At war with the blind

Turns out the election of 2016 was a declaration of war. America is at war with itself and it’s not clear who is winning. We Americans didn’t recognize it for war at the time, but it’s clear now and clearer every day—with each childish act, each transgression by the populist president and the blind allegiance to him by those who turn the cheek to his lies, indecency, and hypocrisy. They’d rather not see the truth. It doesn’t conform to the reality they’ve invented.

Instead, they make excuses. They claim that journalism is their enemy; and in a way, they are right. Journalism is a purveyor of news—news is the running narrative of the current state of the world. Most news organizations rely on facts and truth to inform the public, to check authority and keep it from running wild with abandon. But these people are not concerned with facts and truth. Perhaps they never were.

They converse in small circles of their own, unable to communicate beyond their self-imposed borders. Their ideas are small; their speech hateful. To them, the mind is not a tool or weapon, but a liability. Their weapons of warfare: guns and faith in a god that would not recognize their warped idea of that god’s intended purpose or morality. Somewhere along the way, they decided their god had a white face and carried an assault rifle.

The religious right got the president they think is a crusader for their religion. But he’s not—he’s lying about being a practicing Christian just as he lies about everything else. The Christians think they have god on their side. I am a reformed Christian, so I know their sad story well. It’s a story in which they have owned the last two thousand years. Yet history is not on their side.

God and guns are their hallmarks, despite their lord and savior’s abhorrence to violence. If their Jesus were alive today they would not recognize him. They would ridicule him, persecute him, expel him, torture him, imprison him, murder him. Those on the Christian Right have deluded themselves. They look out at the world through veiled eyes and do everything possible to avoid seeing what’s really, truly there. They have the vision of a bat—their eyes do not work, and noise guides their focus. But whereas bats were cursed by nature with lack of eyesight, the blindness of the Christian Right is self-imposed.

The two sides prepare for battle in opposite ways. I prepare by improving my eyesight—by reading the sages, by keeping myself informed through reliable, proven news sources (not commentary). Most importantly, I prepare by thinking. As a journalist, I feel the declaration of war more intimately or personally than most. This is a war on truth and decency. The president and his blind followers bring their guns, their anger, their certainty that they are right to the battlefield. Where I come from, only people who couldn’t fight carried guns.

I bring the lessons of history and the sages who have lived through such battles and emerged victorious. Wisdom and open mindedness will always prevail against lies, intolerance, false patriotism, hypocrisy, violence, and indecency. I study the lessons of the past and sharpen my sword by lamplight every night. I urge you to do the same, and above all to participate in the civic discussion by spreading the truth you see all around you.

—Your brother and rebel for truth.

Notes from Streeck

“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”[1]

“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”[2]

“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”[3]

“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”[4]

“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”[5]

“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”[6]

On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”[7]

“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”[8]

“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”[9]

“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”[10]


[1] Streeck, Wolfgang: How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System. Verso Books, London, 2016: 1.

[2] 2

[3] 4

[4] 59

[5] 60

[6] 65

[7] 69

[8] 70

[9] 71

[10] 72

De la Pava’s greatness


Sergio de la Pava is a New York attorney. Attorneys don’t normally set out to write novels, and certainly not great ones. Or so it seems. And yet that’s what de la Pava has done. His novel A Naked Singularity, winner of the 2013 PEN/Bingham prize for a debut work, was written in 2008 and published by de la Pava himself. His second novel, Personae, also self-published, was picked up by the University of Chicago Press along with A Naked Singularity after people began to read Singularity and notice how good it was/is.

Writers like de la Pava (I know of none) are anomalous. Publishers and the major houses in particular have created an archetypal (and exclusive) environment based on a specific business model. Literary agents act as middlemen between writers and publishers and it works well enough for the publishers to be able to publish books and still make a profit. Booksellers get paid and the writer gets paid and thus the agent gets paid and everyone is happy. Unless writers object to this model and choose to wade into the publishing world alone and self-publish, which creates all sorts of problems for publishers and sellers.

Naturally the publishers and agents (and even some established authors cemented neatly in the archetypal model) abhor self-publication. It renders their role in the process irrelevant and removes their share. Thus, when a self-published novel written as well as A Naked Singularity comes along and threatens to sell a load of copies, the major houses cry foul and either look to evolve the business model or continue to crusade against artists. Self-published novels are most often unread and become obscure and nonexistent. With A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava has written a novel so undeniably good that he’s managed to circumvent the business model adopted by the major houses, and he’s the first major voice to do so since the model’s metamorphosis into its current state.

De la Pava is a serious talent whose voice commands attention. He’s earned the PEN/Bingham award, and Personae firmly establishes what readers of A Naked Singularity thought to be true: that de la Pava is the rarest of literary surprises, a writer who doesn’t appear to have set out to write a great novel but has, and a writer who can’t help but make his contemporaries envious of his lexicon, his acute intelligence, and his exemplary storytelling ability. He’s a previously unheard-of writer (he’s an attorney, for god’s sake) who puts his contemporaries to shame and whom, if the major houses had their way, wouldn’t have been discovered, wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies, and wouldn’t have received the attention his talents warrant. At least not yet.

The publishing world would like readers to believe that there are two types of North American writers: those whose works are worth reading, and those whose aren’t. I posit two completely different classes: Writers who aspire to be great, and writers who ARE great. De la Pava is now entrenched in the latter category. His works give hope to readers who also write literature and likewise aim to challenge the limits of ambition, consciousness, and the status quo.

Sheppard Lee: A study in Contradiction [Review]


We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …[1] 

Robert Montgomery Bird was 30 years old when Sheppard Lee was published. He’d had plenty of time to scrutinize the human condition, its psychology, and its reaction to and formulation of political structures. He observed the American men and women of his time, the deep social rifts between them, rampant envy and resentment resulting from their differences. He saw the social division as a natural reaction to the American structure, an inherent flaw in the ideals of the Constitutionalists. What resulted, according to Bird, was a society of longing, a desire to strip away one’s identity in search for another. In Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself, published by the acclaimed NYRB Classics, Bird explores these topics and castigates them with comic, satirical brilliance.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he and the Constitutionalists had in mind a particular end for the individual in a democracy. The idea was to give each individual the right to become their own end via the means they chose for themselves. The rich and the poor alike were given the political freedom to follow their dreams, to self-sustain beneath the umbrella of U.S. government protection. These were the ideas wrought from the Enlightenment, from hundreds of years of political and moral theory, and it was considered to be the best government structure—in principle and practice—in the history of the world. The policies were meritocratic and experimental in nature, molded from the idea that there is no nobler role of government than to allow its citizens the opportunity to safely and responsibly forge their own path in the world.

But what Jefferson and the other Constitutionalists failed to account for was the huge rift that would be created between the rich and poor, “a political complexion […] founded in, and perpetuated by, the folly of the richer classes.”[2] The economic structure was fashioned from the principle of equal opportunity, but what resulted was the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. Soon the opportunities of the wealthy greatly outnumbered those of the impoverished. This great division among people that were supposed to share an equal place in society created disparate perceptions: “The poor man in America, feels himself, in a political view, as he really is, the equal of the millionaire; but this very consciousness of equality adds bitterness to the actual sense of inferiority, which the richer and rather more fortunate do their best […] to keep alive.”[3]

This situation cultivated a deep and pervading sense of longing unto the poorer classes, the immigrants, the African-Americans. It was a hypocrisy that spawned indignation, for certain injustices were happening in America, the land where every man was supposed to be self-evidently equal, where this sort of unfairness ought not to have been happening. Citizens on the unfortunate side of the socio-political structure were cast further out, excluded from the decision-making process, left only to appeal, “Why should the folly of a feudal aristocracy prevail under the shadow of a purely democratic government?”[4] They found themselves wishing more and more to inhabit the lives of the privileged, hoping to inherit their advantages. The character of Sheppard Lee finds a cosmic loophole where this is actually possible for him, and what results is an absurd waltz into the American psyche where nothing, including the principles of his country, is what he thought it would be.

Slavery was obviously another American hypocrisy. In a land where all men were supposed to have legitimate opportunities for freedom and the American ideal, certain men and women were being bought and sold, treated sub-humanely, their happiness stripped from them before they had a chance to obtain it. To be a slave was to be “the victim of fortune, […] the exemplar of wretchedness, the true repository of all the griefs that can afflict a human being.”[5] These are not descriptions of equality. Bird was aware of the hypocrisy around him. He knew that the real America was a blatant contradiction to the ideals penned in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Sheppard Lee is Bird’s response to what he observed. It’s an attack on the life around him, highlighting the absurdities in order to draw attention to them, a picaresque adaptation of reality.

e He The hypocrisy of the political structure birthed a certain behavior in its citizens. It provoked lasting looks of envy from the poor onto the rich, from the slave unto the free man, it widened the gap between neighbor and friend. It forced people into constant comparative qualification. Equality of opportunity naturally evolved into a sort of Darwinian culture where the weaker or less qualified individuals were exploited by those gaining power with each business day, each acquisition. The character of Sheppard Lee is a symbol of the common American man. He is constantly in pursuit of curing what ails him, namely his imperfections, his insecurities. He feels that the only way to do this, once he has figured out his ability to occupy the bodies of the dead, is to seek out those unfortunate dead whose lives seemed to be better or happier than his. Lee is thus vicariously the jolly hunter, the playboy, the rich man, the morally perfect human being.

As the philanthropist character in Book V begins to see his life of charity and compassion unravel before him due to the ingratitude of his fellow men, he states rather profoundly that “man is an unthankful animal, and of such rare inconsistency of temper, that he seldom forgoes the opportunity to punish the virtue which he so loudly applauds.”[6] One could read this passage straightforwardly as it applies to the narrative, or they could also read it as an analogy about the duplicity in the principles of the United States that Bird observed and attacked. At this point in the book, the reader is well aware of Bird’s pattern of disappointing Sheppard Lee’s efforts at finally becoming content with who he is, whoever that may be. The fact that he is repeatedly upset in his effort to find happiness by infiltrating the body of the most morally pure dead person he could imagine leaves him to believe that, “I had experienced in my present adventure  […] doubts as to the reality of any human happiness.”[7]

Bird had keen observational skills to see the contradictions between those engraved in the United States Constitution and the actual daily social rigors in young America. But these things could have been seen even by those who chose to turn their attention from them. I might even make the argument that the rift between the haves and the have-nots is today considerably wider than in Bird’s America.

The novelist’s value in a society is his or her ability to shape and influence the culture. Bird did this by drawing attention to the inconsistencies in his society, pointing the finger at the innate hypocrisy in American idealism. He saw the way social stratification affected the individual in society and diluted their notions of identity, how it forced them to look at others in either envy or disgust. In Sheppard Lee, Bird exercised his acute understanding of the impractical democratic experiment and its effects, primarily the “political evils which demagoguism, agrarianism, […] and all other isms of vulgar stamp [it] brought upon the land.”[8]

What we see in Sheppard Lee, through Bird’s narrative about the blurred notion of identity, is a man chasing his preconceived notions of happiness, jumping from social status to social status in the pursuit of happiness, only to find something wrong, something to lament about his new body and personage with each new identity. It is a narrative both funny and sad, both audacious and absurd, and at times a promotion of prejudice as equally contradictory to the truth as Bird’s America.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas, in Koch, Adrienne. The American Enlightenment. George Brazillier Press, New York, 1965, 378. [2] Bird, Robert Montgomery. Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself. New York Review of Books, New York, 2008, 305. [3] Bird, 306. [4] Bird, 306. [5] Bird, 332. [6] Bird, 271. [7] Bird, 304. [8] Bird, Robert Montgomery, 306.