My father the student of history enjoyed pulling me aside in the homestead and imparting some sharp quote or turn of phrase selected from his reading library. "One of the reasons I know this is true," he would say, "is because I had already thought this through before finding it here." Filial piety finds a suitably sequential expression as a bittersweet aspect of being a writer: coming upon quaint accuracies one had so recently just scribbled down.
Offputting as it is to realize that hapless imitation is often the sincerest form of cleverness, I could not help, and never can, but thrill evenly to the latest discovery. It came in the person of the great Richard M. Weaver's essay Concealed Rhetoric in Scientistic Sociology. Read back to back with me these two passages:
Fukuyama's second -- or is it third? -- thoughts have a closely circumscribed feel, characterized by that classic cliche of superacademician reflection in the ectoplasmic company of their supposed intellectual antagonist: we're not so different, Professor, you and I. Only, we the readers are the captive audience for such qualifying musings. Meant to enlighten, to self-exonerate from charges of wilful exceptionalism, they serve mostly to frustrate. However much an academic hates to make exaggerated claims, however much theory must advance by supposition kept in officially humble check, [...] [t]he masterstroke of the successful popular academic is to make a living discussing the work he hasn't done.
[To] afford scope for a display of scholarly punctiliousness and of one's command of the scientific terminology [is intended] the practice of being excessively tentative in the statement of conclusions and generalizations. [...] This often calls for a great deal of qualification, so that cautious qualification has become the hallmark of the scientific method. It is my impression, however, that a good many modern sociologists do their qualifying, not for the purpose of protecting the truth, but of protecting themselves.
Weaver wrote in 1960 what I watched return to haunt Fukuyama 46 years later. If this isn't an index of "how far we've come" academically since the Americanization of Freud, I don't know what is, and if you like your prophesy cool and a little mannered then there is no place better to go than Weaver, who is so good at quoting adverse parties to his own effect that I must save a few for later.
And why the hell not? "Equal opportunity" has become not just an end but a means, a reset button that cannot make failing students smart enough to pass but can pass them along, like so many bucks, up the ladder and into the mouth of a society built for a gluttony of participation. Of course kids want the chances. Who doesn't want an opportunity to -- well, if not succeed, then at least unfail? So saith the Times:
The existence of such students — eager, yet at high risk for failure — exposes a split in education policy. On one hand, believers in the standards movement frown on social promotion and emphasize measurable performance in high school.
At the same time, because a college degree is widely considered essential to later success, some educators say even students who could not complete high school should be allowed to attend college.
Another thing "equal opportunity" has become is an empty slogan. What is causing failed high school students to move on into college is the proliferation of community schools that have filled the no-man's land -- of class, culture, and cash -- that once separated high school from university. The GI Bill was the first federal push to break the back of that system, carried forth on unassailable terms. The battery of federal grants followed -- and to fine effect. Money fails as a structure of class segregation more often in America than anything -- even beauty -- for a reason that speaks highly, still, of the American dream.
But like it or not one powerful element of culture is level of emphasis on education, and too often students who fail out of high school would have passed with better parenting and better peers. Culture shapes class. And however much some would wish to use power -- public and governmental or private and educational -- to snap that brief and brutal calculus, power here can only go so far before one is kidding oneself and undermining architectures of culture worth more than the gratification of pity.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in California. This year, 47,000 high school seniors, about 10 percent of the class, have not passed the exit examinations required to graduate from high school. They can still enroll in many colleges, although they are no longer eligible for state tuition grants.
State Senator Deborah Ortiz, Democrat of Sacramento, has proposed legislation to change that.
"As long as the opportunity to go to college exists for students without a diploma," Ms. Ortiz said, "qualifying students from poor or low-income families should remain entitled to college financial aid."
You can see where all this is headed. Like amnesty for illegal immigrants, the idea is to give second chances, en masse, to people who, when presented with uniform basic requirements, did not satisfy them. Third and fourth chances cannot be far behind. Indeed, as I've said, multiple chances embody the incentive system of capitalist mojo that characterizes the transactive society: if at first they don't succeed, charge, charge again. But the bill is passed to you and me, us and our social units that must pay the accumulating costs of unpunished failure shifted as burdens throughout the culture. There is absolutely no legal reason why the people of Lexington, Virginia (drop dead gorgeous this time of year) must tolerate illegal immigrants in their midst; not yet, anyway; and though the forgiveness and good feeling of Americans toward hardworking fans of freedom should always be properly encouraged, the playing of Americans for suckers who work well to succeed, while others' success comes as the perverse reward of working too poorly to win out, is a disgrace and a disaster.
Though the genius of capitalist America has always been its ability to absorb, along with their criticisms, its enemies themselves, converting them into successes with not-too-bad consciences, that genius sputters when its officer class tries to absorb the very souls the genius itself spits out. This does not work on the cellular level, as anyone who hasn't failed high school biology once learned, and on the level of the cultural social organism, too, it fails.
The trouble with Tony Snow's traffic ticket analogy -- which, by analogy, is the President's analogy -- has nothing to do with lightness of sentence or triviality of fine. What it does have to do with is the spirit of capitalist forgiveness. Because illegal immigration is, above all things, a screaming hot moneymaker, on a scale that dwarfs all other national demographic possibilities. Here is a niche market coming on like all get-out, "underrepresented" not just politically but transactively, too. There are so many services they have yet to receive -- so many billable exchanges they have yet to conduct on the "path toward citizenship."
Indeed, citizenship is hardly the point. I once wrote that the point of the EU was not to create a legal destination of united identity but a process of pro-Western geocultural consolidation. Here the process trumps the alleged destination as well, only the consolidation is purely financial, and the geocultural identity of the United States the Hegelian sacrifice, the "antithesis" which loses its content as it gives way to new realities, new structures, life patterned on modes of exchange and not stark political gradients. The traffic ticket is precisely the metaphor: illegal immigration is to be converted, like all else, into a managed transaction, with the border-crossing violation as the deal sealed and the "citizenship process" as the recurrent point of surcharge. The incentive is precisely never to arrive at citizenship; fraud is worth "risking," not only because the black market in legal identity is in fact a gray market, beneficial to the country's top corporations, but because the official process of legalization can, and must, generate so many transactions.
One other thing. The reason why this is so onerous to conservatives is because conservatives understand one of the inalienable tripods of human liberty -- that of divine providence -- to be private property. Illegal immigration on a massive scale is the most biologically aggressive form possible of insult to the legal sanctity of private property on a national scale. A real invasion throws public property itself into peril -- the character of the State; here we have the State redefining the rules of its own character while the private citizen must endure the appearance and multiplication of people not legally permitted to own property in America. And the whole system of mass commerce helps said people appropriate the ownership right -- step by step, transaction by transaction. But the laugh is on our archaic conservatives who miss how much real property and tangible good are being replaced in the present economy by virtual property, the sense of ownership, services and brands. Illegal immigrants afford the transactive economy the opportunity to very literally go over the heads of law, property, and order grounded in the tangible world. All their incensed opponents can do is get medieval on illegals -- round 'em up and lock 'em up. So is the weird basis of this monstrous duel drawn.
...in an unusual admission of a personal mistake, Mr. Bush said he regretted challenging insurgents in Iraq to "bring it on" in 2003, and said the same about his statement that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Those two statements quickly came to reinforce his image around the world as a cowboy commander in chief. "Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people," Mr. Bush said. "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."
There is so much compounded error and woe here it's tough to know where to begin. But the catchall flying buttress and rhetorical twig propping up the whole sad structure -- sending the wrong message -- is a place I have already been, and find myself having to return. It is almost an embarrassment to contemplate the regret Bush has decided to show over his notorious twin slogans. Firstly, "bring it on" sent the wrong message not "to the terrorists" but to opponents of Bush's strategy, tactics, management style, and pact with Satan. I feel safe in daring to say that no insurgent woke up to hear or read Bush's challenge and determined promptly to comply. Iraq was made bloody for other, more serious reasons, reasons, indeed, of strategy, tactics, and management style. Saying "bring it on" had zero material impact on the course of events in Iraq. Second, are we now, then, not longing for the capture of bin Laden dead or alive? Is that phrase not perfectly representative of the policy of the United States with regard to Osama? To whom did that zinger send the wrong message -- Democrats like John Kerry who insist that Iraq is a "distraction" from "the real war" in Afghanistan?
Copping to having sent "the wrong signal to people" means, in these contexts, Bush admits not only having told people what they didn't want to hear but having conveyed a sense about himself that they did not want to have. Substance gives way to style: but worse, feeling gives way to fact. The boggled communications-identity ethos of sending messages and signals exalts second-order interpretive emotion over first-order actual impact. If what Bush said reflects a practical ethos, in which real things happen on planet Earth, then let's discuss those -- and not continue to reel in the bogus hall of mirrors in which intended senses, projected impressions, and groped-for feelings divest our discourse of both content and character.
In a move that will leave society folk from all walks of life wondering, "Why didn't they think of this before?" the United States Postal Service is poised to convert stamps into little billboards. It has been an open secret in certain circles that the business model of the USPS exists in a twilight world of desperation, driven into inanity by the prerogatives of a world where internet commerce balloons and cheap-rate bulk solicitations replace the handwritten letter as the dominant content in American mailboxes.
The natural solution, for which the Postal Service takes its place in a long line, is a pact with the Devil. It's been a work in progress. Marginalized by e-business transactions? Partner with eBay. Losing marketing relevance? Wallpaper Lance Armstrong. The line has now been crossed, however, whereby the waning integrity of the government stamp, like a hooker's chastity, has been abandoned even in the mind. It transcends the surrender of that other last-ditch effort -- to let individual citizens customize their stamps, in keeping with the supposed MyImperative of the Modern Age:
For the past year, consumers have been able to create personal stamps, with pictures of babies, pets and other loved ones, for about twice the cost of a regular stamp. But advertising was barred from stamps until earlier this year when Congress overturned a 19th-century law barring commercial images on stamps.
Overturned? It sounds more like Congress itself was overturned -- by the power of a lobby that knows its own strength, and the weak spirit of its quarry. What else can suggest itself as the source of the following insousciance tossed off by Hewlett Packard's Gary Elliot, Vice President of Brand Marketing? Equal parts wily, jaded, and effortless, the new too smooth was once only found flowing from the mouths of artists who so loved to maintain a public uncertainty as to whether or not they knew how admiringly their casual work was regarded:
"HP views this as an opportunity to extend the brand. It is a new 'brand canvas.' "
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the umpteenth death of art, and today's despond of the week. It captures a much broader phenomenon which ought to freeze us in our tracks -- and inspire, with the greatest haste, our interest in pushing back. To an unprecedented degree, across vast sectors of economy and society, the private and public sectors are copenetrating one another. The interests of the would-be nongovernment are distorting and defining the public interest, while the would-be public interest gorges in raw fashion on the sweeping market power of farming out its myriad roles.
In Iraq, you see it in the prevalence of private contracting for security, a phenomenon which seems unquestionably to have made matters darker, bloodier, and more costly there; in metro DC, you see it in how the vast government contracting industry makes up a virtual second half of a twice-sized Federal operation, with huge outfits operating as health and legal factories for Washington; across America, you see it in how the tone of the illegal immigration and amnesty debate is set by major corporations who care nothing for the finer points of national sovereignty and detect simply a roiling new niche market for billable transactions.
In the transactive society, the government is both the vehicle and the client: the credit firms can replace the government's own cash for the government's own convenience and security; the telecommunications firms can give the government the tentacles and turnover rates it needs to stay on top of a universe of secret and confidential information; and the entertainment firms can bring down the house in their biggest role to date -- marketing, most conspicuously the internal business marketing of pop psychology and pop art constructed to propagandize the cult of Human Resources into unquestioned upbeat adherence.
But rather, Postal Service style, than stealing more of my own thunder at the most bargain basement of rates, I think instead I might follow these poisonous trails further in the popular public prints, somewhere, someday.
The lazy, uneventful spectacle of Madonna hoisting herself up on some kind of "glittering disco cross" inspires predictable vitriol from those who feel blasphemed. But who will denigrate Madge for coming lollygaggingly around to this ostensible transgression a full eight years after Marilyn Manson did it with eighty times the showmanship?
Manson, who has more genuine art in his one zany eyeball than Madonna could find in an entire tree of life, didn't fail to take full advantage of the possibilities inherent in the cross-hoisted stunt. He made the cross out of televisions. He made another cross out of TVs and burned that one. He outdid Madonna in content, charisma, and costuming, and he made a statement about the condition of American culture that leaves her, not himself, the worse for wear. "Kill your god," Manson sings in "Astonishing Panorama of the End Times," "kill your TV." Madonna's version of Calvary inspires us to, er, dance. Disco. Or something.
Madonna is not just an idiot onstage, but an artistic cheapskate, too. She is as defunct and revolting as Aschenbach's harbinger in Death in Venice, an utterly spent contrivance with nothing left but a pair of legs. Yet she seems intent to prove that cash and facetime can still be squeezed from the corpse of a career's worth of snappy transgression. Well, real transgression holds a slightly higher -- meaning lower -- standard, and at the deep end of the pool where Manson has been swimming for most of his adult life the regular world of decent folk takes on a cruel and unforgiving tinge. Marilyn is right to parody our fixation on our mediated selves and unselves, and to do so in appropriately skincurdling fashion. What conjures up nausea in Madonna's case, by comparison, is of roughly the same character as VH1's "original" programming -- which is to say, unoriginal as sin.
The tendency I considered strong enough to follow through on the logic of Slovakia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Croatia has indeed come to fruition in Montenegro. The little state's handsome flag waves in the din of Kosovo's revving engines.
Statehood is on the line, along with a return to the little state's venerable self-sufficient independence from Serbia. I predict a sovereign Montenegro. Such an outcome will make a sovereign Kosovo all but inevitable.
National Review's Senior Editor Richard Brookhiser dings Rieff in the NY Observer for missing the train on Islam's glowering presence.
Mr. Rieff admits that he has little to say of Islam, because it has “scarcely more than started up in America.” Oops. Islamists have been making a mark far out of proportion to their numbers, from the Iranian who drove a Jeep Cherokee through a crowd at the University of North Carolina this month to 9/11.
Oops -- Rieff forgot to turn on his psychic powers. Unlike that renegade Tar Heel, in blaming Rieff for underemphasizing 9/11 Brookhiser rather misses the mark. His whole review of Deathworks suggests the book leaves something to be desired -- a tough verdict for the first part of a three-volume series and one that turns readily back upon its hander-downer. Read it anyway, leisurely, this morning, over a cup of PG Tips. Then ponder my reflections after dinner.