How Eric Cantor’s Loss is a Win for Him and America

Eric CantorI guess I won’t have Eric Cantor to kick around anymore. As a politician, he has definitely been the enemy. He’s a bad guy, working to make the country worse. But he’s especially noteworthy for being smarmy. Now a lot of politicians are smarmy, but he really made it into an art—he was certainly the best of the national politicians. So I’m not at all sorry to see him go. Anyway, he’ll get a high paying lobbying job and be much richer and happier. So good for him.

But do you know what his loss reminds me of? All those middle class college students in the 1960s who thought of themselves as “revolutionaries.” And among them, there was this tendency to try to out-pure each other. “Oh, you think people ought to be able to own their own toothbrush?! Heretic!” Actually, you see this thing all the time in small groups that don’t have power. Tom Wolfe ridicules this in From Bauhaus to Our House in the early days of the Bauhaus movement. Of course, the ultimate example of this comes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

And that’s all that went on in Virginia’s 7th District today. No one can seriously say that Eric Cantor isn’t conservative enough. Or that he doesn’t pander to his constituency enough. Or that he isn’t a good politician. But his own party effectively said, “Despite the fact that you are one of the most powerful people in Congress and can do all kinds of good things for our district, we don’t think you are quite pure enough.” And the problem? He didn’t hate immigrants enough.

The thing about this purity race is that all it does is cause whatever the movement is to fracture more and become smaller, and thus calling for even more purity. As I’ve long argued, I don’t mind seeing the Republican Party destroyed. I would mind it if the Democratic Party were not so ripe for a split. But on the one issue that everyone really cares about—the economy—the Democratic Party is two parties: one conservative and one liberal. And if the Republican Party went the way of the Nazi Party and the Democrats broke in half, it would be the best thing to happen to this country since the military buildup of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

So enjoy your riches Eric Cantor. And enjoy not having to represent one of the most ridiculous political movements that America has spawned in the last century. And let’s all just see your loss as the hopeful sign it represents for the future of America.

Unpublishable Narcissism

NarcissismThere are only two works of fiction that I spend any time at all working on these days. The first is the video series “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour.” And it is a very sad. Because nothing I’ve ever written works as well. Nothing I’ve ever written so encapsulates who I am as a person. It is sort of like The Kumars at No 42 combined with F for Fake and a healthy dose of scientific nerdology. Thus far, I’ve written two of the six episodes I have planned. And once I’m finished with it, it will sit in a drawer, because videos require production and that requires people and that ruins everything. These scripts are the most perfect thing I’ve ever done and production would only reduce them. Art is like that.

Speaking of which, over the weekend, I sat down and read over what I had written of my second novel, “Treading Asphalt.” It was always meant to be my Moby-Dick. By that I mean that I was not going to limit the book to narrative. I would just write about whatever I wanted. And the way I’ve gone about writing it is very unusual for me. I’m a linear kind of guy. I wrote the first novel in the order that things occurred. Of course, in that novel, I had no idea where I was going. I had read The Shipping News shortly before it, and had decided that it really wasn’t necessary to have a plot. But half way through, a plot started to emerge and then all hell broke loose.

“Treading Asphalt” is simply a collection of scenes from all over the place in the novel. So it isn’t even something another person can read. But I do have a map, because I’ve had the plot laid down for at least a decade. But because of the kind of book that it was always intended to be—a book for me—it shouldn’t be surprising that the 50,000 words of disjointed prose pleases me very much. But I couldn’t help but think that no one else would ever want to read this. Or at least, no one would want to publish it.

It is, in a very real way, my Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick was a flop when it was published. And it is only the towering figure in American literature now because of a fluke. And really, in many ways, it isn’t that great. I’ve really cooled off on Melville who I think usually renders scenes with less clarity than any major writer I know. And that’s in “Treading Asphalt”! Since it is written in the first person, it goes off on tangents that would mystify most readers.

And here’s the thing: it is a mystery. I know it would annoy readers. They would want to know what’s going on in the mystery and the narrator is off arguing that Houdini was gay. It’s filled with that kind of stuff. Again: I love it. But it is the very worst kind of narcissism. On the other hand, what is the point of trying to write a novel for someone else? Who would that someone else be? How could you possibly know what they wanted to read? And if you write just for yourself, at least you know that you’ll please one person: yourself.

Except: no. Because the problem with writing a long piece of fiction is that it never satisfies. I think that’s why I always feel happier with plays: because they are never actually finished. Or at least, they are never finished for me, because no one is going to produce them. But it is hard not to grimace at every sentence in your own novel. And that’s why “Treading Asphalt” remains unfinished. But coming back to it, it actually seemed fairly good. But I know if I start writing it again, I will quickly determine it is total crap. Of course, if I do that two or three more times, it’ll be finished. And then I can know for sure that it is unpublishable.

Tim Geithner: Grifter of the Power Elite

Tim GeithnerLast week, Matt Stoller wrote an excellent review of Stress Test, Tim Geithner’s new book, The Con-Artist Wing of the Democratic Party. That headline is not an exaggeration; that’s truly what he thinks of Geithner. Basically, he’s making an argument that should be very familiar to my readers: about 25 years ago, the plutocrats took over the Democratic Party. They aren’t interested in social policy; they just want to take money away from the poor and give it to the rich. And Stoller sees Geithner as critical to this process, “It struck me that I was reading the memoirs of an incredibly savvy and well-bred grifter, the kind that the American WASP establishment of financiers, foundation officials, and spies produces in such rich abundance.”

Go read the whole article because it is very informative, not just about Geithner but about the whole New Democratic movement. Also of much interest is Dean Baker’s review of the book, Stress Test: The Indictment of Timothy Geithner.Baker plays a critical role in keeping me sane, because he is the most clear-eyed observer of the political economy and he reminds me that I’m not just a crank; I have very good reasons for seeing the world the way I do.

There was something in Stoller’s review that really struck me: Geithner’s life story. He was born into the power elite. And then, without really trying, he finds that his career leads him to the very top of the power structure. After talking about how he wasn’t a good student, he writes the following that is simply jaw dropping:

During my orals, when one professor asked which economics journals I read, I replied that I had never read any. Seriously? Yes, seriously. But not long after we returned from our honeymoon in France, Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm hired me as an Asia analyst; my dean at SAIS had recommended me to Brent Scowcroft, one of Kissinger’s partners.

Geithner doesn’t seem to think it is at all strange. Imagine a smart but lazy poor black kid who made it into college. Would he have gotten through school with such an attitude about his studies? And assuming he did graduate, would he just get a great job working for a really important company? This is beyond white privilege, which is bad enough; this is rich privilege. But Geithner is so used to getting everything handed to him that he doesn’t notice it.

So it isn’t surprising that he has what is basically an aristocratic worldview what dictates that Geithner’s social class has to be protected at all costs, but middle class families can just lose their houses and their lives because they are the “little people” who don’t matter anyway. I was shocked to learn that Geithner isn’t a lawyer and doesn’t have a PhD in economics or a comparable field. No, he was just pushed up the ladder of success because he was the “right” kind of person.

And the power elite were right to promote him. Because when the chips were down, Geithner did just what was best for the power elite without a thought to what was best for the nation or the world. He is one of the great villains of the last few decades. And now he will be rewarded for it. There is no doubt that Geithner will die a billionaire.

If this is meritocracy, then I think people ought to stop talking about it like it is a good thing.

Ants, God, and E O Wilson

E O WilsonThe great biologist E O Wilson is 85 years old today. He is controversial because of his work in sociobiology. This is the idea that social behavior is evolutionarily determined—at least in part. This comes out of his study of ants and their social behavior. It seems to me that rejecting this idea is a very typical kind of human error of thought. It is the idea that somehow humans are special and thus in some sense a quantum step removed. I realize that when people like Stephen Jay Gould argue against it, they are making a more sophisticated case. But I still just don’t see the big deal here.

I’m more interested in Wilson’s ideas about religion. He claims that the three forms of religious believe are, “Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism.” This is the kind of thing that drives atheists crazy. But that’s just because they don’t really understand what he’s saying. What we are talking about are belief systems. Although I count myself an atheist, it does bug me that most atheists don’t seem to understand that scientific materialism is a belief system. The problem is that after hundreds of years of rationalist thought, it is now like the air: we don’t even know the assumptions we are making.

Even more frustrating is that most theists are also scientific materialists—at least in the sense that they see God as something outside of this reality. And this brings us to Gould and his idea of non-overlapping magisteria—that there is no crossover between religion and science. The New Atheists seem to hate this idea, and I really can’t understand why. What I think is going on is that atheists have a strong tendency to argue against the most primitive forms of theism. (Theists do exactly the same thing to atheists.) Wilson does a lot of talking to religious groups about the partnership of science and religion.

Personally, I think that’s a hard one. I agree with it in theory. The problem is that religion has become so much a commodity and Americans have accepted such pathetic and childish answers to theological questions. I don’t see how you have an adult conversation with people trained to think so childishly. The other side of this is that the atheist community has no interest in having such a partnership. Most of them hold the equally childish view that traditional religion will be wiped out and replaced by scientific materialism. That will never happen.

Wilson thinks this is because of the way that the species evolved. There is much to that. Humans need to create narratives and they are going to create them whether there is a narrative or not. But I think the problem is even more fundamental than this. There is a paradox of existence. It is mathematical in nature. We will never unraveled it because of our parochial nature. It is perfectly fine for the materialists to just ignore that paradox. But there will always be people who find that paradox upsetting and who want answers. Not only are these people not going away; they will always be a large majority.

So I’m with Wilson: let people have their myths and their tribes and their “answers” to the great riddle of the universe. And let us all work together for a greater society. Scientific materialism can be a cold way of looking at our fellow humans—it can easily lead to rearing children in boxes. And regardless, look at the libertarian-atheist connection. Religion can be humanizing, precisely because it presents the fiction of the specialness of humans. It doesn’t matter to me that people are wrong. If we can create a more perfect society, I’m for it. And I’m afraid those atheists who think religion will go away are not being very scientific about that idea. It is a matter of faith. I don’t share that faith. Wilson has done a lot of scientific study on the issue and he doesn’t see religion going away. I think we should take him seriously. And we should get on with the business of making life better for all humans.

Happy birthday E O Wilson!


You may be thinking, “This guy hates theists and atheists! Doesn’t he like anyone?!” Yes I do: I like smart and thoughtful theists and atheists. There just aren’t a whole lot of them around. It’s not too surprising that I feel this way, because I am kind of in the middle in the sense that I am like the theists in that I find the paradox upsetting but I’m like the atheists in that I expect no answer.