On Sobbing and Being a Blubbering Fool

SobbingSaturday afternoon, I was sobbing in a car.

I was listening to a little bit of This American Life. It was the episode, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes. It was a rebroadcast from back in 2003. And I’d heard the whole thing at least two times before. But it got to the last act, “The Greatest Moment I Ever Saw On a Stage.” It’s the story of these girls at a detention facility putting on a show for their families — mostly their mothers and grandmothers. It’s just three minutes long. Go and listen. I’ll wait.

And it made me sob as I was driving around the rainy streets. And it made me sob every other time I had heard it. And after I left the car (I didn’t even hear all of it this time), I still kept breaking down. I’m doing it to a lesser extent as I write this. And it’s just sentimental nonsense. It strikes very sharply at my strong feelings about the bounds between parents and children — especially when one or both are not at their best. But mostly, it made me cry because pretty much everything makes me cry. I cried when I saw President Obama cry. Crying is something I am very good at.

But it was not always so. When I was younger, I could barely cry. I was raised to be stoic. But I remember when that all changed. It was my first year of graduate school. A friend of mine had given me a box of VHS tapes that he had recorded off PBS. These included some things I loved: The Day the Universe Changed; the first Connections; The Voyage of Charles Darwin; and my absolute favorite, In Search of the Trojan War. But it also contained The Adams Chronicles, which I had never seen.

So one Sunday, I just watched it from beginning to end — all 13 hours. It was not my intent to watch the whole thing. But it was such a parade of death, I hoped that it would get better. It seemed to frame everyone’s life as: what they did before they had a profoundly sad deathbed scene. Not only did this play into my sentimentality about familial relationships, it fed into my great fear of death. At that time, I really was disturbed about death. Now I don’t know what the big deal was. It is hard to regain that state of mind. But it bothered me greatly. I guess it has something to do with being too attached to the world. Now I think of Simon Stimson’s outburst at the end of Our Town:

Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

Regardless, I probably spent half of those 13 hours sobbing. And that seems to have been it. There was a wall that somehow kept back the sadness of life and the sentimentality toward idealized relationships and the rage about the constant injustices of life. And then it was gone and the emotions flowed like the waters of the Kangding-Luding flood. So I am a sobbing and blubbering fool. But it is preferable to the alternative. I don’t do stoic well.

The Myth of Being Paid What You’re Worth

23 Things They Don't Tell You About CapitalismI’ve written before about 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. But last night, I came upon a lecture that Chang gave in support of the book at the London School of Economics. I’ve embedded it below. If you haven’t read the book, you should at least listen to the lecture.

In the lecture, he talked about something I quite remember. He made the point that it was a myth that people were paid what they are worth. You hear this kind of nonsense a lot from the likes of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek and really any free market absolutist. The idea is that the market is never wrong. If you are paid $20 million per year, it is because that’s what the economy — more or less God the way these people see it — has decided what you are worth.

And really, since the late 1970s, I’ve heard this nonsense from a lot of people. It is very much a matter of faith. Because there is absolutely no evidence for it. And there is plenty of evidence that it just isn’t true. But Ha-Joon Chang provided a great thought experiment regarding two bus drivers: one in Sweden and the other in India. Bus drivers in Sweden make 50 times as much as bus drivers in India. Is the Swedish bus driver really worth 50 times as much as the Indian?

Well, I know what the free market absolutists would say: yes! You see, the Swedish bus driver is transporting people who pay more money. Therefore, this bus driver is worth the greater amount. But this is a very abstract view of the world. It is something that the free marketeers don’t much want to discuss: value is meaningless. In this way of thinking, the bus driver is not primarily driving but rather conning people to pay him for transporting them.

As a matter of reality, it is almost certainly the case that Indian bus drivers are better because they have worse and overcrowded equipment and drive on worse roads. If you transported the Indian bus driver to Sweden, they would have no trouble doing the job. Moving the Swedish bus driver to India would not work out nearly as well.

It got me thinking. Ha-Joon Chang doesn’t speak English all that well. He has a very bad accent. But his writing is great — certainly as good as mine. Now he also happens to be one of the best economists in the world. So I don’t have to compete with him for writing jobs. But if he can write English so well, there must be plenty of other people from South Korea who can write English as well as I can and who would be willing to write 2,000 word articles about XML for less than I charge. And that’s one country — one that doesn’t even have a history with the English language; imagine what it must be like in India!

By American standards, I’m still pretty poor. But even still, I get by very nicely. Compared to people in other countries, I’m rich. And that’s an accident of birth — just as surely as it is for Donald Trump. Not that I’m comparing myself to Donald Trump. We are quite different. First, I’m actually good at my job (even if over-paid) and Trump is not. Second, I do understand my privilege (even if I’d likely still be very surprised just how much my standard of living would go down in a truly fair world).

There are other things to think about, of course. Most measures of health and happiness are based upon local inequality, not global or absolute inequality. But I think it does us all good to remember just how talented the human family is, and that we should feel good about being part of that. We are all special in our way. But that’s not something that we Americans need to be reminded about.

Morning Music: Adrian Belew

Lone RhinoI’m at a loss as to what to do for music this week. The truth is that my day job is taking a lot of time. This is good and bad. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff. But also, my boss asked me to write a resource page about XML. I can’t escape the feeling that she gets a slight thrill out of giving me projects that are nearly impossible. Right before Christmas, she had me write a thousand words about SMIL. I know you haven’t heard about it (unless I’ve complained earlier), because it’s a project that kind of started and ended 15 years ago without ever working quite right. All of these projects are difficult for different reasons. XML is hard because it is either trivial or enormously complicated. In order to really understand XML, you have to understand XSLT, and so on. Not that I don’t love it. But when you start with a blank screen, it is very lonely. (The reason I, an editor, write these things is because I’m the only one in the company who can, apparently. So lonely indeed.)

Anyway, I’m going to start with Adrian Belew and see how it goes. I’m not much of a fan. I admire him, of course. I especially loved the work that he did on the best Talking Heads album Remain in Light. And the song “The Lone Rhinoceros” has been going through my head for days. It’s off his first solo album, Lone Rhino. I do rather like the rhyme of species with feces. But the main rhyme offends my sensibilities: “I’m the lone rhinoceros; there ain’t one hell of a lots of us.” If he had just used “lot” instead of “lots” it would be fine. And the rest of the lyrics are really quite clever.

More important, there is something amazingly compelling about the song. It isn’t just guitar processing. I love the rhythm section. It kind of reminds me of another Talking Heads album, Fear of Music. So here’s the song. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. Maybe another Adrian Belew song. Or maybe Joe Satriani.

Anniversay Post: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

Common SenseOn this day in 1776, Thomas Paine published (anonymously) Common Sense. As regular readers know, I greatly admire Paine. But not for Common Sense. Don’t get me wrong. Paine was an amazing rhetorician. But there was always a sense with him that he was at heart a rabble-rouser. The content of the pamphlet strikes me as overblown, given what the colonists were going through. And then it is taken to a whole other level in the 13 pamphlets of The American Crisis.

I admire Paine for his more sober writing: The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. And it is interesting to look at his reputation in the United States with regard to this. In as much as he is considered a hero, it is because of Common Sense. But it contains passages like this that could have been written by a modern glib libertarian:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.

To be fair, Common Sense is more closely argued than that passage indicates. But still: is this how Americans see the government today? I don’t think so. Yet this is what Paine is loved for. Meanwhile, it was with The Rights of Man that made Americans start to turn a jaundiced eye toward him. And then they actively hated him after The Age of Reason. But these are great works of the Enlightenment. Paine understood the intellectual currents of the time. And typically, most Americans wanted to push back against them. Paine saw that the future laid in humanism, and America became focused on the Second Great Awakening.

Afterword

On this day in 1927, Metropolis was also released. It was hard not to write about it, because it still amazes me that it wasn’t that respected when it first came out. It blows my mind even today. No one has improved on cinema since then. But I’ve discussed it to some extent in the past, Fritz Lang.