Friday, January 30, 2009

Good Ideas, Capital, and the Crumbling of the Authority Paradigm

Conor Friedersdorf has a good idea:
Were I given my way — hey, last time I wrote an essay like this I was, so it’s worth a shot — I’d secure funding for a Web site that aggregated diverse opinions on various issues, commissioned thoughtful magazine pieces of argument and analysis… and then deliberately commissioned the strongest rebuttals, counterarguments and alternate takes, and published them all side by side, facilitating productive conversation whenever possible. (In innovative ways!) An enterprise that gave diverse views a fair shake — and earned the trust of readers necesary for its success — couldn’t be run by just one editor, so I’d set up an ombudsman blog, give access to a couple dozen carefully selected, variously minded folk who all believe in the journalistic project, and guarantee that whatever they penned would appear on the front page, as a check on the editor’s power.
I had a good idea once, too. My idea was that since artists increase property values in any given area, by attracting hipsters and cultured people with money, we should start an enterprise that consisted of moving a group of artists temporarily into fallow real estate, fixing it up, making it gorgeous, holding art events with publicity assistance from major cultural organizations, and then moving to the next space when desirable tenants were found. The radical part of this idea was that the artists would get paid to do this.

To this end, I talked with dozens of artists, event planners, lawyers, investors, businessmen, and cultural organizations. Everyone agreed that this was a splendid idea. I put together a core team of people with diverse practical skills, wrote up a business plan, ran it by some accountants, and applied for funding and fiscal sponsorship. Then all of our financial and political capital (i.e. the business/legal/cultural organization contingent) vanished without a trace.

After I got over my shell shock, I realized the obvious--that the entire foundation of our cultural economy depends on the fact that artists work for free. As much as it is politically expedient for those with cultural and financial clout to pay lip service to the idea of supporting the arts, artists, and freedom of expression, they are never going to back a project which threatens their authority.

This may go some way toward explaining why good ideas like Conor's so rarely become manifest in reality. The difference between an eccentric loser crackpot and a visionary creative mind is merely one of financing. But for every thoughtful, erudite screenplay that languishes in the slush pile, Hollywood makes ten inane, derivative blockbusters that are forgotten in two weeks; for every architect who designs an elegant, energy-efficient, sustainable building, developers put up forty more strip malls; for every thousand hard-working, skilled, reliable employees who lose their jobs, some investment banker pockets another multi-million dollar bonus, courtesy of the federal government.

As has become inescapably clear to anyone who has read a headline in the last four months, 'authority' in our society has become nearly synonymous with 'sociopaths, narcissists, pigs, sadists, and nincompoops.' And yet those of us with good ideas--those of us with skills, ethics, talent and vision--stand around wringing our hands, as we have been wringing them ever since we first graduated from college with honors, and discovered that we had a choice among sacking groceries, waiting tables, and temping.

In days past, when smart people with initiative found themselves crushed by corrupt and oppressive systems of authority, they went somewhere else. They colonized Australia, or Canada, or California. But we have no physical frontiers left on the planet, and the corruption of brainless, brutal authority threatens to destroy us. We have to find another paradigm--one that consists of action, real action, not useless symbolic statements like rallies, petitions, protests, and Marches On Washington.

Because an enormous part of the problem is that we have all been trained from the cradle to respond to authority like children. Meek submission, blind obedience, feeble protest and violent revolution are all part of the same authority-dependent continuum; they all acknowledge that the power of the violent alpha, the one with the money, the connections and the brawn, is what determines our circumstances.

So what might a trans-authority paradigm look like? Could it start with community building? Could it benefit from consensus decision-making? And how can it be financed? Consider this an open question.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Well, damn

Culture11 is going under. I'm seriously bummed about this, because lately it's been one place where I've seen smart conservative writers engaging with genuine good will and a distinct lack of petty, mean-minded sniping. It is too bad there doesn't seem to be much of a market for this.

On the other hand, I hadn't actually realized that Culture11 was, well, a business. Having been an artist for 20 years and a blogger for 4, supporting myself (barely) by any means I can, and regarding the occasional art sale or ad revenue check as an exciting bonus, it always perplexes me when people make ambitious business plans that rely on getting paid a living wage for generating intellectual property. Particularly when they've been in business for less than a year.

I wish our culture worked that way, but it manifestly doesn't. I never thought I'd see the day when I'd call a bunch of conservatives out on their naive idealism.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Rod Blagojevitch is clearly insane, delusional, and a narcissistic nincompoop. Why is he continuing to garner news media attention, instead of being shot full of Demerol and confined to a locked ward?

Oh, wait, I know! Palin/Blagojevitch 2012!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To Set Away Childish Things

The time has come. Let's get going.

Once upon a time, I was looking for a roommate. I put out an advertisement for a 'mature female.' When one of the candidates arrived at the door, I was in the kitchen; it took me 15-20 seconds to respond to the doorbell.

When I was halfway to the door, the bell rang again, long and furiously. When I opened it, there stood a girl in a spiked dog collar and fuchsia hair. "You said the appointment was at 2, and it's 2 now," she whined, incensed at being made to wait those interminable 20 seconds while I traversed the length of the house.

What I did not say: "I asked for a MATURE roommate. Can't you READ??!!! Why are you wasting my time?"

Instead I invited her in, and it took her only two minutes to discover that my cats had independent outdoor access by means of a cat flap. Her cat wasn't allowed outside. "So sorry. Goodbye." Catfight avoided.

In that moment it dawned on me--immature people don't know they're immature. You can lecture them until you're blue in the face, and they just think you're being mean. Every adolescent thinks he's king of the world, and that he has nothing to learn. The best we can usually do with such brats is to fence them in, be polite, and try to limit collateral damage until they injure themselves sufficiently to inspire serious thinking.

But for too long now, our nation has been run by children, and we have not only failed to fence them in, but have neglected to define what, exactly, makes them so childish. So, in a spirit of hope, and perhaps a start on good parenting, I'm going to spell it out.

Spite: petty ill will or hatred with the disposition to irritate, annoy, or thwart; MALICE.

Making goofy faces is childlike, not necessarily spiteful; it all depends on the context. Spite is refusing to consult an expert on a crucial issue because you need to prove something--even though that expert might be your own father, and even though his counsel could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.

On a more mundane level, spite is the deliberate withholding of generosity, whether it be consistently interpreting other people's motives in the most negative possible light, harping on petty issues at the expense of major ones, or habitually making mean-spirited comments that impede productive communication. It is prizing one's egoistic sense of superiority over the concerns of others.

I was going to continue the list, but now that I think about it, everything else flows from this one thing. We have the choice to view other people with compassion, to attempt to understand where they're coming from, to let go of rigid expectations, or to condemn them out of hand and attack, attack, attack. We can cling to our own perspectives and try to force the world to conform to them, or we can have the inner confidence to consider other points of view. We can whine, blame, and take pleasure in the suffering of others, or we can shoulder our responsibilities with quiet good will.

The more I have read about Obama's transition process, the more I have felt--not euphoric, not hopeful--but simply relieved. During the debates, when listening to McCain go on about arcane details of international military engagements, I thought, "This guy would make a great Presidential advisor, if a temperamentally problematic President"; now, lo, Obama is asking him for advice. His appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State appears to have brought out the best in her, judging by her recent address to the Foreign Relations Committee; it productively incorporates her iron will, her ability to assimilate formidable amounts of detail, and her need to be immersed in conflict and drama in order to function. With every decision he makes, I see a renunciation of grievance and a determination to expect the best of people, tempered by a realistic understanding of our human limitations.

Because the tragedy of the Bush administration was not that mistakes were made. It was that avoidable mistakes were made, and not corrected, because the ego aggrandizement of the few took precedence over the well-being of the many. There were advisors available who knew better, at every step of the way--whether the issue was the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, the handling of the war itself, the warnings about the financial system, the handling of disaster relief after Katrina--but these people were dismissed and ignored, for the pettiest of reasons.

The Obama administration will make mistakes, because that's what people do. We, as a species, are not adults yet. We don't know everything, we're not able to divest ourselves of grievances and blame, and we haven't figured out a way to cope with the complexities of a changing world. My hope is not that Obama will miraculously 'fix everything,' which simply is not possible. It is that he will inspire us to become a little less petty, a little more responsible, and a little more forgiving. Perhaps as a nation we will start to leave adolescence behind.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Marginal Utility of a Dollar

Thank you, thank you, thank you, anonymous donors:
It may not seem like much to you. But there's this thing about money that economists call *The Marginal Utility of a Dollar.* It describes the way one dollar means much more to someone who has only a few to begin with.

I've had times in my life when $50 didn't seem like much to me either. This is definitely NOT one of them.

Here's one of the big differences in my life a *small* amount of money just made: I can type some tonight. Why? My hands are now covered with these Lidocaine patches. My *mummy* hands. They're very expensive, nearly $400 for 2 boxes, or even more if you don't shop carefully.

My previous Medicare HMO's refused to pay for them at all, they just weren't covered. Effective January 1, I changed HMO's. This year's HMO does cover them, hooray! OMG! I've waited to get these patches for 3 or 4 YEARS, and now, suddenly, I need them far more than ever before.

However...that new HMO still wants a $20 copay.

Just a little $20 copay, right?

But when you have less than zero money, and you acquire a small sum, first you buy food. So those patches sat at Walgreen's for a week, because I didn't have $20 for the copay.

And now I have my patches, and at least for tonight, I can type.
It's so easy to give in to despair, particularly in times like these--to think, "there's nothing I can possibly do to alleviate the suffering around me, so I won't even try." It happens to me, more often than not. I read about the war in Gaza, slave trafficking in Thailand and India, brutality in Africa, the overwhelming global financial meltdown, and my faith feels like the spark left after a candle is blown out, confronting a tsunami.

Then I ask for help, and help arrives, sometimes from people I don't even know. Miracles abound.

Monday, January 12, 2009

'The Condescension of the Entitled'

Rob Horning speculates upon the evolution of 'kindness':
A theory: When kindness is performed out of social necessity by those without the privilege of inward-looking selfishness and individualist isolation, it doesn’t register as “kindness.” When one finds they must make a conscious effort to be kind and must trumpet their efforts to have it recognized as such, it’s probably already too late for them to be worrying about kindness—they have already become the beneficiary of an unequal society to the degree that they are conscious of being or not being kind. If you think, “how kind of me,” how kind have you really been? Being kind has already become an expression of class privilege, not human fellow feeling.
Indeed. I don't encourage my friends to assist those in need out of 'kindness,' either in myself or in others; I do so because of an innate understanding that 'there but for the grace of God go I.' Aspiring to some sort of moral virtue in doing so strikes me as hubristic.

It seems obvious to me that some human beings are born with a well-developed sense of empathy; others, not so much. It seems equally obvious to me that codified moral systems, whether they be religious or secular, attempt to lay out a rule book for conducting oneself as though one were motivated by empathy, as though one's neighbor were oneself. This is why I believe that following one of these systems to the letter does not guarantee one the moral high ground, nor do I think that such system-following is the pinnacle of human morality. Religion and law are a training ground for the conscience, no more and no less.

Furthermore, I see that when a sufficient number of citizens in any society follow an empathy-encouraging moral system for an extended period of time, that society continues to extend its empathy in more pervasive ways--by setting up a universal healthcare system, for example. This is an organic process, not a revolutionary one; witness that the brutal feudalism of the Russian empire produced the brutal levelling and totalitarian failures of Marxism, whereas the gentler Christian traditions of Western Europe gave rise to more or less functional socialism. The difference, in my view, is not just one of degree but of genesis.

Moreover, the word 'kindness' itself encompasses such a wide range of acts, feelings and motivations that it is almost pointless to argue whether society is becoming kinder, or more callous. As Horning points out, kindness aligned with power produces the condescension of the entitled; kindness unaligned with power is just common decency. (via Sullivan)

Community, Please Rally Round

I have a very serious favor to ask of all my readers.

A very good friend of mine is in a very bad way. Due to a combination of severe chronic health problems, and the fact that the makers of the drug Cipro failed to warn consumers of crippling tenosynovitis as a side effect of its use, she is completely disabled and in terrible pain:
Along with the physical loss of the use of most of my fingers, my left hand, and now the right hand, is the most mind-bending pain I've ever experienced. To touch or accidentally brush against anything can make me cry out despite myself. It's the kind of pain that brings you close to vomiting, to going insane, to chewing into your own flesh like a mortally wounded animal.

Every day a new area of attack emerges. It's spread from my left hand to the right, throughout my left arm, left shoulder, left rib cage, both elbows, both knees - front and back - both ankles, both Achilles tendons, and now both feet. This morning it had hit my left lower back. Tonight, just now, I felt it pulling throughout my left leg. All these for the first time, all in the last few weeks.
At the same time, her husband is disabled because of a work-related injury after a heart attack, and both workman's comp and disability are screwing them over:
We're like so many other Americans, living paycheck to paycheck; if one paycheck stops, life can spiral out of control with horrifying speed. We're there. Walter's Worker's Comp was cut off on a spurious basis. Yesterday came a letter saying his disability claim was denied. The basis? They said his disability was from a work injury, so go apply for Worker's Comp.
Like so many others in this disastrous economy, Joe and I are hanging on by our fingernails, with the help of good credit, good health, family, friends and community. We can't wait for the government to step in and solve this; we've got to help our friends in need, RIGHT NOW. This is my friend and she is in need; I have just sent her the amount of my monthly blog income (from the Russian brides, in fact). I can vouch for her character.

Please hit her tip jar NOW. The money will go for food and medicine.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why I Am Not Renewing My Whitney Membership

Received today:
Dear Ms. Jackson,

It's been several months since your membership expired on October 31. Your support is crucial to the Whitney's vitality and I sincerely hope you'll consider joining us again.

Since its founding, generous individuals like you have helped the Whitney advocate for artistic innovation by responding to emerging trends...

After all, our exhibitions are not just the artists' stories. They are also your story.

Dear Whitney Museum,

It is true--my support IS crucial to the Whitney's vitality. The Whitney relies on emerging artists like myself, not only for direct financial support, but for the media attention, attendance and respect which allow the museum to retain its status as a major cultural arbiter in the contemporary art world. This is why I am not renewing my Whitney membership.

Because the 'story' of 'emerging trends' that the Whitney's curators have chosen to tell, as evidenced by the last two Biennials, is not my story; nor is it the story of the thousands of other emerging artists whose work is aesthetically rich, conceptually engaging, and culturally relevant in a wider arena than that of mere cliquish Art World politics.

Instead, the Whitney has consistently championed art which is conceptually banal and aesthetically bankrupt, selected almost entirely from a pool of artists who have already been filtered by high-profile galleries and cultural organizations, and justified by a morass of pretentious, impenetrable and obfuscatory rhetoric.

As a Whitney member, I receive regular newsletters, exhibition and lecture calendars, and fundraising requests from the museum. Never once in these publications have I seen the Whitney acknowledge or respond to the widespread criticism of its use of egregious 'artspeak' in the most recent Biennial, despite the fact that this issue was discussed in both the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. I see no evidence that Whitney curators are paying attention to the art blogosphere, which has exploded during the last few years with debate, commentary and original vision at a grassroots level. I sincerely doubt that these curators spend much time looking at artist registries, attending studio tours and alternative exhibitions, or combing through unsolicited submissions in search of unknown artists with powerful vision. The organization's stated goal of 'responding to emerging trends' is a disingenuous distortion of the reality--that its curators pander to the tastes and agendas of a small coterie of insiders, ignoring artistic arenas where passionate engagement is yet unbolstered by wealthy patrons, critical attention, or a curatorial agenda.

As I have come to see it, the Whitney and institutions like it have a vested interest in ensuring that the vast majority of living artists remain voiceless, invisible and powerless. It is our thousands of college tuitions, donations, fees, submissions and applications which keep major art institutions financially viable, and allow their agendas to supercede artists' visions. The aesthetic and conceptual characteristics of the art itself are literally the least important factors in whether or not the work gets shown, if the artistic quality of the past two Biennials is any indication. Far more important are the invisible machinations of profit and ego politics, which parasitically feed upon the resources of artists and art lovers, dependent upon the fact that artists work for free, and will pay for any slim chance at recognition.

After all this, the fact that the Whitney expects literate persons to swallow absurd curatorial verbiage in lieu of a powerful artistic experience is a slap in the face. Cancelling my own membership is the least I can do in the face of such institutional contempt for my intelligence; I can only hope that my example inspires many others to do the same.

Friday, January 02, 2009

They're Not Going To Go Away

Happy New Year, darlings! I trust all of you are still there. I am still here, although moving very, very slowly.

Recently I have been exasperated, but not surprised, at some 'progressive' reactions to Mr. Obama's pre-presidential appointments, notably his decision to include Rick Warren as the prayer-giver at the Inauguration. It seems as though these people weren't listening to a word he said during the entire campaign; some of them even seem to have believed the delusional right-wing hype about him. They seem to expect him to roar on in and impose a radical agenda, ignoring the cries of the opposition, much the way Bush has done for the last eight years. All that stuff about 'we are one people' they took as so much window-dressing of a totalitarian agenda. Now that he is behaving exactly as he said he would--prioritizing competence over ideology, listening to people with whom he does not agree, creating bridges between opposing factions of society--they feel shocked and betrayed. They failed to understand his underlying philosophy.

So, it is very simple: They're not going to go away.

Gay people aren't going to go away. Neither are evangelical Christians. Neither are atheists. Neither are Israelis. Neither are Palestinians. Neither are Muslims. Neither are poor people in need of healthcare. Neither are immigrants.

Nobody, in fact, is going to go away. You can try to exterminate them, of course, but the relatives of genocide victims have a way of running off, reproducing, and coming back with guns and international treaties. If opposition makes people stronger, persecution makes them superhuman.

So why in the world do people persist in behaving as though we just need to make those people go away, or at least shut up and Know Their Place, is a valid solution to any and all problems?

I am as upset about Proposition 8 as anybody. I have no great affinity for the Rick Warrens of the world; any world view which fatuously and self-righteously declares that certain people must, by nature, be treated as second-class citizens gets no support from me. But the reason this view is ludicrous, in my view, is written above: They're not going to go away.

In other words, "You have not got the right to exist, at least not on the same level as me, with the same rights, privileges and responsibilities" is an unwinnable argument. You might cling to semantics, ideology, theology, or weaponry in order to prove your point; you may prove it over and over and over again. You may use political leverage, financial leverage, or angry petitions to gain the upper hand. But you're never going to get the opposition to toe the line, because there they are. Not going gentle into that good night. That's just a fact.

So it seems to me that we have two choices; continue trying to exterminate, humiliate, overpower and dismiss Those Awful People, or accept that they exist and seek other ways of coming to some accomodation with them. This will inevitably be a unilateral proposition, at least in the beginning. People do not leave aside their spite, grudges, fears and hatreds easily, particularly when they predicate their identities upon these things, and particularly when past experience has taught them to expect persecution. Somebody has to make the first move, and I'd like to think that so-called 'progressives' would be willing to make it.

And in the grand scheme of things, an inaugural prayer is a really small concession to make. Be generous, already.