Reverse Chic and the Fall of Empire

There’s a growing body of articles this weekend mulling over the nation’s imminent financial slowdown. And with them, some dark little metaphors.

A summary, and true enough: We spend what we don’t have; we support tax breaks instead of budget surpluses; we gobble down cheap imports from China and can’t understand why eventually the dollar starts to so dramatically weaken.

The metaphors, then: We are the next British Empire, unaware of its long-term decline. We have a viral case of imprudence that threatens to unbalance the world economy. We are little duckies fattening our livers only to be eaten ourselves.

What amazes me is the extravagance of the metaphors. I’m leaning a little toward the economic alarmism myself, this holiday season. But I do wonder what sort of effect (if any at all) these images are supposed to create. Who’s their intended audience: the center-left, the newsmagazine middle class, the Ron Paul and Chuck Norris libertarian ticket?

The best of the recent bunch:

Michael Hirsh in Newsweek

One has to wonder now whether the American superpower is also experiencing a terminal illness, with its decline marked by the dollar’s downward drift. The one difference being that there is no successor on the horizon (the Chinese have a long, long way to go), and the currency that is replacing the dollar, the euro, is backed not by an emerging superpower but by the feeble cacophony of voices that is the European Union. Yet the signs of imperial decadence are unmistakable. The world is losing confidence in the dollar, in no small part because it has lost confidence in America’s strategic judgment and in its sustainability as a great power in the face of record budget and trade deficits, which are forcing the United States to borrow ever more money from future rivals like China and Russia.

Peter Goodman’s sharp, succinct commentary in today’s New York Times on the financial trends.

The most telling passage begins with a reference to the (fiscally) invigorating pleasures of pain and ends with Americans being cheerfully force-fed by Asia (fatty liver! didn’t we read Hansel & Gretel?):

To grasp what may at first seem perverse — pain required to get back to gain — it is worth recalling the genesis of our current predicament.

A decade ago came a financial crisis in Asia. As losses rippled around the globe, credit dried up, threatening the willingness of consumers to spend and businesses to invest. With the health of the global economy menaced, central banks lowered interest rates, fueling a wave of spending that, for the most part, has kept things rolling along.

In the United States, cheap credit added momentum to the boom in technology. That story ended badly, of course, with many companies extinguished along with tens of billions of shareholder dollars. But it did not deter the American consumer, whose spending amounts to 70 percent of the American economy. The Federal Reserve again opened the taps of cheap credit. Spending went on.

As Americans have carried home mountains of goods manufactured in Japan, China and elsewhere, they have sent trillions of dollars across the Pacific to pay for them. Asian central banks have taken these winnings and parked them back in the United States, buying up Treasury bills, stocks and property. In so doing, they have kept American interest rates low and the dollar stronger, ensuring that consumers have the wherewithal to keep buying.

— Finally, against this backdrop, behold the shameful cost-cutting of the Washington elite, as observed by the wryly incredulous Ashley Parker in the Times’ Fashion section. Oh, ignominious Costco, can it really be that your five-pound pretzel bag and the desperate fashion of Pabst shall sustain us through the dark winters and cocktail parties? Are we reduced to bulk caviar?

Against the backdrop of an unpopular war, rising oil prices and a subprime mortgage crisis, a certain thriftiness seems to have crept into the city’s dining rooms.

“I don’t think anyone would dare serve caviar as a first course today, and instead of filet mignon, there are a lot of other beef dishes,” said Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette writer who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary. “Embassies don’t have the pocketbooks they used to. And to have these opulent menus for these parties here, it looks bad.”

In that sense, catering by Costco is a style statement, like drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

“Reverse chic is a very powerful phenomenon in status-oriented circles,” said David Kamp, the author of “The United States of Arugula” (Broadway, 2006), a book about the American fine-food revolution. “I think Costco is the same thing. It gets discovered.”

Reverse chic, the most powerful metaphor of all. And lo, irony shall save even the rich.


We had a great discussion in both Berkeley classes Monday about the far-reaching implications of a Facebook world.

– Virtual Crack Addicts. What makes the Facebook a compulsion for college kids, checked many times in a day? The ever-updating News Feed. Oooh. New photos. Werewolf-Zombie beatdowns. Did he really post that comment knowing that everyone would see it? The hot girl from high school wants, at long last, to be your friend.

– Performance and Creation of Self. There are intriguing limits on what you say you are, and those limits are entirely friend-generated. You can falsify relationships, join bogus groups, apply ironic images of Yoda as your profile picture, but the moment you claim to have been to a party you weren’t at (or worse, claim to have been tending to family emergencies during your trip to Cabo) you get called out publicly with Wall comments. Snap.

– Death & Rebirth. What happens when you delete your virtual profile and create a new one? Can it be a spiritual cleansing? Will your friends still try to tag you with embarrassing photos at the Tau Delta beer-pong kegger?

– Big Brother Lovefest. This notion comes from the essay they were reading, written by NYU student Jim Kuerschner last year, which essentially wonders why we’re so eager as a society to be seen, tracked, monitored. What does it say about us that we’re so interested in the minutiae not only of those we know well, but by the tangential friends three degrees removed? Do we voluntarily enter Bentham’s pantopticon determined to ignore the walls in favor of the familiar reality-show cameras and the waiver we’ve signed?

– Big Mother Lovefest. More pressing a concern for collegiates, of course, is not the abstract curtailing of their civil rights but the lack of peer-privacy now that Facebook’s been opened to everyone. Potential employers. Creepy dudes. Parents checking up on you stealthily. The existential but familiar dilemma of whether or not to accept your mom’s request to be your friend.

After Thanksgiving, they’ll read Michelle Slatalla’s hilarious, slightly troubling take from the New York Times.

I HAVE reached a curious point in life. Although I feel like the same precocious know-it-all cynic I always was, I suddenly am surrounded by younger precocious know-it-all cynics whose main purpose appears to be to remind me that I’ve lost my edge.

Many of these people are teenagers.

Some of them I gave birth to.

One was in a breech position.

And the other day, as I drove home with one of my tormenters in the passenger seat, she started laughing at the way I pronounced “Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“Ha ha ha, is that how you think his name sounds?” my daughter said. “Oh, my God. Who told you that?”

It was my college photography professor. Twenty-six years ago.

Rather than draw attention to my age, I tried to trick her into thinking of me as someone cool, as we said 26 years ago. “I hope you don’t think this gives you the right to make fun of me on your Facebook page,” I said.

“My Facebook page?” this person asked incredulously. “My page? Is that what you think Facebook is?”

Suddenly a vague memory from my childhood — the time someone else’s mother left her family, wrote a few young adult novels and ended up in a sad apartment complex on the edge of town — welled up, unbidden.

I needed to banish it, along with all evidence of this humiliating conversation. But how?

I vowed to fight on her turf.

My students feel strongly that opening Facebook to all is a violation of all things sane. Because if there’s anything worse than outsiders snooping, it’s those wannabe high-schoolers.

Let Them Eat my French Revolution

So, you know, being engaged is great. In many ways, hardly anything’s changed. Neither of us is particularly obsessed with notions of the perfect wedding.

But I understand that it’s not entirely about just us. And I get the power of social ritual. I’ve long maintained that weddings, as with funerals, aren’t actually for or about the persons most directly involved.

There’s a multipart sequence of things that People Must Do because without them there will be popular revolt. Cake, for instance. Got to have it.

People freak out without cake, they leave groggy and disoriented, cheated somehow of a crucial marker of time and culinary happiness. Also: wedding registries, floral arrangements, booze, the main course, garters, booze, suitable hotels for out-of-town guests, rehearsal dinners, speeches, flower girls, booze. Preferably not flower girls with booze, as this is frowned upon by Ranger Bob, who guided us through the many park rules this week.

Even though I want to have a small, grand gathering with those I most love in the world and karaoke all night long in Tilden Regional Park… Part of me would rather just already be married, embarking on a year-long (and extravagantly free) honeymoon that takes in various parts of the world both balmy and luxurious.

Obama, Where Art Thou?

Yesterday, my fiancee confronted my infidelity head-on: I’ve got a thing for Barack Obama, and as everyone knows, the odds are long. Right?

But then he sent me a note today. Then his campaign manager, followed by Obama’s wife Michelle. They send me emails on a regular basis now; they got my email address back in June, when I was flush with a move west, faced with the prospect of far too much free time to work on my novel. I contemplated doing field work for the campaign, but I’m a funny sort. As a teacher of rhetoric, I’m far more interested in the competing arguments people make than in taking a firm stand of my own. And this includes actually getting off my lofty ass when those do-gooder types are out there pounding the pavement thanks to my tiny campaign contribution.

I obsess about politics. Here are my podcasts for the 6.30am bus ride to San Francisco: KCRW’s Left Right & Center, NPR’s It’s All Politics, NY Times Politics, Washington Post Politics Podcast, On the Media, Political Lunch… Even occasionally the Roman bread and circus of Real Time with Bill Maher.

These are things I listen to, people. The list of printed and online news sources is just as large. I can’t even finish my New Yorker each week, but I still roam through The Economist, Atlantic, Slate, the increasingly gossipy Huffington Post.

My point, of course, is this: Obama is in the city tonight, and I’m in Berkeley, writing this after a run and a full day of teaching. I keep telling myself that if he can’t pull ahead in Iowa — or let Edwards play bad cop long enough for him to get in the good cop pole position — it wasn’t worth my effort anyway.

He’s too reasonable. He’s too moderate. He doesn’t have the killer instinct. And yet this is exactly why I want Barack Obama. I want him precisely because he doesn’t bash Hillary. For the longest time, Democrats have chosen as their candidate someone who shifts all too easily but looks stiff doing it. Isn’t it something to see mostly principled, only slightly stiff confidence?

The problem, of course, is this: what do we do, as Democrats, with Hillary the dynastic lightning rod? (And yes, I will cheer her on mightily next year — but we’ve got a few months to go). Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic piece says it best:

The paradox is that Hillary makes far more sense if you believe that times are actually pretty good. If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the argument for Obama is not that strong. Clinton will do. And a Clinton-Giuliani race could be as invigorating as it is utterly predictable.

But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.

And I realize, for me it’s not ever going to be about carpetbombing Oakland with Obama buttons. For me, it’s simply calling your attention to this speech right here and letting you make up your own mind.

Which in theory is what it’s all about. So they say.

(Okay, so the intro is a little WrestleMania XXI. And Pelosi’s strangely out on a limb. And the crowd’s a little too adoring. Watch further.)

Muckrakers & Robber Barons

So I’ve been teaching this writing class at Berkeley that I call “Muckrakers & Robber Barons: the Rhetoric of Corporate Controversy.” The Cal freshmen are great — quite different from my business students at NYU’s Stern school, and also different from the older transfer students I teach at University of San Francisco. For one thing, most of my Cal kids never read the course description; I’ve got smart, sweet-tempered kids from many countries and economic backgrounds interested in almost anything other than corporate controversy.

And yet the class has been a blast (though only intermittently for them, I suspect). I have two classes three days a week in two hour blocks. We’ve written familiar essays, watched full-length documentaries like Supersize Me, read whole books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Today was show and tell, basically, as each student had to present a controversy from the outside world — with some interesting intersections to business — and I refused to speak. Debate bubbled and erupted, even among my mostly non-native speaker class. As Pat Hoy once said, you’ve got to get out of the way.

But then, because I’m me and it’s two hours, I jumped back in. We talked about Klein’s notion of branding as a force more all-encompassing than mere advertising. It’s true, the students said, the only companies they find interesting about are the ones that understand who they are, the ones whose name connotes a feeling. Apple. Starbucks. Nike. Disney. Caterpillar, even. It struck me that this generation is the first to have grown up thinking of Apple as a music company; in an era where the middle-class coffee klatch is the standard for every half-mile; where Disney really is less about family than perpetual youth. They’ve grown up under the centrality of brand as ethos.

We’re going to listen to this great NPR piece Friday on the creation of the Marlboro Man (as anticipated by Jonathan Franzen’s masterpiece of ambivalence, “Sifting the Ashes”).

But today, just to relax into the notion, we watched the pilot episode of Mad Men (AMC’s dark, whipsmart show about an advertising agency in 1960 New York).

It’s a shock for them to admit, but amid all the small group debating and the spinning plates of class planning, the craft of writing’s emerged in full force. And it’s such a pleasure to get out of the way, built into the edifice, as they figure out the world for themselves.

Well, I Did Play a Vampire When I Was 16…

You Are A Vampire

You have a real thirst for bliss, and you consider yourself a true hedonist.
And you’re not afraid to walk alone in life, if it means getting what you truly crave.
You truly enjoy entrancing people. Not to mention the ensuing pleasures of the flesh.
Your tastes have been called decadent and bizarre. You usually give in to your temptations, no matter how primal

Your greatest power: Your flawless ability to seduce and charm

Your greatest weakness: Human flesh

You play well with: Werewolves

Only Connect

All the way from South London, the illustrious Sarah D (writer, director, dramaturg) writes a response to my melancholy Schulzcloud.

It deserves its own piece of sky (such as it is under the kitey header). And my thanks. Pockets of possibility on this autumn afternoon.

“With theatre you have to catch characters caught in a drama. Those with dramatic, eccentric and marginalised youths, it can seem, have more to draw on, than those of us whose greatest drama was a brief flirtation with an eating disorder at aged 18 and a failure to get into Oxford University (great dramas at the time, predicatably normal, not to mention privileged, we find out). Audiences and the industry have an insatiable hunger for the new…. a new voice, a new experience, a new perspective. Those who experience extreme conflict first hand and have a gift will trasmute this utter understanding into art and we will step back breathless at the extremity of the experience.

“We falter. In the light of this what could we possibly have to say?

“But I think writing for theatre is about a number of things: 1. the craft of the storyteller, 2. a uniqueness of voice 3. having stories that you burn to tell 4. having an utter passion for humanity (to name but a few).

“We do not need to be marginalised to have these things, but we do need to accept the seriousness of the endeavour. We have to think of our relationship to our audiences, our relationship to our world in general. We have to think of our intention when we create. Whatever that might be. And we must be passionate and curious.

“And sometimes, in times of pleasure and purpose, the only story we wish to tell is a gentle one of ourselves witnessing the world transform itself. It is a story told to an audience of one, staring deep into our eyes.

“Thereby comes the hope at the story’s conclusion, and the pockets of possibility when the conflicts fall away.

“It’s a story that will be told many times in many moments in many tales: dark and amiable alike.”

Shorty Puts a Cap in My Posterior

Also, in unrelated news, Mac and I were walking in an upscale North Berkeley market the other day when I was shot dead.

We rounded the corner from spirits to cereals and nearly bumped into a young mom who blinked in surprise. Two steps behind was her adorable little girl, no older than three, who solemnly looked up at me and jabbed her pudgy little index finger toward my face.

“I keel you,” she squeaked. And then ran up and grabbed her mother’s outstretched hand.

It took a moment — we were halfway into coffees and teas before it sunk in. “Did she say…” my girlfriend began.

“Yeah,” I said. “She killed me.”

Gosh, but kids say the darnedest things. Don’t they.

The Melancholy Two-Step of Charlie Schulz

It was the image that got me first: Charlie Brown as suffering Van Gogh, sans ear. As Randy Kennedy observes in the NY Times piece out today (“You’re a Good Prop, Cruel Muse”), if we need to see even Charles Schulz as tortured for his art, what exactly is the expected ratio of angst to art in a given genius?

Reviewing the new Michaelis biography of the Charlie Brown creator, Kennedy provides some wry, Romantic comparisons: “Stacked up against the sundry misfortunes that were courted by or fell on the heads of history’s best-known tortured artists — prostitute mothers (Jean Genet); drug addictions (Coleridge); physical deformities (Toulouse-Lautrec) — those that Mr. Michaelis describes in Mr. Schulz’s youth sound tame and sometimes a little silly.”

In a fit of pique, I once declared that if it hadn’t been for my stepfather drinking himself to death, I really wouldn’t have any claim to suffering at all as an artist. This defensive gesture is, of course, complete horseshit. Really? Only the marginalized get to be artists? Isn’t there room for creation of something beautiful or even painfully true without the hairshirt?

It seems like those with the fiercest demons compulsively mine their earliest troubles again and again. But part of me is skeptical. We so fetishize suffering, especially suffering that is authentically one’s own, that aren’t we simply training artists (and critics and readers) to wallow in their muck? Write what you know, but if what you know is middle-class white amiability, there’s no heat. If, like Charles Schulz, you experience the kind of misfortunes we all do and feel a general sense of restless gloom, then it’s important for your biographer to imply you suffered more deeply than we know. Or else your life’s work is not worth taking seriously (and he created comics — get it? The irony? Get it?).

I used to compulsively read Peanuts as a kid on the floor in my stepfather’s house. He had several volumes in the bookshelf; while not much of a reader himself, Mel had the complete Peanuts archives from the very first comic strip to the late 1980s. Did Charlie Brown, as George Saunders claims, prepare me for Beckett, for recursive absurdity and melancholy struggle? Perhaps Peanuts simply let me coexist with a tricky, loving drunk, when Lucy yanked away the football and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back, and my stepfather and I laughed with familiarity. And we moved on.

Lately, I’ve been absurdly happy, and not particularly motivated to write anything anywhere. It’s not just that I feel lately like I have nothing insightful to say; it’s also that this feels like a healthy realization. I want to create things I can be proud of, but I also want to enjoy this period of love, and place, and purpose.

Art is a thin blanket indeed if all we ask is that it describes our suffering.