Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges gives a great portrayal, not just of a failing country music artist, but of an alcoholic.

Alcohol chiefly blocks emotional intelligence, not intellectual intelligence.  The alcoholic over time doesn’t know what makes him sad, what makes him happy, what makes him anxious.  We have these emotions for a reason, they teach us what matters to us, what frightens us, what brings satisfaction.  The neurologist, Antonio Damasio, in his book  Descartes’ Error, descirbes how loss of emotional processing leads to profound dysfunction.  The alcoholic, without reliable emotional processing, becomes a baffling mixture of preserved intellectual intelligence but increasing emotional stupidity.  This is Bad Blake, a man of talent and creativity who abandons a son and a wife, can’t write music anymore, and doesn’t know why.

We can explain alcoholism as a charming by-product of creative  genius.  We think of it as enhancing creative powers.  We can be fooled into seeing it as a movingly tragic antidote for gifted peoples’ special pain.  This movie, though, gives us none of that.  Bad Blake was bad because he was a alcoholic, and he became sensible, and talented, when he stopped drinking.  His new woman interest didn’t waver when she saw it clearly. Somehow, she had learned, perhaps the hard way, and she wasn’t going to risk the welfare of her son.

In American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, we find the clearly portrayed – but little acknowledged – martini alcoholism of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the  creator of the atom bomb.  We see that his wife was an alcoholic also, her’s more severe, he an enabler.  Oppenheimer became a frustrating, puzzling mix of mental genius and emotional failure. The man who built the atom bomb eventually lost his security clearance, and his family.  His son went off to live in seclusion in the mountains of New Mexico, working as contractor and carpenter, twice married and divorced.

When his daughter Toni was born, her mother suffered postpartum depression, and was drinking, “a lot”, so she left Toni with a nanny friend, and went away for a number of months. Robert Oppenheimer would periodically visit the child.

It was all very strange.  He would come and sit and chat with me, but he wouldn’t ask to see the baby.  She might as well have been God knows where, but he never asked to see her.”

“Would you like to adopt her?”

No, she reassured him . . . over time he would become “attached” to the baby.

“No, I’m not an attached kind of person”.

After failed marriages, no children, and recurrent unhappiness, Toni hanged herself in the family beach house of Hawksnest Bay, in the Virgin Islands, overlooking where her father’s ashes and urn are submerged.

New Deal, Political Deal

Many consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be our third greatest president.  In books such as The New Dealers’s War,  by Thomas Fleming, 2001, and  The Forgotten man, by Amity Shlaes, 2007, FDR receives re-evaluation.

Not all went as well with FDR as has been taught.  Unemployment was still 20% in 1939.  There was a severe recession in 1937, Europe had recovered much faster. Eight years into his presidency, we were not prepared for war, a war easily foreseeable, and building the military would have greatly aided the economic recovery. Churchill was left to oppose Hitler largely alone for a year, and eventually the US had to side with and arm Stalin to beat Hitler.  We were unable to influence the immense slaughter in Poland and Ukraine by Germans and Russians alike. FDR placed Japanese American citizens in detention camps, he prevented Jews from emigrating from Europe.  Ships with fleeing Jews were actually sent back into the clutches of Hitler.

FDR shelved Einstein’s famous warning about the possibility of an atom bomb, and the English had to urge on the Manhattan Project.  FDR did not move to support anti-lynching legislation, or oppose the segregationist southern democrats.  His National Recovery Board supported monopoly price fixing and collusion in markets, favoring big business, placing small businesses at great disadvantage. This was eventually ruled unconstitutional, unanimously, which led FDR to try to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court.  He taxed the ‘little guy’ with excise taxes, and raised taxes overall, and enormously increased government regulation.  The NRA in 2 years created more federal law that all the previous years of the nation since 1789.

The Great Depression turned out to be the one exception of the US ‘boom and busts’ that didn’t quickly resolve, the only one in which government didn’t act to increase the incentives of investment and the small business economy.  The hampered economic recovery served to justify increasing federal power.  And increasing federal power is what he did. He targeted political enemies with IRS investigations, and muscled the elections of congressional leaders.  Far from having a ‘first class temperment’, he manipulated,  frustrated, and infuriated his appointees, and staff.  Many abandoned him.  He was the first to break George Washington’s honor code of serving only two consecutive terms.

But he was a political success.  The New Deal was a political deal.  FDR personally directed New Deal funds for political gain, lavishing his supporters with government funds, denying those that opposed him.   He was a charming public speaker, he cultivated and pressured the press to support him and to gloss over his contradictions.  He spoke a strong populist theme, but he bought elections with New Deal money. In his great electoral victory of 1936, federal spending outpaced all local and state spending for the first time.  He didn’t hesitate to say opposing things to opposing audiences.

FDR died in office, galvanizing his image of victorious service to the nation, but he brought Tamany Hall to Washington, D. C.

He’s not there, he’s gone.

In the movie “I’m not there“, creative Hollywood artists who know Bob Dylan, and know of his singular importance in our time, want to give tribute to him. There has been no sign of his acknowledgment, of course.

It is curious, and very to the point, that the chosen title song for this movie may be the most personally significant song Mr. Dylan has ever written, and also the very one song of all of his repertoire that has not been placed on any of his albums, or posted on any of his lyric anthologies.  Indeed, people cannot agree on what the lyrics actually say.  The recorded version of the song very likely is an unfinished song, with filler words and phrases, to be refined later, which seems never to have happened.

Yet, it is an truly compelling and emblematic song.  Written in the basement tapes sessions during his life in Woodstock, as his attempt to be a normal person, a normal husband, a normal father is slipping.  He seems to be fighting and grasping with the cost of his incessant, unshakeable artistic being.  The song just may be too raw, too painfully emotional for him to finish, or acknowledge, or publish.

“I’m not there” is dirge-like, with anger, blaming of others, and blaming himself.  It does not resolve.  There is a grinding, plodding anguish.  He has five young children and a lovely wife, but he knows he can’t maintain it, knows he is going to bow out, not at all sure it will be wonderful, sensing that it will be painful, sure that others will be disappointed, and, worse, that it will be selfish. . . but he can’t help it.

Now I’ll cry tonight like I cried the night before

And I’ll feast on her eyes

But I’ll dream about the door.

I was born to love her

But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her

I wish I were there to help her

But I’m not there I’m gone.

Legacy of Compromise

Legacy of Secrecy, The long shadow of the JFK assassination, Lamar Waldron, with Thom Hartmann, 2009

Democracies are new to the world stage.  And the first, truly world wide power, the United States, is a democracy.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the United States had unprecedented military dominance.  The US could and did topple and build whole governments the world over.  Yet, according to this book – and many, many similar books – within US boundaries, criminal enterprises with government-like powers, have thrived.  It is a curious and unexpected development that such a powerful nation could have had such an astonishing usurpation of its power within its own borders.

If the stories outlined in this book can be believed, rogue elements within the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, working within, caused more national injury –  including presidential assassination and forced presidential resignation – than any outside enemy could have hoped to achieve.  Illegal business – drugs, prostitution, protection, gambling, and fraud, etc. – have attained the power of life and death over citizens, the ability to kill and get away with it, even Presidents.

The getting- away- with- it is the stunning story here. With shrewd involvement, calculated funding, and planned compromise of politicians and law enforcers – including the FBI and the CIA –  criminal organizations have gained immunity within. And so for these authors, our democracy has become a symbiosis of the legal and the illegal, and there is a tenous balance of crossing the line and not crossing the line.  Scandals are the inevitable splashes when crossing the line spills over – think Watergate, the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, Chinagate, and many others.

This book’s story is a long one, of myriad overlappings of the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and pro-Castro Cubans, organized crime, and political operatives who conspire and commit assassinations, and achieve business and foreign policy manipulation.

And the investigations don’t go anywhere, because they can’t go anywhere, because in all directions compromise is to be found.  Indeed it has all been engineered that way, to block the truth.   The good guys do some good, and some bad, and the bad guys do mostly bad, and maybe some good, and the whole story gets partially aired in a ‘limited hangout’ that hides the collusion of government and crime.

A mansion has many rooms, and there were many things going on during the period of the [antiwar] bombings.  I’m not privy to who struck John.”

James Jesus Angleton, 31 year veteran of the CIA and Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, New York Times, December 25, 1974

“Mr. Angleton did not deny, however, that he had been named and identified by a British counterspy, Kim Philby, in “My Silent War”, a book published in 1968 after he defected to the Soviet Union.”   New York Times, December 25, 1974,  Helm’s Disavows ‘Illegal’ Spying by the C.I.A. in U.S, Seymour M. Hersh.

Das Kapital, A biography

Karl Marx has convinced generations of western intellectuals that capitalism is evil.  He witnessed capitalism during its early and ugliest stage, in 19th century England, and made the case that capitalism was an unavoidably diabolical exploitation of the many by the few.   Alas, over the next 150 years, capitalism lifted the material well being of the working masses to a degree unimaginable by Marx in his time, sparing mainly those who decided to follow him.  And yet Marx lives on.

In Das Kapital, A biography, by Francis Wheen, 2006, we meet Karl Marx the man.  He is a polymath, a voracious reader, an energetic, ideophoric thinker.  He is a very unappealing person.  He is angry, grandiose, self-loathing, eccentric, obsessive, argumentative, distractable, litiginous, compulsive, sickly, mean, sarcastic, a severe procrastinator, and unkempt most of the time.  He would not have succeeded on TV.

Das Kapital, his major work, was never finished. It is ponderous, full of literary reference, circuitous, and contradictory. It may be the most unread but revered book ever written.  His most enduring point was that history had a logic, history was not just ‘one damn thing after another’, it was humans exploiting humans in an dynamic process (heretofore not understood until by him).  We can all relate to that.

Marx predicted that Capitalism would degenerate into crisis.  Capitalism fosters technological innovation, which increases productivity. But this has precarious effects on employment.  Sometimes increased productivity creates new markets and new employment, at other times, it does not, or not soon enough.  In the Great Depression, the tractor destroyed farm labor faster than the industrial economy could create new employment.  Marx would have expected the Great Depression.  He wouldn’t have expected its recovery with the modern social welfare capitalist state.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously said:  “Marx asked all the right questions, but got all the wrong answers”.

Marx revelled in his apocalyptic vision.  He enjoyed the devilish, sinister story of history he was convinced that he uniquely discovered.   ” Das Kapital can be read as a vast Gothic Novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created“.

One of Marx’s favorite books was Frankenstein.

Das Kapital is a passionately condemns western enlightenment.  He was one of many who would deride the very kind of society that allows people like him to do with such relish what they love to do – – independently think, read, and philosophize.

“one can argue that the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse:  a centralized, secretive, and bureaucratic command economy proved incompatible with new forces of production.”

Today, Marxist ideas linger on in the shadowy background of cultural studies.  Here, diabolical, unconscious exploitation carries on in language, in words, in mores, in texts. Culture, now, is the exploiter.  And so Marxism lives on in issues of education, religion, psychology, and family – ironically, all areas Marx considered ‘bunk’.

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