Thursday, December 1, 2016

"How Did We Get Here": A Cultural History of the 21st Century Episode 0 - First Quarter Rewritten

I leant upon a coppice gate 
      When Frost was spectre-grey, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate 
      The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 
      Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh 
      Had sought their household fires. 

The land's sharp features seemed to be 
      The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 
      The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 
      Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 
      Seemed fervourless as I. 

At once a voice arose among 
      The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong 
      Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 
      In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
      Upon the growing gloom. 

So little cause for carolings 
      Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things 
      Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through 
      His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew 

      And I was unaware. 

Thomas Hardy was born a little too late. He was a generation younger than the great Victorian intellectuals who represented Merry Old England at the optimistic zenith of its Victorian Era; writers and thinkers like Dickens and Thackeray and Tennyson and John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold and George Eliot and Cardinal Newman and Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone - men, and at least one woman who took a man's name - so influential that they defined a country and a century. The world has moved on from their overly proper and priggish optimism and their peculiar and pecuniary liberalism, but it was, for better or worse, probably the best the world was going to do in the 19th century, and a hell of a lot better than what lay in store at the start of the 20th. 
The only way that a still greater and more equitable liberalism than the Victorian liberalism that allowed for the vicissitudes of imperialism and would ever be born was to emerge from a meat grinder of death - a blood sacrifice which demanded more than two hundred million victims and made no distinction between the conservatives who held a more equitable world back, the progressives who aimed to create a greater world, and the already oppressed of both the European lower classes and the oppressed of imperial rule in Asia, Africa, and occasionally Latin America - the very people who could have benefited most had they survived the great harvest. Was it worth it?  

Hardy was one of nature's great pessimists. English Literature was ruled at the mid-19th century by Charles Dickens, the ultimate optimist and a poet of hope, who passed his characters through terrible tribulations so that they might emerge more triumphant in the end. Late century English lit was ruled, if by anyone at all, by Hardy. 
Two thirds of the way through his career, at roughly the Century's turn, he abandoned novels for poetry, perhaps because he had too much gloom in his outlook to render any longer his sour thoughts on life with the ambiguities that narrative demands. When he wrote those immortal sixteen couplets of The Darkling Thrush, was his foreboding for his own soul's future, was it foreboding for people he loved, was it for Englands, the world's? 

We are now 116 years after The Darkling Thrush, and there are three people alive in 2016 that were alive in 1900 - none of whom was born before 1899. No one is alive today who can tell us whether or not living in 2016 feels like living in 1900, but I would imagine that a certain kind of liberal felt a foreboding that could not be quenched. 

The historian Niall Ferguson, no liberal he, wrote of 1901 that an "inhabitant of London could, as he sipped his breakfast tea, have ordered a sack of coal from Cardiff, a pair of kid gloves from Paris or a box of cigars from Havana. He might also, if anticipating a visit to the grouse moors of Scotland, have purchased a 'Bradalbane Waterproof and self-ventilating Shooting Costume (cape and kilt); or he might, if his interests lay in a different direction, have ordered a copy of Maurice C. Hime's book entitled Schoolboy's Special Immorality. He could have invested his money in any one of nearly fifty US companies quoted in London - most of them railroads like the Denver and Rio Grande (whose latest results were reported that day) - or, if he preferred, in one of the seven other stock markets also covered regularly by The Times. He might, if he felt the urge to travel, have booked himself passage on the P&O liner Peninsular, which was due to sail for Bombay and Karachi the next day, or on one of the twenty-three other P&O ships scheduled to sale for Eastern destinations over the next ten weeks - to say nothing of the thirty-six other shipping lines ofering services from England to all the corners of the globe. Did New York seem to beckon? The Manitou sailed tomorrow, or he could wait for the Hamburg-America Line's more luxurious Furst Bismarck, which sailed him from Southampton on the 13th. Did Buenos Aires appeal to him more? Did he perhaps wish to see for himself how the city's Grand National Tramway Company was using - or rather, losing - his money? Very well, the Danube, departing for Argentina on Friday, still had some cabins free. The world, in short, was his oyster."

Where stand we in 2016? An inhabitant of the Washington DC metropolitan area, as he, or still depressingly seldom she, sips on their Sunday brunch mimosas, can whip out an I-phone and go on Amazon and there they can order five pounds of replica fat for $70, an old Asian man peel and stick wall decal for $30, a Nicholas Cage pillow case for $8, two ounces of weed for $5, a Kaylen's hand butt plug for $30, a fifty-five gallon drum of lube for $1350, a Roswell New Mexico soil sample for $16, a badonkadonk land cruiser for $20,000 and $500 shipping, an infant circumcision trainer for $192,1,500 lady bugs for $6.25,  a sexy inflatable sheep made to look like Dolly the first cloned sheep for $7.50, a stegosaurus dog costume for $28, 32 ounces of wolf urine for $100, an underpants dispenser for $11, a complete body unitard for $70, and uranium ore for $40. If they wanted to book a trip anywhere in the world, they could find literally hundreds of websites devoted not only to saving money on the trip, but earning money by taking a trip. They could find online classifieds houseswapping and housesitting and dozens of websites to advise them on how to get the most value out of it, they could be subsidized for years by a non-profit to volunteer and fundraise on a development project, they could look at online forums for hitchhiking and carpooling and many websites devoted exclusively how to do either/or of them safely, message boards for staffing yachts and advice on how to crew it, applications to crew a cruise on any major cruiseline's website, they can inquire onto car rental websites for people who've just moved and need vehicles driven from the place they live to a far off place, they can offer to work at a hostel rather than pay it, they can organize a group tour for which they act as both agent and guide.

Some people would say that this is the way that the world's true masters anesthetize us to the world's truest concerns by dangling consumerism and commodities in front of us and forcing us creative types to hustle our way into the lower middle class while the less imaginative and risky of us reap the world's true benefits. Many others, including me, would say that this is evidence that the world is particularly our oyster. The reason we focus on how to procure our own trivial delights not because we are slaves to the world, but because we are its masters, and once again, the world may demand remittance on our trivial concerns with a payment not in in dollars or coin of the realm, but in pounds of blood.  

(cue music)

Greetings, salutations, welcome, and all due appropriate sentiments to this episode #0 of "How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century." 

Let's start with the first thesis of this series, and then divert enormously from it. We have just emerged from the Television Era. I believe that in the past generation, it is not movies or music that has represented us most accurately, however well some in each field of the Arts do, and it's certainly not fiction or art. Far more than any other medium, TV gives its creators the freedom and diversity to show our lives accurately, and I aim to show that as best I can.

This podcaster was born at the cusp between Generation X and Millennials, we were not only born in the television era, but even our parents can't remember a time before television. But our parents grew up with three basic networks, we grew up with thirty, and by the time we became adults, we had 300. I would imagine that we are now in the Podcast Era - hence why I'm here. But in some ways there is as great a difference between TV and Television as there is between either of them and podcasts. TV is entertainment, Television is art. TV is escapist, Television is cathartic. TV exists to comfort us, Television exists to drive us mad. 

I would date the emergence of Television from TV to somewhere between the final episode of Seinfeld in May 1998 and the pilot episode of The Sopranos in January of 1999. Something in the American air changed sometime during the last seven months of 1998 much as they seemed to change again around the Fall of 2014. 

The thirties were the decade of fascism, the eighties were the decade when Communism fell. The nineties were the decade of the blowjob. The 'quote-unquote Great Event', the most famous of 1998, and indeed, of the whole decade, was the Lewinsky investigation and the Clinton impeachment, which everyone both Right and Left agreed, represented an absolute low in American discourse - during a period so seemingly prosperous and indolent that the country had nothing better to do for an entire year than talk about the President getting head underneath the desk of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, this roughly seven-month period between Seinfeld and The Sopranos set much of the stage for everything that would later come - no pun intended, honestly.

The great political development of that period was the emergence, and a word like 'emergence' hardly does justice to the effect it had on America, of the Drudge Report. Traditional news, even 24-hour TV news, even FOX News, could not possibly keep up with the proliferation of trivial but distracting political stories, or entirely made up stories, that cater to and inflame the prejudices of people who believe in the inherent bias of traditional respectable journalists who practice journalism through the same process since the founding of The Spectator in the 1720's - and if not that many millions of people believed that traditional news had no bias before the Drudge Report, then the Drudge Report alone convinced millions. No newspaper, not even the Wall Street Journal, no yellow journalism, not even the Daily Mail, no television network, not even FOX news, could ever shape hearts and minds with the ferocious prowess of an aggregating website that could send its audience down a rabbithole of information, often false but certainly not always, that was available to them at the click of a mouse.

But if you think Drudge Report isn't a substantial enough event to mark the passing of one era to another, then for this period that contributed to American life and history - one should remember was that this was the period when the bulk of debate was conducted over whether to repeal the Glass-Steagal act, a financial act passed barely more than three months into the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Glass-Steagal was the most important substance of the Banking Act of 1933 which established a wall between commercial banks and securities firms. What Glass-Steagall meant in laymen terms is that a commercial bank at which middle class people could store their money with expectations that the money would stay put, could not itself be invested in stocks and funds so that banks could potentially make more money for both the bank and for its customers. In theory, eliminating the separation can reap incredible financial benefits to both bankers and their customers, and in practice, that's exactly what happened until The Great Recession of 2008, just as it's exactly what happened until The Great Depression of 1929. Both times, it was shown pretty much definitively that commercial banks trying to increase their holdings through the stock market was spectacularly irresponsible.

I suppose I'm giving away my political bias right at the beginning of this series - are there really that many conservative podcasters anyway? You'll quickly see that compared to most progressive podcasters I'll seem downright conservative, but I am a liberal, through and through, clinging to it like a religion in insecure times precisely because liberalism is the most insecure of all philosophies, a coreless, constantly evolving and debated theology that ultimately seems to adapt itself from era to era for the specific needs of that particular historical moment. But regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, moderate or progressive, alt-right or intersectional warrior for social justice, everyone seems to agree that something extremely dangerous happened in American life during this period - even if we all disagree about what the particular dangers were that we passed. Whatever the center of American life was, whatever America's basic expectations and routines were, it seemed to be hollowed out sometime around that infamous year of 1998.

Around the corner was the twenty-first century, and while America is still unquestionably the world's only superpower, we are all the more vulnerable because of our indispensability, and every American would seem to agree that the 21st century beset our country with an endless parade of hopelessness. Not hopelessness by the standards of history, but hopelessness by the standards of the most prosperous and wealthiest nation in the history of our planet. Nobody knows what 2017 will bring, but there is no question, even in 2016, even in December 2016 (!), that a person desiring to make a success of him or herself has the best possible chances right here, and right now, to rise and lift oneself from poverty.

Lifting oneself up from poverty does not mean alleviating one's hardships through social programs while still contenting oneself with little more than a minimum though living wage as progressives like to believe, and contrary to what conservatives believe, it can be done while still respecting the economic rights of communities and refraining from the exploitation of others to achieve one's goals. But to rise in financial security and status to a place of self-respect and pride, and to create an identity, a security, a future, a career, and a freedom for oneself, is still something that has happened in America tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of times more often than any other place in the world.

Since I would imagine that it is mostly liberals, progressives, and socialists, who would listen to this, I would like to point out to them a certain quote. "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."  This quote was from the 1935 State of the Union address, it was given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The human spirit,... spiritual and moral disintegration,... how old-fashioned, how out of touch, how quasi-religious and conservative, how bourgeois those terms sound to the enlightened modern ear which can't help but hear the echoes of Bill O'Reilly or Newt Gingrich or Margaret Thatcher talking about the corrosive effects of dependence on a citizen's ability to lift himself up by the bootstraps. But what other option has there ever been? What other motivator moves a society to prosperity? Socialists and Marxists, and sometimes even Progressives, would have us believe that a dream of self-respect is just something which we would all have innately if companies and their advertisers did not constantly deny them to us. According to such people, these are all part of the lies told from inside the whirlwind of the great neoliberal machine, which gives us feelings of security and freedom and achievement precisely by taking these feelings away from us, and always depriving us of any real version of all three.

The various substrata of leftist religions can never seem to agree upon a solution to this matter, the reason being as clear as day to its Doubting Thomases that there can be no solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Neither corporations or governments can deprive us of self-actualization when they are both extraordinary products of the human mind and its miraculous powers of organization. Both private and public organizations can be and are used for good and ill, and both are used for good and ill billions of times every day. The problem is neither corporations nor governments, the problem is the messy minds that thought of them both, organized them both, keep both running, use them both, exploit them both, and heal them both. Just as President Obama says that we are the one's we've been waiting for, we are also the ones keeping ourselves waiting. It is neither possible nor desirable to eradicate either or even shrink them significantly. But even if it were, it would be in the interests of every living being on the planet to keep both of these literally superhuman entities which simultaneously control us and are controlled by us to operate in good health and be as representative of our interests as any organization can possibly be by being so inflexible in how both are regulated that we endow both with the flexibility to check the most oppressive impulses of the other.

Monday, November 28, 2016

How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century - Episode 0 (not quite final draft)

Greetings, salutations, welcome, and all due appropriate sentiments to this episode #0 of "How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century." 

Let's get to the point, and then divert enormously from it. We have just emerged from the Television era. I believe that in the past generation, it is not movies or music that has represented us most accurately, however well some in each field of the Arts do, and it's certainly not fiction or art. Far more than any other medium, TV gives its creators the freedom and diversity to show our lives accurately.  This podcaster was born at the cusp between Generation X and Millennials, we were not only born in the television era, but even our parents can't remember a time before television. But our parents grew up with three basic networks, we grew up with thirty, and by the time we became adults, we had 300. 

I would imagine that we are now in the Podcast Era - hence why I'm here. But there is a great difference between TV and Television. TV is entertainment, Television is art. TV is escapist, Television is cathartic. TV exists to comfort us, Television exists to drive us mad. 

I would date the emergence of Television rather than TV to somewhere between the final episode of Seinfeld in May 1998 and the pilot episode of The Sopranos in January of 1999. Something in the American air changed during those months much as they seemed to in the Fall of 2014. 

The thirties were the decade of fascism, the eighties were the decade when Communism fell. The nineties were the decade of the blowjob. The 'quote-unquote Great Event', the most famous of 1998, and indeed, of the whole decade, was the Lewinsky investigation and the Clinton impeachment, which everyone both Right and Left agreed, represented an absolute low in American discourse - during a period so seemingly prosperous and indolent that the country had nothing better to do but to talk about for an entire year than the President getting head underneath the desk of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, this roughly nine-month period between Seinfeld and The Sopranos set the stage for everything that would come - sincerely no pun intended. The great political development of that period was the Drudge Report - traditional news, even 24 hour news, even FOX News, could not possibly keep up with the proliferation of trivial but distracting political stories, or entirely made up stories, that cater to the prejudices of people who believe that traditional journalism as practiced by newspapers since the founding of The Spectator in the 1720's - and if not that many millions of people believed that traditional news had no bias before the Drudge Report, the Drudge Report alone convinced millions. No newspaper, not even the Wall Street Journal, no yellow journalism, not even the Daily Mail, no television network, not even FOX news, could ever keep up with an aggregating website that could send its audience down a rabbithole of information, often false but certainly not always, that was available to them at the click of a button. But if one needs a substantive great event for this period that contributed to American life and history - one should remember was that this was the period when the bulk of debate was conducted over whether to repeal the Glass-Steagal act, a financial act passed barely more than three months months into the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Glass-Steagal was the most important substance of the Banking Act of 1933 which established a wall between commercial banks and securities firms. What Glass-Steagall meant in laymen terms is that a commercial bank at which middle class people could store their money with expectations that the money would stay put, could not itself be invested in stocks and funds so that banks could potentially make more money for both the bank and for its customers. In theory, eliminating the separation can reap incredible financial benefits to both bankers and their customers, and in practice, that's exactly what happened until The Great Recession of 2008, just as it's exactly what happened until The Great Depression of 1929. Both times, it was shown pretty much definitively that commercial banks trying to increase their holdings through the stock market was spectacularly irresponsible - I suppose I'm giving away my political bias right at the beginning of this series - are there really that many conservative podcasters anyway? You'll quickly see that compared to most progressive podcasters I'll seem downright conservative, but I am a liberal, through and through, clinging to it like a religion in insecure times because liberalism is the most insecure of all philosophies, a constantly evolving corelessness that adapts itself from era to era for the needs of the moment. But regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, moderate or progressive, alt-right or intersectional warrior for social justice, everyone seems to agree that something extremely dangerous happened in American life during this period - even if we all disagree about what the particular dangers were that we passed. Whatever the center of American life was, whatever America's basic expectations and routines were, it seemed to be hollowed out sometime around that infamous year of 1998. Around the corner was the twenty-first century, and while America is still unquestionably the world's #1 world power, we are all the more vulnerable because of our indispensability, and every American would seem to agree that the 21st century beset our country with an endless parade of hopelessness. Not hopelessness by the standards of history, but hopelessness by the standards of the most prosperous and wealthiest nation in the history of the Earth. There is no question, even in 2016, that a person desiring to make a success of himself has the best possible chances right here, and right now, to rise and lift oneself from poverty. Not to alleviate one's hardships through social programs, not to create success on the exploitation of others, but to rise in financial security and status to a place of self-respect and pride, and to create an identity, a security, a future, a career, and a freedom for oneself. Even Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1935 State of the Union Address that: "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."

The human spirit,... spiritual and moral disintegration,... how old-fashioned, how out of touch, how quasi-religious, how conservative, how bourgeois those terms sound to the enlightened modern ear which can't help but hear the echoes of Bill O'Reilly or Newt Gingrich or Margaret Thatcher talking about corrosive effects of dependence on a citizen's ability to lift himself up by the bootstraps. And yet, what other option has there ever been? What other motivator moves a society to prosperity? Socialists and particularly Marxists, occasionally even Progressives, would have us believe that such needs are all part of the lies told in the whirlwind of the great neoliberal machine, which gives us false feelings of security and freedom and achievement, all the while depriving us of all three under our very noses. The various substrata of leftist religions can never seem to agree upon a solution to this matter, the reason being as clear as day to its non-adherents that there is no solution. It should go without saying, but in case there's any doubt: as a liberal, one owes it to the public to make the way up the ladder as easy as possible; and no matter what the O'Reillys and Gingriches say to demonize the people who haven't made it, it's not only possible to make the ladder easier to climb, but everybody's interest to do so. Nevertheless, every era and country has its radicals, secular or religious it doesn't matter, who think that by breaking the ladder of prosperity into smaller pieces, the ladder can then be rebuilt taller and more sturdy than ever to enable everyone to climb it, and yet every time, the only result is that the ladder is broken. Giving to others, however appealing in abstract, however necessary in moderation, is no guarantee of self-identity, of security, of autonomy itself. It will always be an insufficient motivator for people to create better lives, because it inevitably demands the subordination of identity and freedom to a mass for whom there is no guarantee that they care at all about your welfare. Social democracy is Western capitalism, properly leavened by the regulation whose prototype was instituted by American liberalism. Socialism is a cataclysm; it is everything neoliberalism is said to be but made visible - it is the bartering of economic security in exchange for the surrender of freedom. It was a cataclysm a hundred years ago, it's a cataclysm now, and it will be a cataclysm a hundred years from now, but it will always be with us, and we will never stop fighting against it.

No matter what Jacobin intersectionalists say to discredit it, no matter what FOX News conservatives say to discredit it, no matter how many times Bill Clinton-like moderates acceded to conservative demands to dismantle it, no matter how effectively the alt-right will assault it in the future, there is only one way to live your best self,  and that is self-creation, and at least at this moment in time, America, wounded as she clearly is, is still the best place to do it.

To anyone willing to read the history and statistics, it should be obvious that American Liberalism has achieved more in less time than any nation in the history of the world. Let's just take one obvious example: since fifty years ago, poverty has fallen by one-sixth it's level, since sixty-five years ago, poverty has fallen by nearly 40%. Imagine what might have happened had conservatives not cut and demonized Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. We did not end poverty, we didn't even come close, but we lifted fifty million people out of it whose ancestors never knew anything but poverty, and we lifted their children, and their grandchildren, and soon, let us pray, their great-granchildren. How many hundreds of millions are now more secure for what the United States government accomplished with the Great Society programs?

This is just one of a hundred areas where America's achievements defy description. And yet, why are we all so hopeless? Why is it that the America of 1966, segregated and rioting, perpetually terrified of nuclear armageddon, wading into the mud and shit of the first war America would ever unquestionably lose, was so much more hopeful than we are today? Time and time again, postwar America achieved great and unprecedented things; but rather than fortify us and give us confidence for the next challenges, they exhausted us and depleted us of the ability to keep meeting them. Every hope that America would become a better place to live in these fifty years was born out, and yet every hope seemed to die. We have achieved the better new world for which many of our grandparents fought in all sorts of ways - not just through war thank god, and some of our parents too, but not only did it turn out not that great, it also turned out that that this better world might die very soon. In 1966, we were secure that the future would be better. In 2016, America is better, and the world probably is too, but we are anything but secure. 

It is impossible to look at Art and not perceive in it in some way in which it tells the story of the area and era in which it was conceived, and it's furthermore impossible, much as aesthetes like Vladimir Nabokov would disagree, to look at Art without reading parallels into it from the real world - or from our own lives, or from the lives of people we know and love or hate or to whom we're ambivalent, or parallels from the metaphysical cosmos at large and those basic, microcosmic but still deep truths of what life and existence is.

One of Art's great secrets is its societal tremors, Art is a societal seizmograph. With obvious exceptions of course, a secure era always seems to be dominated by secure Art in which the rules are as clearly defined as are the rules of the society at large. The vast majority of the 18th century, with its intricate and unbreakable monarchical hierarchies, was the archetype of a society in which art was created with extremely distinct rules so as to not upset the precarious balance of an incredibly intricate societal structure. Just about all official European and American buildings seemed to be designed with the kind of columns one finds in Ancient Greece or Rome, and the fact that they imitated a pagan era rather than a Christian one was not an accident. The heights and lengths of the buildings were determined by mathematical ratios found in nature so as to provide the most harmonious possible surroundings. Nearly all pictorial art was designed by schematic before the schematic was painted over. Just about all music ended in the same key in which it began, and the phrase-lengths are almost inevitably kept in multiples of four measures. The poetry was almost inevitably kept in strictest possible couplet form. The expectations of what art was supposed to be was ironclad because the expectations of society itself was ironclad - it was the age after Newton but before Darwin. For a learned aristocrat of the period, nature was, as Eric Hoffer might put it, as orderly and harmonious as a perfectly set and wound Swiss grandfather clock. To put it somewhat differently, the earth may have been displaced from the center of the universe, but along with the Earth's displacement was moved the Church, not the State. For century after century, the State had to orbit around the Church, but the Church was now a secondary body, gravitationally drawn to into the forceful web of State - which could weave a society with far greater intricacy than the Church ever could on its most organized day. When controlled by the Church, what does it matter if peasants are kept in squalor? Blessed are the poor, and the greater the degradation, the greater their reward will be in the world to come. But as horrible as it might seem to our 21st century ears, a nobleman has to look after his property, which is a reflection of his character. If peasants and livestock and land and infrastructure was kept in disarray, it would reflect horribly on the people who ran it. That is not to say that abuses that would horrify is would not be perpetrated every day in every region, it's not to say that abuses that would even horrify people at the time were not committed all the time by noblemen who did not care much how they were viewed by others - just think of Mozart's Don Giovanni. But there was a marked improvement, and because there was a marked improvement, there was also a correponding demand for still greater. More on that in a moment.

The point is that while there was evidence which displaced the Earth as the central stationary body around which the universal spheres revolved, there was no hard evidence yet that the Sun was not at the center - as Copernicus would have it. And like the Sun, the central body of the universe which gives light and warmth and protection and vision, the monarchy was the light of the world around which all society revolved as a reflection of the Sun/King's glory. Life was a harmoniously regimented hierarchy in which every person knew his place in the social structure, and should be eternally satisfied with it.

But as anyone who grew up in the suburbs can tell you, hierarchy and predictability can at times feel, however well-managed, like a prison, and when the prison walls come down, the chaos is that much more explosive because nobody remembers what chaos feels like.

By 1789, France, the kingdom well-known for having the most intricate of all Europe's monarchical hierarchies, was beset by a revolution. First came a financial crisis, then collapse, then the rise of the Jacobins and the guillotine, then the execution of a few hundred noblemen, then the rise of Robespierre who executed most of the other Jacobins and eventually was himself executed for having been responsible for the execution of 20,000 Frenchmen, then came the ten year French Revolutionary War which killed somewhere between 300,000 and 1.1 million French, and then came Napoleon to unite France under his dictatorship and who decided he needed to put the rest of Europe under an Empire united under his rule, and somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million people died for the cause of his ambition to conquer the world. When there is too much order, the ensuing chaos become all the worse. Too much control yields to the demand for too little, which once enacted, yields to the ultimate controller - death. The years 1789 to 1815 were an avalanche of death that claimed ever more lives for twenty-six years before the avalanche finally stopped rumbling.

War did not rage throughout the supposedly civilized part of the world for another hundred years, when it broke out again in 1914, it took thirty-one years to stop, and in the meantime, if we go by the estimates of R. J. Rummel, probably the best known scholar of state murder, who also has an easily accessible website if you can stomach such a thing, we lost somewhere between 17 and 18 million to World War One, then somewhere between 20 to 50 million in the Spanish Influenza which broke out because of the unsanitariness of the battlefields - it spread so far around the globe that the world will never get a true estimate of the lives lost, an estimated seven million who starved to death in various countries during the Great Depression, another estimated 5 to 9 million deaths due to the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s which broke out after the collapse of the Czar, only some of which are attributed the four million deaths for which Lenin is directly responsible after he consolidated power, and the 5 million killed by Imperial Japan, most of which are part of the 20 million dead in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s, for which the Communist party led by Mao in the few years before he assumed power was responsible for 4 million deaths alone, then there are the four million Chinese Deaths for which Chiang-Kai Shek's right-wing nationalist government was responsible, then there is the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkish generals which killed roughly 1.8 million if one counts a few hundred thousand non-Armenians also murdered, and then the nearly million people killed by the allegedly great Ataturk who is still revered by American neoconservatives - taking their cue from Bernard Lewis - as the model of an incorruptible secularizing dictator, the well over a million killed in quote-unquote minor European right-wing dictatorships like Mussolini and Franco and Horthy and Pilsudski and Salazar and Petain, another roughly 20 million killed in various ways by Hitler's Nazis for which we needn't elaborate, and the probable upward of 50 million people killed by Stalin's various orders and policies alone. It is macabre at best to list these totals and then add all of them up, but let's just say that the wars of the early twentieth century killed so far over a hundred million people that it might be closer to two-hundred million. One then adds up the stupefying death tolls of the Cold War and the quote unquote Third World upon whom it was mostly perpetrated, the roughly twelve million Soviets for which dictators after Stalin were responsible, the 2 million dead in the killing fields of Pol-Pot's Cambodia, the roughly 1.7 million killed by North Korea, another 1.7 million killed in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the 1.5 million dead in the Polish Civil War which killed my great-aunt after surviving the Holocaust, the 1.5 million killed by the various Pakistani military dictatorships, the 1.1 million killed in Yugoslavia, yes, the 6 million dead from United States actions in the Cold War. And worst of all, the roughly seventy-seven million killed in Mao's China, for which no truly reliable total is possible, and some estimates go up to a hundred twenty million people. While estimates are obviously unreliable, evidence would seem to point to that five hundred years of traditional Western mercantile Imperialism with all its attendant mass murders and starvations and diseases and slaveries cannot come even remotely close to equalling the total number of deaths engendered by thirty-one years of advanced warfare, let alone an entire global century of it. In fact, for five hundred years of Western Imperialism to reach anything even resembling the equivalent death tolls of the twentieth century one would have to not only accept the very highest estimates - such as putting the total Native Americans killed at 120 million people higher than than the 15 million that is generally supposed, but also include the casualties of Islamic Imperialism. God forgive me if I'm wrong, because I know no one else will, and they might not even if I'm right. I do not want to imply or even give the semblance of implication that imperialism is anything but one of the villains of modern history - but I do believe that imperialism may be the tertiary villain that to which totalitarianism and nationalism must take precedence. All three are obviously bound up with one another, but totalitarianism in the name of anti-imperialism has been proven again and again to provoke far greater suffering and lethal consequence than imperialism in the name of anti-totalitarianism. It may even be the quaternary villain of modern history, with militarism playing a still larger role. I know that it will inevitably sound to people as though I'm making allowances for the practices of imperialism, be it in historic mercantile form or in contemporary unregulated capitalist form, to continue. I'm even slightly doubtful about the statistics and continually worry that I've misread them, every time I've read them they've surprised the hell out me. I know that any complaint I make about the Left's wail of imperialism uber alles will sound like a defense of imperialism...

While a few people of direct descent from Survivors of Hitler or Stalin or Mao, or veterans of the world's bloodiest wars, become extraordinarily committed social justice warriors, perhaps the most committed of them all for the knowledge they see so close at hand, I find that the blood-curdling stories of the Twentieth Century at its worst makes it difficult to work oneself into sufficient commitment to fighting for every person suffering under injustice. In my experience, in the experience of most Jewish-Americans I've met, most Soviet-Americans, perhaps even most Chinese-Americans though I don't have the right to speak for them nearly as well, all three of for whom privilege is still a relatively unfamiliar concept that we're viscerally terrified to lose in spite of our newfound privilege because many members who experienced the very worst of the twentieth century still live, have similar difficulties. We know just how much more unjust and cursed the world can become than it currently is, all we had to do was see the haunted look in our grandparents' eyes. We are extremely mistrustful of militants, of the right and left, who would send us hurtling closer toward its potential. And if the neoimperial injustices of unregulated vulture capitalism add up and the financial system completely collapses sometime around 2040 and sends the world spinning into a Third World War, and perhaps then an even worse Fourth World War thereafter, would it be that unreasonable to assume that the next world war would claim yet another multiple of ten - more a billion lives as its eternal property? Would it be unreasonable to assume that the aftereffects of dictatorship and illness and proxy war and yes, imperial wage slavery, from the conditions it leaves could claim another two billion? Or is that underestimating the number of possible casualties?

If I'm being harder on the Left than I'm being on the Right, it's because I assume that it's mostly people of the Left who will listen to this podcast, as they do to podcasts generally. Educated people in our day and age generally tilt to varying degrees of Left, and the problems of the Right in American life are so unbelievably present and fecund that they need very little enumeration from me. Dominance by the American Right is a simple fact of modern American life, and the nearly the only questions about it are under the rubric of how to defeat it.

The single greatest justification to say that imperialism is a boil that must be lanced to eradication, even with all its attendent evils, is the near-apocalyptic events which such wealth inequality almost inevitably seems to foretell. But the problem is that theft and exploitation and plunder of one civilization to the detriment of another - which as Modern China's conduct in Africa proves, is hardly only a Western problem - has not only never been eradicated, but is so complex that the marginal attempts that history has yet made have resulted in their own attendant disasters. Not only were Stalin and Mao still more prolific artists of death than Hitler, but so second rank dictators of the quote-unquote Third World were still more bloody in their statistics than their right-wing nationalist counterparts. To take a few obviously selective examples: no amount of Mussolini blood in Ethiopia could spill a tenth of the blood spilled by Mengistu, no amount of French and American greed or incompetence or delusion could unleash on Cambodia what Pol Pot did. No amount of Chinese nationalism could spill blood with the joyful alacrity of Mao. Right wing dictatorship is not quite as bloody, for the simple reason that the innate predisposition of right-wing pathology with its veneration for institutions and tradition is a predisposition to authoritarianism and violent law enforcement.  Dictatorship does not do as much to upset the natural right-wing order of things because conservatives already respond with veneration to authority. On the other hand, the Left, with its pathological predisposition toward upending tradition and institutions, has a natural predisposition to chaos and terror. Generally speaking, a right-wing dictatorship tries upholds the law by the most extreme of measures, while a left-wing dictatorship, as happened most obviously under Mao and Stalin, and perhaps to even a very small extent under Hitler's National Socialism - remember that Hitler was still as much a socialist as a nationalist, will always break the law, change the law, subvert the law, to make even and perhaps especially its most loyal citizens live under the profoundest terror. The best way to do it is to kill their neighbors, kill their friends, kill their families, and finally kill them.

All this is to give you the proper context to talk about Seinfeld....

An insecure era will be dominated by insecure art. Let's just speak about painting for a moment. Over what we generally call the long 19th century, starting with the French Revolution's hopeful enactment and stretching until World War I's senseless beginning in 1914, the art of the continent became more and more insecure, less and less dominated by rules. The visual art went from David and Canelleto's almost geometric naturalism to washes of color from Delacroix and Turner and the grotesque caricatures of Goya and Blake. The washes of color eventually became the impressionism of Monet and Cezanne. The grotesqueries eventually became the expressionism of Munch and Georg Grosz. It was no longer agreed as it was since Classical Greece that the purpose of art is to render life and nature as it is. For many artists, the purpose of art became art itself, its various colors and shapes. For others, the purpose of art was to disturb life and distort nature, not to conjure scientific images in the mind of shapes and colors, but to conjure poetic images with distortions that one can only see on one's own in dreams. Fairly soon thereafter, the two poles merged back into each other, and impressionist and expressionist art and its attendent movements seemed roughly interchangeable - one could argue that such a development was already present in Van Gogh. There was, and remains, much great art produced in the 20th and 21st centuries, but without an agreed upon basis, there are fewer artists in whose work people seem to trace the spirit of an era, a place, a condition - and if there is, then all too few people know about it. Traditional art as Europeans defined it since the dawn of history had broken apart, and will most likely never be put back together.

One could trace the development of classical music, of poetry, of fiction, through similar permutations. But what was clear in each was that by 1914, the foundations and structures in which each artform was traditionally thought to be built upon were completely shattered, few people care about it anymore, and very few artists have found a way to make other people care about what we do. Most of us who operate in the traditional arts in our day are, for better or worse, radical in ways that are entirely conventional, and generally reject the wider world with its capitalist compromises because capitalism allows us the luxury of radical worldviews - in spite of our supposed subversion, we artists are still educated enough make a lower-middle-class income - through the arts or otherwise, which is just barely low enough to convince some people that we're truly impoverished, and therefore have justification to speak for the plights of the peoples whom capitalism has truly helped to marginalize rather than us, people whose plights we understand not at all from the inside.

Traditional religion has been thrown out in the first world, a development probably for the better, but metaphysics has been thrown out with it. The goal of many, perhaps even the majority of artists today, is to improve the world through one's art - wouldn't it be better then to pick up a tool box and build houses for the homeless? As much as we'd like to will it otherwise, is no such thing as art that improves the world - there is only art that makes the world a more pleasing place to live - and while there's surely no little consolation in that, art often makes the world a more pleasing place for risible people who do not deserve to be pleased. The most powerful thing art can do is precisely the opposite, art allows for the possibility that there may be other worlds, alternate realities, transcendent dimensions, which are more meaningful than this rather banal one where our hard work and suffering goes so unrewarded. Perhaps the very greatest of all the arts and artists are the ones who can take the very stuff of boring, banal, everyday life, and transform it into something luminously meaningful - if I were to provide a partial and idiosyncratic list - it would have to include painters like Rembrandt and Courbet at their least self-consciously meaningful, Leonardo drawing science in his diaries and Goya turning the impoverished and insane into dark mythology in his home, Tolstoy giving the natural pace and pulse of an entire civilization in his two novels so enormous they're no longer novels, and his artistic son Chekhov giving us the condensed version of life from his short stories and plays, life exactly as it is for one intimate commingling of the little and disappointed people we all are who have to live one day at a time, untold novelists whom our generation with our love for the substitute metaphysics of fantasy and sci fi no longer has time for but who throw our own lives back to us bathed in meaning - well-known ones most have still heard of like Jane Austen giving us middle class love and George Elliot giving us middle class disappointment, Joseph Conrad giving us political despair and Willa Cather giving us American struggle, Balzac giving us Paris and Saul Bellow giving us Chicago, VS Naipaul giving us the grim realities of imperial life and Vasily Grossman giving us the still grimmer ones of life in a totalitarian regime. Jean Renoir giving us frenetic movies that tell us the truth about love, Yasijiro Ozu giving us stationary movies that tell us the truth about family. Robert Altman giving us the the full spectrum of America, Vittorio De Sica giving us the full spectrum of poverty, and Pedro Almodovar giving us the full spectrum of LGBTQ life. Mozart giving us the problems of life in every social class and station and gender in his operas, Beethoven giving us every snippet of musical style he ever heard as a stream of consciousness in his late Sonatas and Quartets and the Ninth Symphony, Mahler embracing the whole world in so many of the Symphonies and Schumann the microscopic quirks of so many different people in his character pieces on the piano. Shakespeare giving us historical figures all through his career, transformed so that they live again more vividly than whomever they were in real life ever did, and mingling as they often do with the lower class characters who keep them honest. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales giving us the full gamut of perspectives from the Middle Ages. Montaigne insisting that he, and therefore we, are a subject more worth investigating than any supernatural force. Cervantes making reality brutally intrude on a dreamer like Don Quixote who desperately wants life to be something other than it is. And perhaps best of all, to me at least, the Old Testament, a book not about nobles as in Shakespeare or war heroes as in Homer, but outcasts, misfits, weirdos, people who struggle for transcendence not because they're perfect, but because they're deeply, deeply flawed, and no one so much as the Divine himself. No matter what the time period or the artform, what we're seeing is real life, domestic life, bourgeois and dull, reality transformed to give our lives the meaning and dignity which our inner experience never seems to have when we're living it. Experiencing work like this does not make us better people - would we even know how to measure that? Experiencing these works simply gives us the inspiration to keep going - if a dimension that is not ours yet so like our own can seem so meaningful, then maybe there is value and meaning in life that is not apparent in the real thing.

But, of course, what a pretentious list of highbrow art - it's the kind of list a 19th century aristocrat would make in fear that if he didn't have these works on the tip of his tongue, somebody might think he's stupid. Do movies even, or ci-ne-ma, belong in a list so pretentious? Who knows? But alongside this art, what can't be denied is that in America, a new art, a popular art for a less aristocratic consumer, took flight. A nascent art, still in 2016 just barely out of its infancy. Neither an aristocratic art made by servants to an aristocratic class, nor a folk art made by anonymous artisans and developed anonymously in an oral tradition over thousands of years. A popular art, an art of the people, by the people, and for the people, with few more creators that will be distinguished yet among posterity than there are in today's traditional arts. And yet, the possibilities it holds for the next few thousand years are at least as infinite as the possibilities were at the dawn of Western Civilization. Art, thank God, is not longer Western Art. if the internet has proven anything, it's that a Western Art is now a global art where anyone, anywhere can create greatness. And if a three-minute, four-chord, pop song, with a verse, a chorus, and a bridge, can yield material as good as Let It Be and The Times They Are a-Changin', let alone Fight the Power or The Message; or a hundred minute studio movie yield Citizen Kane or Rear Window, let alone The Godfather or Nashville, or a fifty page comic book yield Batman and X-Men, let alone Watchmen or Maus; or a commercialized TV schedule yield Seinfeld and The Simpsons, let alone The Sopranos or Mad Men, how much more is yet possible to extract from these rather flimsy and constricted cultural forms whose limitations are derived from the economic necessities of mass production, but created from material that are a literal reset button from the arts as they've been practiced for three thousand years?

America was able to yield such a secure art in the 20th century, housing a relatively surprising number of bright lights within its extraordinarily severe contours, because it was inexperienced in the ways of the world. American exceptionalism is a pernicious lie, and yet, America is an historical exception. Until the inception of the American republic, the idea of a successful republic flew in the face of history's entirety. It was a concept the world basically abandoned two-thousand years previously because it was thought so unfeasible. It was, as the great internet presence Piero Scaruffi put it on his indispensible website: a Copernican Revolution in political thinking - have we really reached the point as a society that people need to be reminded of that?

Perhaps uniquely in the history of the world, the great belief in the American way of life is the absence of belief. America has not forced the majority of its sphere of influence to convert to its religions by the sword, it has taken immigrants of every variety, and it has offered enormous incentives for many other countries to adopt liberal democracy - in which the only limitation for the pursuit of your freedom is economic. No one in their right mind can say that America practices the theory it preaches particularly well, but the theory itself of a country like this is revolutionary, as is even the middling success with which we've applied it. When America has strayed from its path, and strayed it most certainly has, it is to the models of older civilizations who simply install a proxy ruler in their stead who crushes anyone who will not serve their best interests, or of ancient empires built and sustained by slavery - slavery both through deed and through wage. These are traits clearly embedded in the American story and character, but they are in no way uniquely American, and in some ways are far less prevalent in American history than of any giant which ever bestrode the world stage before us. Even in neoconservatism, surely one of the more noxious forces in American life, perhaps even of world life, can neoconservatism really be read as anything but a movement that makes such a religious fundamentalism out of freedom that they want to evangelize it to the entire world? And however fervently neoconservatives believe in American freedom, it's just a small pebble of the fervid lake of fire which American liberty inspired to literally billions worldwide in the 20th century, all of which happened in spite of the fact that most Americans have no real sense or interest in any part of the world that is not in America!

Nevertheless, in 2016, how can anyone doubt that America is a sinful nation like any other nation that's ever provided order out of the chaos of the world, with an extra sin from many former world powers because of the overwhelming hypocrisy of America's actions in relation to its ideals. With the election of this new President, it may stand to reason that the fibres which gradually improved this hypocritical republic from generation to generation have broken completely, and will not only stay broken for the duration of our lifetimes, but that America's nerves will heal without fibres, and atrophy from generation to generation back to exactly the flimsy standards of freedom we upheld at our country's founding. However badly America has failed, and there's no sense denying that we've failed disastrously - our African American population, the Latin American countries in our sphere of influence, and as was made so clear in the last election, in taking up the banner of women's rights as human rights.

But it's beginning to be arguable that one other nation has since taken the American model and improved upon it. The greatest compliment to the America experiment is that perhaps the greatest, most sustainable improvement yet made upon the American first draft of a freer world is probably modern Germany, a nation America once subdued with overwhelming force.

What we did was pretty casual compared to what the Soviets did; and for fear of losing whatever audience hasn't turned things off in disgust yet, I'll spare you the details. But the way which America suffered through World War II was absolutely nothing compared to Soviet suffering, roughly one in every two-hundred ninety-five Americans died in World War Two. One in six Soviets died - if you want a small sense of the Soviet experience, read Vasily Grossman's epic novel, Life and Fate, which was written as a kind of World War Two equivalent to Tolstoy's War and Peace - and was banned until the mid-80's. It is in many ways as great as the Tolstoy original, but its as disorienting as Tolstoy is secure. In Tolstoy, even the deaths of characters are noble and meaningful and uplifting, but in Grossman, the deaths are utterly senseless. We have so little experience of the Pity of War in America that you begin to wonder if we're well overdue for an experience like this.

The greatest benefactor from the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century was America. These incredibly stupid sacrifices that Stalin and Mao and Hitler imposed on their populations did an fought amount to improve their countries, they only served to improve the open societies against which they fight. And because of that, to think of World War II as in nearly any sense our war which we won, is an insult to Russia, and just barely less an insult to Germany, and an insult to China. They bled for our prosperity, and anyone who lived under the Soviet Union, the real victors of World War II, will never forgive us for benefiting so much from their sacrifice. But experiences like World War II just go to show how senseless and stupid war is, and yet how inevitable. As John Updike might say, war is the dark obverse of sex. It's the two irrational behaviors of humankind which you'll never eradicate, one seems as glorious as the other seems horrific, but both spring from the dark well of subhuman urges that go back billions of years which are inconveniently present in us all, and will no doubt survive us to glom onto the next evolutionary step.

In terms of history as it happens, the 20th century was not the American Century. The 20th Century was the German Century. Germany, and particularly Berlin, was the center of gravity, it was the front and nexus around which hot and cold wars were fought. From the very beginning of World War One until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the center of the story is 'what's going on in Berlin?' If any century is the American Century, it's probably this one. Did you really expect it was going to be fun? As odd and disorienting as it is to conceive, we were just a side player in the twentieth century, our cavalry came to the rescue at convenient moments while, in the periphery, our infantry stomped our cleats on the faces of others. Otherwise, we just minded our corner store and reaped all the benefits of our competitors getting conveniently looted. In 1948, America, producing well over half the world's GDP, cut the Europeans a check for 12 billion dollars, which is worth roughly ten times that amount today, and even in real terms, 120 billion dollars would go many times further in 1948 in the best parts of America, let alone in the bombed out economy of Western Europe for which governments had depleted savings and depleted agricultural production, the latter of which guaranteed a starving population. This was The Marshall Plan, and it was America's finest hour on the world stage, which allowed half a continent to spring back to life. It is a testament to an inconvenient truth of the Obama era, which is that sometimes, intervention in other countries is not only warranted, but necessary for the security of the world - an inconvenient truth to which it now seems Obama should have paid much greater heed to Mitt Romney's warnings in 2012 about Russia. The world is much too large, and moves much too quickly, to ever hold principles to which one clings through it all. All that matters is the necessity of the moment, and so long as you exist in the world, you will be called upon to do things that challenge the sanctity of your values every day.

Who knows how savagely we Americans would behave if one in every six people died in our war rather than one in every two-hundred ninety five? But because America treated Germany so much better than the Soviet Union did, Germany coveted the American model.

Just seventy-five years ago Germany was the most totalitarian nation on Earth, and yet today it can at times seem like the world's most thriving multicultural democracy. Germany is still lower than America in GDP per-capita, but Gross Domestic Product per capita is deceiving. So many of the south-eastern Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, the United Arab Emirates, number among the highest per-capita GDP's in the world, the reason being that wealth is concentrated in the hundreds of billions within a few royal families, while the majority of the population works for slave wages - "if that" in some cases. Other Northern European countries like Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Ireland, also have higher per-capita GDP's than Germany, but they are, at this point, much more racially homogenous. Would they be so willing to share their wealth if their neighbors didn't remind them so much of themselves? Furthermore, more than half of European nations, including Germany, have a higher per-capita debt than even the United States. Only Norway, among first-world nations, is debt free - when you adjust per person, Sweden's debt is more than twice America's, Switzerland's debt is more than three times that of America's, Luxembourg's per-capita debt is roughly sixty times that of America's. Income in Norway is abetted by enormous amounts of oil, while non EU countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg are to a large extent closed off to anyone who was not descended from their countries for hundreds of years. At the moment, and I still hold out massive hope for India, Germany is the rising nation that seems to have taken the model of liberal democracy, multicultural, capitalist but very strictly regulated, and improved upon it. The American system is clearly declining, but Germany seems as though it will rise as it should have a hundred years ago, not as a military police state, but as a tolerant and educated mutlticultural democracy. The cheap education it provides its citizens will prevent them from being too ignorant, the comparitively massive subsidies with which Germany maintains in its cultural history - which particularly in music is one of the very greatest glories of the world - will prevent them from forgetting the lessons of history, the public subsidies with which they provide for infrastructure and building maintenance is

Germany has taken in roughly 140,000 refugees, and it's also worth noting to the people who claim that Germany is being too cavalier with its offers of asylum that Germany has turned down twice as many applications as its accepted. It is being strenuously thorough in its examinations of potential residents as any country has to be - and no doubt, a few radical Muslims have made their way through, and a few among the few could perpetrate terror attacks. But the price of not letting them in is much, much greater. A once great civilization burrowed ever deeper into the most fundamentalist precepts of its religion because its oxygen was cut off from the wellspring of modern life. Christian Europe's intolerance helped turn Islam into a force that was by-and-large antimodern, and it now has the chance to begin righting a wrong that was perpetrated over the course of a millennium. Europe, and particularly Germany, seems fated to an opportunity for redemption, in which it can facilitate the transition to greater freedoms for poorer parts of the world that America has now clearly failed to do.

For the first time ever in the modern era, mass amounts of immigrants in search of greater freedom are not knocking at the doors of America, they're knocking at the doors of Europe, the very continent which ancestors were most desperate to leave, the conqueror of so many billions and the continent from which so many hundreds of millions fled for reasons that turned out to be all too prescient. While America seems to be burrowing ever more deeply into its historic pathologies, Germany is setting the blueprint of a democracy in which, in the modern era, Christianity and Islam may have the first chance of existing together in peaceful cooperation. And even if the coexistence is not peaceful, the sheer number and percentage of Muslim immigrants is so far less than are generally presupposed that the claims of Europe being overrun with Islam have to be considered a mite loopy.

My saintly but conservative mother thinks I could not be more wrong about this, and thinks Germany's welcoming of immigrants is setting it on a crash course with disaster. We'll see which, if either of us, is correct. The truth is that we have no idea how well or badly the new influx of refugees will change Germany, and given the demographic shifts in Germany, it's worth knowing that it could at times to go awry to a small extent - resulting not only in minor erosions of freedoms the majority white population to accommodate a religion that like all religions demands the subjugation of women, but much more likely, can result in the erosion of freedom for Muslims themselves in a nation to which they came to pursue a freer life. There may very well be more Islamic terrorist attacks in the European future, but I guarantee that Europe's Islamic population will suffer immeasurably worse at the hands of terrorists. Not only will most of these supposed terror attacks be against these immigrant apostates, but the retribution of Whites and the State will be immeasurably more draconian than what nearly any Islamic terrorist can do. With everything that happens in Europe today, as it does in America, the possibility of religious identification and religious detention is omnipresent. The only way to sugarcoat it is to call it 'religious detention' rather than its true term 'internment or concentration camps.' And for the rest of our lifetimes, there will always be a dark glimmer of still worse possibilities on the horizon.

Civilizations who have achieved greatly, be they American, or British, or French, or Chinese, or Singaporean, or Hong Kongian, or Indian, or South African, or Australian, or Italian, or Spanish, or Dutch, or Turkish, or Baltic, or Russian, or even and perhaps especially Israeli, are built to be sabotaged, and probably built to eventually be destroyed. Once you have improved a civilization to the point that people can live in it securely, it is much easier to create dents in the structure than to build it still further - and just to take the obvious everyday example, what is trolling but intellectual terrorism? Like physical terrorism, trolling erodes ever so gradually at our sense of safety, and the sense that our freedoms are guaranteed. We become more circumspect in what we say, and more imprisoned in our own minds and worries. Still more outrageously, whether the offenders are terrorists or trolls, they will inevitably claim that they are doing so in the name of the greater good - most of them probably believe what they say.

Civilizations are built to be destroyed, the world does not become something different than it is, it simply is what it is. Our civilization may live another day, it may live a great and grand series of greater and more days, but if American civilization is marked for doom, then Seinfeld is what will mark it to posterity. Tune in next time for the headiest explanation of Seinfled you'll ever hear.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review Dump 3

Mahler Symphony no. 6: Alsop/BSO - November 12th It's taken ten years, but I think I've finally figured out Marin Alsop. Her true artistic forbearer as a conductor is not Leonard Bernstein - she isn't bold or imaginative enough to be anything like the teacher whose connection she plays up for all the PR it's worth. Her true ancestor is Andre Previn - she loves big tunes, she loves it loud, she can convey enormous excitement, but profundity is not her thing. With the exception of Das Lied von der Erde, I've never come away from one of the sacred cow megaliths of the repertoire convinced that she has its full measure. The most telling moment of this performance was an audience reaction when the hammerblow sounded - I saw a college-age looking kid whisper to his friend "Fuck Yeah!" The first three movements were truly loud, but I had to agree with Charles Downey rather than Tim Smith that this was a performance that stayed wide of Mahler's mark. Still, it was better than Semyon Bychkov's snoozer Mahler 6 with the New York Philharmonic back in January - let's see if he does any better with the Concertgebouw in Mahler 5 in DC. The performance was only truly impressive in the finale - which is so mammoth that if played well can banish memories of mediocrity in the rest of the piece. Alsop seemed to view it as a virtuoso concerto for orchestra, none of Simon Rattle's extraordinary tragic daemonism, but it was still extremely impressive in its way. I don't think Alsop would know how to convey real catharsis or pathos, she doesn't have much in her toolbox in the way of refinement, but she does know how to make a truly impressive noise. She's of course at her most impressive in American repertoire (no shame in that), and truly fantastic at creating concerts that are enormous events. The best performances of hers' I've seen in core repertoire over the years are in those gigantic megaliths full of flash and fury that skirt the line between depth and vulgarity - Mahler 2, Mahler 3, Alpensinfonie, Shostakovich 7. In all of the above, she most certainly landed on the vulgarity sound and made some truly glorious noises, but I'd hardly call any of those performances particularly insightful. When she does anything earlier than Mahler that requires a smaller orchestra, I usually stay away.

Anne of the Thousand Days: Chesapeake Theater - November 13th With all the troubles and dread we have, we all need our emotions purged through catharsis. I expected catharsis from Mahler 6 and got no such thing. Instead I got catharsis from a faux-Shakespeare costume drama by a mid-20th century American playwright who shared with me the great fortune of a superb cast and director who played on his text and my fears like a violin. Henry VIII's England was a society that got exactly what it deserved - a society that put pleasure and personal fulfillment above all, and none moreso than the personal fulfillment of the King. It was personal fulfillment taken to the most logical extension - openly risking a century and a half of war as a demonstration of the King's love for a conquest who gives her body but not her heart. Like all the world's bloody conflicts - particularly the bloodiest, it was all so easily avoidable were the priorities of societies who provoked them not utterly wrongheaded. It was as though we were watching a prosperous, peaceful society unwind past the point of no return, precisely because they were convinced they would live forever. We watched as famous historical figure after figure seemed to perform mental contortions that turned their rationality to logical gibberish. Here is the stuff which the bloodiest wars - be it the English Civil War or the Wars of the Roses or the Thirty Years War or The World War (if you see the two as one long conflict) - are always made of. This production was so utterly superior in every way to their Othello, let alone the abysmal Titus Andronicus I saw around this time last year. Maybe they should stick to faux-Shakespeare rather than the real thing.

North by Northwest: Senator Theater - November 16th It is impossible to watch any work of art today without relating it to the 'situation' in which we find ourselves. I could construct a whole paragraph around how totalitarian societies operate by stripping us of our identity, but our inner resourcefulness can be what saves us... I could probably also relate it to Kafka and say that North by Northwest is Kafka if the Bugmaster from Prague were trying to have fun. Perhaps all that gives Hitchcock too much credit - even if the movie is easily one of the greatest ever put to celluloid, it basically seems like an excuse for a collection of cinematic setpieces which Hitch needs an excuse to throw together. I have no idea if there's any substance whatsoever to North by Northwest, and I don't care. The best thing I suppose I can say is that the title comes from Hamlet, and the full quote is "I am mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." If there's a larger point, the point is that Cary Grant is the only sane person in the picture, and seems insane because what happens to him is so insane. I prefer North by Northwest to Vertigo and probably to Psycho too, though not to Rear Window - Vertigo is so grim and almost humorless, Psycho is obviously too macabre to love, but no amount of suspense in North by Northwest, or Rear Window, gets in the way of the fun. Which brings us to...

Hamlet: English National Theater Simulcast - November 20th 11AM I'm beginning to make good on my resolve to go to more of those theater and opera simulcasts in which the audience consists of me and two dozen old Jewish ladies. I had trouble sleeping the night before, and I slept through most of the first two acts and seem to have woken up right after the 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy, just in time for 'Get Thee to a Nunnery.' The last three acts of it were... thoroughly decent, if not better. Benedict Cumberbatch is clearly a capable actor, but I doubt I'll ever number among the cult which surrounds him, which I would imagine is thinking with organs lower than the brain or even the heart. He was a thoroughly intelligent Hamlet who spoke the speeches trippingly on the tongue as though Shakespearean verse were as natural conversation, but emotionally, he was stuck on one note, replacing real emotional nuance with a sort of adolescent whimpering. The real problem was not Cumberbatch, I would imagine the director was directing him to be more emotional even though literature's great narcissist needn't be emotional at all. Bad directorial choices were present all through this production, bad music, soliloquies done with a spotlight and the rest of the stage on freezeframe, imitations of cinematic slow motion, a set that looked borrowed from a door-slamming farce. There was, however, one truly brilliant directorial choice that practically made up for all the egregious ones. Act V, done after intermission, was rendered in an Elsinore already bombed out by Fortinbras. The revolution that Laertes nearly raises against Claudius makes much more sense. This is an interpolation from the text so brilliant that you wonder why you haven't seen it in any production before, or in every production. There are two main characters in Hamlet: Hamlet and Elsinore. Elsinore is a giant, creaking, antique machine on the verge of collapse which only needs a wind from North by Northwest (which is in fact Norway's position to it) to blow it over - or a fencing match gone awry, and Hamlet is its abstract and brief chronicler.

Beethoven's 9th: Baltimore Symphony - November 20th 3PM I thought I was seeing a somewhat different concert from the one I ended up seeing. Instead of seeing John Adams's Absolute Jest on the first half of the program, I was treated to the sight of Marin Alsop and Ed Polochick (long time choral director at the BSO) teaching everyone in the audience the German words to the 'big tune' which we were all supposed to sing along with when the time came (the soloists looked thoroughly amused). It was a very nice albeit slightly absurd gesture, fun to sing along, slightly moving to be a part of even if a bit ridiculous, and thoroughly appropriate on this of all weeks. The performance itself was... again, thoroughly adequate. I've now heard Alsop and the BSO twice in Beethoven's 9th, this was easily the better of the two. Alsop clearly prefers fast tempos in Beethoven, which is all well and good if you have a crack ensemble or conducting technique to pull it off - neither Alsop or the BSO is either of those. It was certainly much more together and rhythmically on-point than it was when I heard them do it two or three years ago. But on this of all weeks, this perhaps greatest of all works of music can't help but make its cosmic impact, even in an abysmal performance, which this was not. No work of music ever conceived by the human mind fulfills the purpose of music better than Beethoven's 9th. Whatever the prevailing wind is in capital cities, Beethoven and particularly his 9th, will sell the tickets in the provinces as nothing else does, because its message is both shallow enough for the masses, deep enough for experts to always find something now, and universal enough that newbies can find something higher in themselves than they ever thought was possible and for experts to endlessly appreciate both the musical humor and the musical good humor. It is a reminder of hope in dark times, it always has been, and it always will be.

Beethoven Quartet op. 131: 
Ariel Quartet - November 19th, Kreeger Museum, DC
St. Lawrence Quartet, November 20th, Shriver Hall, Baltimore
The late quartets are nowhere near as difficult as people make them out to be, but good god, op. 131 twice in twenty-four hours. Can anybody stomach that gravity along with taking in Hamlet and Beethoven's 9th?

As it happened, I was rather tired Saturday night, having taken a longer than usual these days bikeride before I went to DC and was rather sleepy through the performance. The Ariel Quartet from Israel is still young, and technically not quite to the level of the very highest - not that that should ever inhibit anyone's enjoyment. They're a 'moving quartet', which bounces around so much that each of the players seems in need of a second chair. I'm a big fan of uninhibited movement in performance, but it better be accompanied by equivalent enthusiasm in the playing or else it seems like choreography. In this case, I wondered if their movement simply inhibited some their playing. Some smudged notes don't usually matter, but other issues kept creeping up that severely cramped one's enjoyment - some of which were not their fault. Among them was the fact that the quartet was hooked up to loudspeakers, and balanced at severely unequal volumes - my guess is that the speakers were imposed upon them by the facility, worried that their room would not have sufficient presence for a string quartet (why the hell are you hosting chamber music concerts then?). The second violin and viola were half as loud as the first violinist and two-thirds as loud as the cello. You couldn't possibly gauge the balance of the ensemble properly. In any event, the reason I went to DC was because they were playing three quartets that are particular favorites of mine.

The Mozart K. 387 is a wonderful piece, and was unfortunately played as though they'd barely rehearsed it. What was embarrassing was not the lack of technical finish, what was embarrassing was the utter generic anonymity of their performance - nary an original phrasing or color to be found in this composer who lives and dies by an instrumentalist's ability to phrase and color. Fortunately, matters improved significantly in Shostakovich's 3rd Quartet. Israeli string players usually learn Russian style, and have the same thick tone and vibrato which works on Russian music like a charm. All the character and involvement thoroughly lacking in Mozart was present in Shostakovich. One even sometimes heard what you never heard in the Mozart, a soft dynamic! And then you realize it wasn't just the speakers that hamper your enjoyment, they really did play the Mozart that badly. After intermission came the Beethoven 131. It was thoroughly 'Russian' Beethoven, and no worse for it, full of enormous sounds, extremes of tempo and vibrato.... Huge variation of tempo in the long fourth movement, the 5th movement scherzo was so fast that I thought they'd fly apart (Mark Berry would have hated it...), but it didn't, just a fantastic piece of pure virtuosity to which they acquited themselves admirably. Would that there were a few more soft dynamics, but I'd imagine that the loudspeaker was no help at all in that regard.

The Canadian St. Lawrence Quartet is a completely different kind of ensemble. The Israeli Ariel Quartet is clearly more at home among romanticism and risk, the St. Lawrence Quartet loves classicism - their sound is leaner, their technical finish is much greater, and they love adding as many little details into the piece as can ever be found. The first work on their program, Haydn's "Joke Quartet" was well-nigh perfect. Never have I heard a Haydn Quartet played this well live before - hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny details in rhythm and phrasing and balance added up to a kind of musical miracle. This was music! If their Beethoven is not quite on the same order of miracle, it was at times astonishing how close they came. Beethoven quartets demand that you give absolutely everything to him and leave your blood on the floor. Their performances of opuses 135 and 131 tried to square the circle by saving themselves for the larger moments, and the climaxes felt not like something they earned but rather something 'turned on.' The tempos were not as extreme, but there were many more soft dynamics, and a huge variation of dynamics throughout. In the battle of the op. 131's, the Canadians won thoroughly, but I do wish they'd risked as much as their Israeli counterparts, even if some of the risks didn't pay off.

Book Revisitation: Hamlet Watching Hamlet made me want to go back for the first time in a few years to the text itself. When you read the text, it's not long before you realize what a goddamn mess it is. It's so incoherent, so dramatically unstructured, so deliberately obscure in its language, that at times it either seems like an extraordinary work of avant-garde, almost Joycean stream of consciousness; or, it's just, as TS Eliot defined it, an artistic failure. Shakespeare, of all writers, deserves the benefit of the doubt - particularly in Hamlet of all plays, which, even if I'm not quite 100% certain it deserves its reputation, the rest of the known world most certainly is.

What immediately becomes apparent, at least on this reading, is that Hamlet has been hacked to pieces by actors and directors who want to give him far more humanity than the text seems to give him. He is, from the beginning, something approaching a psychopath. I have often wondered if the 'To Be or Not To Be' speech is supposed to be given not as a soliloquy on self-slaughter, but as a murderous threat to an already on-stage (and possibly pregnant) Ophelia ("look to your daughter").

Hamlet is either too large or too incoherent to capture all of him in any one interpretation. But what truly reveals itself is Hamlet's utter nihilism - he's the dark reaching out for the dark, a nihilism beyond narcissism, beyond psychopathy, a force that sees the destruction of the court, of supposed friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of supposed allies like the Polonius family, and takes a kind of subtle delight in it. By the time Fortinbras says that Hamlet would have proved a most excellent King of Denmark, I half expect every surviving courtier to burst out laughing.  The bony specter of death reaches through it all, but beyond its nihilism is a somewhat pervading sense that Hamlet earned his nihilism. As Harold Bloom rightly says, there's no mention of anyone loving Hamlet, they merely kiss up to him in the hope of earning his favor. Horatio is the closest he has to a friend, but Horatio is a cipher, an audience stand-in, a receptacle for Hamlet's unsoliloquized thoughts. The Elsinore that surrounds him is a disintegrating antique ready to blow over with the slightest ill wind. Hamlet is rooting for its destruction, and if he procrastinates, I wonder if it isn't because he's worried that the destruction he can create

If I ever had a chance to play Hamlet - which of course will never happen but I'm still only four years older than he, I would play the nihilism for all its worth. The first lines of the first soliloquy ('o that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew') would not be addressed to himself or his own depression, but would be addressed as a comment upon the audience. Hamlet is a great hater, and hates everyone with whom he comes into contact. He's so bored with life that when he sees the Ghost who charges him with a mission, Hamlet's thought is not of awe or of hurt at his life circumstances, but of delight that a new perspective has arisen ('more things in the heaven and the earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy') that can surprise him for the first time in many years. He was well on the way to insanity before the Ghost appeared, what the Ghost did, rather, was to give him a new lease on life. Nobody ever treated him as any kind of peer, so Hamlet's only audience is himself, and to amuse himself, he babbles incoherently. When it's time for To Be or Not To Be, he's not focused on self-murder, he's focused on the possibility of murdering Ophelia ('with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in'), and I wonder why nobody has ever thought to have Ophelia do her mad scenes, and possibly much before that, in a showing state of pregnancy. The scenes with his mother have much less to do with veiled incest or incestuous thoughts than they do with his innate way of obsessively dramatizing and catastrophizing everything into the most nihilistic manner he can imagine. When he treats his mother with tenderness, it is out of the final vestiges of duty to which he feels. His 'trolling' of Ophelia's funeral is not a true outpouring of grief, but a way to stir up trouble and provoke a court which tried to send him to his death. At this point in my life, Hamlet seems a rank nihilist and scoundrel to whom nothing matters at the beginning or end of the play. If he is not a villain, it's because a villainous place made him villainous.