Leaving Neverland Is Not An Indictment; It Is a Plea For Safety

For almost three decades (if not more), millions of people watched Michael Jackson perform, on stage, in video. They also saw him alight from planes, from cars, and from there, walk into hotels and stadiums, living the life of a peripatetic, performing celebrity. On almost all of these occasions he was accompanied by his ‘sexual partners.’ Those scare quotes are necessary because unlike the typical male celebrity who flaunts his ‘trophy chicks,’ Michael Jackson showed off his young boys. They went everywhere with him like the girlfriends of male celebrities do; they were present in his hotel rooms; they slept in his bed at his ranch. They had privacy together; and they had sex. Of course, I should not use the phrase ‘had sex’ here. Rather, those boys were made to perform sexual acts at the behest of Michael Jackson who then swore them to secrecy on pain of the fear that their lives would be ruined.

Watching Leaving Neverland confirms, in some measure, what many folks thought of all those exceedingly strange visuals of Michael Jackson’s curious obsession with children. Yes, something really, really weird was going on. We weren’t mistaken. And it wasn’t just weird. It was downright sadistic and cruel: a grown man sexually abusing children, and manipulating them and their families to ensure their secret stayed just that.

The culture of celebrity worship that is exposed in this movie is as much a culprit as Jackson, as much a culprit as the parents of Wade Robson and James Safechuck who handed over their children to Jackson. So is a grim lesson of American life: hard work will not make you money, it will not get your children in school, it will not keep you safe, it will not bring you success in your profession; so if someone rich and famous and powerful–like Michael Jackson–offers you a hand, offering to pull you up the ladder, past all those social and economic obstacles that prevent you from winning in this rigged game, you should take it. Robson’s and Safechuck’s parents did; their children paid for their decision.

Leaving Neverland is not about indicting Michael Jackson. He will not pay for his crimes; he is dead. What it most certainly is about is making the world safer for all the children out there who are still being sexually abused and who will almost certainly be abused if the lessons of this documentary are not heeded. The saddest thing about Leaving Neverland is not just the stories of sexual abuse that it documents, it is also the knowledge that despite these testimonies, there will be those who will continue to attack Robson and Safechuck and defend Jackson, making the world a less safe for all of its children. Those Michael Jackson supporters who have continued to support their idol and have chosen to abuse Robson and Safechuck, have missed the point spectacularly–just like they missed the evidence piling up over the years. There is no material sense in which Jackson will pay. Perhaps his estate and all those who stand to make money of his name will. Maybe that’s why they continue to defend him?

Commodified Relationships And Friendship

When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly  transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In  my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)

So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)

The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)

The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.

 

 

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.

Nietzsche’s ‘Supreme Principle of Education’

Nietzsche claims that the “supreme principle of education” is that “one should only offer food  to him who hungers for it.” That is, roughly, teaching should be guided not by the requirements of an abstract, generalized curriculum, but by the expressed needs of the learner. In keeping with Nietzsche’s generalized aristocratic and hierarchical sensibilities, education is not for all; it is only for those who express a desire to learn. Moreover, what they wish to learn will be guided by this desire, this hunger; they will not accept a substitute deemed necessary or desirable for them by some planner or designer of an educational system. Find out who wants to learn, and what they desire to learn (and why); education is thereby facilitated, and indeed, only becomes possible under these circumstances.

Nietzsche suggests that rather than having mathematics and physics forced upon us in the form of “thousands of…annoying, mortifying, irritating problems” our education should show us, in response to our lived experience of the world, that we “needed a knowledge of science and mathematics.” We should turn, perplexed by our interactions with a mysterious world that seems to embody regularities, to those whom we think know better and ask for guidance. Then, perhaps, we might find “delight in science.”

Needless to say, very little in our educational systems resembles the implementation of the prescription that Nietzsche offers here. They resemble instead, giant factories, which prepare and condition students for the world; rather than responding to the students’ hunger–of which they have plenty, even if inarticulately expressed–they seek to inculcate in them a hunger for a particular set of socially chosen aims and goals and ends. They are factories of ideology; they impress upon the student a value system that prepares them for efficient functioning in the world to which they are preparing to enter. A student might ‘choose’ a major but little about this choice is free; the student has been instructed and channeled for so long that his or her choices are all too plausibly viewed as the resultant effect of the various ‘educational’ (ideological) constraints  placed upon his or her learning.

A straightforward, ‘practical’ assessment of Nietzsche’s philosophy of education is that it is ‘impractical’ and implausible: students need to instructed, by those who know better, what they need to learn, so that they may make their way through this world as best as possible. But it is our desires, our ends, that predominate this discussion; there is little consultation with the students. Such an attitude is forced upon us, for we are in a terrible hurry to train our students, our children, and to send them out into the world to be productive and useful. There is a timetable of educational markers waiting after all; can we afford to let children play and explore and attempt to figure out this world and their educational needs for themselves when everyone knows that a child of four years must begin formal schooling in preschool and be out of high-school by the age of eighteen? Moreover, who has the time? Parents cannot spend such time with their children; they have to go to work, and must leave their children with other caretakers. Our society cannot afford so many little parasites running around, contributing little to the national GDP.  This is our train and it is headed for distant stations; there is no room for stragglers here, no time to seek out the hungry and ask what will nourish them.

Note: Excerpts from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1991, Book III, Section 195, p. 115)

Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.

CP Snow On ‘The Rich And The Poor’

In 1959, while delivering his soon-to-be-infamous Rede Lectures on ‘The Two Cultures‘ at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow–in the third section, titled ‘The Rich and the Poor’–said,

[T]he people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day. On the world scale this is the gap between the rich and the poor….Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on. [C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Classics, pp. 42]

Well, well, what extraordinary, almost touching, optimism.

Sir Charles did not understand, or care to, perhaps, the extraordinary pertinacity of the rich, those in power, their capacity to manipulate political and economic systems, their almost total control of consciousness and imagination, their ability to promulgate the central principles of the ideology that drives the economic inequality of this world to ever higher levels. (Snow was certainly correct that the world would not remain ‘half rich and half poor’ – that fraction, an always inaccurate one, tilts more now in the direction of the one percent–ninety-nine percent formulation made famous by Occupy Wall Street.)

Snow was also, as many commentators pointed out at the time in critical responses to his lectures, in the grip of an untenable optimism about the ameliorating effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions on both the world of nature and man: as their effects would spread, bringing in their wake material prosperity and intellectual enlightenment, old social and political structures would give way. But science and technology can comfortably co-exist with reactionary politics; they can be easily deployed to prop up repressive regimes; they can be just as easily used to prop up economic and political injustice as not. There is ample evidence for these propositions in the behavior of modern governments, who for instance, deploy the most sophisticated tools of electronic surveillance to keep their citizens under watch, acquiescent and obedient. And automation, that great savior of human labor, which was supposed to make our lives less ‘nasty and brutish’ might instead, when it takes root in such unequal societies, put all workers out to pasture.

But let us allow ourselves to be captured by the hope shown in Snow’s lectures that such radical inequality as was on display in 1959 and thereafter, cannot be a stable state of affairs. Then we might still anticipate that at some point in the future, armed with–among other tools–the right scientific and technical spanners to throw into the wheels of the political and economic juggernaut that runs over them, the poor will finally rise up.

Snowpiercer: The Train As Capitalist Society And The Universe

Post-apocalyptic art–whether literature or movies–is provided, sometimes all too easily, ample opportunity for flirting with the grand, for making sweeping statements about human nature and the meaning and purpose of life. After all, it’s the (often violent) end of the world. Time to speculate about the new, phoenix-like world that may rise from the ashes of the old, or to mourn the loss of not-easily replaced intangible moral goods of a world gone missing.  So it is unsurprising that SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho‘s English-language debut, swings for the fences.  It is initially grounded in a facile morality play about global warming, man’s persistently failed and hubristic attempts to play God, and the evils of science. There is more to it though. The ark-like train which is the movie’s stage and centerpiece, which circles the world carrying the survivors of a world frozen over, functions as an extended allegory for capitalist society, its economic inequality, its class structures and exploitation of the weak, its decadence and immorality,  the inevitable revolt of the oppressed, and their rise to the top (or the front).

But Snowpiercer is more intellectually ambitious than that. It also to aims to be an allegory that flirts with God, the Universe, Free Will, Evil, Freedom and Existential Choice. It offers us commentary on ideology and false consciousness and propaganda; it shows us how man may be tempted by evil and can choose moral redemption instead. The structure of the train and the progressively enlightening journey of the rear passengers through its various compartments suggest too that Dante’s Inferno and the Pilgrim’s Progress could be invoked here with some ease. (Ironically, for an allegory, Snowpiercer is sometimes a little too literal and heavy-handed. Yes, man, with all his cunning and scheming, can play the part of a devious God, and God may just be our notion of human powers and goodness and judgment extrapolated to an unimaginable extreme, but these theses can be advanced with a little more subtlety than Snowpiercer allows.)

Snowpiercer‘s grand ambitions are sometimes realized and sometimes not.  Mostly they are not realized because Snowpiercer spends a little too much time trying to be an action movie. Its showings off of technical virtuosity, its nods to the video game and martial arts genres with their extended bloodiness, their glorying in gore, their stylized slow-motion combat, are distractions and deceits. (This action initially provides a possibly invigorating jolt to the movie’s plot, but all too soon it becomes tedious, deadening, and in the movie’s closing stages it is a distraction.) There is much in the movie that is visually interesting and provocative, much that should have been allowed to come to rest in the viewer for to facilitate reflection and introspection.  But this does not happen, largely because the movie believes that some rather archaic cinematic tropes–physical conflict rages elsewhere while two protagonists engage in philosophical debate!–must be relied on to in order to build and generate tension.

All too often, I find myself describing science-fiction movies as missed opportunities. This is one such.