Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

How to Fix a Broken Heart

img_20160911_131835It is easy to get lost in the hospital. From the main artery grow several asymmetrical wings rising to varying heights. When one of the two main artery elevators opens, the landing pad presents an unexpected reception area, depending onto which floor you alight.

I had thought room 3217 afforded a view of the Hope and Healing Garden, but over the week, as I wandered about on visit breaks, I realized it wasn’t the garden I had seen on the hospital floor-map, but just a breezeway between wings, an alley, really, of a horizontal line of maple trees rising vertically above a trapezoidal space created by three wings. One of the nurses said that when she started at the hospital, those trees were only a few feet tall. I was reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem,

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

Williams found hope and healing where he could, and here between walls grow beds of dark green, glossy ivy, out of which grow the spindly maples.

On another walk, taking another breath break, I discovered the Meditation Garden, an open air courtyard enclosed by hospital walls. The Meditation Garden was quiet and relaxing, with a variety of benches and tables for sitting and if lucky, meditation. But I thought of the little book “How to Relax,” by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Meditation is not what you might think; it’s more about what you don’t think. And, Hanh says, you don’t need a special garden, mat, or incense to meditate. You just need to relax, and breathe. I get that, but still, the Meditation Garden is a good hospital getaway space.

There were other places to chill out: outside on the grounds; the cafeteria; the Pavilion lobby was very pleasant; the LivingWell Bistro; the chapel. I liked the chapel, but was a bit put off by the giant mural of a long, blond hair and blue eyed Jesus. Susan has blue eyes, and her hair was once beach blond. I think Jesus’s hair must surely be grey by now, if he hasn’t pulled it all out.

Another day, I found the Hope and Healing Garden, but I couldn’t get in. I saw a tree growing over a circular brick wall, and I tried to find a way into the garden, which I could just barely see through a door window across an aisle and though another door window.

As I was writing that last sentence, in my pocket notebook, sitting comfortably in the digs of a spiffy waiting room lobby area outside the vegan LivingWell Bistro, an immense amount of new and fascinating technology was wandering Wi-Fi-like through and around patients, taking blood, artery, vein, and heart pictures. I had a glimpse of the imaging room from the hall just before I came out to sit here to wait: clean and sparkly, the four imaging technicians in starched blue scrubs, and the cardiologist, an ancient oracle, about to reveal obscure things that live behind screens.

On a slide show screen on the wall in the lobby, across from the waiting area couches, I could see photos of the Hope and Healing Garden, and reading the slides, discovered the garden has limited access. It’s for mental health patients.

I’ve been waiting almost two hours now. The oracle should be coming through the big set of automatic doors soon.

It’s hard to fix something that is a work in progress. The heart is a jalopy, constantly under repair; a fishing barge rising and falling with the tides, taking on water; a yo-yo with a broken string, a bicycle with a jumped chain, a stew of recycled images.

The gods make contact with the humans through the oracles. The people want miracles, but the gods grow jealous of the oracles and humans and make mistakes. What a strange way for a god to behave.

The modern god likes to hide. Like Tolstoy said, he sees and knows but waits, while humans, as Gertrude Stein remarked, inside, are always the same age. But I’m not sure about that. As Cornel West said, time is real, and we can’t break-dance at 70 like we could at 17. Or surf. But Isaiah said:

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (40 KJV)

And they shall be reborn and breathe again? Where is this Lord when you need him? Surely he must at least be weary of request after request after request. What else do people give him but requests? To fix your heart, he says, call a plumber. He gives you what you need, never what you want.

The Political Fray Replay

What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?

James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –

That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.

Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:

— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.

— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :

— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:

— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.

Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:

— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?

The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:

Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.

Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.

But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:

At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :

— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.

The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:

 A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.

— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?

— For our freedom, said Davin.

— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.

— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.


Coconut Oil Gets a Review

Over at “It Kind of Got Away From You,” Dan has posted a generous but not uncritical review of my novel “Coconut Oil.”

“coconut oil available , an ocean of lotion”

Em's Copies Penina's Letters and Coconut Oil

Scamble and Cramble Find Readers

Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales” is finding readers with enthusiastic response.

I gave ZZ a proof copy to test the waters. She dug it, and smiled when she saw the dedication page, and started in reading immediately, and when she got to the song, nothing would do but she had to sing it aloud. “Scamble and Cramble” is a hit!

But I had already decided to change the cover, which has delayed the “look inside” feature, which I had wanted to wait for before saying much more about the book. But I’ve been getting these pics from readers, and they make for a great review! Thanks to ZZ and Briana and Felicia and crew.

Something new happens on almost every page of “Scamble and Cramble.” Readers are surprised as they see the characters take shape and run with the stories. There are pages to read, and pages simply to watch. There are things to find. There’s a parade, a cast of characters, portraits, stories, talking cats and other animals, and Peepa and Moopa seem a new species. There are happy and sad tales, and Nana and Papa make an appearance. And it’s all told with commonly used keyboard symbols.

Happy Readers!

 A look inside of “Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales”:

A Look Inside


  • Paperback: 108 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (June 24, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1533501084
  • ISBN-13: 978-1533501080
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches


Polish Coconut Oil: Pics from Dan

The city of Szczecin, located in the far northwest corner of Poland, is sometimes called a city on the sea, but if you say that in hearing of Ada, you’ll likely get corrected. I’ve never been there, though I’ve been invited to visit. Maybe next year. It’s only a couple of hours from Berlin, longer if you take the sea route. Szczecin is an inland port town with access to the Baltic Sea. Whatever else might be said of Szczein, it’s an unlikely place to find a copy of “Coconut Oil.” My friend Dan is there now with a copy, and he’s continued the fun readers of “Penina’s Letters” had snapping pics of the book all about town, country, beach and sea. Everywhere you go in Szczecin, you’ll see a copy of “Coconut Oil,” if you follow Dan around.


Comedians in Line at the DMV Getting Licensed

When Seinfeld the television show was on, a guy in my office gig at the time used to come by my desk in the morning after each episode and ask me did I see Seinfeld last night. I never did. My colleague would then repeat over the course of the day practically the entire episode for me, scene by scene. “And then Kramer comes in and says, ‘…’.” That sort of thing. And he was really good, too. He could have been a stand-up on his own. In fact, he ended up doing a few shows of his own. Very witty guy, good mimic, remembered all the good lines from the classic movies and shows.

Eventually, I did watch some Seinfeld, new and reruns. Funny stuff, the four friends and their meaningless, purposeless adventures, circuitous – but there’s truth in comedy, and while the Seinfeld episodes might have failed to high jump the MASH bars in the handling of controversial issues, they were subtly subversive in their almost zen like refusal to acknowledge the importance of quotidian values. Seinfeld crossed into farce, while MASH was embedded in satire.

So it was with interest I listened to Susan who first told me about Seinfeld’s newest venture, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” an independent, on-line show now in its 7th season and 50th episode. The premise is Jerry calls up one of his comedian buddies and invites them to get a coffee, to which they drive in paradisiacal Los Angeles weather in some American Graffiti like cool rod. Susan and I watched the latest installment together on her laptop this morning. Jerry picks up Judd Apatow and they head out in a 1968 candy apple bougainvillea red Firebird. And while we were watching, the idea came to me for this post.

You see, the problem with comedians in cars getting coffee is that there isn’t anything intrinsically funny about getting coffee. And there’s not much funny about souped up, expensive cars – retro, restored, like they’ve never been taken out of the garage.

How about, Comedians in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “What number are you, Jerry?” “I’m number 236, Judd, how about you?” “33.”  “Really, how lucky is that? When did you get here?” “Yesterday, around noon.”

“Number 236? 236?” “Hey, man isn’t that you?” “Number 237, 237?” “Oh, bummer, man. You gotta go pull a new number. Otherwise, you’ll be like taking cuts.”

Or how about, “Comedians without medical insurance coverage in line at the ER with a strange raspberry red itchy rash all up and down their arms and legs. “You, know, Jerry, when we got here the rash was only around our ankles.” “Don’t worry, it’s got a ways to go yet before it gets to our eyes and ears.”

And why comedians, anyway? Why not a car pool full of adjunct instructors in an old beater on their way to night classes? Oh, wait, I guess those are comedians.

Or how about a couple of plumbers in tee shirts and blue jeans getting hot dogs and beers at a food cart in Culver City across from one of the old studios? “Hey, Jocko, You think maybe you can come over my place take a look at my plugged up toilet you get off? “Sure, Mabelline, love too.” “What, around 5, 6?” “Yeah, yeah.” “I’ll put some cool ones on ice for ya, Jocko.” “Swell, lovely.”

Postal workers getting their feet rubbed with coconut oil at nail salons, complaining about all the junk mail, but without which they’d probably be unemployed.

Paparazzi taking a Pierria bottled water break on the beach at Malibu.

But I’m glad to see Seinfeld’s project a success. There’s a sponsor now, so Jerry’s presumably broken another preconceived assumption too long controlled by network TV and others in advertising – and social media wonks and the like. In any case, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it more than once, you should not criticize a work for not being the work you want it to be. The good critic considers intent, intended audience, type of argument, persuasive appeals. There are many types of argument, many ways to persuade. Some audiences are friendly, others hostile, and they can change direction like a spinning top. Besides, it’s not easy being funny. Many folks have very little in the way of a sense of humor, and they don’t tolerate fools or clowns with their time.

There are other getting coffee like projects, involving all the arts. Indie ideas. In Poets Online Talking About Coffee, Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts conducts a series of interviews ostensibly about the poet’s relationship with coffee. But relationships with coffee can be complicated. And you can get your own coffee.