Some quick hits and good reads to get us into a shining new American week…
-When I got the alert yesterday that Jimmy Breslin had died, hard on the heels of Chuck Berry, I had a vague notion of writing a piece about how the two men both created an American langauge. They took old traditions, grabbing along the way snatches of different and older languages, different sounds jumbled through the tumult of our history, bouncing around in the vastness of the land, from concrete wisdom to country passions, and in their own way, forged new and more democratic modes of expression. But then I thought: hm, I don’t know if I am really capable of exploring that, and anyway, it seems like something Charlie Pierce will do 10000 times better. He does not disappoint.
Did anyone do more to change American pop culture than Chuck Berry? This isn’t incidental; pop culture is culture. It’s an expression of our desires. Coming up with other names yields a short list, with maybe James Brown at the top of it. The list of musicians who were more awesome than Chuck Berry might be even shorter.
-So there was this commercial, in which a Jessica Chastain look-alike tells us that Exxon Mobil is really nothing more than a big ol’ jobs creator, and all the people they show are model attractive, that ran approximately 360000 times during the games this weekend. It wasn’t advertising anything, per se, other than the idea that Exxon is basically your neighborhood store, giving kids their first job so that Johhny can take Mary Sue to the movies this weekend. It’s basically a way for them to make us vaguely remember that “oil = good”. It’s essentially political, which is very smart.
Anyway, the repetition of that commercial is maybe why I had a dream this morning in which the real Jessica Chastain was giving a lecture where she said “There is maybe no more clear example of the importance of elections than fracking. Think about it: it’s an issue dominated by hydrologists, geologists, engineers, and increasingly, seismologists, yet is determined almost entirely by the people we elect. That makes it up to us. Do we elect the thoughtful, or the cheerfully venal?”
Seriously, those are my dreams with Jessica Chastain. Thanks, brain!
-Speaking of Exxon, that commercial was considerably more accessible than Exxon’s former CEO, who is settling into a quiet job outside the public eye, Secretary of State. On a weekend in which he moved us closer, rhetorically, to conflict with North Korea (a state to which North Korea themselves are also rushing), he also give some limited statements about why he’s not accessible to the press (and why he didn’t bring them along for his Asian trip, save for one friendly reporter).
“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. … When we’re ready to talk about what we’re trying to do, I will be available to talk to people. But doing daily availability, I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that.”
He added: “When I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it.”
He added that there’s plenty of media in the cities where he’s heading, lowering the need for a traveling press. And he disregarded the tradition of the secretary of State spending time with reporters on flights, saying “that’s not the way I tend to work.”
Well…shucks, Rex. It is admirable that you’re not one of those big media persons, always needing to be on the twitter for the kids, like one of those Kardashians or Kissingers. Here’s the thing, though: you’re not a CEO anymore. You don’t get to work in the shadows. You’re on the public dime, and you’re talking about issues of literal life and death, all the time. You don’t actually get to decide when we know what’s going on and when we don’t.
It’s fine that you don’t want to be a celeb SecState, and just want to do your job. But saying “I’ll only talk to the press when I feel like it” isn’t admirably modest or a burst of down-home sensibility. It is, at best, incredibly patronizing and undemocratic, and at worst, sinister. If you don’t want people to think that you’re colluding with foreign powers to help the energy industry, maybe don’t be so secretive.
-Speaking of the NCAAs, while I didn’t watch every game, I had at least most of them on at one point or the other. Yesterday was clearly the best day, though Nigel Hayes’s winner against Nova was bucket of the tournament, for sure. Witchita/Kentucky, which should clearly have not been a Round of 32 game, had that breathtaking sequence at the end, which might have been the most exciting part of the weekend. UCLA showing off their powerhouse offense in a 5-minute blitz against Cincinnati demonstrated everything that’s fun about hoops. And Duke losing in the first weekend makes every tournament worth it.
But, to me anyway, the most impressive game of the tournament was Kansas vs. Michigan State. It was a close one throughout, with a feisty Michigan St trading blows with the Jayhawks, until with about eight minutes left, Kansas methodically and brutally pulled away, winning by 20. In a weekend in which a 3-seed lost by about 900 to an 11-seed, in which Gonzaga nearly collapsed against Northwestern, in which UNC struggled against Arkansas, and in which the defending champ and #1 overall seed lost, to see a team remember they’re great, and play like it, was a sight to behold.
(Although, sneakily, and I might be biased, the best overall weekend went to Butler, which took on a very good Winthrop team and an extremely dangerous Middle Tennessee team, and never trailed in either game. Now their half of the bracket is UNC, UCLA/Kentucky, and most likely Kansas. Let’s take on some blue bloods, Butler.)
-Finally, my favorite read of the week was this in the most recent London Review of Books, in which Benjamin Kunkel talks about the “captialocene.” It’s a take on the Anthropocene, the idea that human activity has so changed the planet, in ways that were before only the result of gradual climatic and geologic shifts or sudden space-borne disasters, that it’s a whole new Epoch. This isn’t just a catchphrase, either: by the end of this year, the Anthropocene might be officially established alongside the Pleistocene, Holocene, Miocene, and others.
But the idea of the “captialocene” is slightly different. It argues that the great changes weren’t really the results of all humans, but came about as a result of capitalism, in which the land and the people were converted into capital for the benefit of the very few. That is, we as a species didn’t make a choice to do something, but a select group got rich destroying the planet.
There’s a damn good argument there (and nowhere is it I think more true than in North America, in which literally everything was alchemized into money). There is a counterargument that communism wasn’t exactly good for the environment (see, while you can, the remainder of the Aral Sea), but that was a reaction to capitalism, and still in the essential capitalist framework. The nature of the project is to wring profit out of everything, and if that means using up the world the way it uses up workers, so be it.
The other counterargument is that the process started long before capitalism. Hell, the people that came over to North America set out to immediately wipe out all large mammals save for buffalo, changing the ecosystem almost irreversibly. So maybe capitalism is just the ultimate expression of our nature?
The idea is that the capitalocene can actually transform into the Anthropocene, in which humans more broadly have a say in the environment, and our systems are revised to redistribute both economic and environmental justice. That is: the decisions about the earth aren’t just made by the few, for the few, but finally, for once, by the species as a whole. That does seem to be the only way to solve this mess. All it takes is a complete reordering of all our priorities. I’m guessing another asteroid will hit first.