Saturday, January 23, 2010

Save Poetry From The Professors

Andrew Sullivan points to an interesting blog post about the sorry state of modern poetry. I'm requoting what Sully liked:

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water.
Couldn't agree more. I studied a fair amount of poetry in college, and still own at least a couple of books of poetry. I can quote some Keats, and thoroughly enjoyed Bright Star. I've written a fair amount myself, and once spent three years working on one poem. But I can't stand most current American poetry. Here's how most poetry sounds to me:

I am a poet (pause, deep breath, sigh)
and you (pause) are who I am thinking of (pause, another sigh)
because (pause)
we are both (pause)

Most poetry seems to be written by people who are scared of their own shadows, and are creating a space for themselves to be still, and quiet, and mostly alone. It's very inward-directed, and seems to be written by people who are anxious about even going outside. That's probably too harsh, and I'm sure there are thousands of great counterexamples. But that's what a lot of it sounds like to me. The writer of this blog post believes that the source of the problem is that many poets are comfortably ensconced in universities, and that poetry journals end up publishing poetry written by and for these university-bound folks.

Again, couldn't agree more. Except that I don't think this is anywhere nearly radical enough in its definition of poetry. It limits "poetry" to what is being published in books and journals. I think that's absurd. The English-speaking world has a great tradition of poetry called rock and roll. Consider this line:

"The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive."

Millions of people have heard that line hundreds of times each. It's from Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run." It could easily be one of the most overplayed songs in history. But try to think about that image without the context of FM radio. There's a reason it's overplayed - it's a great line for a rock song.

So I don't think the problem with American poetry is that Americans aren't interested in poetry. I think the problem is that a few people who are decent writers have managed to convince the rest of us that it's worthwhile to subsidize them so they can talk to each other about how special they are. And some of those people have convinved themselves that they are the ones who determine what is and is not considered "art."

What this writer fails to realize is that the disconnect and the concern is mostly one-sided. He's worried that Americans don't connect with contemporary poets. But the concern is not reciprocated. Most Americans don't read poetry because it doesn't speak to them - he's right there. But most of them also don't care that contemporary poetry doesn't speak to them. I'm perfectly capable of reading and understanding contemporary American poetry. I've even bought "Best American Poetry" books before. But I don't read contemporary American poetry not only because it doesn't speak to me, but because I don't care about it. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.

But I'm falling into the same trap - defining "poetry" as what is published by people who call themselves poets, and is published in poetry journals. It's not that I don't care about contemporary poetry. It's that I don't care about a particular brand of poery.

Marianne Moore said it best:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cheer Up, Idiot Democrats!

Just about any competitive athlete, particularly any pro athlete, will tell you that one of the most important things in any competition is to not let your opponents rattle you. Never let 'em see you sweat. Stay calm, stay focused.

Democrats would be well advised to keep this in mind these days. I knew there would be some finger-pointing and blaming going around after the loss in Massachusetts, and that's what I saw today. Some blogger actually blamed Obama. There was the usual sniping that Obama isn't liberal enough, he's alienated his base, etc., from the "progressive" camp, vs. the "liberals don't know how to compromise" argument from the "moderate" camp.

Not only is this tired and cliched, it's stupid and counterproductive. Taking yourself too seriously is an occupational hazard of being a political junkie. I know this, because I have this tendency myself. Taking yourself too seriously is also an occupational hazard of being a philosophy major, and I was one of those, too. One of my antidotes to taking myself too seriously is the motto of this blog (it's right under the masthead).

Democrats lost a seat they had every reason to believe was an easy victory. That was stupid. But Democrats still have large majorities in the House and the Senate. Plus they have the presidency.

Exactly one year ago today, a young African American with a weird name achieved what most thot was impossible, and was inaugurated President of the United States of America.

Guess what, Democrats - he's still President.

I have said this many times before, and I'm sure I will say it many times again: I refuse to be afraid of my political opponents. Unless someone has a gun to my head, I'm not afraid of them.

I am particularly not afraid of my political opponents when my party controls the levers of power.

Apart from the question of just making the decision not to be afraid, I have solid evidence why I shouldn't be afraid of my political opponents: my side is winning. Not just with today's majorities, but over the course of history. We have won decisive victories in terms of feminism, civil rights, and the environment. We are slowly winning the battle for gay rights. I could go on.

Anyone who is angry at or disillusioned with Barack Obama has not been listening to Barack Obama, because a central part of his message has always been this: This is going to be hard.

There are no meaningful victories without setbacks. I keep thinking about Mark Sanchez, the quarterback for the Jets. Last year, he was the quarterback for USC. He had a year of eligibility left, but he went pro. Some questioned his move - his coach, Pete Carroll, was famously upset - but this year, Mark Sanchez is one victory away from playing in the Super Bowl. And he's the quarterback of the Jets!

Never let 'em see you sweat. Never let yourself be afraid of your political opponents. But never underestimate them, either. And never, ever forget that you are an American, and that the arc of history bends towards justice.

Suck it up, Democrats.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Obama's Next Message: We Have Taken Responsibility

Josh Marshall has a rush take on what Obama should do in response to the loss of a Democratic senate seat in Massachusetts. As I wrote in my last post, I think one thing Obama should not do is freak out. Take advice from that ultimate guide to adventure, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: Don't Panic. There is a great deal of unfocused rage floating in the country right now, and it needs a target. Obama, as president, makes a very convenient target. I find the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien disaster instructive. Neither Jay Leno nor Conan O'Brien is responsible for this mess. They were both perfectly happy in their jobs, and both doing well. It was the idiot suits at NBC who spent years messing this up. But Leno and O'Brien are both very public faces, so they get a fair share of the anger, largely because few people know how to yell at Jeff Zucker.

But Obama is not responsible for the mess that this country is in: Republicans are. Obama has, however, accepted responsibility for cleaning it up, and I think that should be his message: "We have taken responsibility." We (Democrats) have taken responsibility for winding down the war in Iraq. We have taken responsibility for winning the war in Afghanistan. We have taken responsibility for stabilizing the financial system. We have taken responsibility for reforming the health care system. We have taken responsibility for taking care of our fellow citizens in this time of tremendous hardship.

Republicans, on the other hand, have done nothing of the kind. They have refused to take any kind of responsibility whatsoever for their failures. They have refused to take any kind of responsibility for the failures of oversight which led to a catastrophic financial system failure. They have refused to take any kind of responsibility for violating basic tenets of the rule of law. They have refused to take any kind of responsibility for blowing up the deficit. They have refused to take any kind of responsibility for exacerbating massive inequality.

But Democrats have taken responsibility for cleaning up the Republicans' mess because Democrats have the guts to do so, while Republicans don't. Not all Republicans: there are many Republicans who are very capable of taking responsibility for cleaning up their own and other people's messes, like my Dad. I always add a caveat about my Dad when slamming Republicans, because Dad is a very enlightened Republican (and he's cleaned up a few of my messes over the years). He's enlightened enough to have voted for Obama.

But many Republicans, like Dick Cheney, are just wimps. They talk tough, but they don't have the guts to make tough decisions. Obama, of course, does have the guts to make tough decisions. Decisions like taking responsibility for other people's mistakes.

This Would Be A Good Time Not To Freak Out

So Scott Brown won the race to replace Ted Kennedy as a senator from Massachusetts. It's a bit odd for me to write that sentence, because I have a cousin named Scott Brown, and he isn't in politics, and lives about as far away from Massachusetts as you can in this country (he lives out here in Southern California). He does have a tough job; he does PR for Chrysler.

I have to admit that I didn't see this one coming, but in this respect, I think I am in good company, that company being pretty much every other Democrat in the country. I wasn't following this race until very recently; again, like all my fellow Dems, I suspect. Also like my fellow Dems, I am going to be looking for an explanation, although I am going to try to avoid any kind of intra-party blaming. I am not going to take sides in a moderate-vs.-progressive flame war.

My take on it is that Democrats took the voters of Massachusetts for granted, and if there is one thing that can be said to be an iron law about politics in a democracy, it is that voters hate being taken for granted. It is said that you should not speak ill of the dead, and, of course, a death is a time to remember mostly good things about a person. But I think Democrats, in all their praise of Kennedy, forgot that he was, besides being a great senator, an alcoholic womanizer who got his Senate seat because of his family. My gut tells me that many people voted for a Republican because they really were desperate for a change. I can understand that. I have had many experiences with feeling suffocated by an overwhelming sense of liberal superiority. I went to an elite East Coast liberal arts college in the 80's - I get why lots of people find liberals often insufferably arrogant.

I've also heard that Martha Coakley ran a terrible campaign and Scott Brown ran a brilliant one. I didn't follow it, but I'm going to accept that as fact. I don't know the minutiae, and I'm not that interested.

What I am interested in is the future, and I think that still looks good for Democrats. They still have a brilliant and charismatic leader; they still have large majorities in both the House and Senate. What they don't have - yet - is a strong record of accomplishment.

Obama has been compared on many occasions to Reagan, and it's instructive to remember how bad Reagan had it in the early 1980's. Inflation, unemployment, and interest rates were all very high. The recession was horrible. There were serious doubts about the future of this country. Reagan, to his credit, beat inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment. He was also, of course, responsible for a horrible deficit and many other ills. I don't know how much credit goes to Reagan for all of that, and how much goes to people like Paul Volcker, who was chairman of the Fed at the time.

I find the comparison with Reagan apt for another reason: Democrats didn't realize it at the time, but they were losing their ideological legitimacy. America was still in the throes of the post-60's era. Liberals were winning most cultural debates - feminism, civil rights, challenging authority, etc. - but they were losing the battle over the role of government in society. Reagan touched a nerve when he told people that government had gotten too big. It took Democrats several lost elections to realize that. I think they went too far in accommodating conservatives in this regard, but they needed to make a correction.

Today, Obama faces the same challenge: conservatism as an ideology has run out of steam, intellectually, politically, and morally. Obama's problem is that he doesn't have a cadre of people articulating the replacement. That will be the subject of my next post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Before you try to revolutionize my business, I'd like to know that you actually know my business."

-George Clooney, "Up in the Air"

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Only In New York - Let The Sun Shine Im

Suddenly I am really, really, really nostalgic for Washington Square Park. I have to admit that this wouldn't happen in LA:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Quote of the Day

"I used to hide the fact that I did not know the difference between net and gross profits. Thankfully, someone explained it."

This doesn't sound like a great quote. I'm sure there are many people who don't know the difference between net and gross. What's odd is who said it: Sir Richard Branson. Yes, that Sir Richard Branson, of the Virgin empire. He said it in response to the question "Have you ever lied at work?" in a questionnaire in the Financial Times. What's ironic here is that he apparently lied at work, but now he's being honest about it. In a worldwide forum, no less. Props to him for being honest about something that any first-year MBA student would be embarrassed to admit.

My second-favorite quote from this interview is "The bottom line," when he is asked "What is your most hated business expression?" The next time someone tells me that profit drives business, I am going to share this with them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cautiously Optimistic About Detroit

The Washington Post surveyed residents of Detroit about how they feel about the future of Motown. There's general agreement that the place is in ruins now, but most have not given up completely. Which is good, because I'm from there, and I still have family there (Hi Mom!).

I'm of the opinion that there is a silver lining to the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler: it clarifies the status of manufacturing in Detroit and places like it. I've been hearing about the decline of American car manufacturing for years. GM has been losing market share for years. Chrysler already flirted with bankruptcy once.

I've also been seeing the Big Three perpetuate delusions about their status, and make strategic decisions that, in retrospect, were just not right. GM and Ford both bought European car companies, and are both now getting rid of them.

Beyond the specifics of what failed - like Saturn - what failed generally was strategic, theoretical thinking that had no connection to the basic raison d'etre of the car business. There is one way to make money in the car business: make good cars that people want to buy. It's like the movie business. There is one way to make money in the movie business: make good movies that people want to watch. What GM, Ford, and Chrysler failed to do was consistently execute on the details.

But now we know that those experiments failed. We have clarity courtesy of President Obama.

Conservatives complain that politicians should not interfere with business decisions. Except that a key part of the problem at GM and Chrysler was politics, specifically, the internal kind. Imagine office politics wherever you work. Now multiply that by 1,000. Or 10,000. That's what office politics are like at the Big Three. Many people have known for years that GM was making too many different models of cars. But each division had its advocates, and even the chairman of GM did not have the power to lay down the law and cut divisions.

The office politics at GM and Chrysler were literally so bad that it took the intervention of the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, to cut the Gordian knot.

So now we have clarity about the future of American car manufacturing. It's not dead. I have faith that the Big Three can build good cars. I have faith that they now understand that their experiments have failed. There are lots of people in Detroit who know a lot about designing and selling good cars. Those people will still have good jobs. And there will still be people wielding rivet guns and paint sprayers. Just not as many of them.

What's ironic for me is that there are some people who saw this coming years ago, and one of them is a guy named Bill Clinton. An essential part of Clinton's message was this: The jobs that created a blue collar middle class in the 1950's are going, many of them are gone, and they will not be coming back. So we have to deal with it. This is why he focused on health care reform early in his first term - because he knew that the model of employer-based health care was changing, and not for the better. It's also why he focused on job training and empowering people to go to community colleges for retraining.

It's not clear what is going to replace manufacturing as a source of jobs. But transitions like this one have always been problematic. There have always been winners and losers as industries and companies change.

We don't know where we will go from here. But we know we can't stay where we are.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Quote of the Decade

"Know hope."

-Barack Obama

Too Many Honors Societies

Were you in an "honor society" in high school? I wasn't. I don't remember there being an honor society, although I suppose there was one. It didn't matter, I still got into one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country (Swarthmore). Today, however, they seem to be sprouting like weeds, to the point that some schools are cutting back. Sure, it will good on your college application if you're in five honors societies. But that should also raise questions for any college admissions officer about how seriously you were involved in all five.

But there are other reasons an overabundance of honors societies are a problem: first, they raise unrealistic expectations. Once you're out of college, awards are not handed out like Halloween candy. There are six Nobel prizes awarded each year, for the entire world. When someone wins an Oscar, it means that they were the best in the world in that category that year. Period, end of story. There may be multiple valedictorians in a single high school class, but in the real world, every football team has exactly one starting quarterback at a time, and every company has exactly one CEO. There have been some new awards created for entertainment (I'm still not sure what the "People's Choice Awards" are), and there seem to be lots of "Top Ten" lists, but an Oscar is still an Oscar, an Emmy is still an Emmy, and a Grammy is still a Grammy. The Nobel Prize in Economics is new - it was not part of Alfred Nobel's will. So the Nobels have expanded by one prize in a century. Not much danger of cheapening anything there. There are numerous college bowls, but there is one Rose Bowl, one national championship game, and one Super Bowl.

There are three things that will get you into a good college: 1) being a good student 2) being a responsible citizen 3) being interesting. If you are in five honors societies out of 12 at your school, you may be interesting, or your school's honors societies may have low standards. Or you may be trying too hard to spiff up your college application. But if you made your own prom dress from a pattern in a magazine from the 1950's that you found in the local library, you are interesting. If you're the starting quarterback on a football team that went 8-1, you're a good athlete. But if you're the captain of the brand-new lacrosse team that your school just started, you are interesting.

The big problem with so many honors societies is that they are meaningless as soon as you graduate from high school. I was on the debate team in high school. I was moderately good, but I didn't win any awards. It probably helped me get into college, but I never put it on my resume, and I don't think I've had more than 5 conversations about it since high school. As soon as you get to college, no one cares what you did in high school. And as soon as you graduate, no one cares what you did in college.

I think we confuse cause and effect when we think about elite higher education. We see people like Barack and Michelle Obama, who went to Ivy League colleges, and we think, "If I want to be highly successful, then I have to go to an Ivy League college as well."

Hogwash. It does not hurt to go to one of those colleges. But it is not necessary.

The Obamas got into Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard Law because they are smart, competent, and creative. Those are the same qualities which have made them successful in life. But getting into Columbia and Harvard did not make President Obama smart and competent. He got into them because he was smart and competent. He was smart and competent before he went to Harvard Law, while he was there, and after he left. Going to Harvard Law did not make him smart and competent. It showed the world that he was smart and competent, but there are lots of ways to do that. What you don't hear about are the superstar lawyers who went to places like the University of North Dakota or Arizona State (those are both real-life examples that I know of).

There is one thing that is vastly more important than education for being successul in life, and that is knowing what you want. If you graduate from a small community college, but you're determined to be an editor for sitcoms, you've got a decent chance of making it. But if you graduate with honors from an elite college, but you have no idea what you want to do with your life, you might spend years spinning your wheels. Trust me on this one, I graduated with honors from an elite college, but I had no idea what to do with my life, and I spent years spinning my wheels.

If you are in seven honors societies but you have no record of accomplishment in any of them, you might be just collecting tassels. If you're only in the Latin honor society, but you're the president, and you raised money for a trip for you and other students to travel to Rome to read Latin transcripts at the Vatican, then you are focused and committed, and you know what you want. I knew a guy in college who majored in Latin, one of the least practical degrees imaginable. But he got a job working in the rare manuscripts section of a major library in New York, and he was very happy. If you're on the cheerleading squad, you might be doing it just for fun. But if you're the captain, you practice for three hours a day, you bought videos on cheerleading, and you recruited your friends to join the squad, you're focused.

Most people get basically one job based on where they went to college: their first one. After you get your first job, you get your next one based on how well you did in the first one. I have interviewed for dozens of jobs. No one has ever mentioned the fact that I have a degree from Swarthmore. I got one job because I had a degree in philosophy - the president of the company liked philosophy majors (his father had a PhD from Harvard). But that was also one of the worst jobs I ever had.

Self-esteem does not come from collecting meaningless awards and joining groups just because you can. Self-esteem comes from knowing who you are, knowing what you want to do with your life, knowing what you are good at, getting good at it, and being better at it than other people.