Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

Trump Till 2020: A Republican Vision

This presidency’s end stage has been talked about ever since the election results came in on that depressing ninth day of November, 2016. There has been much hopeful talk of impeachment, and of ‘the final days of the Trump presidency’ as each administration official resigns, is indicted, or is implicated in some sordid scandal or the other. The Robert Mueller Investigation grinds on as the slow wheels of justice must; and the nation has turned its lonely eyes to FBI Bob, waiting for him to bring political manna to the masses. Now, Stormy Daniels has entered the frame and talk of firing Bob Mueller has received new life thanks to the repeated invocation of that mantra by Fox and Friends. Indeed, the Stormy Daniels affair has finally lent some teeth to this embarrassingly frenzied speculation about the eviction of the current tenant of the White House. Unfortunately, such hopes and prognostications run up some unrelenting political and cultural realities.

First, as Iran-Contra reminds us, as Americans, we are too embarrassed to punish the truly powerful; it would be too déclassé, too sordid, in excessively poor taste. It would be a reminder that our judgment was flawed, that we were wrong to trust the rich and the powerful, that we had once again, mistakenly put our faith in the powerful, trusting that their ‘magic’ would rub off on us. For us to punish the powerful would be to punish ourselves; after all, we have ambitions of becoming powerful too, one day, and we do not want to set a bad precedent. Our tastes run more to punishing lackeys and assistants, the ones who usually take the fall and then mumble, hopefully publicly, some words of contrition and repentance.

There will be no premature end to the Trump presidency; he will serve out his term till the 2020 electoral season, during which at some point, he will dramatically declare that with all his work ‘done’ he will now retire to spend more time with his family. (That is, he will seamlessly and smoothly move on to a new television talk show, the lecture circuit, and a ginormous advance from the trade house ‘lucky’ enough to publish his memoir. This is a classic American tale and it will only get better in the retelling.)

Why is this so? Because little has changed in the American political landscape–despite the air of mounting scandal and electoral disaster. The Republicans will not impeach him as long as they control the House of Representatives, for reasons too often made to bear repeating there. The Democrats, for their part, remain unlikely to launch impeachment proceedings even if they come to power; they will be too easily distracted by talk of how they should ‘move on,’ not deepen the ‘partisan divide,’ not practice a ‘destructive politics,’ or ‘give the appearance of being vindictive.’ The electoral calculus predominates here as it has always; despite prognostications of a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, the President’s own approval ratings remain solid. No matter how his brand may affect others, his own remains relatively pristine.  The best, least damaging electoral strategy, one that minimizes their losses, is for the Republicans to keep Trump in power in return for a quiet promise that he will not seek re-election in 2020. This is something Trump can be easily persuaded to do; he will have spent enough time in the limelight to ensure himself a quiet retirement, and ensured enough money to secure his children’s future. He will also have realized that the presidency can be an unpleasant business.

The legal ground has been prepared for such a move. The presidential pardon has been tested and found to be adequate; it has been used on undesirables like Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby; there has been no opposition to its use; Trump now knows he can line up a few lackeys to take the fall for him, once they have had the  prospect of a presidential pardon held out for them. No revelation from the Stormy Daniels case, other than a good to honest legal indictment, will trouble Trump even remotely; his ‘base’ already thinks he has acquired baller status for having slept with a porn star–no matter what came afterwards. Trump’s legal advisers will undoubtedly put him on notice that his legal jeopardy is greater with him outside the Oval office than inside it; and Republican Party pollsters will support them in this claim by noting that no matter how bad the defeat in 2018 in the House, they will not lose by too big a margin thanks to Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression efforts. This is a party whose main platform is ‘stick it to the liberals!’; this party will not expel the man who won them the 2016 elections on this platform.

One response to such a claim is that the electoral and political calculus has changed over the course of the Trump presidency: the main tax bill has been passed, the Obamacare mandate has been rolled back, electoral losses in ‘red districts’ indicates the famous ‘blue wave’ – and so Trump is expendable, to be replaced by the doltish Mike Pence. This response does not add up; the Republicans might be facing a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, but they know that: a) the ‘blue wave’ is more swell, less tsunami and b) that the ‘blue wave’ they face in 2018 will be nothing compared the massive abandonment they will face from Republican voters in 2020 if Trump is made to resign or impeached. To hand a victory to the progressives, the libtards, the alt-left, the bleeding hearts, the Democrats, the left, liberals is political suicide. The many surprising electoral wins for Democrats in recent months, indeed, ever since Trump came to power, are less the result of Republicans abandoning Trump or suddenly developing a conscience or some compassion; rather, it is because energized Democrats have turned out in greater numbers. There is no indication that any Republican ‘defection’ has taken place.

America is stuck with the Trump presidency; it will be stuck with the Republican Party much longer.

James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

Robert Mueller And The Cruise Missile: Ready To Be Fired

All–especially my fellow American citizens–praise the cruise missile. This marvelous weapon, “a guided missile used against terrestrial targets…remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at approximately constant speed.” It is “designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision.” It can be launched off-shore from a ship, or from aircraft, obviating the need for the infamous ‘boots on the ground.’ The cruise missile allows foreign policy to be conducted from afar; no messy ‘contact’ with the ‘enemy’ is required. Launchings from ships typically take place at night, making for pleasing visuals tailor-made for display on the nightly news. There is something of the robot in the cruise missile; think of it as a self-driving car that likes to blow up other things. It is the modern saber; those who rattle it know its pleasing features all too well.  Patriotism and war-mongering might be last refuge of the scoundrel, but it is hard to resist the temptation to make war in the way that the cruise missile permits. US presidents are not the only ones seduced by cruise missiles; military planners the world over, going back perhaps to Adolf Hitler, whose fantasies most definitely included the legends V-1 and V-2, have long dreamed about winning wars by merely showering their enemies with enough cruise missiles to make other kinds of military intervention unnecessary.

Most crucially, a cruise missile only costs a paltry couple of million dollars, thus making it the ideal weapon for any US president looking to bolster sagging approval ratings, unite the country around a surge of patriotism and xenophobia directed at unnamed external enemies, or, if needed, divert attention from an ongoing special investigation that is starting to look inquiringly in the direction of hush payments made to a pornographic movie actress during an election season.

The coincidence of an FBI raid on Donald Trump’s lawyer’s office and a chemical attack in Syria offers the best chance for the President to have his turn at firing a few of these cruise missiles again. An American destroyer–one with approximately five dozen Tomahawk missiles on board–has moved into position off the coast of Syria, and the president himself, in acknowledgement of the Very Serious Situation in Syria, has postponed his official trip to Latin AmericaThe Trump administration fired cruise missiles at Syria last April; a year has gone by, and the president’s fingers must be twitching by now. A considerable privilege of the president’s office is the chance to play with expensive, high-precision weaponry, and for a man with the sensibility of an eleven-year old, firing cruise missiles only once a year must seem like slim pickings for such an exalted office.

The firings of these cruise missiles might, for good measure, be accompanied by the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News, that feeder of talking points, and indeed, entire scripts, to the Republican Party, has been beating the ‘fire Mueller’ drum for a while now. The Republican Party is well aware their base has been fed this line and is well prepared for the Mother of All Firings. So, I think, should be the American nation.

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.