Month: January 2013

To tell the truthTo tell the truth

“The problem isn’t that MFA programs homogenize fiction, or that they churn out novelists the way Detroit churns out automobiles, but that they make publication seem like every writer’s apotheosis. The publication of a book doesn’t ipso facto turn the author into an artist—the book’s mind and language have to be original and bold. Literature isn’t a children’s foot race; you don’t a get a medal simply for participating. MFA programs are useful because they allow what every writer needs most: time. But they can be poisonous in their system of false approval—a completely truthful instructor, herself fresh from an MFA, won’t stay employed very long—and in the outsized expectations they foster in their flocks.” — William Giraldi, “Letter to a Young Critic”

Mammon!Mammon!

“At that time [1849] so demoralizing was the effect of the gold-mines that everybody not in the military service justified desertion, because a soldier, if free, could earn more money in a day than he received per month.  Not only did soldiers and sailors desert, but captains and masters of ships actually abandoned their vessels and cargoes to try their luck at the mines.  Preachers and professors forgot their creeds and took to trade, and even to keeping gambling-houses.” — William Tecumseh Sherman, “Early Recollections of California,” from Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman

Gotta git awayGotta git away

“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives.  We need hope, the sense of a future.  And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings.  We may seek, too, a relaxing of inhibitions that makes it easier to bond with each other, or transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear.  We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.” – Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”

Getting it in writingGetting it in writing

“Before the 1770s, the idea of a magical document that ‘constituted’ your government, state, and politics—the idea that all laws and governmental authority would have to refer back to a single document, a single code—was almost as surprising as the idea that independence was something you could just speak into existence, declare. Pretty much all the other governments in the world lacked any pretense of representing the will of their people; the king was the king because he was the king, and because Fuck You, and also maybe because of the Bible. But mostly he was the king because he had all these guys with swords and guns and horses that would come to your house and burn it down and murder you.” — Aaron Bady, “Dumb Computers, Smart Cops” (emphasis in original)

In the shadow of the greatsIn the shadow of the greats

“The past has many uses, and one of them is to inspire the present.  People in any profession like to create an imaginary past, populated by the Ones Who Came Before.  Sometimes, we figure these people to be narrow-minded fools and feel motivated to demonstrate our own superior tolerance and sophistication.  More honorably, if not necessarily more accurately, we imagine our predecessors as nobler or braver than our small and anxious selves—as men and women who stuck up for principle and, by their righteousness, moved the world.” – Louis Menand, “Seeing It Now”

Eat only happy animalsEat only happy animals

“Chickens and cows exist because we eat them. If we didn’t eat them they probably wouldn’t be here, at least in the same numbers. I don’t think humans are going to stop eating other animals any time soon, and I don’t think they should. But the system as it exists is sick and broken and nobody should be eating a distraught, unhappy, abused animal. We are literally making ourselves ill with them. One way that I see that a lot is when it comes to the emotional lives of captive animals or animals trapped inside the fur or meat industries. I think that’s unconscionable. But I don’t think that means we need to stop eating meat or wearing leather, instead we need to completely reevaluate the process, and there are so many great minds doing that right now. It may mean that we can’t wear leather or eat meat at the scale or in the ways we do now.” – Laurel Braitman (from Malcolm Harris interview in The New Inquiry)

In fear and trembling they governIn fear and trembling they govern

“Governments fear their people. They fear we will exercise our power to change them, and they fear we will panic. The first is a realistic if undemocratic fear, since changing them is our right; the second is a self-aggrandising fantasy in which attempts to alter the status quo are seen as madness, hysteria, mob rule. They often assume that we can’t handle the data in a crisis, and so prefer to withhold crucial information, as the Pennsylvania government did in 1979 at the time of the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, and the Soviet government did during the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Panic is what you see in disaster movies, where people run about doing foolish things, impeding evacuation and rescue, behaving like sheep. But governments and officials are not very good shepherds. During the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, the university authorities locked down the administrative offices and warned their own families, while withholding information from the campus community. The Bush administration lied about the toxicity of the air near Ground Zero in New York after 9/11, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk for the sake of a good PR front and a brisk return to business as usual. Disasters often crack open fissures between government and civil society.” — Rebecca Solnit, “Diary: In Fukushima”

Wandering in the WoodsWandering in the Woods

“The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it.  You can’t make up your mind in a Comp Lit class that you’re going to be a Russian novelist.  Or even an American novelist.  Or a poet.  Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment.  If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place.  It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre.  You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre.  If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems.  Write a lot of poems.  If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet.  Maybe you’re a novelist.  You won’t know until you have written several novels.” — John McPhee, “Editors & Publisher”

Thesis, antithesis, synthesisThesis, antithesis, synthesis

“Individualism isn’t the antithesis of community or socialism. To think so is to assume that attaining autonomy as an individual requires the denial of all tradition and solidarity, whether inherited or invented, or it is to assume that economic self-assertion through liberty of contract is the path to genuine selfhood. We know better – we know without consulting Aristotle that selfhood is a social construction – but we keep claiming that our interests as individuals are by definition in conflict with larger public goods like social mobility and equal access to justice and opportunity.

“We keep urging our fellow Americans to ‘rise above’ a selfish attachment to their own little fiefdoms, whether these appear as neighborhoods or jobs, and their cherished consumer goods. In doing so, we’re asking them to give up their local knowledge, livelihoods, and identities on behalf of an unknown future, a mere abstraction, a canvas stretched to accommodate only the beautiful souls among us: we’re asking them to get religion. Either that or we’ve acceded to the anti-American fallacy cooked up by the neoclassical economists who decided in the 1950s that liberty and equality, or individualism and solidarity – like capitalism and socialism – are the goals of a zero-sum game.

“By now we know what the founders did: that equality is the enabling condition of liberty, and vice versa. There were two ‘cardinal objects of Government,’ as James Madison put it to his friend and pupil Thomas Jefferson in 1787: ‘the rights of persons and the rights of property.’ Each constitutional purpose permitted the other, not as an ‘allowance’ but rather as a premise. One is not the price of the other, as in a cost imposed on and subtracted from the benefit of the other. Instead, liberty for all has been enhanced by our belated approach to equality, our better approximations of a more perfect union; for example, by the struggles and victories of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. By the same token, democratic socialism enhances individuality. By equipping more people with the means by which they can differentiate themselves, if they choose, from their origins – income and education are the crucial requisites here – socialism becomes the solvent of plainclothes uniformity and the medium of unruly, American-style individualism.”

– James Livingston, “How the Left Has Won”

The webs we weaveThe webs we weave

“Social democracy is impossible without political and cultural pluralism, but such pluralism is inconceivable in the absence of markets geared toward decentered consumer choices, which are in turn dependent on price systems, advertisements, novelty, and fashion; in other words, on the bad taste, bad faith, and bad manners that come with ‘reification,’ aka consumer culture. When the economic future is left in the hands of the oligarchs – the best and the brightest, those who know what’s good for us, whether they’re from the Politburo, Harvard, or Goldman Sachs – the political future will be theirs, too. Like capitalism, and like democracy, socialism needs markets to thrive, and vice versa.” – James Livingston, “How the Left Has Won”