An even shorter history of Stupid — with some EM comments

January 7, 2015

A short history of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream, (2014). Bernard Keane & Helen Razer, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.

Bernard Keane

Bernard Keane

I am a big fan of both Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Saturday Paper‘s gardening writer Helen Razer. They are intellectually sharp, write with good humour and come across as eminently rational in their thinking.

Helen Razer

Helen Razer

Therefore, I was delighted to find A short history of Stupid in time to add the book to my Christmas wishlist for 2014. Yes, even über rationalist Marxist scholars have some use for Santa Claus!

Keane and Razer are friends and obviously share a dislike for stupidity in all its forms (and they are many); but they are not cut from the same cloth. Keane comes across as a socially-concerned and progressive individualist, verging on the libertarian, while Razer is more than willing to own up to her own proto-Marxist and critical feminist intellectual development. Razer is also a bit of a potty mouth, so if you are offended by the occasional use of c—t, f—k and s—t in your reading material, perhaps you should only read the chapters by the more (ahem) refined Mr Keane.

But I’m not fazed by Ms Razer’s crudities because I love her razor wit and sharp insights. Her chapter on reason and unreason is one of the best in the book and one paragraph in particular sums up her (and my) take on the psychological pressures of modern working life:

“When we fail at life as it is so broadly and meticulously prescribed, we call it mental illness. We have failed life. We are not permitted to think it is the conventions of life that have failed us.” (p. 164)

It has many good points and I recommend you read it, but A short history of Stupid is a very uneven book. This is partially because chapters are written individually and the writers have very different tones and registers in their prose; but the bigger issue is that the book doesn’t seem to really know whom its enemy is.

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The obscenity of capitalism and doing something about it

February 21, 2009

I continue to be revolted by the scale of mendacity, hand-wringing, crocodile tears and ideological acrobatics coming from politicians, economists, billionaires and sections of the media about the economic crisis and the need for “bailouts”.

Lining up for food and water, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937. By Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Lining up for food and water, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937. By Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Who really needs a bailout? Well, according to the most recent Vanity Fair, it seems anyone one Wall Street forced to limp along on a base salary of less than $4 million a year. [VF has a great track-record on reporting the crisis – check it out]

There’s a certain obscene symmetry to capitalism. Those floating across the top like so much soapy scum often clean up while those sinking under debt and unemployment usually get cleaned out. It’s prompted me to do some creative accounting.

I think I have found a way to save the victims of the toxic debt fall out and get some moral justice karma happening for those who we should be holding accountable.

I have been thinking about this for a while and I think it’s time I offered some free (gratuitous) advice to Presidents, Prime Ministers and b(w)ankers, before things get out of hand.

So far the major banks on Wall Street, such as Merrill Lynch, have been given $125 billion dollars in tax-payer funded bailouts. That’s a lot of money and it’s not the only bag of cash on offer.

But $125 billion is a staggeringly big number. Let’s start with some smaller numbers.

When John Thain became CEO of investment bank Merrill Lynch in 2007 he got a $15 million signing-on fee. He’s since left the bank, which has been taken over by Bank of America.

At the other end of the social scale there’s Kathy Lovelace of Zephyrhills, Fla. She’s recently lost her job, now her bank wants to foreclose on her mortgage and repossess her $200,000 home.

Here’s an idea, why doesn’t John Thain pay off Ms Lovelace’s mortgage out of his signing on bonus. Let’s assume that Ms Lovelace owes her bank $175,000. If Mr Thain paid this he’d still have $14,825,000 of his sign-on fee. In fact, if Mr Thain had left his $15 million in a bank account for one year at 2% he would have earned around $300,000 in interest. So he’d still be in front of where he started and way out in front of Ms Lovelace.

I think we can apply this principle on a massive scale and save the houses of the poor working folk who are being kicked out of their homes because of the actions of men like Mr Thain.  Here’s how it might work…

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Postmodernism and the Bonaventure Hotel

September 10, 2008

[Updated 10 September 2008]

I’ve just stayed for two nights in the Westin-branded Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I was keen to stay there and explore the hotel because it’s something of an icon in architecture and also a building that evokes strong reactions in people.

Some of the hotel’s history is recorded at Wikipedia. The Bonaventure is a bit of a star in the city of stars. It has appeared in loads of movies and TV series since construction was finished in 1976.

I was fascinated by this hotel because it features in the work of Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson and has been something of a touchstone for postmodern cultural theorists ever since, such as Jason Berger, who re-examined some of Jameson’s argument that the cultural logic of postmodernism reinforces the hold of capitalism on the popular consciousness:

Using a reinterpretation of Jameson’s own work, I will argue that his analysis of the hyperspace within the Bonaventure Hotel in his original 1988 essay provides evidence that postmodernism does create a resistance to late capitalism through spatial “deterritorialization.”[Berger 2004]

I’ve never really agreed with this idea. To me postmodernism is a capitulation to capitalist relations of production and a celebration of crass, kitsche consumerism as the new revolution.

So is the Bonaventure a celebration of capitalism, or does the building condemn consumerism?

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