Choosing the Right Seriousness

Thai Town and Little Armenia are just a few miles east, on the other side of the tourist stuff on Hollywood Boulevard, and down the hill, the Ukrainian community blends into Kosher Canyon, a few blocks further south, the heart of everything East Coast Jewish out here, with the big statue of Raoul Wallenberg and all that. Keep going south, across Wilshire and Olympic, and you’ll find yourself in Little Ethiopia. The best coffee is there. They invented it. Anthony Bourdain has already covered our Koreatown – which itself has its own Little Bangladesh somewhere in there. Then there’s the Byzantine-Latino Quarter – a corner of the Pico-Union district where Greeks and Hondurans and the folks from El Salvador and such get along just fine, and there’s a small but lively Brazilian district not far from the old MGM studios in Culver City too. The Croatians are down in San Pedro, appropriately far from the Serbs out in Alhambra and Monterey Park, except Monterey Park is mostly Chinese and Vietnamese now, even if Little Saigon is down in Westminster – and there’s a big Iranian community in Westwood and you hear a lot of Farsi on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Here in the Sunset Strip area, the French seem to have gathered down on Fountain Avenue – sometimes there’s a swoopy old Citroën parked on the street, and the French Counsel here in Los Angeles has been known to hold a Bastille Day bash down at the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s not all surfers and movie stars and street gangs out here. There are a hell of a lot of people to talk to, swapping life stories, and recipes, and discussing traditions, which is a matter of what “your people” value highly and what they consider silliness.

That’s where it gets interesting. Tell them you’re a teacher who walked away from teaching to get a job in the real world, as a matter of self-respect and economic survival, and you’ll get a blank stare. They don’t get it. In almost all other cultures, or maybe all other cultures, teachers are the most respected people of all. They build the future, and should be honored, and should be compensated reasonably well too, and are. No one walks away from teaching. Anyone would be proud to be smart enough, and insightful enough, to somehow become a teacher if only they could – but that’s where you have to explain America, where teaching is usually women’s work, like cooking and cleaning. Here, becoming a teacher is a sign of failure – those who can’t do, teach, and as Woody Allen extended that, those who can’t teach, teach phys-ed. There’s that standard American taunt too – If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?

That’s where you have to explain that here teachers are a pretty pathetic lot and the rich are respected, because they are rich, on the presumption they know stuff no one else knows. The assumption is that they’re smarter than everyone else, which means they’re better than everyone else, or if you’re of a certain frame of mind, God has chosen to make them rich, so He approves of them, and no one else, really. That makes vast wealth a deeply moral matter, as many Republicans will tell you.

Expect more blank stares. In other cultures there’s something unseemly if not seedy about being rich, the basic assumption being that those with vast wealth somehow got that stuff in pretty nasty ways, destroying others. That’s where you have to explain that here the rich are the good guys, the Job Creators, making life better for everyone. Then the blank stare will turn to outright laughter. You’ve got to be kidding, right? But you’re not kidding, and you probably also have to explain that doctors here aren’t pleasant mechanics of sorts, fixing the problems people have with their bodies like any competent repairman but no more than that. No, they’re really smart people who know everything about everything, especially if they’re rich doctors. People here ask doctors for investment advice, and turn to them for political insight, or for answers to questions about landscaping or fine wine. Doctors simply know things. They’re hardly just repairmen.

All this leads to hours of lively discussion, and sometimes to mutual understanding as they say, but most often it leads to questions. Why hasn’t some American questioned how obviously silly this all is? The rich are rich – bully for them – they should live and be happy – but they’re not gods walking this earth or anything. They’re only rich. So what?

That’s when you get to point to Pete Seeger:

Pete Seeger was best known as a folk singer, an archivist and writer, and the purveyor of such beamed-from-the-heavens standards as “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

But among the musician’s most important roles was one that’s often overlooked: that of an American citizen who understood the power of song to serve as messenger, as Trojan horse, as lightning rod.

It’s hard to imagine a song steering and stirring more than “We Shall Overcome.” The work long ago became less the domain of Seeger, who helped popularize it when he published it in “People’s Songs,” than a sacred text owned by anyone longing for justice. Its lines have been aimed against countless seemingly immovable institutions of oppression. Adapted from the tune of an old spiritual, the message of the opening verse is as profound yet simple as a Zen koan. “We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I believe we shall overcome someday.”

So we had someone who called out the bullshit, in song, and in a nonthreatening way, which was a Trojan horse, because it was threatening:

Seeger was already a popular entertainer and political activist when on August 18, 1955, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the witch-hunt tribunal that sought to ferret out information on what it deemed subversive activities. Many witnesses, such as movie director Elia Kazan, named names. Many others invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer the committee’s questions about their past political activities and friends. Quite a few of those who refused to answer went to prison.

Seeger took a different tack. When he sat before the committee, he both declined to answer the questions about his friends and affiliations, and he refused to invoke the 5th Amendment.

It was none of the committee’s business what he thought and with whom he thought it, Seeger said, a stance for which he was sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress, though he successfully appealed the conviction. But his stance cost him professionally; he remained banned from television until the late 1960s.

Seeger had been a brash Stalinist in the prewar years, but then all sorts of folks back then saw the Soviet Union as an alternative system to our capitalist United States, which had given us the Great Depression. The Communist Party USA back then was also one of the few groups actively working against racial segregation and the other nastiness that supported the great wealth of the few, as if they were better people. Uncle Joe Stalin turned out to be a jerk, and Seeger dropped the Soviet stuff – but he continued to call himself a “small c” communist. Rich isn’t necessarily good, or evil – it’s just being rich. Other things are more important.

In the New Republic, Paul Berman sums up the situation:

“If I Had a Hammer,” which he composed, is immortal. I do not know if people will be singing “If I Had a Hammer” a hundred years from now, but they would be fools not to do so. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – this is magnificent. Those songs, with their crowd-sourcing capacity, are tremendously moving. And yet, if you can persuade crowds of people that simple morality and a childlike vision of right and wrong can be summed up in a few phrases, there is nothing you cannot achieve, and some of what you might achieve could turn out to be disastrous in the extreme – e.g., Stalin’s idea of dividing up the world with Hitler.

So it is good to remember that Pete Seeger, in his younger years, entertained some foolish and reactionary ideas. The appreciation of his errors can introduce a note of reflective irony into your excited response to his songs in favor of the civil rights revolution, and generally his songs in favor of the causes of democratic equality and rational reflection.

There’s nothing wrong with hammering out justice all over this land, and freedom too. Yes, the man’s back-story here adds some irony, but that hardly matters and he moved on anyway. He’s one guy you can point to, and he probably liked teachers too – he was one of them, after all. He didn’t have much use for millionaires, and he probably wouldn’t have much use for this one who wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins
San Francisco

Mr. Perkins is a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Perkins is one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and he picked to wrong day to write this letter, the day of Seeger’s death, as Matthew Yglesias notes:

The sheer level of derangement on display here is remarkable, and has prompted a fair amount of armchair psychoanalysis of the American super-elite’s odd loathing of the moderate technocratic liberalism of the Barack Obama years. A Monday non-apology in which Perkins regretted the Holocaust analogy but nonetheless insisted that “any time the majority starts to demonize a minority, no matter what it is, it’s wrong and dangerous” hardly makes things better.

But the larger issue here is simply that the letter is extraordinarily stupid. Its author, successful as he was in business, was still perfectly capable of writing an extremely stupid letter to the editor. The political and historical analysis contained in the letter is stupid. But beyond that, the idea of publishing it was stupid. Anyone with the slightest sense of public opinion would recognize that the analogy is offensive and counterproductive. There is simply no viewpoint on economics or American politics from which writing this letter was anything other than stupid. And yet Tom Perkins, a very successful businessman and co-founder of one of the most important VC firms in the world, went and wrote it anyway.

If he’s so rich, how come he’s so dumb? It might be that the old taunt had everything backwards, which is what Yglesais sees at the big economic summit is Davos:

The presumption of the annual World Economic Forum meeting is that leading policymakers and scholars ought to mingle with very, very, very rich businessmen (and, yes, it’s overwhelmingly men) to talk about the leading issues of the day. The idea, in other words, is that CEOs and major investors have unique and important insights on pressing public policy issues. After all, they’re so rich! How could they not be smart?

Well, ask Tom Perkins. Or ask Michael Jordan how he could be so good at playing basketball and yet so bad at owning and managing the Charlotte Bobcats.

We don’t get much backwards, but somehow this is different:

Outside the business world, we tend to take it for granted that just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t automatically make you a mastermind at other things. Nobody expects Taylor Swift to make important contributions to a panel on sustainable growth in Africa or rethinking global food security. But the Davos panels on such topics always include a rich executive from the business world. Because who better to solve the world’s problems than the people who benefit from the status quo?

Of course, if there were just one somewhat obnoxious conference like Davos, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the Davos mentality – the assumption that managing a for-profit enterprise gives you special insight into social ills – is all around us, from the Aspen Ideas Festival on down. It has also infested more formalized policymaking settings. Rich businesspeople wield disproportionate interest in the political system simply through their ability to make campaign contributions and hire lobbyists. But over and beyond that, they are regularly invited to enter policymaking circles.

This makes no sense:

Finance whiz kid Mitt Romney was supposed to turn things around with his business savvy. But the notion of a link between economic management and firm management is bizarre. Probably the biggest “job creator” of my lifetime has been former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. In the mid-1990s the unemployment rate got down to around what most economists thought was the lowest level compatible with stable inflation. Greenspan made a gut call that the consensus was wrong, kept interest rates low, and employment boomed for the next several years. In the coming year, we desperately need Janet Yellen to do something similar: to ignore falling unemployment and keep monetary stimulus going until inflation actually becomes a problem. Yet it’s just obvious that the kind of judgment and analytic skill necessary to make these calls has nothing to do with the kind of judgment necessary to run a multi-brand conglomerate, a nationwide retail chain, an innovative consumer electronics company, or any other kind of business.

And doctors don’t know everything about everything either, but we’re stuck:

Every once in a while a Perkins comes along and says something so egregiously dumb as to be mocked by everyone. But it’s not the egregious idiots who do the damage; it’s the excessive deference paid to the unremarkable mediocrities. But the next time the elite get together to discuss the affairs of state, keep Tom Perkins and his ridiculous analogy in mind.

Salon’s Alex Pareene has a solution:

A funny prank would have been for Barack Obama to announce at his State of the Union address last night that he was going to confiscate all of Tom Perkins’ money and redistribute it to the masses. I mean, no matter what the president actually said in his speech, that proposal is what Perkins was going to hear. If our plutocrats insist on being paranoid cranks obsessed with their persecution fantasies, I say we might as well persecute them. …

Perkins, who once killed someone with his yacht, was invited to apologize for his insensitive comments in an interview with Bloomberg, a finance media company owned by and named for one of his fellow plutocrats, but he decided instead to wholly embrace the caricature of the paranoid rich kook.

When you remove the always ill-advised Nazi analogy, Perkins’ comments are indistinguishable from the sorts of things hedge fund managers and venture capitalists and executives say on CNBC literally every day. … The Perkins worldview – that the rich are under siege, that any and all government efforts to make “market outcomes” fairer represent tyranny and threaten to become actual atrocities, and that the modern Democratic Party is led not by well-off neoliberals but by frothing revolutionary leftists – is to America’s ultra-wealthy what birtherism is to rank-and-file right-wingers: a comforting paranoid fantasy that facts and reason cannot possibly hope to dispel.

Pareene may be onto something there, even if his choice of words is needlessly provocative. What does a teacher who walks away from teaching to get a job in the real world, as a matter of self-respect and economic survival, end up doing? That’s easy, they go to work for a giant corporation in their Organizational Development Department, teaching. Been there, done that, and this rings true:

Numerous authors have become quite successful by making a living out of explaining science and world affairs to the executive class in language so simple that a child could grasp the basic points. Despite that ignorance, there is an entire industry built around soliciting the opinions of the wealthy on subjects unrelated to their wealth. (Some media companies see this as the prayed-for replacement for print subscriptions and advertising dollars, and have reoriented their business around conferences and similar rich-splaining events.)

Those conferences were always interesting – explaining to the top management, the super-successful, in very simple terms, the basics of human interaction, how normal people treat each other, as knowing that will keep them out of big trouble – lawsuits or worse, or even the very worst, the best people walking away and ganging up on you. The three guys who founded TRW had finally had enough of that miserable son-of-a-bitch Howard Hughes and started their own damned company, and there not much left any kind of Hughes corporation any longer. The big guns in the seminars didn’t get it. The sessions were long, as you always had to find an even simpler way to explain things. By the end of the week you wouldn’t even trust any of these guys to order a burger and fries at McDonalds. They’d probably screw that up too – but they were rich and successful.

Pareene wishes, given this Perkins thing, the nation would understand that, but he’s not hopeful:

We listen to their opinions, no matter how stupid they are, because our elected officials listen to their opinions, and their jobs depend on not recognizing or acknowledging how stupid they are. It is impossible to get elected president without the backing of a cadre of multimillionaires. It is nearly impossible to get elected to the U.S. Senate without a couple in your corner. The multimillionaires and billionaires fund every effective political interest group in the country, from gun rights to gay rights groups. What makes the wealthy persecution fantasy so risible is that our political class is responsive almost solely to the priorities and views of the rich, but the fantasy serves a purpose: It prevents Congress from actually acting to address economic inequity. As long as the rich perceive even ineffectual social opprobrium as an existential threat, politicians will be too terrified to advance any actual redistributionist agenda.

Our best hope for achieving anything on income inequality under this political system, in this climate, might be to somehow convince rich people that it’s their idea, and that we all love and admire them a great deal for coming up with it.

That’s a thought. Actually that’s something that someone might suggest over dinner over in Thai Town. If you crazy Americans always listen to the rich, or are forced to listen to the rich, as if they’re gods walking this earth, trick them in into thinking your idea is theirs, and then tell them “their” idea is wonderful. Cool! But this has come up. The trick is actually doing that. Where’s Pete Seeger when you need him? Where have all the flowers gone?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Choosing the Right Seriousness

  1. Rick says:

    We need to remind ourselves that just because certain people know enough about business and finance to make themselves very rich doesn’t mean they’re smart enough to manage the nation’s economy.

    After all, you might help your company’s competitive edge by laying off thousands of its employees, but finding a way to throw American workers out of work would certainly not help America’s competitive edge one whit. And while paying your employees less than minimum wage might seem at least temporarily to help your company’s balance sheets, making sure millions of American workers get paid the least amount possible is a way of flushing the country down the pipes.

    Now I realize I’m setting myself up for ridicule from certain people even in my own family when I ask this, but who would you rather have as secretary of the treasury, someone with experience running a successful company, like Mitt Romney, or someone who actually knows what makes economies work, like Paul Krugman?

    The reason we listen to doctors about all sorts of non-medical things is not because they’re so smart, but because they’re rich. For some reason, doctors in this country seem to make lots of money and have to then learn how to invest it, so it’s just natural for the rest of us turn to them for advice on how to spend the money those people tend to make probably way too much of.

    Likewise, politicians listen to rich people not because those people are so smart, it’s because those people are so rich! In fact, it’s rich people foolishly spending money on whatever they damned want to that keep politicians in business. But while so many of these rich people tend to take their own wisdom for granted, the rest of us mostly don’t, evidenced by how movies seem to portray so many of them as bumbly, out-of-touch fools.

    And while I know Pareene was just joking when he suggested convincing rich people that trying to fix the inequality problem was their idea, it still should be pointed out that, while the rich may not be Rhodes scholars, neither are they so pliable that they could be persuaded to do anything by a bunch of poor schmucks like ourselves, since they credit their success largely on not listening to riff-raff like you and me.

    After all, they famously reason, if everyone else is so smart, why aren’t they rich?

    Rick

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