UPDATE: MONDAY EVENING

When I drifted off to sleep this morning I wasn't expecting the House to vote down the credit market rescue bill, but that was the news I woke up to this afternoon.  I guess John McCain wasn't expecting it either.  Has anyone bothered to tell him that the deal on the bill has collapsed, or is he still out on the stump taking credit for putting it together?  Good work on that one, John!

This morning, I was worried that the market had fallen 300 points in half an hour.  It managed to fall nearly 500 more points while I was dozing. If you think it's hit bottom, I suspect you're still asleep and dreaming.

Of course you can't blame the House Republicans for voting 2-1 against the bill — Nancy Pelosi was mean to them in a speech before the vote, right there on the House floor, in public.  It was like the most popular girl in high school (like, the homecoming queen or something) dissing them at assembly — in front of everybody!  You could hardly expect them to be thinking clearly, or considering the welfare of the country, after something like that.  It's not like we're dealing with grown-ups here.

My friend PZ sends a line from an old pop song — “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad.”  I fear that Tuesday will in fact be much worse.

O. k., then — bring on the big D.  I got the truck running and loaded up.  I hear there's opportunities in Mexico for folks who aren't afraid of a little hard work . . .

MONDAY MORNING

I'm writing this just after seven in the morning Pacific Time.  After working all night, I was getting set to go off to bed when I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach — a sense that the bail-out bill crafted by the geniuses in Washington wasn't going to work, that the markets would feel the same way about it . . . and that the American economy was about to go under, suddenly, in one fell swoop, today.

I turned on the television and saw that the Dow Jones Average had plummeted three hundred points in less than half an hour.  I hope things won't continue in that vein, but I have a horrible premonition that they will.  If the House Of Representatives approves the bail-out bill in the next few hours and the market continues to fall, it means that Washington has waited too long — dithering around for a John McCain photo-op and other exercises in political posturing and giving more banks time to fail, undermining investor confidence beyond repair.

As I head off to bed once again, I have a feeling that I might wake up in a world that has been utterly changed.

Boy, do I hope I'm wrong.

A PATRIOT'S JOURNAL

As you undoubtedly know, John McCain and I have been working tirelessly over the past few days to rescue America from its worsening economic crisis.  John felt it necessary to suspend his campaign for the Presidency in order to spend more time on the phone asking people how things were going, while monitoring events closely on CNN.

I suspended this blog, vowing to contribute only “Freedom Bulletins” until the crisis was resolved.  This is Freedom Bulletin No. 2.

John also threatened to withdraw from the first Presidential debate, in order to dramatize the seriousness of the situation.  Simultaneously, working in close coordination with John's staff, I threatened to leave the dishes in my sink unwashed until Congress made meaningful progress on a rescue bill.

Our unprecedented actions bore fruit — Congress did make meaningful progress towards a bill, John showed up at the debate and I am making plans to begin work on my dishes any day now.

All of this has taken a terrible toll on John and myself, both physically and emotionally.  Last night I decided I needed to take a break from the almost unendurable strain, so I headed off to the Paris, Las Vegas casino to play some poker.


                                                                                                                     [Image © 2006 Paul Kolnik]

I played for about six hours and showed a profit at the end of the session of $31 dollars.  $31 may not seem like a lot of money in real terms, but it's actually very hard to win any money at all at a Las Vegas poker table.  Sure, there are a lot of tipsy tourists who are easy to best, but there are just as many local sharks who know how to strip you of your chips, your dignity and your sense of self worth.

Driving home at about 3am I heard on the radio that Hank Paulson believed a deal on the bail-out bill was done.  I raced home to await his call thanking me for my efforts to get America out of this mess, but he must have been too exhausted to contact me at that hour.  I understand this, and feel that no slight towards me was intended.

I poured myself a beer, averting my eyes at all times from the kitchen sink, stretched out in the La-Z-Boy and smiled.  I didn't feel like a hero — I had only done my duty.  I thought of the extra $31 in my wallet, the prospect of America solvent and prospering once again, and the dance Fred Astaire and Ann Miller do to Irving Berlin's “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” in Easter Parade.

I thought of one poker hand in particular from the evening now coming to a close.  I was dealt AK of spades.  There was a fair amount of betting before the flop — the pot was sweet.  I stayed in, of course.  The flop came with the makings of a low straight, but two of the cards were spades.  A guy bet 20 bucks, I called and everybody else folded.  I figured he was drawing to the straight.  The turn brought another card in the straight sequence.  My opponent bet 15 bucks.  I figured he'd made his straight and was feigning weakness, hoping for a call.  I called.  The river brought a jack of spades.  My opponent bet $30.  I raised him $30, sensing that was the most I could induce him to call.  He thought about it for a long time and called. 

At the showdown he turned over his nut straight.  I turned over the nut flush.  Life was good.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 17 AUGUST 1998


                                                                                                  [Image by W. L. Warner]

Yesterday evening a deep coastal cloudbank was driving in across the whole
horizon, eating up the headlands beyond the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
It was the last night of the fair and the lights of the Ferris wheel
glowed spookily in the mist, miles away. Wild rays of sunlight, like
banners, seemed to flutter over the headlands at the edge of the cloud
bank.


The sun, a bright red viscous disc, appeared through the mists just before it disappeared into the ocean.

These sorts of phenomena turn the blank landscapes of the sea and sky into
theatrical spaces, which seem both awesome and manageable — a place
one might act in, given the appropriate role, mythological and
ritualistic. Conditions also in which gods might step down into our
world.

["Freedom Bulletin" No. 1 -- no more posts until Congress solves the credit crisis!]]

BLOG SUSPENDED

Inspired by John McCain's example, I have decided to put country first and suspend this blog until Congress passes legislation to solve the nation's credit crisis.

I will continue posting as usual, but I will not think of my entries as “posts” — I will think of them as “Freedom Bulletins”.  I encourage everyone to think of my posts as “Freedom Bulletins”.

If my “Freedom Bulletins” lead to a rapid solution of the deadlock in Washington, I will let the American people decide, in their own way, how to honor my sacrifice.  If they wish to place a small historical marker at the site of my birth, so be it.  If they wish to erect a full-scale equestrian statue on the Mall in Washington, so be it.

I am not going to quibble about such things at a time when our nation is in peril.

JACOB'S LADDER

These are hard times, likely to get much harder.  But believe it or not, we are climbing Jacob's Ladder.  Every rung goes just a little bit higher.

That's right — every rung goes just a little bit higher.  Don't take my word for it — listen to the testimony of the Staple Singers, in their wonderful version of “Jacob's Ladder” on the album Freedom's Highway.

CIRCUS

The circus was a fixture of American popular entertainment as early as the colonial era.  It competed vigorously with fancier forms of theatrical entertainment in the first decades of the 19th Century and survives in several forms today.  It was always evolving — the only constant being the “circus”, the ring, which for most of circus history existed primarily for a horse or horses to race around.

In the early 19th Century, if you had a clever horse and a tent, you had a circus — all the rest was filler on the bill.



Dan Rice (above), described in the subtitle of David Carlyon’s biography as “the most famous man you’ve never heard of”, started out in the 1830s as the traveling exhibitor of a learned pig — it could count and tell the time.  Then Rice got a horse and a tent and became a circus showman, the most famous of the 19th Century.  P. T. Barnum (below) lent his name to an enterprise that became the most famous circus of all time, but wasn’t himself predominantly a circus man.  He wasn’t even responsible for his circus’s immortal motto, “The Greatest Show On Earth’, invented by someone else as a topper to “Dan Rice’s Great Show”.



Rice was an accomplished horse and animal trainer but earned his immense renown as a clown, of a new kind.  He sang and danced and did physical comedy, sometimes in blackface, and enacted parodies of Shakespeare, but captured the fancy of the nation with his comic monologues — often of a topical nature, ranging over the subjects of national and local politics (in whatever town his circus happened to be playing.)  His specialty was audience interaction, improvisation in the moment — quick wit on the fly.

He so impressed the public that he was thought of as a great and wise man — a bit like Will Rogers in the 20th Century — and he was recruited to run for political office, including the Presidency, on more than one occasion.



Though he was the chief draw of his “Great Show”, it was still a circus.  Its featured animal act was a horse named Exclesior, who could do astonishing tricks.  Later on, when “menageries” (of exotic animals) became part of the circus, Rice enlisted an elephant who could walk a tightrope, a rhinoceros who could obey a few simple commands and a trained camel.

The menagerie of exotic animals developed apart from the circus, as an adjunct to the “museums” of curiosities which flourished in the 19th Century, and in which Barnum mostly specialized.  The idea was imported into the circus as a new-fangled attraction.

In Rice’s day, the circus was a show for grown-ups, featuring plenty of sex, in the form of scantily-clad female performers, and sometimes crude humor.  It morphed into a children’s fantasy only at the end of the 19th century — when its cruder offerings were moved over into the adjoining midway.

By the 1870s, Rice’s brand of verbal comedy had been absorbed into “variety” — a very crude form, for male audiences only, centered in urban areas, usually associated, physically and commercially, with saloons.  This was the form that got cleaned up for mixed audiences (ladies as well as gents) of middle-class patrons in the 1880s and renamed vaudeville.  It still had a lot of circus in it.



Tony Pastor, the impresario who led the way in cleaning up variety and did the most to popularize the new designation “vaudeville”, had gotten his start as a knock-about clown in one of Dan Rice’s circuses — and knock-about clowning always had a place on the vaudeville stage.  So did the comic monologuist — carrying on a tradition pioneered by Rice.

Horses were gone, of course, along with the rings they raced around, but trained animal acts remained.  One of the most popular and fondly remembered acts in vaudeville was “Fink’s Mules” — sometimes called the greatest opening act of all time — in which a blacked-up Fink engaged in a losing contest of wills with his expertly trained animals.

Dan Rice also had a mule act, with two mules that only he could ride.  He’d dare audience members to try their luck with the animals, who inevitably bucked them off, to the delight of the crowd.



Horses and feats of horsemanship stayed in circuses, even though the exotic animals became the real stars, but horses took center stage in Buffalo Bill’s arena shows, a kind of circus masquerading as a historical pageant.

The chaotic popular entertainments of the 19th Century, always evolving, left their mark on the popular entertainments of the 20th Century — via vaudeville, which fed the Broadway and Hollywood musical with images, acts and talent, and supplied silent film comedy with its greatest clowns . . . and the rodeo, which carried on the circus’s and Buffalo Bill’s celebration of the horse.  The classic American circus survives only in the two companies of The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey “Greatest Show On Earth”, but another kind of circus, classier and adult-oriented, thrives on the Las Vegas Strip.  Now called “cirques” (as in “du Soleil”), they form the core of Sin City’s permanent live-performance attractions.



The continuum revealed in all this is not much remarked upon, a result of the 20th Century’s insistence on seeing itself as “modern”, freed from the shackles of the Victorian era, but also of the age-old tendency in show business to emphasize novelty.  “A 19th-Century Attraction Reborn and Refurbished!” isn’t an ad line that’s going to pack them in on a Saturday night in the 21st Century — though it would offer a more reliable indication of pure entertainment value than almost any other.

PLUTOCRACY UPDATE

It looks as though even the national media have decided it's o. k. to use the “p” word — even if they have to teach the American public what it means.

Perhaps this will lead to a little press questioning of the administration's new eight hundred billion dollar bail-out proposal.  Who exactly is it meant to benefit?  Tellingly, Treasury Secretary Paulson 
doesn't want to put a cap on executive compensation even for those
institutions that the American tax payer is being called on to rescue.
  As The New York Times reported:

Mr. Paulson said that he was concerned that imposing limits on the
compensation of executives could discourage companies from
participating in the program.

“If we design it so it’s punitive
and so institutions aren’t going to participate, this won’t work the
way we need it to work,” Mr. Paulson said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Let’s
talk about executive salaries. There have been excesses there. I agree
with the American people. Pay should be for performance, not for
failure.”

But he quickly added: “But we need this system to work, and so we — the reforms need to come afterwards.

Think about what he's saying.  The major financial institutions are in such dire straights that unless tax payers assume their bad debts, they will likely collapse, taking the whole world economy down with them.  But they might opt out of the bail-out if their top executives have limits set on their compensation.

In short, the executives would rather see their companies and the world economy tank than give up a dime of what they might be able to squeeze out of the crisis
for themselves.

It's amazing that Paulson could say such a thing with a straight face.  He's essentially admitting that the CEOs of America's major financial institutions are sociopaths.  But that's plutocracy for you — personal shame and civic responsibility have no place in it.

ANOTHER WAY TO DIE

Jack White (of The White Stripes) wrote and produced the theme song for the new James Bond film Quantum Of Solace and performs it on the soundtrack with Alicia Keys.  The movie is coming out in November but you can listen to the song now here.

It's awesome — funked-up John Barry with a nod to McCartney's Bond song and a lot of White Stripes drive.  Jack's work is big because he's got so many strains of music rattling around in his brain and no firewalls of convention, attitude or fashion separating them.  You could say the same of Armstrong, Presley, Hendrix, Dylan.

PLUTOCRACY

As you watch the current Wall Street meltdown unfold you should bear in mind that the crisis doesn't represent a failure of capitalism, it represents a triumph of plutocracy — government by, of and for the wealthy.  This is the way plutocracy is supposed to work.

In a plutocracy like ours, the wealthy instruct the government, a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America, to construct a system, a set of rules, under which corporate America can behave like a pack of rabid hyenas in its hysterical pursuit of short-term profits.  When and if the hysteria leads to a breakdown of the system — basically because the suckers get tired of being defrauded, or run out of money to lose — corporate America instructs the government to bail it out with tax dollars from ordinary Americans . . . that is to say, the same suckers it was trying to swindle by other means.

The wealthy never lose.  Dick Fuld (above), the CEO of Lehman Brothers, got a bonus of 22 million dollars last year, as he was in the process of defrauding hundreds of thousands of people with essentially worthless financial instruments and leading his company forward into bankruptcy.  The two top officers of Merrill Lynch, which had to sell itself to the Bank Of America to avoid the fate of Lehman Brothers, will split a parting gift of 47 million dollars.  The financial institutions which tried to make quick bucks by selling bundles of nearly valueless mortgages are now going to sell those bundles to the American taxpayer, in what will surely be the greatest act of corporate welfare in the history of human civilization.

Such moments in history are instructive.  They remind us that corporate America, and conservative apologists for the “free market”, have no real interest in free markets — they are interested in free money for the wealthy.  If they can get it through unregulated fraud, that's fine — if they can get it through corporate socialism, that's fine, too . . . as long as they get it.

This is the sort of racket which used to be called “the old army game”.  Like any sophisticated con, it's a no-lose system for the hucksters who are running it, corporate America's wealthy elite.  Trust me — Dick Fuld is not going to give back the 22 million he got for doing his part to send the world economy into a tailspin, placing the welfare of millions at risk.  And he's not going to jail, either — because he was operating within the laws that he and his fellow hyenas paid to have enacted.

It's plutocracy as usual.

TENDERLOIN

Cartoonist Winsor McCay never ceases to amaze.  I love this particular image (despite the preposterous ethnic caricature) because its cityscape reminds me of my old neighborhood in Manhattan, which real estate agents called North Chelsea but was in fact the old Garment District and before that, in the days when Teddy Roosevelt was New York's Police Commissioner, the Tenderloin, a precinct largely devoted to sin.  It's made up mostly of late 19th-Century and early 20th-Century commercial buildings like the ones in McCay's panels, with more than a few even older townhouses.  It has become a dreamscape to me now, which McCay's image evokes precisely.

[With thanks to a delightful web site devoted to McCay's work -- Meeting McCay.]

WATER

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,
“Morning, boys. How's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This is an excerpt from a commencement speech given a couple of years ago by the writer David Foster Wallace (above), who committed suicide this week at the age of 46.  I don't know Wallace's writing, although it has quite a reputation, but I've been struck by many of the quotes from it that have appeared in various notices of his death.

The quote above is particularly resonant.  It reminds me of Walter Benjamin's notion of the “phantasmagoria” associated with each age in history — those dreams that a whole epoch dreams and can't recognize as dreams, because everyone is having them.  He's referring to cultural assumptions so profound and so unexamined that they're simply experienced as part of the environment, like water, or air — things noticed only when they're absent.  (Curiously, Benjamin, pictured above, also committed suicide, in much different circumstances.)

It seems to me that the principle task of any critic, of art or culture, is to discover the phantasmagoria of his or her time and disenchant people out of it — so it can be seen.  It is, as I've written before, a delicate task — like letting a dreaming person know he's dreaming without waking him, because as soon as he awakens, his defenses, his unexamined assumptions about things, will reassert themselves.

Phantasmagorias exist in the regions of our culture unexamined or devalued by the official, that is to say, the conscious, culture.  In the 20th Century, for example, the official culture dreamed that the Victorian Age had been left behind in Modernism's dust, and thus it could not see how the central art form of the age, movies, was essentially Victorian.  The official culture dreamed that certain kinds of movies, like musicals, were frivolous and escapist, and thus could not see that they represented some of the century's most radical experiments in cinematic form.  The official culture dreamed that Las Vegas was a vulgar cultural aberration, and thus could not see that it was the one place where the 20th Century was anticipating the future of our cities most perceptively (while also, paradoxically, keeping the Victorian tradition of the “universal exposition” alive.)


                                                                                              Image © Paul Kolnik

These observations will seem like clichés a hundred years from now, in retrospect, when we've awakened from our current dreams.  It's the job of a cultural critic to get inside our dreams while we're dreaming them.

So how's the water where you are?