Disproportionate Cynicism: A Reply to Jonathan Messing

27 Jul

For several days now, I’ve seen this article by Jonathan Messing circulating on social media among the dwindling few who still associate with me and stridently support Israel, right-or-wrong. Messing argues that, given the lack of widespread protest over the grave suffering of Palestinian refugees trapped amidst Syria’s civil war, outrage over the most recent wave of violence Israel is inflicting on Gaza demonstrates that “only deaths connected to Jews seem to evoke the cries we have been hearing” and therefore “there are many of you who are participating in a global, collective media assault on Israel that is indeed suggestive of something much darker.”

While I too am occasionally bothered by the Israel-focused tunnel vision of some on the American Left, Messing is arguing in bad faith, and doing so pretty badly.

Let’s start with the obvious –

1. The US gives Israel some $3bn per annum in military aid and loan guarantees.
2. There is a vulnerable Palestinian refugee population in Syria in the first place because said recipient of American largesse forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 and 1967 wars and refuses to come into compliance with international law by allowing them to return to their homes.

Messing’s whole piece is written as though political morality is a matter of performative emoting rather than harm and responsibility. The US bankrolls and diplomatically shields Israel’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinians and could end the violence in Gaza tomorrow if it threatened to withhold from Israel financial backing and proxy use of its UNSC veto. As US citizens we are responsible.

Whatever role US foreign policy has played in the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, there is no comparable degree of direct complicity and there exists no such leverage in the hands of US officials to end the violence.

The list of death tolls is where Messing holds up a sign that says “I am writing for a Fox News audience.” With the exception of Gaza, each of those death tolls encompasses at minimum several years of conflict and the linked articles explicitly state as much. I tutor middle school kids who remember the 2008-9 Gaza invasion which left roughly 1,400 dead, including some 300 children, not to mention the 2012 airstrikes and intermittent lethal violence. I can’t tell if this discrepancy is intellectual dishonesty or if this guy is an idiot. Either way, it’s not impressive.

The US-Nazi WWII comparison is puzzling, because the obvious parallel there is that of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Just as we cringe at descriptions of Hamas’s harsh civil administration, few in the West would hesitate to condemn the brutal and draconian policies of Stalin’s USSR. But who can fail to respect the Red Army’s immense and courageous sacrifice? Talk about disproportionate casualties–the USSR lost 26 million people during WWII. And who regrets that in the end it defeated and drove out the occupying Nazi forces?

These would all be relevant points here were Messing concerned with anything more than carping and sneering on behalf of a state committing mass murder.

And as for this comment, “the number of dead in Gaza…is largely due to Hamas’ grotesque tactics”, I simply invite you to look up what was said about the Comanche and Apache tribes who also killed settlers and civilians in resistance to their dispossession. I suppose the all-but-exterminated Amerindian populations had mostly themselves to blame too.

Paul Erdos: Model Academic

17 Apr

I get that it’s hard to avoid jumping on the apparent irony in Paul Krugman accepting roughly 1/4 mil. per annum for a non-teaching faculty position at CUNY, where he will be focusing his efforts on the study of income inequality

Fair enough.

Frankly, though, I’d rather they give him a cool million and cut ex-Chancellor Goldstein’s emeritus salary, which will see him take home over $500,000/yr for the next seven years, after which he will continue to receive a substantial pension.

Let’s also keep in mind that Krugman is almost certainly taking a substantial pay cut here. He was a tenured faculty member at Princeton where he easily stood out among even that apex university’s most distinguished professors. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, the crown jewel of a generally awe-inspiring CV. He has a regular column in the New York Times, a platform from which he’s established himself as our foremost public voice of reason on political and economic matters and as an often admirable scourge of the ruling classes. Is that a justification for exorbitant pay? No. But given the funding major research universities dole out to hire MBAs for ever-expanding administrative bureaucracies and athletics, I’d rather they start bringing up faculty pay across the board while gutting the rest of the budget. 

While we should by no means accept the deplorable state of American academe, as things stand it’s all-but-axiomatic that to be a successful academic in the US is to take a healthy bourgeois salary from an institution which saddles students with crippling debt and breaks the backs of criminally underpaid adjunct faculty. To single out Krugman and not your favorite academic celebrity simply on account of his research interests is symptomatic of the click-driven ephemeral outrage cycle that draws ire away from more deserving—but less readily digestible/apparent—targets.

That said, it’s worth considering the exceptions and asking why academics don’t do more to emulate them.

Like Krugman, the Hungarian mathematician and peripatetic couch crasher Paul Erdős had a storied and academically fruitful stint at Princeton.

But unlike Krugman, Erdős lacked a suitable disposition to plant his feet there. From Joshua Hill’s wonderful essay, ‘Paul Erdős: Mathematical Genius, Human (In That Order)’:

Erdos at Princeton - Edited

And unlike the vast preponderance of successful academics, Erdős gave away most of his inessential earnings and prize money to humanitarian causes, friends in need, and as rewards for answers to mathematical problems he didn’t have time to solve.

By most accounts, his only regular personal expenses were food, housing (for when he’d get booted from friends’ apartments), stationary, and amphetamines. Paul Hoffman relates the following in his biography of ErdősThe Man Who Loved Only Numbers

At five foot six, 130 pounds, Erdös had the wizened, cadaverous look of a drug addict, but friends insist he was frail and gaunt long before he started taking amphetamines. His hair was white, and corkscrew-shaped whiskers shot out at odd angles from his face. He usually wore a gray pinstriped jacket, dark trousers, a red or mustard shirt or pajama top, and sandals or peculiar pockmarked Hungarian leather shoes, made especially for his flat feet and weak tendons. His whole wardrobe fit into his one small suitcase, with plenty of room left for his dinosaur of a radio. He had so few clothes that his hosts found themselves washing his socks and underwear several times a week. “He could buy more,” one of his colleagues said, “or he could wash them himself. I mean, it takes zero IQ to learn how to operate a washing machine.” But if it wasn’t mathematics, Erdös wouldn’t be bothered. “Some French socialist said that private property was theft,” Erdös recalled. “I say that private property is a nuisance.”

The only possessions that mattered to him were his mathematical notebooks. He filled ten of them by the time he died. He always carried one around with him, so that he could record his mathematical insights on a moment’s notice. “Erdös came to my twins’ bar mitzvah, notebook in hand,” said Peter Winkler, a colleague of Graham’s at AT&T. “He also brought gifts for my children–he loved kids–and behaved himself very well. But my mother-in-law tried to throw him out. She thought he was some guy who wandered in off the street, in a rumpled suit, carrying a pad under his arm. It is entirely possible that he proved a theorem or two during the ceremony.”

All of his clothes, including his socks and custommade underwear, were silk, because he had an undiagnosed skin condition that was aggravated by other kinds of fabric. He didn’t like people to touch him. If you extended your hand, he wouldn’t shake it. Instead, he’d limply flop his hand on top of yours. “He hated it if I kissed him,” said Magda Fredro, a first cousin who was otherwise very close to him. “And he’d wash his hands fifty times a day. He got water everywhere. It was hell on the bathroom floor.”

Although Erdös avoided physical intimacy, and was always celibate, he was friendly and compassionate. “He existed on a web of trust,” said Aaron Meyerowitz, a mathematician at Florida Atlantic University. “When I was a graduate student and we had never met before, I gave him a ride. I didn’t know the route and asked him if he wanted to navigate with a map. He didn’t want to [and probably didn’t know how to]. He just trusted that I, a total stranger, would get him there.”

What little money Erdös received in stipends or lecture fees he gave away to relatives, colleagues, students, and strangers. He could not pass a homeless person without giving him money. “In the early 1960s, when I was a student at University College London,” recalled D. G. Larman, “Erdös came to visit us for a year. After collecting his first month’s salary he was accosted by a beggar on Euston station, asking for the price of a cup of tea. Erdös removed a small amount from the pay packet to cover his own frugal needs and gave the remainder to the beggar.” In 1984 he won the prestigious Wolf Prize, the most lucrative award in mathematics. He contributed most of the $50,000 he received to a scholarship in Israel he established in the name of his parents. “I kept only seven hundred and twenty dollars,” Erdös said, “and I remember someone commenting that for me even that was a lot of money to keep.” Whenever Erdös learned of a good cause–a struggling classical music radio station, a fledgling Native American movement, a camp for wayward boys–he promptly made a small donation. “He’s been gone a year,” said Graham, “and I’m still getting mail from organizations he gave donations to. Today I got a postcard from an Israeli girls’ home.”

In the late 1980s Erdös heard of a promising high school student named Glen Whitney who wanted to study mathematics at Harvard but was a little short of the tuition. Erdös arranged to see him and, convinced of the young man’s talent, lent him $1,000. He asked Whitney to pay him back only when it would not cause financial strain. A decade later Graham heard from Whitney, who at last had the money to repay Erdös. “Did Erdös expect me to pay interest?” Whitney wondered. “What should I do?” he asked Graham. Graham talked to Erdös. “Tell him,” Erdös said, “to do with the thousand dollars what I did.”

And for a glimpse into how this heterodox lifestyle cashed out in his scholarly routine, this is the Erdős entry from Mason Curry‘s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:

Screenshot 2014-11-24 at 1.44.54 PM

Shred/Metal Mash-Ups

9 Apr

The first 5 minutes or so of this video featuring guitarist Ben Higgins superimposing licks by (mostly) first-class shredders on top of rhythm sections from well-known metal bands is the most fun I’ve had all week:

To my ears, the real gems are the shred/death metal mash-ups. There are some great lead guitarists in death metal (like Trey Azagthoth, featured here) but they tend to default to atonal chromatic runs. This makes sense since the abrasive flight-of-the-bumblebee thing fits the genre aesthetic. The lack of deviation from this approach, however, is largely a function of how atonal chromaticism spares guitarists the hastle of conveying and maintaining a more traditional tonality while playing over frenetically complex, harmonically mercurial riffs. But when skillfully executed (as in the Yngwie/Morbid Angel and Satriani/Nile mash-ups), a solo built from more refined scales tends to sound dramatically more interesting as a complement to lurching down-tuned aggression than 99% of post-Slayer atonal flurries.

Also on offer here: further confirmation that Kirk Hammett is wasted struggling to achieve “shred” over Hetfield’s speedy thrash rhythms—the Load/ReLoad years demonstrated he’s far better suited to languid hard rock grooves and bluesy cadences. So much so that (apparently) he can make even Motley Crüe sound appealing.


Brief Reflection On #CancelColbert

28 Mar

What most agitates me about this brouhaha is that it already happened on a somewhat smaller scale last October when The Onion took a far more provocative stab at satirizing the same guy with essentially the same joke.

I have an acute memory of noticing The Onion’s inflammatory headline in my twitter feed the morning the article was posted. And I remember immediately taking a depressingly sibylline inventory of who would be dripping with scornful outrage, who would be saying “I appreciate your concerns but I’m also okay with this style of humor,” and who would use it as an occasion to indulge their gluttonous appetite for cruelty by gleefully antagonizing vulnerable people.

Dan Snyder—the intended target of the lampoon—and his qualitatively more egregious offenses were secondary here because they’d already been etched into the national conversation. Already at that juncture, as per our discursively preoccupied political culture, it would feel redundant for bloggers and tweeting micropundits to keep up visible apoplexy over Snyder. In the realm of social media, even the squares and politically apathetic old people were more-likely-than-not to have already gotten wind of the debate over a football team’s beloved racist iconography and taken a fixed position on it.

The appearance of antisemitic language on the homepage of a smart and increasingly leftist (fake) news outlet with considerable cachet, however, was striking—and it was something new to talk about.

On the woefully fissiparous Left, riven more than ever by the growing fashionability of neo-Mau Mauer posturing via twitter and tumblr—what, for better or worse, Mark Fisher has dubbed the Vampire Castlewe know what happens when a proud Castlevanian catches sight of a hip publication stepping into the ambit of a controversy and onto terrain that, prima facie, bears any resemblance to The Wrong Side. Namely, she perceives an opportunity to assert her social media-anchored, outrage-fueled identity. (Often, said identity is imbued with some quantum of careerist ambition: it’s hard not to see Suey Park, whatever her merits, in this light.) If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck—viz. the kind of duck that makes cavalier use of ethnic slurs—then there will be a widespread impulse on the cultural Left to seize on it full bore, even if it seems obvious that any intelligent person (and I’d never dispute that the Castle crowd is generally a bright one) would have to squint and plug their ears to maintain the conflation.

The truth hiding in plain sight is that in neither this instance nor yesterday’s Colbert controversy has the energy investment on display in the social media blow-up been easy to square with how one imagines a seriously committed activist would spend her time in the struggle against racism in American society (a manifold phenomenon, to be sure). Listen, I know what concern trolling is. But the disparity here between any serious triage of racist injustices and what thousands of twitter activists apparently deem worthy targets for hours of teeth-grinding dissent and resistance is so immense that it’s amazing one has to point it out at all.

Accordingly, I judge this intervention to be much too long already (and myself to be more bound up with Castlevania’s social ecology than I’d like to admit). That said, I won’t pretend I’m entitled to a posture of repose, as one sitting in judgment at a healthy distance above the fray—as if I didn’t also reflexively fall into one of the three predictable camps, as if being Jewish really allows me to have no stake whatsoever in prominent appearances of antisemitic language—so I’ll lay my cards on the table directly (even though you’ve already correctly placed me in your own mental inventory): both times I found the over-the-top style slightly grating, but wholeheartedly appreciated the spirit of the satire. I think it made better use of the same caustic outrage at injustice it inevitably attracted. And regardless of what might be problematic in this position, it bears asking why a position on something so relatively trivial should matter so much on the Left.

Update: The extraordinary traffic this post has generated with scarcely any self-promotion (and the giddy buzz said attention ineluctably generates in even the most staid blogger’s ego) inclines me to believe my cynicism is well-founded: that is, outrage-oriented “twitter activism”  primarily runs on attention-seeking and careerist brand-building desires. Enlightened thirst for justice and political change are indisputably in the mix, much in the same way that Jason Newsted’s bass tracks are indisputably in the mix on Metallica’s …And Justice For All album

A Valentine from Warrel Dane

14 Feb

Celebrate cultural diversity with a traditional Valentine’s Day metal ballad. (And as a bonus, enjoy the most beautiful guitar solo of the nascent millennium courtesy of Mr. Jeff Loomis).

Besides, fellow Americans, BLIZZARD AND FROST ABOUND–you bumpin’ Katrina & the Waves? No. Embrace the metal.

We are the 99.9%!

14 Feb

This article in the Atlantic on how your average 1%er has seen her income flatline in recent decades when compared to the wealthiest .1% and .01% ends on a jarringly bathetic note.

The last paragraph seems reasonable enough up through O’Brien’s accurate observation that “it’s no mystery how to reverse [the astronomical upsurge in the richest sub-percentiles’ share of wealth].” But then it goes totally off the rails with what can only be an editorial oversight: “It’s a matter of setting better rules for markets and taxing earners at the top a bit more,” which is easily the most elaborate misspelling of “FULL COMMUNISM” I’ve ever seen.

This info is useful, though:

Who even are these people—the 1 percent of the 1 percent?

As Tim Noah explained, they’re mostly executives and bankers. A 2010 study of the top 0.1 percent found that 61 percent of this group is either a banker or an executive/manager another big corporation. The rest are mostly lawyers (7 percent), doctors (6 percent), and real estate people (4 percent).


Practically all the growth in average income at the top comes from stocks. Between 1992 and 2007, the average salary of a top-400 tax return doubled, but average capital gains haul increased 13X. Wages are for normal people. The richest get richer from their investments.

Brief Comment on the Death of Nelson Mandela

10 Dec

Last week, as news spread that the venerable South African leader had passed, I dashed off the following (favorably received!) bit of curmudgeonliness in response to a facebook reposting of The Onion’s ‘Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed‘:

One point that bears clarifying is that I don’t consider Mandela’s defense of violence to be a flaw per se; I merely intended to highlight how his positions on armed struggle point up the hypocrisy and amnesia afflicting mainstream liberal opinion.

Here I’ve collected excerpts from some of the better–or, at least, more interesting–remembrances and reflections:

Vijay Prashad, ‘Mandela, The Unapologetic Radical

Not long after his arrest in 1964, Mandela became the iconic figure of the South African struggle against apartheid – one that was not only against a ghastly political system, not only against the white ruling clique in South Africa, but also against the governments of the Western world which backed the apartheid regime virtually until the end (Mandela appeared on the U.S. terrorist lists until 2008). It was this iconic figure that the world knew from the 1960s until now. Rarely did people engage with Mandela’s ideas: rarely do we hear him quoted for his principled positions. Particularly after the struggles within South Africa weakened the regime and brought it down, it became impossible not to engage with Mandela – but it was only with Mandela as icon, as Madiba, not Mandela as the political person with deeply held views and commitments.

Everybody now is sad that Madiba is dead. Not a dry eye can be found. But many of these same people opposed freedom in South Africa to the very end. Many of these same people pilloried the struggles around the world in solidarity with Mandela’s ANC. And many of these people now ridicule the kind of views that Mandela held to the very end. When Mandela opposed the Iraq war (“All Bush wants is Iraqi oil”), the Western press lambasted him — the same press that is now aggrieved at his passage. All the obituaries detail what he did in his life, but none go into his political views.


In 2005, he went to the G8 meetings in the U.K. and made it clear that “where poverty exists, there is not true freedom. The world is hungry for action, not words. In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries—including South Africa—remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Where would this freedom come from – by constraining the rights of property to feed untrammeled off of social wealth? Poverty, like apartheid, is man-made, so it can be unmade by man. The rich, he said, must feed the poor.

Jonathan Cook, ‘On the death of Nelson Mandela: a dissenting opinion

Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.

In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.

First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.

Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was required to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.

Patrick Bond, ‘The Mandela Years in Power

In addition to the 1990-94 dealmaking and ideological panel-beating, various other international economic constraints were placed on the New South Africa. A few weeks after liberation in May 1994, when Pretoria joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on disadvantageous terms as a “transitional” not “developing” country, as a result of pressure from Bill Clinton’s White House, the economy’s deindustrialization was guaranteed. In January 1995, privatization began in earnest, with Mbeki facilitating the sale of a few minor parastatals but with much bigger targets looming.

More rapid financial liberalization in the form of the abolition of the Financial Rand exchange controls occurred in March 1995, in the immediate wake of Mexican capital flight that destroyed the peso’s value. Without capital controls, the Reserve Bank lost its main protection against a run on the currency. So when one began 11 months later, the only strategy left was to raise interest rates to a record high, resulting in a long period of double-digit prime interest rates.

The most important post-apartheid economic decision was taken in June 1996, when the top echelon of ANC policymakers imposed what Finance Minister Manuel termed a “non-negotiable” macroeconomic strategy without bothering to properly consult its Alliance partners in the union movement and SACP, much less its own constituents. The World Bank contributed two economists and its econometric model of South Africa for the exercise, known as “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR).

With Mandela’s approval and Mbeki’s formal ideological U-turn – “just call me a Thatcherite,” he pronounced to journalists – GEAR was introduced in the wake of the long 1996 currency crash to promote investor confidence. The document, authored by 17 white men using the World Bank’s economic model, allowed the government to psychologically distance itself from the somewhat more Keynesian RDP, a 150-page document which in 1994 had served as the ANC’s campaign platform, and which the ANC’s civil society allies had insisted be implemented. An audit of the RDP, however, showed that only the RDP’s more neoliberal features were supported by the dominant bloc in government during the late 1990s.


It is here that the core concession made by the ANC during the transition deal was apparent: acquiescing to the desire by white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical “overaccumulation crisis”, in which too much capital piles up in a given territory without sustainable ways to increase consumer purchases of goods, employment of idle labour, new investment of fixed capital, or value production to undergird financial speculation. Put simply, big business wanted out of South Africa and as part of the deal for the transfer of power, Mandela gave the nod to the extreme capital flight which today, leaves South Africa as amongst the countries most adversely affected by a current account deficit.


In sum, the acronym GEAR might have more accurately been revised to Decline, Unemployment and Polarization Economics. A great many South Africans were duped by Mandela’s persuasiveness into thinking that the economy Cecil Rhodes would have found “fit for its time” would somehow also fit the aspirations of the majority. The big question was whether a variety of social protests witnessed after apartheid by civil society – many groups associated with what was formerly known as the Mass Democratic Movement – would shift social policy away from its moorings in apartheid white privilege and instead towards a transformative approach empowering of poor people, women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the ill.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Mandela’s Socialist Failure*

The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterize as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, for instance. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. The ruling ideology mobilizes here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.


At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

It also seems fitting to link Sarah Nutall’s prescient take on Mandela’s mortality (complementary podcast here).

If you can read French, Nutall’s occasional collaborator, Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, recently published a sympathetic meditation on Mandela’s legacy in Le Monde. It’s as worthwhile as anything linked here. In case you can’t, an old friend who recently took a graduate course with Mbembe at Duke passes along the following notes on the professor’s remarks re: Madiba:

«Mandela has been “dying” for years. We’ve been eager to “kill” Mandela so we can memorialize, objectify, turn him into an object of discourse…Mandela is still alive, but there’s not much he can do. He’s already “dead” in the sense that he is being objectified. What is the space occupied by Mandela, somewhere in between subjectivity or objectivity?»

And to close with a perhaps minor artifact which I haven’t seen making the rounds on social media along with the manifold Mandela memorabilia that’s been dusted off for the occasion–footage of the philosopher Jacques Derrida visiting the cell at Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The clip is taken from the 2002 documentary Derrida:

*h/t Doug Henwood


Three more bits of media worth sharing:

1. Noah Feldman, Was Mandela Right to Sell Out Black South Africans?


3. Mandela speaking candidly on Palestine,

If the Jewish leaders have any doubts about our stance, I am prepared to address them and allay their concerns because they are a very important community both in South Africa and of course in the States. And I’m prepared to iron out any differences that might exist, but they must know what our stance is: Arafat is a comrade-in-arms and we treat him as such…For anybody who changes his principles depending on [with] whom he is dealing–that is not a man who can lead a nation.