ's diehard fans use words like awe and transcendence to describe this mysterious effect, and even as a non-religious scientist, Prof. Zatorre gets it.
“What they mean is that organ music evokes feelings we don't fully understand, and that in turn makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves.” Which is not an experience you often get in the privacy of your iPod.
Pathologies of Reason (On the Legacy of Critical Theory) - PREFACE, Axel Honneth, 2009.
In this volume, I have collected essays that, although apparently disparate, emphasize the timeliness of Critical Theory. There may seem to be little call for this today. A series of excellent studies on the history of the Frankfurt School, along with monographs on its individual representatives over the past decades, have clarified the multiformity of the approaches we attribute to this theoretical tradition that arose in the 1920s. Indeed, the real difficulty may well consist in identifying the unity of a single Critical Theory in the multiplicity of its theoretical forms. The solution I have found for this problem in my own investigations is contained in the title of the present volume. Through all their disparateness of method and object, the various authors of the Frankfurt School are united in the idea that the living conditions of modern capitalist societies produce social practices, attitudes, or personality structures that result in a pathological deformation of our capacities for reason. It is this theme that establishes the unity of Critical Theory in the plurality of its voices. As heterogeneous as the works bound to it may be, they always aim at exploring the social causes of a pathology of human rationality.
But the theme of regarding the living conditions of our societies as causes of a possible deformation of reason also indicates where I see the timeliness of Critical Theory. Today, primarily under the pressures of aimless professionalization, there is a threat that the bond between philosophy and social analysis will be conclusively broken. With this, a central heritage of German Idealism — namely, the chance to understand rationality as dependent on social-historical processes — begins to disappear as a possibility of thought. In this situation, Critical Theory, as obsolete as some of its approaches may be, represents a salutary challenge. Further developing it would mean, while including theoretical renewals, exploring once again for the present whether the specific constitution of our social practices and institutions damages the human capacity for reason. In the second essay collected here, I have tried to sketch what individual tasks today would be connected to such a reactualization of Critical Theory. This will also make it clear why I think it makes sense to include contributions on Kant's philosophy of history and Freud's concept of freedom in this volume.
Along with Gunhild Mewes, whose help with the technical preparation of the manuscript was irreplaceable, I want to thank Eva Gilmer and Bernd Stiegler from Suhrkamp Verlag, who have from the beginning provided me with friendly advice on the planning of this volume.
Frankfurt am Main, February 2007
Matigari (Excerpt), Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo, 1987.
He went to the law courts. Those awaiting trial were all talking about Matigari.
'Why can't he come here, loosen these fetters and set me free?'
'Are you sure that that is what really happened?'
'Didn't you read the papers?'
'These newspaper people never sleep, do they? How did they get to know something that happened only last night?'
'The newspapers say it wasn't all that late. There was only one policeman on duty, as most of the others had gone to the factory to beat and guard the striking workers. The only other policeman was in the camp, cooking ugali. According to the paper, he swears that he actually locked up the prisoners in one cell, switched off the lights, pocketed the keys and went to his desk. But when he later returned to check the cell, he found it bare. The lock was still intact. It had not been broken at all, or tampered with in any way. Our policeman just fell on the floor, pleading with God in heaven: Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner before thee! I beg you to tell me if it is thy hand which has set them free, as you once did long ago in the case of Paul and the Capernaum prison!'
'But this newspaper has omitted a lot of details. People are saying that there was thunder and lightning for about one hour! Everyone thought that it was going to rain, but not even a drop of rain fell. Then, all at once, the thunder and the lightning stopped.'
'So perhaps it was the thunder that loosened the door?'
'But how do you explain the fact that the lock was still intact? And that there was not a single crack in the door? And that all the walls were in place?'
'This is truly amazing. And yet sceptics still don't believe in miracles! What more proof do they need?'
'You know, some people read about all the miracles done by Moses and they think that all those are just biblical myths.'
'Of course miracles happen. The other day I saw a man taking a pigeon out of his hat and a five-shilling note from the nose of a three-year-old — '
'Stop these pigeon lies! The only thing I'd like to know is, who is Matigari?'
'Don't you know that the Bible says he shall come back again?'
'Do you mean to say he's the One prophesied about? The Son of Man?'
'Why not? Let's count. Where is the oldest church in the world? In Ethiopia, Africa. When he was a baby, where did he flee to? Egypt, Africa. What has happened before can happen again. If he appeared before me now, I would hold his hand, kneel down before him and tell him: Lord, let us who were left behind now lead the way. I would then sit on his right-hand side and tell him: Look at these white and black parasites. Look! See the Boys and the Williamses coming to you. Please send them away and have them thrown into the everlasting fire you made for the likes of imperialists and their overseers. For you were hungry, but they gave you no food; you were thirsty, and they gave you no water; you were naked, but they clothed you not. You were sick, but they never visited you. And when you were in gaol, they did not visit you. Lord, don't listen to their prayers! Do you hear their hypocritical questions? They have the audacity to ask: Lord, when saw we thee hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Tell them the truth, Lord. Show them your justice! Answer them: Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye did it not to one of the least of these in this court room, ye did it not to me. Send them away, Lord. Hey, you sinners over there! Didn't you hear what the Lord said to you? Go away, you scum of the earth who are even prepared to sell the sovereignty of your country! Go away!'
Matigari just arrived, only to find a man speaking and pointing a finger in his direction. 'Go away!'
He interrupted their conversation with his greetings:
'Tell me, my people! Where in this country can one find truth and justice?'
'What did you say?'
'I am looking for truth and justice in this country!'
'You really brought yourself to these courts in search of truth and justice?'
'But is this not where the judges and lawyers are to be found?' Matigari asked.
'Shall I answer your question with the real truth?'
'Yes. I am looking for no justice other than the justice which has its roots in truth.'
'Let me give you a bit of advice, then. Go get a rope and hang yourself immediately . . . For your kind of questions will lead you to the grave . . .'
He went away, shocked.
His thoughts weighed down on him. He went to a kiosk across the road and he asked for a cup of black tea. He asked the kiosk keeper, 'Where can one find truth and justice here?'
The kiosk keeper looked at him as though he did not understand the question.
'We small traders don't know or care about such things. If you were asking me where you and I could go and buy a sack of sugar cheaply, so that we could earn a cent or two in profit, I would know how to answer you. As for the rest let me put on the Voice of Truth for you!'
. . . Space. . . space shuttles . . . United States . . . Soviet Union . . . EEC . . . China . . .Japan , . . nuclear bombs . . . ANC . . . PLO . . . SWAPO . . . Nicaragua,. . . El Salvador. . . His Excellency Ole Excellence . . . Ole Excellence there . . . Ole Excellence all over . . .
Those were the news headlines from the Voice of Truth. . . Here is the full news bulletin . . . A special announcement. . . The government has announced that the public should be wary of some terrorists who are walking about the country claiming to be Matigari ma hereherehereNjirũũngi. The government has said that all freedom fighters returned from the mountains the day the independence fiag was hoisted. We are all freedom fighters. Those spreading such rumours are out to disrupt the peace, like the soldiers who mutinied . . .
Two university students who appeared in court yesterday on charges of possessing seditious documents were detained without trial after the government entered a non-prosequitur . . .
Five other students arrested yesterday on charges of illegal demonstration in protest against United States and Western European support of the South African apartheid regime were each given a five-year sentence. They were led away shouting: Victory to the people!
The students who wanted to form a national union of students have been urged to stop provoking the government . . . There is only one party in the country. Why do the students want another party? His Excellency Ole Excellence said that the students should all be satisfied with one party - the ruling party.
The minister for Truth and Justice began his tour of rural areas today. He will be visiting the Anglo-American Leather and Plastic Factory. He will be addressing the directors and the workers. The factory was the scene of a clash between the police and the workers yesterday. The workers who were on strike burnt effigies of the directors. Reports say that if the police had not intervened the workers would have carried out what the police suspected to be deliberate acts of sabotage and arson. Such actions would have done a lot of harm to the economy.
Special announcement . . . special announcement . . . Government spokesman has annnouced that people should not heed the rumours spreading in the country that the Angel Gabriel let some prisoners out of their cell and that one of the prisoners was Jesus Christ. There is no truth whatsoever in these rumours about Jesus or Gabriel returning. The government will not hesitate to clamp down on any religion claiming that Christ has come back. The government will not hesitate to withdraw licences from matatus* which allow such rumours to continue. Those are false Christs and false Gabriels. There is no way that Jesus could return without first going to pay a courtesy call on His Excellency Ole Excellence. Members of the public are urged to report anyone claiming to be Jesus or Gabriel to the nearest police station . . .
The true seeker of truth never loses hope. The true seeker of real justice never tires. A farmer does not stop planting seeds just because of the failure of one crop. Success is born of trying and trying again. Truth must seek justice. Justice must seek the truth. When justice triumphs, truth will reign on earth.
He travelled on foot. He rode on donkey carts. He got lifts on bicycles. He travelled in matatus*, buses and lorries. He travelled by train. He went to all the places where people were likely to gather. And in all the places he asked the one question: How and where can a person girded with a belt of peace find Truth and Justice?
And since their heads were so full of the rumours that had spread over the whole country like wild fire over dry plains, they just stared at him as though they did not understand what it was he was asking. They would turn their attention to the much more exciting tale about Jesus, Gabriel, Matigari ma Njirũũngi, about prison doors opening mysteriously, about the escape of the prisoners, such stories . . .
And the day remained dull. Not hot, not cold. No sunshine, no rain. Just lukewarm.
And now he was saddened because he bore a burden alone in his heart. It was a heavy burden of many unanswered questions, which he turned in his mind alone. What frightened him was the feeling that he was perhaps the only one preoccupied with what was happening in the country - indeed, as if he was all alone in the entire country. But what bothered him even more was Guthera's story. Whenever he recalled how she had saved him, he would ask himself a lot of questions. If . . . If . . . If . . . If . . . If what? The line that divided truth from lies, good from bad, purity from evil, where was it? What was the difference between right and wrong? Who was the evil one? Was it the one who led another into sin, or the one who actually sinned? Who was the bad one? The one who drove another into bad ways, or the one caught carrying out the evil? Long before, children had sung to the five different fingers of their hands:
First little finger said: Let's go!
And the second asked: Where to?
The third said: To steal?
And the index: Suppose we are caught.
The thumb said: Count me out!
What was to be righted first? The condition which led people to sin, or the souls of the people who sinned?
Where were truth and justice in life?
He felt so lonely. Thoughts of saving himself only and forgetting all the rest crept into him and weakened his resolve. He left behind the paths walked by the people. He went into the wilderness.
He looked for truth and justice in the grass and in the bushes. He searched among the thorns, in the shrubs, the ditches and the molehills, and in birds' nests. He searched for them in the whole of nature. He was like one deranged. And all the while his heart beat: A farmer does not stop sowing just because one crop has failed. The seeker of justice does not stop searching until he finds it. Truth never dies. Justice is mightier than strength. Tell me: Where on this earth can one find truth and justice?
He came across some shepherds on the plains. As he drew to where they were, he saw that they had two radios; a Sanyo and a Phillips model. They were on full blast. They were both tuned to the same channel.
This is the Voice of Truth . . . His Excellency . . .
Radios bleeping in the wilderness. The Voice of Truth had become the herdsman's flute that lulled the herds to sleep. He ran away, but not bound for anywhere. The announcer's voice seemed to chase him across the plains . . .
He came across an old woman collecting rubbish outside her shelter in the wilderness. Her hair was knotted. A comb had not passed through it for a fair while. Matigari walked up to her and asked for some water to drink.
'If you continue like this, you'll end up like me - picking leaves and talking to yourself!' she shouted, although Matigari was standing close to her. 'What are you looking for in the wilderness?'
'Truth and justice,' Matigari answered.
The woman laughed, a mixture of genuine pity and sarcasm, and handed him water to drink.
'My dear wanderer, you cannot find answers to your questions here where nobody lives. Truth and justice are to be found in people's actions. Right and wrong are embedded in what people do. But even among the people, you still have a problem in finding the answers to your questions. And do you know why? Let me whisper this in your ear. Come closer. It is fear. There is too much fear in this country. How does the saying go? Too much fear breeds misery in the land. Leave me in peace. Go! Go to the wise men, those who know how to read the stars.'
'Do they still exist?' he asked. 'I thought that the shepherds were the wise men, for they have always studied the stars. The stars used to guide them in the wilderness. It was during their wanderings that they composed songs containing all the wisdom gathered from the stars! But weren't they the ones I now found, bending over their radios, listening to the Voice of Truth to get guidance across the wilderness? They no longer study the stars. They study the Voice of Truth . . .'
Go then and plead with those who study books. Books are the modern stars. Those who study them are the wise men of today. Why do you think they are being harassed so much? Why do you think they are being asked to sing only to the tune of the one person? That they must only echo the one man, singing "his master's voice"? Happy are they who suffer in search of truth, for their minds and hearts are free, and they hold the key to the future. But it does not mean that they have all seen the same light at the same time, or that they have all been redeemed of fear! Tell me this: Isn't it possible for one to find at least one or two among them who have been freed of fear and can untie this knot and reveal what's hidden? Here, take some food . . . Over there, you will find the road . . . Farewell . . . Let me continue sweeping this dirt that has so quickly accumulated in our country!'
The woman continued sweeping and collecting rubbish.
Matigari set off again, many questions still troubling him. Why didn't I think of it before? The student I met yesterday and the teacher, were they not arrested for seeking the truth? Let me start my search from scratch. Looking for truth and justice is truly a hard job. Yet, no matter how tired I become, I will never stop searching. How can I let John Boy, a messenger, and the settler — the whole breed of parasites — grab the house that I built with my own hands? How can I let him keep the home for which I shed my blood? How can my wealth remain in the hands of the whole breed of them-who-reap-where-they-never-sowed and their black messengers?
Most of all, he was inspired by the depth of Gũthera's and Mũriũki's commitment to him. He thought of Gũthera. He thought of Mũriũki. Their agony had become his agony; their suffering, his suffering.
As he recalled how Gũthera had given herself as a sacrificial lamb for his salvation, a sharp pain stabbed his heart, and he felt tears sting his eyelids. He asked himself over and over again: In what corner of the earth, this earth, are truth and justice hiding? For how long shall my children continue wandering, homeless, naked and hungry, over this earth? And who shall wipe away the tears from the faces of all the women dispossessed on this earth?
No! In nature and in history there was a mysterious knot, Matigari felt strongly. He had to find someone who could untie the knot, somebody who could reveal the secret of the Universe.
It would have been better if it had clearly rained or clearly shone. Better any of that than this uncertain weather. Yes, better if it were hot or cold, rather than lukewarm like this.
He went in search of the wise who taught and studied modern stars.
The student had locked himself in his study. When he saw Matigari, he trembled so much that the book he was holding fell on the floor. He did not even offer him a seat.
'What is it? What is it?' the student asked in a frightened voice.
Matigari paused for a while. Could this be the very same student with whom he had shared the police cell? What had happened to his light-hearted jokes and manner? Where had all his courage gone to? Matigari explained the purpose of his visit.
'I have travelled the length and breadth of this country looking for truth and justice. I met a woman in the plains who said to me: Why have you left behind the students of modern stars? That reminded me of you - that you and I were together yesterday. So I said to myself: Yes, wasn't the student arrested because of searching for the truth? Let me start my search afresh. One must never scorn a grain of sand or a drop of rain. That is why I am here. Open those books that you are studying, and tell me: Where can a person girded with a belt of peace find truth and justice in this country?'
'Listen,' said the student, still trembling and full of fear, 'these days are not like the days we used to know, our yesterdays. Did you hear the radio announcement today? Five university students were sentenced to five years' imprisonment in a maximum-security prison. And that is not all . . .' The student hesitated. He felt sad. As he spoke, his voice was full of tears of many years. 'Whcn did we part? Was it only yesterday evening? Or was it the day before? Anyway, it doesn't matter. Yesterday, the day before, years ago, it has been the same story. I rushod to the university to hide among the other students. I found that they had called a prayer-meeting at the church to pray for those who had been arrested. They also wanted to pray for peace and love in the country. Oh! Oh! Do you know what we went through? The same fate as was meted out to the workers. As we were kneeling down, our eyes closed in prayer, soldiers and policemen surrounded us. Some of us had our arms and legs broken. Twenty-five students were killed instantly. One woman was eight months pregnant . . . She had a miscarriage there and then. Was all this reported or mentioned on the radio? The Voice of Truth? No! All that the Voice of Truth had to say was that the university was closed because the students went on strike over food. That's a lie. I was there! I am a witness! I just escaped miraculously. But I have learned something else. His Excellency Ole Excellence means business. I have stopped asking too many questions. Democracy here means, first, fending for oneself. So I'll finish my studies first, get myself a job at the bank and acquire a few things of my own. Or else I shall get myself a scholarship, go to the USA and come back and start a private research institute. I'll become a consultant for Western companies and governments. But I have a question. Where can one find something one can appropriate for oneself? If you have any more questions you'd better go to the teacher of modern stars . . .'
There are two types of modern students, Matigari thought to himself: those who love the truth, and those who sell the truth. What about the modern teachers? Teachers of modern stars? On parting, he said to the student:
'Great fear breeds great misery in the land. Give a little sacrifice to appease a thieving evil spirit, and this will only whet its appetite and greed for more . . .'
* Matatu: originally an unlicensed 'pirate' taxi. Matatus are now a recognised form of public transport, comprising cars or converted pick-ups, usually crammed with passengers, who often engage in lively debate, exchanging news, stories and gossip.
The Humbug Express, Paul Krugman, December 23 2010.
Hey, has anyone noticed that “A Christmas Carol” is a dangerous leftist tract?
I mean, consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares. Oh, wait. That wasn’t Scrooge. That was Newt Gingrich — last week. What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing.
Anyway, instead of praising Scrooge for his principled stand against the welfare state, Charles Dickens makes him out to be some kind of bad guy. How leftist is that?
As you can see, the fundamental issues of public policy haven’t changed since Victorian times. Still, some things are different. In particular, the production of humbug — which was still a somewhat amateurish craft when Dickens wrote — has now become a systematic, even industrial, process.
Let me walk you through a case in point, one that I’ve been following lately.
If you listen to the recent speeches of Republican presidential hopefuls, you’ll find several of them talking at length about the harm done by unionized government workers, who have, they say, multiplied under the Obama administration. A recent example was an op-ed article by the outgoing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who declared that “thanks to President Obama,” government is the only booming sector in our economy: “Since January 2008” — silly me, I thought Mr. Obama wasn’t inaugurated until 2009 — “the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs, while local, state and federal governments added 590,000.”
Horrors! Except that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employment has fallen, not risen, since January 2008. And since January 2009, when Mr. Obama actually did take office, government employment has fallen by more than 300,000 as hard-pressed state and local governments have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, firefighters and other workers.
So how did the notion of a surge in government payrolls under Mr. Obama take hold?
It turns out that last spring there was, in fact, a bulge in government employment. And both politicians and researchers at humbug factories — I mean, conservative think tanks — quickly seized on this bulge as evidence of an exploding public sector. Over the summer, articles and speeches began to appear highlighting the rise in government employment and issuing dire warnings about what it portended for America’s future.
But anyone paying attention knew why public employment had risen — and it had nothing to do with Big Government. It was, instead, the fact that the federal government had to hire a lot of temporary workers to carry out the 2010 Census — workers who have almost all left the payroll now that the Census is done.
Is it really possible that the authors of those articles and speeches about soaring public employment didn’t know what was going on? Well, I guess we should never assume malice when ignorance remains a possibility.
There has not, however, been any visible effort to retract those erroneous claims. And this isn’t the only case of a claimed huge expansion in government that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Have you heard the one about how there’s been an explosion in the number of federal regulators? Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute looked into the numbers behind that claim, and it turns out that almost all of those additional “regulators” work for the Department of Homeland Security, protecting us against terrorists.
Still, why does it matter what some politicians and think tanks say? The answer is that there’s a well-developed right-wing media infrastructure in place to catapult the propaganda, as former President George W. Bush put it, to rapidly disseminate bogus analysis to a wide audience where it becomes part of what “everyone knows.” (There’s nothing comparable on the left, which has fallen far behind in the humbug race.)
And it’s a very effective process. When discussing the alleged huge expansion of government under Mr. Obama, I’ve repeatedly found that people just won’t believe me when I try to point out that it never happened. They assume that I’m lying, or somehow cherry-picking the data. After all, they’ve heard over and over again about that surge in government spending and employment, and they don’t realize that everything they’ve heard was a special delivery from the Humbug Express.
So in this holiday season, let’s remember the wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge. Not the bit about denying food and medical care to those who need them: America’s failure to take care of its own less-fortunate citizens is a national disgrace. But Scrooge was right about the prevalence of humbug. And we’d be much better off as a nation if more people had the courage to say “Bah!”
Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?, Frank Rich, December 25 2010.
Of the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.
But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”
“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at archive.org or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”
Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.
To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.
When the Barstows finally arrive at the gates of Disneyland itself and enter its replica of Main Street, U.S.A. — “reconstructed as it might have been half a century earlier,” as the narration says — we realize that the America of “Disneyland Dream” is as many years distant from us as that picture-postcard Main Street was from this Connecticut family. The almost laughably low-tech primitivism of the original Disneyland, the futuristic Tomorrowland included, looks as antique in 2010 as Main Street’s horse-drawn buggies and penny-candy emporium looked to the Barstows.
Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”
But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.
The Barstows exemplified that postwar middle class. Robbins Barstow’s day job was as a director of professional development for a state teachers’ union. His family wanted for nothing, but finances were tight. Once in California they cheerfully stretch their limited expense money ($300 for the week) by favoring picnics over restaurants. As they dive into the pool at the old Huntington Sheraton, the grand Pasadena hotel where they’re bivouacked, they marvel at its reminders of “bygone days of more leisurely and gentle upper-class style and elegance.”
The key word in that sentence is “bygone.” The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.
“Disneyland Dream” is an irony-free zone. “For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and is “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”
Only 15 months after the Barstows returned home, America’s faith in its own unbounded future, so palpable in “Disneyland Dream,” would be shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Could it be that America, for all its might, entrepreneurship and brainpower, was falling behind its cold war antagonist in the race to the future? It was in that shadow that John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams of families like the Barstows.
This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.
How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.
It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.
In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.