A book that is especially relevant in our times.
Niceness, the book notes, Niceness, is a virtue of “surfaces rather than depths.” Of all the qualities that might constitute a national character, it is surely the most passive, the closest to simple indifference. Kindness requires active engagement. Compassion involves some measure of vulnerability. But niceness demands so little. It allows you to turn your back and slip out the door, grabbing your coat and calling out, over your shoulder, the sweet and empty wishes that facilitate so many exits: Sounds good. Take care. Have a nice day.
The immense popularity of the pop music video, Despacito, bears testimony to the historical fact that ideas, cultures, races, even religion, are hybrid. Porosity rules, even in the age of Donald Trump and his creed of white nativism.
In America, the word “communism” is not simply misunderstood but monstrosized, hence radically othered.
M.I.T. Press has recently published a primer on Communism for children. It’s a translation of German scholar Bini Adamczak’s book.
The conservative/alt-right media has, as expected, excoriated the book without perhaps reading it, according to the book’s American translator, Jacob Blumenfeld.
Far from being a wicked endeavor to brainwash children into normalizing genocide, gulag-running, praise Satan and destroy Western civilization (which is an ongoing project undertaken by real Satanic forces anyways), the book, according to Blumenthal is a “critique of of the history of Communism.” But the critique is “immanent” meaning it begins by accepting the premises of what it seeks to criticize.
An immanent critique one could say is the polar opposite of monstrosizing.
In an eloquently composed essay in the Times Sunday Magazine, Brooklyn-based writer Kyle Chayka writes:
Despite its connotations of absence, “minimalism” has been popping up everywhere lately, like a bright algae bloom in the murk of postrecession America. From tiny houses to microapartments to monochromatic clothing to interior-decorating trends — picture white walls interrupted only by succulents — less now goes further than ever. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the minimalism glut, as the word can be applied to just about anything. The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields. So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist.
[…] There’s an arrogance to today’s minimalism that presumes it provides an answer rather than, as originally intended, a question: What other perspectives are possible when you look at the world in a different way? The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.
The hawker’s cry, “the Internet is everything!” is best judged as that–as a sign that culture has gone, as my grandfather would’ve said sitting in his lounging chair, “to the dogs.”
But there is more to the current phenomenon of culture, of “everything” perched precariously at the edge of the abyss of utter abysmality, as evidenced by the story “How Everything Became the Highest Form of Praise.”
An excerpt from the story:
“Everything” is a hawker’s cry, a hard sell. Which makes perfect sense. The Internet is the most dizzying marketplace in human history, a seething bazaar that barrages us relentlessly and from all angles. We recoil at the crudity of click bait, but in this atmosphere, it’s unfair to begrudge anyone his desperation. The Internet has a way of placing all of us — you, me, the online peddler of counterfeit Viagra, the editor of The Paris Review — in the undignified position of those touts who haunt the sidewalks outside bad restaurants in tourist-trap neighborhoods, thrusting menus in the faces of passers-by.
A children’s illustrated book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” had the neat intention of sharing with American children a piece of their history, and perhaps at the same time show them how to bake a cake for people who are special in their lives.
However, Scholastic, the publisher, has decided to stop the book’s distribution, an action that in the word’s of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopia of a futuristic bookless America, is akin to that of censorship.
“A Birthday Cake” tells the story of a black cook and his daughter who are benignly enslaved by George Washington as kitchen help. Despite their enslavement the father and daughter are happy and experience personal freedom of a limited but real kind and they especially enjoy baking a birthday cake for Washington.
Critics accuse the happiness factor portrayed in the story as a sanitizing of the institution of slavery. They fear that children might get the wrong message about a brutal chapter of oppression and inhumanity in their nation’s past.
Those who are in favor of the book’s continued distribution say that if anything the book shows the institution of slavery in complex shades of grey by focusing on the individual slave’s unique identity, feelings, intellect and talent.
The uncritical thinking that leads to mindless banning of books based on petty political impulses of groups is predicted in “Fahrenheit 451”:
Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.
Barbara Ehrenreich blasts the culture of positive thinking that encourages people to express “gratitude” so they can be better people–physically and emotionally more robust, that is.
What is gratitude? It’s an urge to be thankful to somebody who you believe has done you a good turn. However, as Ehrenreich says, gratitude has been appropriated by script writers for the self-improvement scene; their logic deems anything that makes a person feel better to be worth doing, in effect, reducing gratitude to a tool for improving our personal happiness.
Real gratitude involves interaction, while this other gratitude is a vapid feel-good exercise that is also a transaction between the “me” and the “me”.
Can we be more inclusive in our gratitude? To those who make the roofs on our heads and the meals on our tables possible?
Those who picked lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves, and prepared them and brought them to the table. Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; these are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances who make the meal possible.