John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’: War As Entertaining, Compensatory, Lullaby

Reading Kath Kenny‘s wonderful essay on the Australian poet John Forbes–a personal and literary take on his life and work–reminded me that because I was introduced to Forbes’ poetry by his close friends, I came to feel, despite never having met him in person, that I had acquired some measure of personal contact with him. Her essay reminded me too, of a Forbes poem that is my personal favorite:

LOVE POEM
Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s
bright video game sky

as I curl up with the war
in lieu of you, whose letter

lets me know my poems show
how unhappy I can be. Perhaps.

But what they don’t show, until
now, is how at ease I can be

with military technology: e.g.
matching their feu d’esprit I classify

the sounds of the Iraqi AA—the
thump of the 85 mil, the throaty

chatter of the quad ZSU 23.
Our precision guided weapons

make the horizon flash & glow
but nothing I can do makes you

want me. Instead I watch the west
do what the west does best

& know, obscurely, as I go to bed
all this is being staged for me.

I am not comfortable offering literary criticism of poetry so I can only point, dimly, in the direction of what it is that makes this poem such a pleasure to read for me.

Forbes skillfully invokes an iconic image of the early nineties–that of the aerial bombardment of Baghdad which kicked off the First Gulf War, and set the stage for the second–to remind us that we were spectators and consumers of that war; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life. Forbes’ invoking of the sounds of war is especially clever–especially the double ‘th’ sound in the sixth stanza. War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Forbes’ killer lines, the ones that haunt me, are the ones that close the poem. They bite, and they bite deep and hard. War is where the west reaches its zenith, its summum bonum, this is where it all comes together. The beautiful machinery of science and technology, the west’s proudest achievement of all, its signature triumphs of rationality, speaking to an unassailable mastery of nature, its domination of world history and its peoples, now pressed into the service of mass killing, putting on a spectacle for its citizens to reassure them that all is well, that old hierarchies remain, that the uppity ‘other’ has a long way to go before catching up with the master. The sounds of war are a lullaby, lulling us to sleep, bidding us turn to dreams while the dirty work carries on outside.

We know this is a show we paid for; we know this is ‘staged’ for us; we own it. All we have to do is buy the popcorn, settle down, and watch. Especially if there is no love to be found elsewhere in this world we have built for ourselves; let us be seduced by this instead.

Jon Meacham On Misunderstanding Darwin And The George Bush ‘Legacy’

During the 1988 election season’s presidential debates, George H. W. Bush described his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as ‘a card-carrying member of the ACLU.’ This was supposed to be a zinger, a devastating put-down line that would show up his opponent as a radical, a wanna-be hippie, an out-of-touch member of the East Coast elite, an un-American, unrepentant, defender of–civil liberties. You know, those things enumerated in the Bill of Rights and enshrined in the American Constitution, which every patriot, suitably armed with his Second Amendment-protected guns, is sworn to protecting against the ravages of commies and pinkos and terrorists everywhere. The line worked; it went down famously with the Republican ‘faithful’ and the ‘base.’ The continued strategy of painting Dukakis as an effete pointyhead disconnected from broader American realities worked; Republican pollsters knew their party, and the folks who voted them in power.

We should keep this in mind every time we come across an instance of the ludicrous ‘Republicans were so much better, so much more moderate and balanced in the good old days’ line. The latest deposit of this bovine excreta may be found in Jon Meacham‘s ‘Nostalgia for The Grace of George H. W. Bush‘ the tagline for which reads: “The Journey from Bush to Trump disproves Darwin.”

That tagline gives the game away. The journey from Bush to Trump does not ‘disprove Darwin.’ Rather, it does the exact opposite. The journey from Bush to Trump shows that the American political environment furnished adaptive niches for political creatures like racists; their traits were suited for flourishing in it. That environment was set up by Republicans, their base and their party; it was sustained by the actions of supposedly genteel folks like the Bushes and the Reagans. They fostered racism and chauvinism and xenophobia and, surprise!, a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ view of society in which the poor and the unfortunate and the systematically oppressed and disenfranchised were to be kicked to the curb by those in power. And God help those who, like the ACLU, spoke up on their behalf.

This environment was fertile breeding ground for those possessed of the traits with which to exploit it. Enter Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. The line of progression is clear and visible; it is clear too which political creatures’ offspring flourished in the environment created and sustained by the Republican Party. Along the way, America committed mass murder in Iraq; it tortured; it refused to punish those who had committed those supposedly un-American crimes. It should not be surprised that Donald Trump has shown up on its doorsteps demanding to be let in; he’s been on the inside, and he’s seen what works.

Meacham’s invocation of Darwin here shows two things: 1) He does not understand Darwin and 2) He has not been paying attention the last twenty-eight years. The former might be forgivable; after all, many people don’t. The latter is not. Meacham thinks he is offering a diagnosis; unfortunately, he is part of the problem.

Presidential Elections, Marks, And Con Men

On the night of 15 October 1992, I watched a live telecast of the second presidential debate between George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. As I watched three men in business suits–walking back and forth on a ‘town-hall’ stage–explain how they would run the nation, manage its economy, and conduct its international affairs, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that were was something of the salesman to all of them. In the case of Ross Perot, that feeling was even more accentuated. Indeed, it was with some incredulity that I watched him go on to earn the vote of almost twenty million Americans in the general election that followed. (Perot earned precisely zero electoral votes for his efforts, a bizarre side-effect of the US’ bizarre electoral system.) Perot was almost universally mocked and reviled by the national press, but he still managed to convince almost half as many Americans who voted for George Bush Sr. to vote for him. This despite being a short man with an almost comical speaking style–his incipient populism and his claims to bring his background in business management to the running of the presidency were enough. His candidacy sparked a very uncomfortable thought: what if some billionaire with adequate money to blow on an election, someone with more charisma and style than Perot, decided to run and buy himself a presidency?

Some twenty-four years later, we have the answer. As a New York Times/CBS poll reports, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now in a virtual tie nationwide. And we have confirmation of that ghastly suspicion: the American electoral system is a mark,  ripe for exploitation by a conman. The ‘right’ economic conditions–it is instructive to return to 1992 and see how many of the current worries about rising inequality and the losses of jobs to overseas manufacturing were present even then–are at hand, media coverage has sunk to new lows of superficiality and vacuousness, and a weak opposition cannot get its campaigning act together.

Ross Perot did not stay on message; he did not tone down his ridiculousness; he paid for it. Donald Trump seems to have learned the right lessons from his campaign: go full-bore populist, mark yourself as an outsider, brag about your business acumen, strut your patriotism. And avoid Perot’s mistakes: get disciplined; provide your supporters a fig-leaf for their commitment to you. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump hired new campaign leadership in mid-August and has been more disciplined in his public statements. His poll numbers have been steadily rising.

It had always seemed that if Donald Trump ever toned down his act a bit, he’d become a genuine threat at the polls; it would allow ostensibly nose-holding Republicans to vote for him. He seems to have imbibed this lesson: say what you want to say, cloak it artfully; drop the megaphone, pick up the dog-whistle. And of course, be blessed with an opposition candidate like Hillary Clinton who is not a very good politician, has been weakened by a stream of political attacks over the years, and cannot trust her supposed electoral base enough to give them–even if only in promises–what they really want.

We live in interesting times.

 

 

Beyonce And The Singularity

A couple of decades ago, I strolled through Washington Square Park on a warm summer night, idly observing the usual hustle and bustle of students, tourists, drunks, buskers,  hustlers, stand-up comedians, and sadly, folks selling oregano instead of good-to-honest weed. As I did so, I noticed a young man, holding up flyers and yelling, ‘Legalize Marijuana! Impeach George Bush! [Sr., not Jr., though either would have done just fine.].”  I walked over, and asked for a flyer. Was a new political party being floated with these worthy objectives as central platform  issues? Was there a political movement afoot, one worthy of my support? Was a meeting being called?

The flyers were for a punk rock band’s live performance the following night–at a club, a block or so away. Clickbait, you see, is as old as the hills.

Clickbait works. From the standard ‘You won’t believe what this twelve-year old did to get his divorced parents back together’ to ‘Ten signs your daughter is going to date a loser in high school’, to ‘Nine ways you are wasting money everyday’ – they all work. You are intrigued; you click; the hit-count goes up; little counters spin; perhaps some unpaid writer gets paid as a threshold is crossed; an advertiser forks out money to the site posting the link. Or something like that. It’s all about the hits; they keep the internet engine running; increasing their number justifies any means.

Many a writer finds out that the headlines for their posts changed to something deemed more likely to bring in readers. They often do not agree with these changes–especially when irate readers complain about their misleading nature. This becomes especially pernicious when trash talking about a piece of writing spreads–based not on its content, but on its headline, one not written by the author, but dreamed up by a website staffer instructed to do anything–anything!–to increase the day’s hit-count.

A notable personal instance of this phenomenon occurred with an essay I wrote for The Nation a little while ago. My original title for the essay was: was Programs, Not Just People, Can Violate Your Privacy. I argued that smart programs could violate privacy just like humans could, and that the standard defense used by their deployers–“Don’t worry, no humans are reading your email”–was deliberately and dangerously misleading. I then went to suggest granting a limited form of legal agency to these programs–so that their deployers could be understood as their legal principals and hence, attributed their knowledge and made liable for their actions. I acknowledged the grant of personhood as a legal move that would also solve this problem, but that was not the main thrust of my argument–the grant of legal agency to invoke agency law would be enough.

My essay went online as Programs Are People, Too. It was a catchy title, but it was clickbait. And it created predictable misunderstanding: many readers–and non-readers–simply assumed I was arguing for greater ‘legal rights’ for programs, and immediately put me down as some kind of technophilic anti-humanist. Ironically, someone arguing for the protection of user rights online was pegged as arguing against them. The title was enough to convince them of it. I had thought my original title was more accurate and certainly seemed catchy enough to me. Not so apparently for the folks who ran The Nation‘s site. C’est la vie.

As for Beyonce, I have no idea what she thinks about the singularity.