Wednesday, May 24, 2017

David Brooks' NY Times Op-Ed of May 23, 2017: "The Alienated Mind": an Analysis

David Brooks is the king of question begging, the assumption that something is true even though it hasn't been proven. But when one questions his breezy descriptions, they turn out to be amalgums of right-wing clichés and prejudices. It has upset me for years that the New York Times gives so much valuable space to such an intellectual pretender, but it took me until last night to take one of his columns apart, as I've been tempted to do for years. Here it is.

     In Tuesday's NY Times column (May 23, 2017) “The Alienated Mind,” David Brooks takes aim at an “elite” resented by "angry voters." The problem with this elite is that it is "college educated," and that it has "found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible" and then has " managed to transfer wealth upward to itself" and then "crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views." This is a cartoon stereotype that degrades  educated, historically informed (and dare I say empathetic) members of the middle class, and then conflates them with financial elites! It makes boogie men out of reasonable, educated people, who happen not to be conservative shills for unnamed oligarchs, as Brooks is, and then confuses them with the oligarchs themselves! And the Times pays for such crap!

     Then he lands on “alienation” as a concept, like some undergraduate discovering the term for the first time, and then blames our political ills on it, elevating it to a major force on its own, giving it a separate existence from the variety of conditions that engender it, making a disease out of a symptom. Nowhere does he refer to the depredations of inequality, the flight of good jobs, the concentrating of wealth, the neglect and suffering of poor minority communities, which is equal to or worse than that of communities who were once prosperous. He tries to drum up sympathy for these white working class folks who have been betrayed by globalist corporations, focusing on their feelings of betrayal but not on those who betrayed them, but rather on those whom they are duped into blaming. Meanwhile, the Republican policies these poor benighted alienated white working class voters vote for just continue to slam them. But you’d never learn this from a Brooks column.

    No. Brooks' column is actually a summary and popularization of an extended article by Yuval Levin in the conservative quarterly (available on line) Modern Age. He cites Levin on the subject of alienation, who opines that "on the right" it tends to a “desire for purity—to exclude the foreign,” while "on the left" it fosters a “desire for conformity—to squelch differing speakers and faiths.” Full stop. The Wise Man hath spoken; following the rather abstract Levin, Brooks has dispensed his characteristic dyad, which stands in for philosophical reflection or sociological observation. Except that it’s pure baloney. How about the the tendency on the right to blame the Other: the immigrants taking “our” jobs and getting a free ride without paying taxes (which they do), the “elite” bogeymen disdaining them for their ignorance in allowing themselves to be duped by wealthy oligarchs who know how to dangle racist illusions in front of their noses? And he takes impolite student protest to shut down appearances by right-wing purveyors of prejudice as a “desire for conformity,” when the protesters see such people as atavistically bringing us back to a time when prejudicial stereotypes were accepted as truth.

    Brooks’ prescription? To “revive a living elite patriotism.” Yeah. Well, if he actually asked the real elites, the financial oligarchs, they’re the most patriotic of all—at least they use patriotism as a mask for their self-interested support of military spending, which is where most conventional patriotism leads these days. How about rooting out structural racism in housing patterns and health care delivery? Would this be considered “patriotic”? In all fairness, he does seem to be advising his Republican back-benchers to be more open to compromise. But does he realize that the institutionalized intransigence of Republicans nowadays comes from a fear of being attacked from the farther right by “purer” intransigents, who happen to be bankrolled by the Koch Brothers and their Tea Party pet project? Has he made this connection? Now, there are some elite actors he would do well to target—but nary a word, of course.

    In the end he prescribes “moral realism” to fight alienation. What a good idea! Why not print up pamphlets and distribute them widely telling people how to be more morally realistic? Just be as wise as David Brooks! Discard your “lazy cynicism” and “self-righteous despair”! (Why, I had become quite attached to mine, Mr. Brooks! But I’m so glad you informed me that they were counter-productive!) Adopt an attitude of “pessimistic hopefulness.” Aha! I’m so glad you let me know that that’s the answer! You’ve solved the country’s problems! Let’s all be “grateful for the institutions our ancestors left us, and filled with cheerful confidence that they can be reformed to solve present needs.” Seriously! He writes this!

    It sounds like lazy complacency with the status quo rather than Brooks' “lazy cynicism.” What about accelerating inequality and its consequences in shortening life-spans? What about the exploitation by our banks of our children in college? What about a ballooning military, sucking up resources that would be better spent on people: health care, education & infrastructure? How do we dislodge these vested interests, which by the way, also undermine our democratic elections, insuring that their supporters remain in power? How do we adopt an attitude of "cheerful confidence" in the face of these seemingly intractable trends? People like you, your NY Times editors, and most of your readers don’t even realize how the system is structured to maintain the parasitic and infinitely greedy forces in power. But you assure us that we should adopt a “cheerful confidence that [our institutions] can be reformed to solve present needs.” Sounds like you’re working for the oligarchs, Mr. Brooks. Just let ‘em alone, and everything’ll work out just fine. And by the way, that's the contemporary corporate definition of “freedom”: just leave ‘em alone, detax and let them self-regulate, and then let the rest of us, the 99%, just get sicker, stupider and dirtier.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Scrap Metal as Temporary Archaeology

I became fascinated with photographing scrap metal from a geological photographer's point of view, and two visits to an unnamed scrap metal yard in May 2013 yielded a rich body of work. See it on my website

I returned to the yard this past March and had another field day, especially with the giant rusted "bricks" of compressed cans.

But there were also other beauties as well: 

One of the main reasons I went then was that there was snow on the ground, and I caught this pile of giant compressed bricks against the snow.

I returned to the yard this past Sunday, May 14, since I had seen a shiny wall of these huge bricks of compressed cans from the train I take into New York. The light was now on the side away from the tracks.

But when I went around to the shady side, the lower contrast from the skylight (rather than the intense sunlight) made the textures more visible:
 Then when I framed it as a wall, rather than just a stack, it took on archaeological resonances, recalling the large hewn stones of ancient buildings and walls. I rendered this one in toned monochrome to emphasize that aspect:
And this just happens to be the [W]estern [W]all in the scrap metal yard. Its archaeological evocations notwithstanding, it will disappear in a matter of days, hauled off in one of the hopper cars on the tracks that form the western border of the yard.


Trump's Unraveling

It’s fascinating to watch Trump unravel. A rather limited authoritarian personality, “insecure, paranoid and brittle, jostling between egomania and narcissism, intoxicated with a power beyond his meager comprehension and indulging in it beyond the point of abuse” (Charles Blow, NY Times, 16 May 2017), he’s a rather stupid version of a dictator, who would be quite comfortable jailing and murdering his enemies in a non-democratic state with no embedded checks and balances. But he probably wouldn’t last long there either, because a cleverer, more brutal authoritarian would outsmart him and have him killed within his first year.

Our lame press and compromised Democratic party have still sufficiently risen to the occasion to denounce his howlers. He has no concept of the scrutiny he’s under, nor how careful he must be in language and action. He conducts his Presidential business as the mendacious businessman he’s always been, and he flops daily in his more exalted role. He can’t possibly last long, since he’ll become a deep embarrassment to the actual professionals who make up the Republican party, corrupt and hypocritical though they are. McCain has already turned against him.