Sunday, July 26, 2009

One Thing I Know About the Systemic Rot

If you are not familiar with Jean Luc Godard and his approach to film making, chances are that you will not “get” his movies. Godard believes that the “bourgeois society”, as he calls it, is so corrupt that no matter how serious and worthy a message may be, it will be corrupted by the fact of its transmission in, and to, a corrupt environment. (A Far Side cartoon had a group of clowns throwing pies in one another’s face and one of them saying, ‘But seriously, folks!’)

Godard’s way of fighting this condition is willfully corrupting the message, so that the extremity of the illogic would shock the audience and awaken them to what takes place around them.

I can see his point. Every one can see his point; just turn on the TV! There have been many studies about the control of media by a handful of organizations and the impact of such concentrations. A recent study on the influence of the Internet found that while blogs play an important role in the dissipation of the news, the agenda, what blogs discuss and write about, is set by the major news organizations. Viacom, Walt Disney, Bertelsmann, Time Warner, Vivendi and Murdach's News Corp decide virtually everything that you hear and read. After the agenda is thus set and the boundaries of discussion delineated, bloggers are left to yap to their heart’s content – within the already set boundaries. Yes, Godard does have a point.

But his response is nihilistic. It is the adult’s version of throwing a tantrum, which ultimately becomes a cop out. Frankly, I have no problem with the control of the news by a few. The reason for my insouciance? I know that no matter how partially and one-sidedly the agenda is set and how tightly the wording and the narrative of a text is controlled, a reader who is paying attention will always be able to see through the issues. That is because, to strip the matter into its elemental formulation, it is impossible to say something without revealing something about the objective reality outside us. That follows from the nature of words and discourse and is true even when there is a conscious effort to misrepresent. Hence Kissinger’s comment that no one could lie completely, and the philosopher’s observation that he learned politeness from the rude people. That was also the premise of the Hollywood movie The Usual Suspects .

So I comfortably, confidently and conveniently rely on the mainstream media for information. Needless to say, I do not stop there. Read, for example, the Destruction of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which was 100 percent based on the mainstream media reports but showed something that no media outlet had ever mentioned – or ever will.

What, then, is my take on the main story of the past week about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home by a uniformed member of the Cambridge Police Dept?

Let us set aside what we know about the role of authority, the kind of people who are drawn to it, the makeup of the police department in major cities of the U.S., the role that movies and TV cop shows play in shaping the conduct of police officers and the conditioning of citizens to accept that conduct, the right of citizens to live peacefully at their home (to the point of defending it with deadly force!), et, etc.

Why was Officer Crowley at Gates’ doorsteps?

Answer: Because someone had called reporting a possible break-in, no doubt by “two black men.” (The other man was the limo driver helping Gates to open the jammed lock.)

Q: Who was the caller?

A: A neighbor.

Q: Professor Gates’ house is Harvard property, given to Harvard employees only. Is it safe to assume that the neighbor was also a Harvard employee?

A: Yes, she was.

Q: The house given to Professor Gates must have been in an upscale neighborhood on account of his high position. Is it safe to assume that the neighbor had an equally high position? Surely, she could not have been a low ranking clerk, right?

A: No, she is not a low ranking clerk. In fact, she works at Harvard Magazine.

A neighbor who works at Harvard Magazine.

There you have it. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s neighbor who works at Harvard Magazine – I would not be surprised if she had a PhD in social relations – does not recognize him in the broad daylight of a July afternoon. Never mind that she does not stop to say hello or chat or inquire about his trip to China, from which he had just returned after a grueling 16 hr flight. She absolutely does not recognize him. Consequently, naturally, the solid citizen that she is, she picks up the phone and reports a break-in.

That no one mentioned this point means that it was not considered worthy of mention by virtue of its ordinariness.

It is from this population that the arresting officer Crowley is recruited.

Everything you need to know about the significance of the story and the social background against which it took place is now at hand. From day one, then, you could have surmised – called, really – everything that unfolded, including the officer’s self-righteous rage for being criticized, the predictable defense of his act by police chiefs and radio talk shows, and even the President’s foray into the “controversy” and his subsequent backing off.

Had the event taken place in some Mississippi backwater town, the case would be dismissed as a stupid act of a county sheriff and the ignorance of the local populace. In short, it would have been the “bad apples” defense.

I never believed that Southern hillbillies are more ignorant than Massachusetts intellectuals. Furthermore, facts are not isolated events. What is real is rational. This problem certainly transcends locality, which is another way of saying that it is universal, i.e., system-wide.

By a long detour we have finally arrived at this blog’s main focus!

The most critical attribute of a systemic flaw – whether a systemic risk or a systemic rot – is its ordinariness which, by virtue of being ingrained within the “system”, renders it invisible to those inside the system. There is no uber regulator that can detect, much less prevent, a systemic collapse of the financial markets because the collapse is the end point of markets’ normal operations. That is a terrible fact, but that is the way things are, which is why despite constant urgings, I am not in a hurry to get out Vol. 4 to “capitalize” on the current crisis. We are merely in the beginning.

One question remains: How can one learn politeness from rude people without having a frame of reference, without knowing what is rude and what is polite? How would you detect the true part in the narrative of someone who is bent on telling complete lies?

I will take up these topics in Vols. 4 and 5 of Speculative Capital.

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