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February 26, 2002
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"The fraud, the huckster, the salesman are not new phenomena in America; what is new is that they now so strongly control every estate of our society." For the last few days, I've been reading the Progressive Review's Undernews, a sort of progressive news blog-by-e-mail -- and frankly, it's amazing. One of today's articles blew my mind: it's a spot-on encapsulation of What's Wrong with America Today. (Scroll down to "Derivative America and the Enron Generation." This link is to the "Latest Issue" page. Tomorrow I think it will be archived here.) Seriously, read it now. It's worth it.
posted by tweebiscuit (36 comments total)

 
PR's Undernews is an essential part of a balanced diet.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:35 PM on February 26, 2002


Seriously. Sam Smith is amazing -- every day he sends out a newsletter an order of magnitude longer than most blogs, averaging about 15 links, stories, and editorials a day. Jesus!
posted by tweebiscuit at 4:18 PM on February 26, 2002


Geez, I thought this was a horrible straw man rant. Massive amounts of conjecture passed as fact. In the entire essay there is exactly one reference to an actual person, fact, or event. The whole essay itself is a derivitive work of a number of other viewpoints which have been argued poorly before. IMHO derivitive crap like this is what is wrong with political writing in america, and based on the author's thesis, s/he should agree.

I take it that somehow MBAs ruined america?

Quote:
And they are everywhere. You will find them running schools and universities and managing once great museums.

Who are they please? MBAs are running universities and museums? Can someone provide an example? This is a classic strawman. Perhaps if you are going to write an essay on the evils of america you should cite more than one person by name?
posted by phatboy at 4:18 PM on February 26, 2002


America's leaders become rogue traders of reality, creating derivatives of it for their own purposes at extraordinary risk to the rest of us, demanding that we bet our all on a psychic 401K that is invested only in megalomaniacal notions of foreign relations and in a dictator's notion of security.

it's weird, dean kamen said pretty much the same thing yesterday! also see max weber's iron cage of instrumental rationality :)
posted by kliuless at 4:20 PM on February 26, 2002


phatboy, I didn't read this essay as any sort of empirical or definite prognosis, but as an emotional and intellectual response to what the author perceives as a dominant and harmful theme running through American cultural life. I agree, he didn't name any examples or people in particular, but if he had it would hardly have been relevant, as he was writing in pretty abstract terms.
posted by tweebiscuit at 4:28 PM on February 26, 2002


We get on the one hand a batch of stuff from Liberals, and they see through the sham that is our lives today. On the other hand, we get a batch of stuff from the Conservatives, who let us know that all would be much better if only the lefties would back off and let the marketplace determine things, let the govt get off our backs, and give full freedom to those with initiative.
Somewhere in between there may be some truth and so it pays to veiw both sides of the spectrum and then accept as Truth and Beauty what your parents believed in when you were very young.
posted by Postroad at 4:47 PM on February 26, 2002


I believe Baudrillard called this hyper-reality.
posted by rhizome23 at 4:55 PM on February 26, 2002


Derivatives help people to manage risk and enable them to take risks. That's a good thing, right?

Tweebiscuit, are you just in a foul mood this century?
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 5:18 PM on February 26, 2002


I agree, he didn't name any examples or people in particular, but if he had it would hardly have been relevant, as he was writing in pretty abstract terms.

So, basically, this stuff is pretty much the same as a lame mefi wacky news post filled with haiku (tangential connection to reality, form for form's sake, worth a chuckle or two). OK, I can see that.
posted by dchase at 5:20 PM on February 26, 2002


it depends on how much leverage is employed and if there's anything backing the trades. like from what i understand enron employed an "asset-lite" approach which got them into trouble.

also it's questionable given the notional value of derivatives traded every day far exceeds the actual exchange of any goods and services and even what the world economy produces in a year. granted most of it is not "asset-lite" and are very conservatively managed, but as orange county, LTCM, enron et al showed mistakes happen.

i guess the point is to somehow limit the speculative excesses and know what it is you (and your counterparties) are actually doing! also black-scholes doesn't always work :)
posted by kliuless at 5:33 PM on February 26, 2002


Gawd. I read that and immediately thought of First Things's review of Negri's Empire, a restating of Das Capital that is so suffused with its own post-structuralist epistemology as to be indigestible.

Like their radical predecessors, Hardt and Negri fail to think politically—fail to explore the real possibilities and dangers of political reality and take measure of the lessons of history. Though the authors say they want to mine the “dense complex of experience”—a praiseworthy aim for any political thought—a reader of Empire will wander through hundreds of pages of arid theory before he encounters a flesh–and–blood political actor or a real decision or historical event or institution. The book, like much contemporary political theory, is inhumanly abstract. The same abstraction was abundantly evident when Hardt appeared on The Charlie Rose Show. To the host’s commonsense questions, Hardt could only respond in hallucinatory theory–speak. To anyone unfamiliar with the latest academic buzzwords, he sounded like a space alien. Rose seemed—justifiably—completely befuddled.

We are not fighting an abstract noun, we are fighting against a network. So sorry, Mr. Smith, that doesn't lend itself to a fancy surrender aboard a battleship. But we've fought such wars before on a smaller scale -- the US tracked down the Weathermen, the Germans jailed the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Italians eradicated the Red Brigade (notably, pals of Negri's, though they don't go to pains to let you know that).

Or perhaps we can simply fall back on Orwell's retort:

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

I'm sorry, but to a post-structuralist, everything looks like it needs deconstruction. Out here in the real world, we're carpenters dealing with nails -- but that reality must be denied.
posted by dhartung at 5:36 PM on February 26, 2002


I wasn't aware that this was going to turn into a debate on the virtues of abstraction or its opposites. I just felt that Smith's characterization of the collective spirit of America was apt. Our entire culture seems to exist wholly within a network of advertising, media and product. Actually, mainly advertisement.

And yes, HC -- I hate this century. Not sure why, but I've always craved a life in the 1890s, preferably in England or Berlin. (Which explains my obsession with Sherlock Holmes and Nietzsche -- or vice versa.)
posted by tweebiscuit at 6:14 PM on February 26, 2002


I should add, by the way -- I'm a sophomore philosophy major. I eat this kind of stuff up, but I'm still dipping my toes in it. Dhartung, I think I disagree with you, but I also gather that you're probably a lot smarter here than I am. (Hell, I haven't even gotten up to poststructuralism yet.)

However, I am a firm believer in "the intellgentsia," and I find it a little dishonest to suggest that intellectualism is negated by an Orwell quote. Theory may often be inapplicable, but those who practice it do so because they need it -- and besides, it's all we've got.
posted by tweebiscuit at 6:18 PM on February 26, 2002


I felt some identification with parts of what Smith says, particularly about not being able to tell the difference between a phrase and a product. I work in advertising, and am bombarded with proposals and presentations telling me, for example, that such and such a product "is not about power. It IS power". Sheesh. Sometimes creatives need to have their heads dunked in icewater.

Other parts, like where he writes, "America, in its first degree, made things people wanted, said things that needed to be said, and fixed things, including itself, that needed fixing." seem to insinuate that there actually was such a time in America. Ah, the good old days back when America was honest and forthright. When was that, actually. It sounds more like he's talking about Teddy Roosevelt than about America.

I agree with phatboy that this is basically a rant. It's very articulate in places and the writer clearly communicates his sense that something is very wrong in America. But toward the end, the essay loses its focus. Mr. Smith, edit thyself.
posted by Bixby23 at 6:25 PM on February 26, 2002


Religionistas have generally despised Empire, as have their authortarian brethren. It’s pathetic to see them use their own ignorance—“I couldn’t understand the big words”—and make that the fault of the authors.

“[Empire] fail[s] to explore the real possibilities and dangers of political reality and take measure of the lessons of history”

That is so much tripe and just proves the writer didn’t know what he was reading. (Again, somehow that’s the authors’ fault and not the reader’s.) Half the book is dedicated to discussing contemporary political theory and its effect modernity. The book is not about contemporary events; it is about contemporary theory. So of course its going to be “inhumanly abstract”. Every theory is abstract, its sort of their definition.

The emphasis on theory is one of the major differences between European and American political mechanics. Europeans (Negri is Italian) like to start with a theory and turn it into reality—community bike programs started as theories to address cheap public transit. Americans like starting with reality and turning it into a theory—e.g. “Bush Doctrine”. Not surprisingly, most American reviewers dismissed the book as unrelentingly theoritical.

Sure, the book isn’t for beginners, but neither is a Critque of Pure Reason, which I'm sure First Things would equally despise for being abstracted from his ability to understand it.

As for Undernews: Good god damn that page is huge. Check out the dog leg down the left side, too. Somebody get this man a designer. (No, I didn’t read it. I am shallow. Hey, Nader blurbed his book, looka that.)

twee, you're in good company. Chomsky recently said the 20th Century was the most deadly in history. Or something like that. Don’t quote me.
posted by raaka at 6:33 PM on February 26, 2002


tweebiscuit I can relate. I too was once a sophomore philosophy major soaked in theory. Twenty years later and I have six floor to ceilings shelves of books in my villa and I still don't know shit.
If I was you I would take the next 75 hours i was going to spend reading Foucault et al. and learn how to BRAID A WOMAN"S HAIR!
that's right-herring bone curls, french twists, buns, rolled braids etc. Master the long tailed comb my man. this art will serve you well once you begin to realize the Kama sutra has all the philosophy you really need.
posted by quercus at 6:36 PM on February 26, 2002


querucs, you are a prince among men. And a king among princes.

One of the things I like about the Progressive News, incidentally, is its circa-1995 design... reminds me of the good old days when people still used the word "listserv."
posted by tweebiscuit at 6:50 PM on February 26, 2002


fwiw, j. bradford delong gives a good "millennial perspective" on the 20th century in the introduction to his book (in progress) slouching towards utopia: the economic history of the twentieth century.

excerpt: In this century governments and their soldiers have killed perhaps forty million people in war: either soldiers unlucky enough to have been drafted into the mass armies of the twentieth century, or civilians killed in the course of what could be called military operations.

But wars have caused only about a fifth of this century's violent death toll. Governments and their police have killed perhaps one hundred and sixty million people in time of peace: class enemies, race enemies, political enemies, economic enemies, imagined enemies. You name them, governments have killed them on a scale that could not previously have been imagined. If the twentieth century has seen the growth of material wealth on a previously- inconceivable scale, it has also seen human slaughter at a previously-unimaginable rate.

posted by kliuless at 7:10 PM on February 26, 2002


Entertaining to see some content which isn't totally predictable. Some of the turns of phrase are reminiscent of Data Trash.
Not as news-oriented as Cursor.org, though.
posted by sheauga at 7:26 PM on February 26, 2002


check this out kliuless and twee-the hemocylsm-:

"I've taken all the episodes of mass killing of the 20th Century and divided them by the population of the country that suffered the losses."
-nice if gruesome bar chart-
"If you look carefully at the chart with the intention of determining which race, religion or ideology has been the most brutal, you'll see a pattern emerge. It's quite a startling pattern, so I'd rather you find it by yourself. "

As you're smart guys-i'm sure you'll spot the pattern
posted by quercus at 8:10 PM on February 26, 2002


I just felt that Smith's characterization of the collective spirit of America was apt. Our entire culture seems to exist wholly within a network of advertising, media and product. Actually, mainly advertisement.

The fellow, to me, seemed to be constructing (albeit entirely unconsciously) a running critique of himself. Both conservatives and liberals seem to pay obsessive attention to commentators, and the commentaries by other commentators on the first commentators. Other groups obsess on the effects of "the Media" (with a capital M). The whole mess of them universalizes their own weird realities, and comes to believe that such things must be deeply important to everyone.

Vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, don't watch endless political commentaries, wouldn't have the foggiest idea what a Chomsky is (and actually would likely think it was some sort of bowel disorder if someone asked), don't feel like they are drowning in some deadly plague of "Media", (and in fact are probably are far less affected by advertising than ad critics - who seem to have a fanatical attachment to exposing it - are).

They'd hardly see PR's Undernews as "an essential part of a balanced diet." A lot of people, folks, seem to love their lives. They like buying stuff - for themselves, their families, their friends and their children. They like their country, get pissed when someone bombs it, and don't think, when their president and congresspeople also get pissed, are "rogue traders of reality, creating derivatives of it for their own purposes at extraordinary risk to the rest of us, demanding that we bet our all on a psychic 401K that is invested only in megalomaniacal notions of foreign relations and in a dictator's notion of security."

Their lives are not "derivatives" of anything - and it is very nearly the height of arrogance for people like this twit and others like him - churing out their clever little social criticisms - to so commonly yawn and look down their noses at the large majority of the population. This population has far more common sense, and latent wisdom, than most of the intelligensia gives it credit for ... indeed, more than most of the intelligensia itself.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:23 PM on February 26, 2002


The vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, make a concerted effort to avoid thinking.

Knowing what it's really like in third-world nations is quite unsettling. It's difficult to buy that Starbucks coffee when you know the farmer who grew it is starving to death (coffee prices are at their lowest in forty years). It's difficult to drive the SUV to work when you know that Somalia gas is bought with lives. Can't feel good about purchasing those Nikes when sweatshop kids are being beaten for working too slowly.

Best to avoid thinking. Remain ignorant. Don't seek information. Reject any knowledge you happen to gain.

Gotta be a happy consumer.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:20 PM on February 26, 2002


churing out their clever little social criticisms - to so commonly yawn and look down their noses at the large majority of the population.

Hateful hateful. Have you met Sam Smith? Or are you caricaturizing perceptions? Can you recognize like-minded arrogance in your own posts that you profess to eschew? You have no room to dismiss an argument on grounds that "you know their type" as you gleefully employ the very tactics you accuse your antagonist of.


Vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, don't watch endless political commentaries, wouldn't have the foggiest idea what a Chomsky is (and actually would likely think it was some sort of bowel disorder if someone asked), don't feel like they are drowning in some deadly plague of "Media", (and in fact are probably are far less affected by advertising than ad critics - who seem to have a fanatical attachment to exposing it - are).

It all succeeds as demographically promised to the ruling elite.
posted by crasspastor at 10:47 PM on February 26, 2002


The piece was just a little literary conceit that played on surplus value, contemporary literary criticism, and former Secretary of Labor Mr. Reich's observations that symbolic analysts get paid better and live easier lives than people who manipulate actual physical objects. If some people think it's arrogant for educated people to seek out entertainments that aren't exactly Charlie's Angels and a trip to Wal-Mart, that's fine by me.
posted by sheauga at 10:58 PM on February 26, 2002


It's difficult to buy that Starbucks coffee when you know the farmer who grew it is starving to death (coffee prices are at their lowest in forty years).

Yeah! So, don't buy that coffee, and let him starve a little more!

You know what low coffee prices are a sign of? Oversupply. Some of those coffee farmers should investigate another line of work.
posted by kindall at 11:04 PM on February 26, 2002


When I first read the article, I thought of an editorial I read in the school paper. I hear this shit every day at UMich. I'm getting tired of it. Well said, MidasMulligan.

The last thing that I'd like to add is that no matter what your advertisements say to you, they cannot stop you from falling in love. So are they really that harmful?
posted by MarkO at 11:09 PM on February 26, 2002


oh yeah the editorial is right here. oops.
posted by MarkO at 11:10 PM on February 26, 2002


Quercus: check this out ... the Hemoclysm

YES! Cambodia takes the silver!

And the killers go free because the UN failed to deploy a "competent international tribunal." Swell.

As you're smart guys-i'm sure you'll spot the pattern

Umm... Idealists are more dangerous than Realists?

Seriously, Quercus, thanks for the interesting, if chilling, link.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 12:56 AM on February 27, 2002


yeah, matthew white's site is great! it's like up there with zompist, erasmatazz, antipope and cosma shalizi's notebooks (not to mention j. bradford delong and j. orlin grabbe :)

that page reminds me of democide.
posted by kliuless at 6:53 AM on February 27, 2002


Midas - well said.

It's difficult to buy that Starbucks coffee when you know the farmer who grew it is starving to death (coffee prices are at their lowest in forty years).

I don't understand this - seems like buying more coffee would be a better solution.

Best to avoid thinking. Remain ignorant. Don't seek information. Reject any knowledge you happen to gain.

And remember not to step in the bullshit!
posted by groundhog at 7:19 AM on February 27, 2002


The vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, make a concerted effort to avoid thinking.
Best to avoid thinking. Remain ignorant. Don't seek information. Reject any knowledge you happen to gain.


Yes, anyone that doesn't agree with you is obviously not thinking. There are only two sorts of people in the world, the really really brilliant people who see through all the illusions of the "elite" and own "the Truth", and the ignorant, sheep-like masses who don't even know that to reach the elevated moral stature they should be aspiring to, they should either do three weeks of research before buying a t-shirt to make certain a third world child was not involved anywhere in the supply chain, or stop buying anything at all.

OBVIOUSLY if anyone is actually thinking, they must reach exactly your conclusions.

Hateful hateful. Have you met Sam Smith? Or are you caricaturizing perceptions? Can you recognize like-minded arrogance in your own posts that you profess to eschew? You have no room to dismiss an argument on grounds that "you know their type" as you gleefully employ the very tactics you accuse your antagonist of.

Hateful? Er, no. I've read a bit of his stuff. Am commenting on it. And he is one that does "commonly yawn and look down his nose at the large majority of the population". Of course, he would not see it this way. But there are a couple of "elites" in this country - on the far left, and the far right - that both have similar arrogance (see above: "The vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, make a concerted effort to avoid thinking..." ... this sentiment is typical of these elites). Matters little whether it's Pat Buchanan or Noam Chomsky, Pat Robertson or Sam Smith. They all envision themselves as crusaders, "speaking truth to power" (I just love the combination of childlike naivete and intellectual brutality in that line ...) - they all believe they exist in some elevated mental and moral zone where they have "clarity", and anyone that doesn't agree with them MUST be 1) either too stupid and sheep-like to know the truth, or 2) an utterly immoral criminal that they'll guilt-trip 'till they're blue in the face.

They feel free to characterize - even "caricature" - both the norm of the American population and the "elites" that they claim run it, but get really pissed if anyone does the same to them. Attack their character and they whine. Attack their ideas and they respond with dismissive and demeaning tones. They all believe they're at the forefront of some imagined "revolution".

I love this: "You have no room to dismiss an argument on grounds that "you know their type" as you gleefully employ the very tactics you accuse your antagonist of."

Actually I DO have plenty of room to do this - and do it quite intentionally. It is a MIRROR. It is treating them with exactly the attitude they treat the American population. I am "speaking truth to power". Yes, it caricatures them. Yes, it lumps them into one category, and applies a single judgement to all of them. Yes, it is dismissive.
YES - it is treating them with the exact same attitude they treat the rest of the population. I DO have room to act exactly as I am acting - YOU have no room to complain. You've established the standards I'm complying with.

These extremes - both left and right, act as, and within , the same sort of "elites" they complain about. Problem is, they are largely unsuccessful elites, complaining about the successful ones. They believe in their righteousness ... but when it comes to actually entering the sphere of public life - of competing in the world of ideas within a democracy - they lose, not just by a little, they go down in flames (Who cares whether it's Buchanan or Nader ... they never capture more than single digits of of the vote). Neither can accept that this is because they are wrong, or because they fundamentally fail to understand who "the masses" are, how they think, or what they want. It must be because the masses are either stupid or corrupt, or some conspiracy of the powerful is desperately trying to keep their voices from being heard.

Wrong. They are simply marginal viewpoints not compelling enough to claim more than a few followers. They'll speak endlessly about forcing other to "face uncomfortable truths" - but are the last ones capable of doing it themselves.
posted by MidasMulligan at 7:35 AM on February 27, 2002


Perhaps I take a more developmental viewpoint on the predictable political positions of the stereotypical left and right. Something happens around undergraduate age which makes people get the urge to fire up the logical argument section of the brain. Some folks will develop mentally to the point where they start to add a bit of original thinking and new knowledge to the pot, but most of us simply digest and synthesize the material that surrounds us.

I'm surprised that someone who lives in Manhattan isn't coming across more stimulating ideas from the political opposition. Or perhaps it's a case of having heard it all before?

Sometimes I think that whoever said "The leftist politics of academics are directly proportional to their low salaries" is right. Academics work just as hard as private sector people, but are never guaranteed to come up with useful results or tenure due to the nature of their work. We're now looking at a profession full of highly intelligent people who are likely to find only temporary employment and part-time adjunct teaching positions, and that's why you can expect more snarkiness and bad attitude in their social criticism.

The post-modern literary criticism and semiotics nonsense can be extremely annoying. I am thankful I was able to study literature before the invention of deconstruction.

What a profound and moving editorial from MarkO. The younger generation has girded its loins and is prepared to carry the torch. I'll be sure to bring my shovel if I come visit U Mich! A response to postmodern verbiage: Take technical and scientific courses, avoid mass media and non-technical material written after 1945. Works like a charm. You'll get a good job which ensures adequate funding when you decide to take up poetry yourself.
posted by sheauga at 8:08 AM on February 27, 2002


They believe in their righteousness ... but when it comes to actually entering the sphere of public life - of competing in the world of ideas within a democracy - they lose, not just by a little, they go down in flames

Not always. I've watched at least one of my *good ideas*, for which I will neither receive nor claim credit, get adopted. Coming forward to do the right thing isn't always the same thing as creating a viable business venture. I'm not trying to belittle business, I'm attempting to remind you that there are other spheres of human activity that have to be working right in order for business to function.
posted by sheauga at 8:20 AM on February 27, 2002


Not always. I've watched at least one of my *good ideas*, for which I will neither receive nor claim credit, get adopted. Coming forward to do the right thing isn't always the same thing as creating a viable business venture. I'm not trying to belittle business, I'm attempting to remind you that there are other spheres of human activity that have to be working right in order for business to function.

Goodness ... of course there are. (Quite often I take an extreme position in an argument simply to counterbalance another viewpoint ... if the article in question speaks like this ... "Thus have America's leaders become rogue traders of reality, creating derivatives of it for their own purposes at extraordinary risk to the rest of us ...", it isn't exactly creating a situation conducive to an intelligent, balanced discussion with subtlety and shades of gray ...).

In fact, I've started a non-profit, serve on the board of another (currently - at times it's been two or three), and now and then actually will fund small projects if I meet people with intruiging ideas that need a boost to get going.

The point I suppose I was actually driving at is that we live in a democracy ... thousands of ideas and perspectives are generated, thousands of people pursue power and agendas. The ones that wind up taking hold - in a country of 300 million people - have to not only be compelling, but need to be framed and expressed in a way that significant numbers of the population understand and accept. Those people on the margins, however, capable of saying "The vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, make a concerted effort to avoid thinking.", and believing that there is such a thing as "the masses" - will never connect with the population ... and this is not because of a flaw in the population ...
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:39 AM on February 27, 2002


five fresh fish: It's difficult to drive the SUV to work when you know that Somalia gas is bought with lives.

Somalia doesn't export gas; it's a petroleum importer. [CIA]


The vast majority of people, however, living in the real world, make a concerted effort to avoid thinking.

Well, they certainly avoid doing research...
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:48 PM on February 27, 2002


Oh, and The Sad Irony of the Day: the code for Somalia's currency, the Somali shilling, is "SOS."
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:49 PM on February 27, 2002


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