Category Archives: Penelope Trunk

Way Up High in the Manhattan Sky

Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?

My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.

But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.

I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.

“I’m, uh, reading.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”

I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.

For example, I’d read in the L.A. Times that Dave Chappelle just cut a $60 million dollar deal for 3 Netflix comedy specials at $20 million per special. And, in all honesty, I got the same feeling I’ve had in the past while reading about Trump filing Chapter 11 six times and defrauding his contractors while possibly laundering money for the Russian mob; Bannon and Puzder beating their wives; and a recently fired U.S. Attorney getting headhunted to teach at NYU as a sweet payoff in which he can “continue addressing the issues I so deeply care about.” Right.

There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.

Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.

If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.

I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.

Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.

Cool dude.

I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.

Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”

That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.

What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.

These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.

So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.

 

Advertisements

US anti-intellectualism through a glass darkly: the end of our national self-inquiry.

Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities.  It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing.  I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.

Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM.  The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room.  But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that.  Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation.  Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?

Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician.  Do we expect him to have humanistic values?  His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his.  He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.

This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country.  This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign.  Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss.  Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs.  But college is not going away and neither are state governors.

The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much.  If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree.  I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability.  And who could blame them?  They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.

Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing.   For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this.  And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.

How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick?  Sounds priceless to me.  But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life.  When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy.  And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.

But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced.  She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru.  I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does.  Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer.  Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her.  She is the vanilla Ann Coulter.  And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.

Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.”  This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.

She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”  And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.”  It’s not the end of higher education.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry.  As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling.  Cabal puts it like this:

New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”

Bullshit, indeed.  In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”  

Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government.  Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.