Welcome. This here blog offers what I learn, in commentary for all its worth. Know that I try to know best, when I know anything at all.

Journey onward!!!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Spengler Exposé

Several times in this blog, I have taken on Spengler's writings as inspiration for my own. David P Goldman, a religious American Jew writing under the pseudonym Spengler for Asia Times Online, recently lifted his veil after a decade of closeted commentary.

For all his controversial, incendiary and often conceited opinions, it is not surprising he chose to remain anonymous. As a result, I've been criticized for springboarding off his work while leaving unchallenged his opinionated world view. Most recently, my post on Spengler's take on American Idol has ruffled some feathers and deserves better exposition.

This post is dedicated to conveying why I have not directly challenged Spengler's presuppositions about American Idol. In short, it is beyond my ability to do so. What I have attempted, however, is to challenge his conclusions in the only way that I am capable, namely on the basis of intuition.

I have never read anyone with whom who I agree and disagree so strongly before, often at the same time. Perhaps it is this paradox that gives Spengler his allure, and why I read his columns extensively. He is not the typical, simple-minded ideologue. Rare among his peers, especially in right-wing opinion these days, Spengler has developed a rather unique, cohesive, and cultish system of thought in which his opinions are bred.

Conceptually, I find that refreshing, compelling, and inspirational, even if I don't consider myself adherent to his world view.

I once read that one measure of a person's intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in their mind at the same time. I don't remember who said that, nevertheless I have taken those words as a vow, a challenge with which to discover my own sense of integrity and intellectual congruity. I am a long, long way from that journey's end but frankly, I know of no other way to go about it.

What began as a simple plea for support from my friend Steve, turned into an expository essay on the world that is Spengler's. While I understand Spengler on an intuitive level, I lack the ability to efficiently verbalize what Steve has done here. What would have taken me months to compose, Steve completed in the span of an hour or two without batting an eye. Thanks man!

For those interested, here is Spengler's world as channeled by Steve, one who has ruminated through his writing for years uncounted. Though it may not seem so at first, Steve will steer his narrative back to American Idol ere the end to great effect.


So this is just me, chiming in on Spengler and what he has to say about American Idol. I want to do this because I think Spengler is worth it, and that the things that make him worth understanding are precisely the things that make him difficult to understand, particularly when you take his work column by column, isolated utterance by isolated utterance. Spengler is one of the few truly systematic thinkers writing about politics and culture for an audience of layman today. It is difficult to explicate his work because it is one integrated system. It's hard to know where to begin.

One good starting point is with his discussions of paganism. Paganism is a central concept in understanding his critique of Western modernity and of the fraught history of Abrahamic monotheism. He ascribes a deep significance to the worship of a totally abstract, transcendent deity, and the otherworldly religiosity that attends it. Christian otherworldliness devalued the actual world. To become a Christian meant being severed from your old life and old self, to cut your roots and enter unto a new life. Life in the Christian community meant experiencing death, and become a new person.

By contrast, paganism elevated the self image of human beings into the order of the cosmos. The pagan god was an expression of narcissism, with every people, every ethnicity having its own pantheon of gods. The Abrahamic god was totally transcendent and could not be represented by images; such a god cannot be represented by physical, external reality but can be felt as an internal presence. Where the pagan god was a narcissistic reflection of the self, the Abrahamic god was an absolute other.

So according to Spengler, the conversion of the West to Christianity was incomplete; the latent paganism of the barbarian peoples of Europe never completely disappeared. Much of the history of the west can be understood as a consequence of this incomplete conversion. One must ask whether a complete conversion could ever occur. Christianity is an extremely difficult religion to follow, for it asks us to believe, to really and sincerely believe, that 2000 so years ago, God, the lord and omnipotent master of the universe, became a lowly carpenter in ancient Palestine who was willingly crucified out of love for humanity. One who believes must place all of his faith in the otherworldly love of God, and of eternal life. Naturally, this is an impossibly high standard.

What happened to Europe was that it found it could not believe in eternal love and salvation, and so looked instead to a modern form of idolatry, that is, ethnic nationalism. The idea that one's culture and way of life will continue long after one dies is the only form of immortality that modern man believes in. With the collapse of religious belief, man has looked to new gods.

Now, on to a discussion of Spengler's ideas about music. For Spengler, the glories of Western culture are a direct result of Christian spirituality. In particular, he sees the soaring, transcendent achievements of Western classical music from Bach through Beethoven as being the highest expression of Christian spirituality. The total transcendence of the Abrahamic god was an impetus to Western composers to express the inexpressible reality of God's sublime being. In this, I am somewhat inclined to agree with him. Anyone familiar with the history of Western classical music knows how bound up with sacred music and the musical setting of liturgical texts that history has been.

Now what does all of this have to do with American Idol? I am sorry to be roundabout about things. American Idol. Idol, idolatry. I can see why the show would be such a tempting target for him. I wanted to give you some idea of the complexity of Spengler's thought, and of how it all hangs together. I think Spengler views popular culture as another expression of paganism. He reiterates this idea over and over again, that people would rather listen to music produced by people much like themselves and that doesn't force them to stretch themselves. For Spengler, the collapse of Christian religiosity was a cultural catastrophe, because with it went the belief that people needed to look beyond themselves for a standard of value. For modern man, the self is the measure of all things. They no longer even aspire to learn about and equal what is great. Not only that, but today people increasingly feel only confusion and resentment towards the great achievements of the past. In other words, Spengler sees the egalitarian, populist strains in American culture, its more democratic aspects, as being deeply destructive, even decadent in many ways, and that much of this because, at its base, is resentment of whatever makes us feel bad about ourselves. Feeling bad about ourselves is, of course, the beginning of aspiration.

Now, do you see why Spengler detests American Idol, and why I do not have the facility to challenge him?
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Monday, May 18, 2009

2009 NY Giants and the Plaxico Trap

Many people think the Giants are doomed if they don't replace Plaxico Burress with a big time veteran wide receiver. Not just fans, but a majority of mainstream media, beat writers and their like have published strong opinions to that effect. I thought so too, for a time.

It is easy to see why people would think so, seeing as how Plax's blunder cost his team the 2008 post season. But it is harder to see how everyone is missing the point, namely that the 2008 Giants collapsed due to their game plan, not Plax.

As I opined several months ago, losing Plax was so catastrophic precisely because the offensive game plan relied entirely too much on his presence.

He bears his share of fault, namely for putting a hole in his own thigh, but it was not his fault the Giants collapsed as a result. Plax is a football player, a drone, not the team's strategist who made him so crucial in the offensive scheme. The 2008 Giants' problem was rooted in the game plan, not Plaxico per se. Even the horrid playcalling we witnessed was an extension of the failed game plan.

Calls to replace Plax, then, actually amount to a call for more of the same: a thin playbook based on a power running game plan denominated by Plaxico Burress, the same strategy that tore apart at the seams late 2008.

Is this really the offensive game plan Giants fans want to see rehashed in 2009? Bear in mind: despite Super Bowl glory in 2007 and a 11-1 run in 2008, it turned out the incumbent strategy was much too precarious. A normal football injury might as well have been a bullet hole; either way the Giants offense would have collapsed, whether it happened to Plax or some other peer receiver.

Yet it appears lots of people do want more of the same, considering the tone of the many analyses and op-eds out there, not to mention fan comments therein. I pity the panicked fans who worry if Hakeem Nicks, our round one draftee, can fill Plax's shoes. Even more incredulously, some believe the free agency improvements we made to the defense, and spending high draft picks on receivers, were merely bargaining chips to service a trade for some Plax-caliber receiver.

I concede it is possible that, if the Giants really want to double down on the 2007-2008 game plan again in 2009, they will acquire Braylon Edwards, Anquan Boldin, or some equivalent receiver at all costs. But the Giants organization has not forgotten how that game plan turned out. I don't know about GM Jerry Resse or Tom Coughlin, but my wound from that spectacular breakdown is still open fresh.

Reese clearly still feels it. Passing up the free agency market and drafting rookie receivers instead was a clear signal he wants to move forward. I think the Giants brass knows the 2008 unraveling was due not to the loss of Plax, but rather to the team tapestry into which his role was woven; it was really the game plan that failed.

Fans calling for a Plax replacement should be careful what they wish for, and experts should know better. The mainstream fixation on replacing Plax demonstrates that many Giants watchers are missing the point, namely that to successfully move forward, one must reconcile instead of replicating the past.

Too many salaried journalists have shown they do not understand the past, suggesting that they don't really think about what they're writing. While the casual fan is excused, journalists deserve no such reprieve.

It makes me glad football organizations are not democratically run, and to see that GM Jerry Reese knows better (so does Brandon Jacobs). Moving forward, he understands that nothing helps a transitional offense more than a fearsome defense.

I predict this is exactly what the Giants will get in 2009, if the rookie defensive coordinator holds up. Our first-class defensive line just got a whole lot deeper and is now arguably world-class. The linebacking corps, perhaps the weaker defensive unit, received a nice boost in free agency and the draft. The secondary is populated by talented backs with experience of the highest standard. On average, the Giants' defense is just entering their prime.

More than anyone in the offense, the big question mark looms over coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Though he likely masterminded the Plax game plan, he needs to prove he was also a victim of bad fortune, that his playcalling circa late 2008 was really not as bad as it looked. This will largely define our overall success in 2009.

Even if 2009 brings a fresh new game plan, we must take care to retain lessons learned. When the 2007 playoff Giants upset opponent after opponent, they looked in the mirror and learned just how "perfect" an imperfect team can be. Defeating the "perfect" Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, then falling flat after a near brilliant 2008 campaign, the Giants learned just how imperfect a "perfect" team can be.

These are valuable lessons that make champions. With that in mind, I look forward to the 2009 campaign without Plax. And for the record, as Plaxico Buress is no longer a Giant, herein will be the last time I refer to him affectionately as Plax.

September can't come soon enough!!!!!!!!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

And The Next American Idol Is.. Yourself? Yay?

For anyone interested in a scathing thesis on why American Idol is so popular, and its implications for Western culture at large, I recommend a courageous read.
The day is gone when a smile and a shoeshine will get you a shot at the American dream, but a smile and a song can still get you a chance at instant stardom.

More than ever, audiences in the West validate their own mediocrity by crowning stars-for-a-day. That is the message of [vain] hope that Susan Boyle bears to the beleaguered Anglo-Saxon world. Meanwhile, in China, 60 million children are learning music the hard way.

Here is Spengler, at his best, commenting on the symbolism of a certain Susan Boyle's victory in the British version of the singing contest. He basically warns that the West lives in a fantasy world, with real consequences in the real world where in walks China.

In said article, Spengler judges "pop culture" against "high culture," which really isn't a fair comparison by today's standards. Nevertheless, the balance in America does lean toward "pop" over "high" concerns even in times of crisis, whether it's AIG and Wall Street bonuses, stupid pirates or pig flu. Some believe this trait carries irrevocable consequences, especially in a self-governing democracy.

Here is Spengler's basic argument: while Americans aspire to musical mediocrity on American Idol, large numbers of Chinese are diligently learning Western classical piano. In other words, while the West is consumed with "validating its own mediocrity," the Chinese are keen on bettering themselves through the study of "high culture."

To Spengler, when a civilization has lost perspective on high culture, it is driving down Decadence Lane. When it comes to cultural aspiration, he believes the American character is firmly en route to being surpassed by its Chinese counterpart.

Analysis - Stage One

It is almost amusing how aspects of American culture completely disgust Spengler, revealed to be a Mr. David Goldman. While in some sense it is difficult to find fault in his criticism, conceit runs deep in his bolder conclusions (as I will point out).

Be that as it may, the significance of his criticism merits wider attention.

Spengler finds truths in the way a civilization manifests its own history. In China, centuries of national strife and humiliation have etched virtues of thrift and diligence into the modern Chinese with a "conviction that the world shows no mercy to mediocrity." On the other hand, the modern American has pioneered a microwavable world wherein "high culture" is edged by a "slacker's desire of reward with neither merit nor effort."

It is a fair criticism, agreeable to those disgusted by unbridled materialism and celebrity culture; or presumptuous reality shows, Wall Street alchemy, Facebook narcissism, so on and so forth.

But the Chinese may be little better off, contrary to what Spengler implies. However more thrifty or diligent they may be, a culture of strict discipline can seed a decadence of its very own. Their intensive musical studies, while more valuable than Guitar Hero, may cause bereavement of other kinds.

As a case in point, here is a story imparted to me by a good friend:

I'll never forget that I had a friend from China in middle school. I went over to his house and his sister was practicing the piano for some recital. I guess she missed a note and her parents just went ballistic on her. I remember thinking, damn she sounded all right to me. Maybe she was just screwing around or something; I've always told myself she missed a note, but she seemed hard at work on that piano.

I will leave the reader's imagination to measure the significance of this account. I dare not speculate, but would venture to say that our freedom to slack off vis-a-vis their regimented discipline both have its price.

To dismiss Spengler's observations on this basis, however, is to miss the point. While I believe he overstates the integrity of the Chinese character, his warning of decadence in the West stands on its own.

Analysis - Stage Two

Simply bettering oneself for betterment's sake seems to be an overlooked enterprise these days. The deep popularity of shows like American Idol suggests that Americans are more concerned with showmanship and microwaved celebrities. This triumph of mediocrity over high culture, Spengler argues, presents nothing higher for people to aspire to other than their own average selves.

I am sympathetic to this argument.

Consider the case of musical studies. American parents often think that joining the school band or taking private lessons will help their kids get better grades. While this holds some truth, these parents are completely missing the point.

Involvement in music isn't about getting good grades, nor for the sake of participating in "high culture." Rather it is about simply getting good at doing something (read: anything). The best activity, of course, is the kind that teaches how to better yourself. Why any parent would need other reasons for musical studies, scientific or not, is beyond my understanding.

Do we really need a reason to commit to something other than to better ourselves? It seems that we do, perhaps because Americans feel little need to better ourselves beyond who we already are.

We feel we have arrived; the American Century was unfolding before our very eyes, with the pre-9/11 world coming to order. All major wars have ended, save for the ones we begin. As the sole superpower, the world was our backyard. Wealth, prestige, influence, power, morality, these are all things Americans have harvested in abundance and come to take for granted by the 21st century.

After all, why struggle to better ourselves when we have already made it?

If the Chinese do surpass us one day, it will not be because of their incubated diligence and discipline. Rather it will be our own complacency that drives the West into decline.

(Perhaps we can find solace in the fact that China is probably headed down the same road toward a consumerist existence. After all there's nothing like materialistic complacency to wipe out the hard-learned lessons of history. This we should know.)

One thing about Spengler's dire warning is for certain: the West still has no idea what kind of trouble it's in.
If Westerners think the present recession is unpleasant, they cannot begin to imagine how the recovery will look, for it may occur entirely remote to them, on the other side of the world.

It is harder and harder to dismiss the awful thought that Americans, too, might require long experience with hard times to restore the sort of diligence that their Chinese counterparts learned at such a high price.

May he be proved wrong. In the meantime, who will be the next American Idol? You? Yay?
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