Life’s a Beach


I do not dislike the rich.

I dislike the many layers of fraud by which they avoid hard questions about where their wealth comes from.

Here’s one.

How might you come by enough money in America to buy a beautiful beach house? If you are in fact the owner of such a home, you likely believe it is because you competed and won a prize in our economic meritocracy. You hustled, took smart risks, and made more money than the next guy. The marketplace rewarded your performance with the means to buy a house that looks like this:

Beach House

It’s lovely. I’d like one.

The usual story about how to get one of these is a free-market capitalist story. Work hard enough, and you can own one, too.

But that’s not the true story, or at least it leaves out all the crucial details. Like almost every other aspect of being rich in America, the system that advances and safeguards the privileges of the wealthy is not free-market capitalism. The accumulation of ostentatious wealth relies on massive, continuous government intervention in the free market–precisely the kind of thing that heroic capitalists are supposed to despise.

In his short 1945 review of Jack London’s The Iron Heel, George Orwell notes how remarkable it was that in 1907 London correctly prophesied this aspect of capitalist society: contrary to Marx, capitalism would not “collapse of its own contradictions.” Rather, as Orwell read London, “the possessing class would be able to form itself into a vast corporation and even evolve a perverted Socialism . . . to preserve its superior status.”

This is what we have in America, a perverted form of socialism that looks out for the rich. The rich and powerful routinely petition the government (using their “vast corporation” of lobbyists and other influence buyers) to intervene massively in free markets to create conditions favorable to them. And every time this happens (which is basically all the time), all of us, rich, poor and middle class, pick up the bill.

This is the main moral of the story of the 2017 federal tax cut, for example. If you are a billionaire in America, your corporation of influence buyers has succeeded in getting the working class to pay parts of your tax bill that you formerly paid. So praise be to God for that.

But back to that beach house. The thing about it is, it’s not just a pristine prize waiting out there in a free market wilderness for an adventurer to find and claim. It took massive government intervention to prepare the way to it, and it takes continuous government intervention to protect its value.

First, no developer in the world is going to undertake a beach community project based on a rational evaluation of the risks alone. It takes someone with a lot of money to volunteer up front to back such an enterprise. This is where the government comes in. By zoning beach areas for residential construction, governments are signalling they will do whatever it takes to turn houses built in hurricane zones into viable investments. (The Bible, if you’re into it, famously has this to say about such choices.)

Well, wait a minute. Don’t heroic capitalists just spend some of their own money on insurance rates that are calibrated for the risk? No. In 1968 the federal government established the National Flood Insurance Program, funded by loans from the U.S. Treasury. The reason the feds had to get involved is because there were no private capitalists heroic enough to stay in the flood insurance game after several devastating coastal floods in the 1950s and 60s. Insurers simply could not devise a profitable business model that charged homeowners a high enough premium.

The NFIP has never been solvent, and today it is in a tailspin of ever deepening debt. There is no plan to get the NFIP out of the red. So know this: If you buy that beach house, chances are high that your flood insurance will be financed mostly by working people, half of whom cannot afford houses anywhere, let alone on our country’s beautiful beaches. And at least for now, with the present tax scheme in effect, the poor are paying a higher proportion of their “wealth” to do this than you are. The icing on the cake?–They’re paying into a “business” that no capitalist would touch with a 10-foot pole.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to look into this matter if I hadn’t heard an interview with Gilbert Gaul, the author of The Geography of Risk a couple weeks ago. Gaul basically tells the story of the vast system of government interventions that have evolved to make it possible for our owning class to buy the choicest residential real estate in the country despite the obvious downside that their homes are constantly at risk of being flooded or blown down. Someone’s gotta pay for all that risk.

Much of the government intervention that favors the rich has been devised behind the scenes, so that it appears to be part of an objective, impersonal landscape. This is the first layer of fraud that I believe enables the rich to think of themselves as deserving champions. They say, and possibly even believe, we’re all competing on a level playing field. But this is nowhere close to the truth.

The rich person gazing out over a construction lot on the beach is not coldly taking in objective reality, consisting of risks that must be delicately weighed. He’s basking in a Shangri-La of rules, budgets and institutions that have been trumped up to benefit him and to make his life even easier than his money should make it.

Not all beach-house-friendly government interventions are this insidious, though. They do not all induce moral blindness. Amazingly, some just come knocking at your door in broad daylight and announce their intentions to help.

One of the most scenic places to build beach houses is on what’s called a barrier island, a thin strip of land that is set off the main coast anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles. The best known barrier islands in America are probably the Outer Banks, stretching 200 miles from the coast of Virginia to North Carolina. They are beautiful and gloriously remote, a national treasure.

Problem is, if you want to build on barrier islands, they’re disappearing. Eventually the Outer Banks (and other barrier islands) will be overtopped by rising sea levels. In the meantime, they’re facing a nearer-term threat, beach erosion. Every year, rain and wind eats away a little more beach. The more this happens, the closer your beach house or hotel comes to extinction.

So here’s an amazing thing. The federal government routinely comes swooping in, bursting with money, to protect you from this natural process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regularly pops up in beach communities to do billions of dollars worth of beach reclamation. Often, they must coach the local mayors through the process of taking the federal money they are offering. I am not making this up. It’s in Gaul’s book, The Geography of Risk. Until I heard the interview with him and then read his book I had no idea voluntary beach reclamation was happening. But it’s actually happening all the time.

Because the Corps of Engineers has private contractors perform the reclamation work, an uninformed observer could be forgiven for not knowing the whole thing is a massive welfare program planned, initiated and funded by the federal government. Yes, of course, the home owners’ taxes help pay for the Corp’s good deeds, but so do the taxes paid by the rest of us, taxi drivers, family farmers, failed literary critics, what have you. Is this fair?

So what am I saying–should we eat the rich? Burn down their beach houses? Of course not. At the end of the day, my philosophy comes more from Ecclesiastes than Marx. I have no idea who actually deserves their wealth, and on what grounds. Anyway, I believe these question pale beside deeper ones about our ultimate extinction, a fate shared by rich and poor alike.

But, such weightier questions aside, I know in the here and now that I despise intellectual fraud. I think the owning class should be much more honest about the gaudily generous ways that the government constantly comes to their aid, and they should stop trying to distract us by pointing out the paltry handouts the poor get and calling them unsustainable. Paying the flood insurance policies for the rich out of an endless pile of Treasury debt is sustainable?

Imagine if the U.S. Corps of Engineers showed up in an inner city with a plan and funds in hand to revitalize its infrastructure–help out the poor for a change? Is that laughable? Yes it is. All I’m asking is that the rich recognize how ridiculous their myth is that they’re winning the game of life on their own merits. Their pretend game of capitalism is in reality what Orwell called a perverted form of socialism.

But the biggest outrage perpetrated by the rich is that they get us to amplify their frauds. They condition us to train our critical instincts on the very same categories of government expenditure they dislike, such as basic services, infrastructure, and welfare for the poor. So check out Gaul’s book. The rich also receive welfare, but they have trained us to call it something else.



Four Novels by Jesse Ball: Let Us Rebel


I’m at the age now where all my doctors are younger than I am. I take it with equanimity.

Less so my novelists.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I’ll never be a novelist, so why should it rankle that the professional memorializers of life are younger than I am? I suppose because a good novel is always a meditation on the meaning of life, and I’ve always thought that the more you have to meditate on the better writer you would be. How can the young be better at looking back on something they have less of than I do? It doesn’t seem fair.

But it happens.

Jesse Ball is only 41. He started collecting the experience of life in 1978, when I was already 12. He has, his book flaps say, already written 14 books, many of them to critical acclaim. Until three weeks ago, I had no idea who he was.

Then I read a review of his latest novel, The Divers’ Game. It suggested a drawing together of two themes that have taken up much of my reflection over the last 30 years–moral imagination and chaos.

At its root, my idea of moral imagination is Kantian. I believe that being able to imagine yourself as someone else, or as occupying different circumstances than your present ones (even circumstances that might so far be novel to the human experience), is crucial for moral deliberation. Lack of moral imagination limits your ability to think or act with empathy.

Sometimes moral imagination hits you smack in the face. When three-year old Aylan Kurdi drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, I wondered what it was like to be the Turkish border guard who gathered up the boy’s body. How long did it take him to turn off the images he saw, the feeling he felt of the boy’s weight in his arms? Had it struck him that the boy was dressed for an ordinary day of preschool, or possibly vacation? Tragedies and injustices of this depth make acts of moral imagination relatively easy, or at least accessible.

But our apprehension of moral facts is rarely that cut-and-dried. I also believe the world is radically contingent, which means that things go willy-nilly, turning out any which way, the odd scientific or mathematical law not withstanding. I am no plain Kantian. Our lives are underdetermined by our choices, moral or otherwise. The universe in which I am my present self is as plausible as a universe in which I had millions of dollars, or a wasting disease that cut me down in my youth, or a personality unidentifiable with my “actual” one.

This much contingency potentially upsets the idea that we can make coherent moral choices. If there are no fixed paths for being human, or for leading your individual life, how much value can you invest in moral decision-making? The consequences of your choices are always at risk of being overtaken by events.

Genetic mutations happen randomly, changing us in our physical being. The rich and powerful seize control of “democracies” meant to reflect our will. The Lord causeth the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. That sort of thing. Are we not routinely overpowered by circumstances?

This idea finds its most outlandish expression in Kafka. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of Gregor Samsa waking up one day as a giant beetle in “Metamorphosis” was, it must have had something to do with shock value. Kafka was trying to shock us with the sudden, unnatural occurrence of a process that we consider “natural” because it is happening gradually and insensibly all the time–the changing of the human body from one thing to another. The fact that our bodies have the form they have is, in part, the random outcome of a chaotic interplay of natural processes. Any part of the process could have gone differently–and therefore could go differently in the future.

If our successor species, through some miracle, survives to witness the death of the sun in 5-billion odd years, its members will not resemble us. I repeat: no humans will witness the last sunset. “They” will be something radically different from what we are today. It is extremely doubtful that they will even exhibit a human legacy. We are on that path of metamorphosis right now, changing from one thing over which he had no control, to another, over which we can expect to have just as little control in the end.

The chance that this species will fit the design parameters of our environment is, of course, much, much smaller than the chance that it will die the same death as millions of species before it, of course.

C’est la vie.

The review I read of Jesse Ball three weeks ago was tantalizing because it seemed to draw together these Kantian and Kafkan views of life–the idea that we must, for moral reasons, be able to imagine ourselves and circumstances differently (in order to take others’s perspectives seriously) but that there is no practical limit on how different our selves or our circumstances can be imagined. In other words, to become more moral persons, we must acquire a skill that points ultimately toward moral disorientation.

I ended up reading four of Ball’s novels, all of which explore this interplay of moral imperative and metaphysical chaos.

In The Diver’s Game, Ball asks us to imagine being members of an advanced society that has expressly given up the fiction of human equality. An upper caste subjugates and kills a lower caste. Politics proceeds on the deliberate forgetting of the violence and injustices it took to establish the superiority of the upper caste. And so on.

Divers Game

As a reviewer, there is no way I can put this theme without making it sound too on-the-nose. Is it inspired by the recent decisions of America’s Christian leaders to institutionalize cruelty so that migrants learn to stay away from our borders? It must be. But Ball handles it at greater depth than that. The book is no mere battering of the philistine’s moral outlook. It is an expression of despair at the systematic cruelty we are born into. “We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air,” Ball concludes. How can you stop breathing air?

Census is about the outsized power of love in a tragic world. A doctor discovers he has a terminal disease and fears that his grown son, who has Down Syndrome, will have to live on uncared for. He volunteers to spend his last months on the road as a census taker, and takes his son with him. (Ball’s real-life brother, who died at 24, had Down Syndrome.) Father and son travel, Kafka-like, northward through an alphabetized string of villages named only by initials.

Census is an elegiac meditation on the incommensurate power of parental love. Adults bring children into the world–we learn after the fact–to have something large enough to blot out the meaning of our own existence, so that we can say an acceptable goodbye in the end. Ball reminds us that nothing happens on schedule, and we die with things undone, debts unpaid. You can hedge against such randomness, though, by keeping love at the center of your life.

I rarely give direct advice about reading books, but I will make an exception here. If you haven’t read anything by Ball yet, don’t start with How to Set a Fire and Why. As an edgy character study in the precariousness of Millennial life, you might get the impression from Fire that Ball is just an exceptionally good YA writer, ready to break out into grownup novels. Ball’s inhabitation of the teenage heroine, Lucia, is so complete that it sometimes marginalizes the book’s message.

Lucia is a gifted high school student, emotionally scarred by orphanhood. She has a keen enough sense of decency to recognize that it is missing from the very design of the institutions set up to care for her. She seeks to join a secret arson club comprising other disaffected young people who see their plight in anarchist terms only slightly updated from Kropotkin. Lucia writes in a pamphlet:

The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well then, we shall have to try and make some sense of it. . . . Wealth squeezes us. The wealthy squeeze us and squeeze us, until we cannot even help one another, as we would naturally do, as it is in our hearts already to do.

A committed arsonist, Lucia gives a desperate response to this bind we are in. I believe Ball means for us to learn from her example, not that the system must be burned down in reality, but that it deserves no better. Society has been rendered hostile for individual acts of decency.

Of the four novels I read by Ball, Samedi the Deafness was the only one that required any effort to grasp. It is a sort of postmodern detective story, in which you are prepared at any point for a magical device to reveal the whole thing as a dream or illusion.

James Sim witnesses what appears to be a horrific murder in a park one Sunday morning. When he is kidnapped by thugs apparently connected to the murder, he is sure he will be killed too or at least blackmailed. Instead he finds himself kept in a surreal hospital-cum-hotel. The owner, who ordered the murder in the park, is conducting a grand experiment in letting his subjects live out elaborate lies. He also has a plan for the end of the world.

One of the Escher paths out of the maze of Samedi the Deafness leads to the conclusion that the choices people make in the real world are as shabby and deluded as those made by the systematic liars who populate the story. It is an epistemological substrate to Ball’s other critiques of morality: our moral choices are not just indecent in their substance; they issue from a basis of willful delusion. No one, or hardly anyone, is morally serious in Ball’s view.

As bleak as his novels tend to be, they all cast a ray of hope on the hedging power of individual compassion. There is always some way to stay true to the human instinct not to kill or subjugate one’s conspecifics. Our merciful side, though, is the smaller part of our nature, so if we are to stay true to it, we will have to live our lives in rebellion. So be it, then. This is the message I get from Ball’s novels. If decency requires a rebellion against the larger part of our nature, let us rebel.


Comforts of Home


This has been a year of reading books twice. Why? I suppose because they felt good the first time.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the umpteenth time. And I read Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, twice. It is wonderful.

On New Year’s Day of this year I started reading Sue Prideaux’s beautifully crafted I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche. Now I am reading it again.

Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. People who have never read a thing by him think he is awful because he wrote that God is dead. Then they go on to say, with God out of the way, Nietzsche says we should strive to be supermen, lording it over all the little people who still have faith. Then comes the coup de grace: No wonder Hitler liked Nietzsche. If God is dead and certain people are supermen, of course you end up with supermen machine-gunning people they dislike into pits.

Well, blaming Nietzsche for Nazism is like blaming Lavoisier for causing fires because he discovered the oxygen theory of combustion. You could do it, but you’d be really dumb.

Nietzsche was a conventional, patriotic young man who happened to be very good at Latin and Greek. He could also improvise beautifully on the piano.

Nietzsche’s father and grandfather had both been Lutheran priests, and young Nietzsche intended to follow them into the priesthood. When he was confirmed during high school, Nietzsche experienced a feeling of such intense devotion, he declared to a friend that he was willing to “die for Christ.” His overprotective mother worried that he would take up with a new kind of charismatic Christian making waves in 1860s Germany who went around openly confessing their sins and frankly expounding on their need for forgiveness. They were basically Jesus freaks, if you can imagine that kind of thing in 19th century Germany. The things you read in books, right?

Nietzsche’s break with religion, when it happened, was no mere adolescent rebellion against a naive version of Christian fundamentalism. It grew out of his realization that the Bible was preposterous, and that all the other creation myths, heroic epics, and systems of morals he was learning as a classicist were equally preposterous. They were all stories that humans made up and which insisted on not being read as made up.

When Nietzsche says we are supermen, he is not being arrogant. Quite the opposite. He is asking for a confession of our limits. Humankind, if it is capable of mustering the honesty, must admit it has made up all the cosmologies and codes of law that we think of as being handed down from the sky from God’s hand to ours. “God” was really us all along. It is in that paradoxical sense that we are supermen–we were our own lawgivers. We’ve been writing down our own intuitions for ages and ascribing them to “God.”

With the death of divine authorship comes the duty to think much more carefully. If before you followed a law that required you to be monstrous to other people–massacring them, say, or relegating them to castes of the despicable–now you no longer have divine law as an excuse. Divine law has no objective reality beyond the fears, prejudices, and class interests from which it is conjured.

So grow up, is what Nietzsche says. This is, I think, why so many people dislike him. He is unsettling. And he says plainly that we have grave responsibilities. People don’t like that. They would rather have incense, mystic rites, and the childish doodads of religious tribalism. The purpose of these things is to tell us there is some “mystery” that relieves us of moral responsibility. Well, goodbye to all that, I say. The list of things that strain or compromise our moral responsibility is long enough without adding made-up things to it.

Reading Nietzsche is a way of bucking yourself up.

Looking back at what we have read in certain timespans is, I think, a kind of psychoanalysis. I rarely have a plan of what to read: some unconscious force moves me. So it is instructive to ask: why did I read the books I choose, seemingly at random?

One thing I read twice this year was The Castle, by Kafka. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have also read it many times. I find myself using an awkward phrase about The Castle: I call it the most important novel in the world to me. Not the best. I do not call it the best, because Kafka did not manage to finish it, and there are other novels in its class whose authors did manage to finish. So they get the palm. More about them in a moment.

The Castle is a very Nietzschean novel. It is about self-authorship. It is about two facets of self-authorship really.

One: To lead your own life is thoroughly disorienting. This is because there is no script to follow, where certain well-meaning institutions like school or parents probably tried to teach you there was one. In the early modern frame of mind, you might have thought you could follow a religious path or a nationalist path to who you ought to be. Harking back to ancient time, you might declare with all the confidence of Marcus Aurelius, “I rise to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for?”

(Walt Whitman thought like this. He thought America overflowed with well-defined opportunities that you could see yourself born to fulfill.)

In The Castle, K arrives in a snowy village at night because he has been summoned to be the official land surveyor. He has the full and clear intention to report for duty. He possesses a letter appointing him to the position. But real life takes another direction for K: even though the whole village is made up of nothing but appurtenances of the bureaucracy that appointed him to his position as land surveyor, no one can trace the authority of this appointment back to its source and tell him how to start his job. There is no job for K to do. The Castle bureaucracy buzzes intensely with self-interrogation, but it cannot discover a motive for bringing K here, a rationale for his existence.

Two: If there is no script shape to one’s life, the sheer force of will takes on new priority. This is also very Nietzschean. The only “action” of The Castle is K’s constant, dogged attempt to claim his role as land surveyor. Each way he turns, there appears to be a faint glimmer of hope that someone in the know can tell him what is really happening behind the scenes. Then that person turns out to be as clueless and powerless as K. The system, powerful as it is, lets everyone down.

If you want to extract a simple moral from The Castle, it is this: We are all K. We all must rely primarily on our own will to create the standards by which we will succeed and then try to succeed according to those standards. This is disorienting, because we expect life to have something like a plan imposed from outside. But it doesn’t.

So The Castle tells you that you have very grave responsibilities and no objective scheme for seeing them through.

Good luck!

I also re-read Underworld by Don Delillo. As I wrote here a few days ago, I consider it the greatest American novel. It is, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, and like Kafka’s story in The Castle, a fable of self-creation. I won’t rehash it here; I would probably just go off on a tangent. It is a novel about the way America re-created itself during the Cold War. It relates how Americans used to be outside and together all the time but now we stay in. Delillo thinks the assassination of JFK was pivotal in this evolution. After the Zapruder film–the headsnap and braincase explosion–we started staying inside and discussing disquieting, horrible things. And the news has been like that ever since.

Why are these the books I come back to? Why do they provide the comforts of home?

book coffee
(Image: Rebloggy)

Are they coordinates in a system? I think maybe they are. Coordinates render a place on a map you can come back to.

In 1850 there was a boy born half-Irish half-Greek on a Greek island. Abandoned by his parents at the age of seven, he went to Ireland, then America. He became a newspaperman in Cincinnati, where his specialty was writing lurid accounts of violent crimes. He married a woman recently emancipated from slavery and had to move to New Orleans because that kind of thing did not go down well in Ohio. The marriage ended. He started writing cookbooks. He also translated obscure French literature.

He moved to Martinique for two years and then Japan. There he married anew, into a samurai family, and he translated 14 books of Japanese folktales. They were so good, they became part of the Japanese school curriculum. The point is, the half-Greek was all over the place. You might not know his name, Lafcadio Hearn, (I certainly didn’t before I read about him in the New Yorker), but what an extraordinary life he led.

Hearn’s whole world consisted of language–reading and writing. You couldn’t say he lacked a home. He eventually became a Japanese citizen. But his real home was the written word through which he was constantly re-creating his identity and environment. Oddly, there is no such thing as getting lost under these circumstances, although from the outside, you might appear as lost as all get-out.

I am no creator of worlds (as Hearns clearly was), but I do know the basic shape of mine. The coordinates that make up its boundary are given in Orwell, Nietzsche, Kafka and Delillo. I suppose I read them over and over for the same reason you can look at a map over and over without losing your sense of fascination. There are multitudes of details inside the boundary–so many you can’t keep them straight. But the framework, if it is stable enough, creates a home.

How Don Delillo Saw Everything Coming


I have written here before about my inadequacy to review Don Delillo’s masterpiece, Underworld. I think it is the greatest American novel there is, but then again, how many American novels have I read–a few hundred?

Plus, every reader is different. No one has the last word on what a great American novel is. Our experience is so fractured. Everyone has their own life.

Maybe Underworld is a farewell to the very idea of the American novel. That could be where its sweet sadness comes from. It is certainly a farewell to the confidence we felt at the end of the so-called American Century, the feeling that we had won the Cold War because we were right, the feeling that everyone else wanted to be like us because why else would they be buying all our products and watching our movies and setting up stock exchanges like ours?

Isn’t that what it was like to be on top of the world at the End of History? Look how neatly the Gulf War went.


Delillo published Underworld in 1998. I haven’t looked into it, but I presume he spent most of the 1990s writing it. Although it opens with a scene from 1951, it is very much a novel of the 1990s. It was written from the perspective of having won the whole 20th century as if it were a decathlon and then some sports writer asks Delillo what it all meant.

Underneath our very public history of the Bomb and Elvis and IBM and MLK and so forth, there was a subterranean history worming through America, which, as it turns out, did not predestine us for limitless prosperity and a more perfect union. At the End of History, Delillo had some kind of intimation that the “human veer” as he called it would pull us back into the vortex of chaos and indeterminacy.

Speaking of predestination, Delillo gives the World Trade Center three cameo appearances in Underworld. He did this for his own, very 1990s reasons, of course. He meant those images as a comment on greed and brutalism and, yes, a kind of national strength. But, uncannily, he also gave the Twin Towers an air of indefinable menace. They stood there in mere outline, the incidental subjects of three brief passages in an 800-page book, just waiting for something to happen.

So this is what I am not saying: I am not saying that Delillo foresaw 9/11. But I am saying this: A good prophet is like a quarterback who reads defenses at a glance and seems to know what they will do in detail–gives the appearance of knowing the intention and trajectory of each of the 11 opposing players even though he doesn’t. His ingenious play calling becomes a kind of prophesy.

Delillo writes about American at the end of Its Century with the same unforced mastery as Joe Montana quarterbacking his team down the field with two minutes to play. He executes with such fluidity that he seems to know the exact details of what will happen in advance. I think this is the kind of thing Delillo does in Underworld.

The Twin Towers are just the starkest, most haunting example of Delillo’s preternatural vision. He also sees the meanings of other things at the close of the century–how latent political urges would once again be summoned by the irrational force of crowds: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” he wrote. Delillo saw how even the broad, clearly delineated avenues of liberal democracy would trail off into Escher mazes of unthinking and unknowing.

One thing Delillo clearly foresaw was the particular way in which American capitalism would prove Marx right about the immiseration of the masses. Consider the following passage. It takes place in a blasted urban wasteland. A local junk artist, sensing the opportunity to sell anything, anywhere that is swelling in the rise of the dot-com wave, is about to “go global,” at least so he thinks in his fantasies. He has his crew of junkies and burnouts connect an old TV to a dilapidated generator powered by a boy on a bike. It is his link to a globalizing world. Entrepreneur and CEO, he takes the news in:

On the screen an image flicks and jumps. It is a man’s discoid head, a fellow in a white shirt with a blue collar, or blue shirt with white collar–there is a fairly frequent color shift. He is talking about the big board composite while numbers and letters flow in two bands across the bottom of the screen, a blue band and a white band, and the crew sits watching, and the kid on the bike is bent and pedaling, a furious pumping boy, and the names and prices flow in two different directions with active issues blinking.

My note in the margin says this is an image of pointless human misery propelling the capitalist system forward. In Dickens, the hustling boy would have been exploited for a reason, made to work for an industrialist’s profit, maybe blacking bottles, as Dickens himself did as a child. In Delillo, the boy is just pedaling away, and the “industrialist” is positioning himself to make mad money off nothing. He wants to be like the rich people he sees on TV:

He loves the language of buying and selling and the sight of those clustered sets of letters that represent enormous corporate entities with their jets and stretches and tanker fleets. . . . The boy cranks and strains, bouncing on the seat, but the numbers keep flowing across the screen.

This desire for celebrity riches amplifies what we have mastered in the “services” economy of the developed world–the creation of value from nearly nonexistent inputs (data, wealth management, life coaching) that insists nonetheless on the real suffering of underlaborers far down the supply chain. Delillo’s boy on the bike is fictional; the millions of wage slaves producing our toys, t-shirts and doodads not even worth defining are all too real. Pop into a dollar store and admire their wares.

Say what you will of Marx, but he got the Iron Law of Wages exactly right. The working poor can see lives of dignity just beyond reach, but we make damn sure they cannot have them. We remind them ruefully that there are large, impersonal forces to which we are all beholden, rich and poor alike, that say not everyone can win. Keep trying, though!

Delillo was also right about something huge that we didn’t even have a name for in 1998 but we have a very clever name for today–the datafication of everything. He saw that everything that could be encoded as digital information was fated to be so encoded. Our lives would be enmeshed with ubiquitous, undifferentiated information from now on. And, what’s more, he saw that once the data was all arrayed in a system, it would all be maximally interconnectable.

Derrida may have been exaggerating when he wrote that nothing existed outside the text (i.e. there is no real, unmediated world); he was probably trying to be outrageous. Delillo, on the other hand, invites us (if that is the right word) to see ourselves falling into just such a world.

Underworld closes with what feels like a benediction. But is it a benediction? It is basically Delillo’s admission that, with the datafication of everything, it will be increasingly hard in the future to distinguish between the online and offline worlds. The secret history that Delillo traces through Underworld is the one that lay hidden underground between 1951 and 1998–the nuclear test sites, the missile silos, the secret command bunkers, the basements of ordinary suburban houses. Our new secret history will have no location, no place where a writer can trace it and suss out its revelations. Will this future be human?

A nun dies at the end of Underworld. Instead of being in heaven, Delillo has her in cyberspace, probably because her obituary appears online. This is her situation, and, in a way, the situation of everything:

She is not naked exactly but she is open–exposed to every connection you can make on the world wide web.

There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password–world without end, amen.

That was about as close to right as you could be in 1998. One thing Delillo missed or didn’t bother foreseeing was the innocent zeal with which we would datafy ourselves and project our lives into this world without end. Well, Facebook wouldn’t come along until 2004. But Delillo, of course, knew the kinds of things crowds do, how they “bring things to single consciousness,” so I suppose no big deal that he did not forecast the rise of social media. He was right about the underground longings that brought us here. He was right about almost everything.

Machines Like Me


So there I was, just reading some improving books by Malcolm X and Andrea Dworkin a few weeks ago, when I was taken by a fit to smarten up on artificial intelligence.

Okay, it wasn’t really a fit. I noticed an essay writing contest about disruptive technology and the future of work. Bada bing, bada bang, as they say, the next thing you know I’m reading mad AI, with doses of nanotech and biotech thrown in.

I’d been intrigued by AI ever since I read Daniel Dennett’s 1984 paper in which he lays out why it will be so monstrously hard to create an artificial general intelligence (AGI), or a thinking machine that has the full human range of cognitive abilities. Dennett called this challenge the “frame problem.” You can train a machine to become massively intelligent at a predefined task, but training it to navigate and understand the fluid, borderless scenarios that make up life is a different matter entirely. Machines can’t frame a situation ex nihilo, which we can do effortlessly. Being an ordinary human is orders of magnitude harder than being a really smart machine.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Dennett’s article, “Cognitive wheels: the frame problem of AI,” which kind of gives you a flavor:

Once upon a time there was a robot, named R1 by its creators. Its only task was to fend for itself. One day its designers arranged for it to learn that its spare battery, its precious energy supply, was locked in a room with a time bomb set to go off soon. R1 located the room, and the key to the door, and formulated a plan to rescue its battery. There was a wagon in the room, and the battery was on the wagon, and R1 hypothesized that a certain action which it called PULLOUT (Wagon, Room, t) would result in the battery being removed from the room. Straightaway it acted, and did succeed in getting the battery out of the room before the bomb went off. Unfortunately, however, the bomb was also on the wagon. R1 knew that the bomb was on the wagon in the room, but didn’t realize that pulling the wagon would bring the bomb out along with the battery. Poor R1 had missed that obvious implication of its planned act.

Ordinary life is beset with looming implications much more complex than the ones R1 has to cope with, but you get the point. Knowing what to attend to and what to ignore in a given scenario comes automatically to people, or at least it seems to.

I pretty much buy Dennett’s arguments to this effect on their technical merits alone. But my experience for the better part of 25 years as an expat trying to survive using foreign languages also helped convince me that Dennett is right. Here’s what occurred to me just looking back at my last 12 years living in Germany.

My German was never great, but here’s a list of business that I could and did conduct auf Deutsch:

– Applying for a loan and buying a house

– Seeking and undergoing major surgery

– Putting three kids into local schools and kindergartens

– Routinely going to city hall to get documents and various administrative clarifications from bureaucrats

– Fending off a collection action from a business that failed to deliver contracted services

– Explaining to dentists the ways I did not wish to be hurt

Never did I accomplish these tasks with high style, but I got them done. But guess what I never did in Germany?–I never made an acquaintanceship that was anything like a friendship. This was not due entirely to my standoffishness. I like having friends and am willing to put a certain amount of effort into it.


What doomed me was that I was essentially an AI trying to fit into life as led by normal human beings. It was the language. Once I had done something like ask some neighborhood moms if one of my kids could walk to school with their kids’ group, they could sense that my script for that scenario had run its course and they were now dealing with a robot. I was basically like R1 in Dennett’s paper: I had trained myself to get through a handful of narrowly defined tasks like the ones in my bullet list. What I couldn’t do was small talk. I had no feel for the changing frames of ordinary life. I probably gave those moms a mild laugh, which is nice to think.

But back to AI. Dennett’s argument about why it will be so hard to create an AGI is essentially that all the ceteris paribus clauses that simplify our lives (e.g. crossing a street does not directly implicate questions of poetry or particle physics) have to be built up in an AI using raw computational power. And that’s how I had to (try to) get through life speaking German: I was basically a sentence-forming machine trying to generate grammatically permissible strings of words appropriate to the task at hand. I worked hard at it. I could march, sprint or lurch toward one goal at a time but never could I wend my way through normal life. Water under the bridge, though. Who gets to live a normal life?

In the next few weeks I’ll try to write a few things about why AI seems a little more robust today than Dennett made it out to be in 1984. Machines may not achieve general intelligence any time soon, but we have compensated for their deficits over the last 30 years by setting up our lives in ways that give even narrow AIs agency and influence. Even though machines seem not to be capable of replacing us on the basis of brute computational power alone, we are building systems (such as e-commerce, AI-enhanced medicine, etc.) that seem likely to lead to this replacement.

And Now for Something Completely Different


One of the rules of blogging is to stay active. Try to post something every week or so just to keep your head in the game and, if you have any followers, to remind them you’re not dead.

I am not dead. Or at least I have written a few lines of Python that will create blog posts for me even after I’m dead. Or something has written such lines.

And as long as those lines evince sufficient devotion to Orwell or sufficient contempt for blockheaded fundamentalists, wouldn’t it in some sense still be “me” blogging after I’m gone?

Anyway, I’m hard at work writing something about artificial intelligence and the future of humanity. If it’s any good, I’ll post the interesting parts here.

In the mean time, here are a few of the books that have propelled me down this road:

Nick Bostrom’s Super Intelligence: Paths, Risks, Strategies,

Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me,

John Brockman’s Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI,

Paul Scharre’s Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War,

and two by Juval Noah Harari–Homo Deus; A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Here’s a little something from that last book:

If somebody describes to you the world of the mid-21st century and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then if somebody describes to you the world of the mid-21st century and it doesn’t sound like science fiction – it is certainly false.

I have also found Bill Joy’s justly famous essay from the April 2000 Wired, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” moving and discomfiting. Even if you’ve never felt like reading anything about technology, read this.


Machines like me


Kurt Vonnegut, Christian Soldier


By the time Kurt Vonnegut was old and almost dead, I suppose he had gotten tired of being charming. I think he was starting to take it personally that his compatriots had let him down. Americans had such a nice country, but they were such lunk-headed sadists. So in his last book, Man Without a Country, he let them have it.

Among other things, he had this to say to his readers:

Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?

How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. …

And so on.

Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

When Vonnegut published Man Without a Country, many American Christians had reached a point where they openly rejected the main teachings of their religion.

That was in 2005. Under George W. Bush, we had conquered and occupied Iraq. The war had been started on a false pretext, as almost everyone knew. We killed about a hundred thousand civilians in Iraq and, in loosing tribal and sectarian mayhem across the region, caused the violent deaths of several hundred thousand more. Vonnegut thought it was a low point for our Christian nation.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, you might think, when you first take him up, that his basic idea is to slag Republicans, make fun of Christians, and tell kooky scifi stories that satirize everything normal and good about America.

But you would be wrong. Vonnegut was a liberal humanist, which meant he thought cruelty was the worst thing people do and that we should try as hard as we can to treat one another well. The way he summed up his own socialist politics was that, like Christianity, it advanced the idea that “all men, women, and children are created equal, and shall not starve.” Vonnegut was a huge fan of Christian principles.

You can see this in his books, even without looking very hard.

Jesus famously tells two fables that upend humanity’s ideas of compassion. One is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the other is about the young man who asks Jesus how to attain perfection and Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Mat. 19;21). In God Bless You Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut illustrates what it would be like to live by these principles. He makes the antagonist, Eliot Rosewater, a rich, holy fool. Mr. Rosewater befriends the unfriendable (the hated Samaritans) and does his legal best to give all his wealth to the poor. The fact that Rosewater’s family and legal representatives consider him insane because of these behaviors is essentially Vonnegut’s comment our “Christian” society.

Despite our professions of loyalty to Jesus, we evince a much stronger belief in the credo of Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko–“Greed is good.” Vonnegut the satirist thought this level of hypocrisy was funny. Vonnegut the humanist thought it was tragic: we could have had a compassionate, generous society if we only stuck to our professed religion.

And what would Jesus have thought of America’s love of guns? I pose this question at the end of a week marked by four (more) mass shootings, in California, New York, Texas, and Ohio. As usual, the loudest voices blame the shootings on mental illness or “pure evil.” Vonnegut believed gun violence had something more to do with guns.

In Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut has one of his characters reflect on American gun culture. After his wife is killed in a tragic, not-quite-accidental shooting, this character, a journalist, says this:

My wife has been killed by a machine which should never have come into the hands of any human being. It is called a firearm. It makes the blackest of all human wishes come true at once, at a distance: that something die.

There is evil for you.

We cannot get rid of mankind’s fleetingly wicked wishes. We can get rid of the machines that make them come true.

I give you a holy word: DISARM.

Well, that genie has already escaped the lamp. Americans will not disarm. We used guns to found our country. We love guns far more than we love the peace that a republic might enjoy without them. We have shot at one-quarter of our sitting presidents, scoring hits on 13 of them and killing four. (Two U.S presidents killed men with guns themselves, in peacetime.) We love the right to bear arms far more than we love any humans that make up our society.

Deadeye Dick is a wonderful book because it prompts Americans to consider whether this attitude is morally tolerable. What, we are prodded to wonder, would a true Christian think about gun culture? You can imagine a society that worships Jesus, and you can imagine a society that worships guns. Deadeye Dick challenges us to consider whether two such societies can coexist in the same country.

If a truly Christian state that followed the radically compassionate teachings of Jesus were possible, it would be a place of profound peace. Among other things, Jesus tells us to forgive our aggressors 70 times seven times. He himself begged forgiveness for his executioners, where he certainly could have called down holy fire on them instead. Jesus famously told Simon Peter to put away his sword in Gethsemane. You can work out what he would have had to say about a single gun, let alone everyone owning one. He would have scoffed at the idea of his followers being armed to the teeth.

I myself am a pragmatist about disarming. Although I think it is a lovely ideal, I cannot see a tractable set of laws or policies for achieving it. America has gun-love baked into its culture.

But I believe all the defenders of gun culture should be honest enough to admit that they despise and reject the peace-loving principles of Jesus. The problem with believing in a gun-loving but Christian republic is that, if you can believe in that, you can believe in anything. You are an apt candidate for the worst kind of totalitarianism, because you are capable of believing the constant, garish lies that a  totalitarian regime must tell about itself to sustain power. Instead of limply flying your Jesus flag, just come out of the closet and declare yourself a death-dealing Roman: say you would have taken King Herod’s side over Jesus’s. I cannot recommend this exercise highly enough. Do it, and you will feel your spine actually straighten; your gaze will become stronger and clearer.

I recommend Deadeye Dick because it invites this refreshing level of honesty.

Like Jesus, Vonnegut loved parables. He even told the occasional obscure one (try to unfold the layers of The Sirens of Titan, for example).  But he also knew when to drop the literary pretensions and just prophesy.

“Get out of the road you dumb motherfucker!”

This is what Vonnegut has a seasoned infantry scout growl to tall, lanky Billy Pilgrim, who is loping along through the Ardennes Forest in December of 1944. The quotation is from Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. In it, the Germans are mauling the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge, and Pilgrim’s “involuntary dancing, up-and-down, up-and-down,” draws German fire.

Vonnegut explains directly to the reader why the scout used such shocking language. “The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never fucked anybody–and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.”

The job of prophetic language is always to alert the audience to unpleasant information. Vonnegut also believed humans should be able to laugh at themselves–grimly, of course–for taking offense at a mere word but not at real, existing atrocities. The savagery of war is what Slaughterhouse Five is all about. Vonnegut fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by the Germans. In Dresden, where he was jailed, he witnessed the firebombing of a civilian population that killed 25,000 in an hour. He thought the American and British people should know a massacre had been perpetrated in their interests.

(Image: A War to Be Won)

To be sure, Vonnegut believed in the justness of the war against Nazism. He said in 2005 that he wanted to be buried with full military honors. But he retained his lifelong horror at the industrialized violence that war awakened in large states and the cruelty it enabled in “civilized” societies. What Christian could argue with Vonnegut’s final judgement on the matter of mass killing?–

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

And yet our country tolerates massacres and leads the world in massacre machinery.

Any Christian society worth its salt would mobilize behind a pacifist ideal. Christian  nations should abandon their weapons and “learn war no more,” as Isaiah famously put it. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not believe this is possible. I am more or less a Thucydian realist who believes war is inevitable. But Christianity came as a light to the world, to change minds like mine. If you are in any way a Christian, you must be willing, at least on paper, to give peace a chance and to preach it among nations.

But Christian America is a satire of this idea. We are armed to the teeth, and we telegraph our aggressiveness to get what we want from other countries. Not exactly meek or forebearing.

The moral sentiments that Vonnegut promotes again and again in his novels include the most radical principles of Christianity–that the meek shall be protected; that the hungry shall be fed, the poor cared for; that one’s enemies shall be forgiven and even ministered to in kindness.

These are high ideals, of course, perhaps even unachievable by countries and other groups of fearful humans. But Vonnegut’s dreadful disappointment in Christian America is that we haven’t even given our professed faith an honest try. Our greedy, bellicose, philistine actions do not just speak louder than our fine words–they obliterate them. We openly scorn Jesus’s warning that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We fear and despise the Samaritans for the foreigners they are. We blame the poor for their own weakness. The entirety of our public life is spent in hectic pursuit of things that would horrify Jesus.

At the close of Vonnegut’s novel Jailbird, a labor activist is asked by a judge why, despite his Harvard education and immense inherited wealth, he took up the life of a poor working man to identify with the downtrodden–the losers in America’s winner-take-all society. Why, the judge presses him, would he give up the privileges of a commodious, respectable life? His answer, I believe, is the same reason Vonnegut wrote the novels he did–“Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”