Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek

briefly noted: Happiness and ecosocialism

The Peterson-Zizek debate has thrown into question the bland notion of happiness. As Zizek notes in a Big Think talk, when one is on the verge of discovery, “you are willing to suffer.”So that’s on the happiness side, on the socialist side (and I realize I’m going out on a limb here): in the 90s the term was about as popular as fascism or Esperanto. But after the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, reports showed that 40% of Americans and a higher proportion of millenials support socialism. And that’s the objectionable part for some, not the “Eco” part. 

Devon Pillay, formerly a political prisoner in Apartheid South Africa and now Department chair of Sociology at Witt University, notes the growing discontent with the GDP measure of happiness and asks if there is “a Chinese wall between the Buddha and Marx?”  In his recent article in the journal Globalizations, Pillay asks if the two can be brought into resonance as part of “a counter-hegemonic movement.” He mentions Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness as the best-known counter measure against GDP.

The following definition was given by Chris Williams at the EcoSocialist Conference at Barnard College:

changing one form of supplying energy for a less polluting form of supplying energy. [But it is] not just changing energy systems, but about changing the social and political power in this country and around the world. We’re not going to get positive ecological change without some positive social change, which means putting front and center questions of fighting racism, fighting sexism, and fighting homophobia, along with rearranging the social and political policies.



2560px-Mauna_Kea_from_Mauna_Loa_Observatory,_Hawaii_-_20100913.jpg

defending the mountain

When measured from the sea floor, the tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Decades ago, a telescope was proposed for the summit. There are already a dozen telescopes there, but this is the very large Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The construction of TMT on a summit that Hawaiians consider sacred has provoked the largest protest movement in recent years, rivaling the mass movement to stop the Navy’s target practice on the island of Kaho’olawe. A few weeks ago, Native Hawaiian activists blocked the entrance to the road to the summit, creating an encampment.  In July 2019, Native Hawaiians began to make national news over their efforts to block the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i Island. NBC news recently covered the emergence of a school. Named Pu’uhuluhulu University, it offers free classes, taught mainly by Hawaiians. NBC’s headline read that protestors (who call themselves “protectors”) started the school to teach “local culture and values.”

Native Hawaiians are involved in the building of infrastructure that could lead to greater things. I’ve written before about the need for a Hawaiian college here. The university established during the occupation is as grassroots as it’s possible to be, and seemed to emerge spontaneously out of the lava rock. It included lectures on decolonizing religion, “stepping into sovereignty,” water law, Hawaiian language classes and training for hula that would be performed during protocols. My lecture was titled “Nonviolence and Land” - two topics I know well, allowing me to speak extemporaneously without notes. But the organization of this occupation included medical services, a fully operational kitchen, and a protocol area in addition to the school. Many groups appeared with offerings for the leadership of the movement, on the day that I was there offerings were made from the Native American tribe from Standing Rock.

At one point, when the movement seemed to build steam, I thought to myself: “where were these people when the permitting process was happening?” This occured mainly in the 1990s, with some friends of mine (about my age - in their 40s and 50s now) being very active in that process. But I realized that many of the current protestors were in elementary and high school at that time. But here’s the rub: many were in schools that were started as part of the larger Hawaiian movement: Hawaiian Language Immersion schools, Hawaiian Culture-focused charter schools, as well as the school that I teach at (Kamehameha Schools, exclusively for Native Hawaiians). For example, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, who many consider the leader of this movement, is the first graduate of Punana Leo, the Hawaiian immersion preschools, as well as a graduate of Kamehameha. In the 1970s Native Hawaiians had a cultural renaissance, and in1990s and 2000s they built institutions, from which the current crop of protectors has mainly emerged. So viewed from a larger social perspective, the presence of millenial-aged protectors is a product of the institution building of previous two generations, and thus a case study in social movement building. 



empire and enmity

the legacy of the gore vidal-william buckley debates

History seems to have caught up with Gore Vidal. Vidal was the last of a kind of renaissance intellectual and writer who seems to have been replaced by the narrow specialists of today. Several recent releases reflect a growing interest with Vidal. Jay Parini's biography Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, (reviewed, mostly unflatteringly, in The New Yorker) eulogizes the writer. The documentary Best of Enemies focuses on Vidal's 1968 series of debates with conservative pundit and flag bearer William F. Buckley. Leo Robson's article in The New Yorker, "Delusions of Candor," shows Vidal's versatility:

... almost by accident, virtually without sweat, and for the simple reason that he

could - [Vidal] became a novelist ("Julian," "Myra Breckenridge," "Burr," "Creation"), essayist ("Homage to Daniel Shays," The Hacks of Academe"), playwright ("Visit to a Small Planet," "The Best Man"), screenwriter ("Ben Hur"), politician (valiant failed campaigns for Congress, in New York, and for the Senate, in California [Vidal seemed to lack "the common touch"], actor ("Bob Roberts," "Gattaca," "Igby Goes Down"), steel-chinned prime-time brawler (points victories over Buckley in 1968 and [Norman] Mailer in 1971), and friend to everyone worth knowing (Greta [Garbo], Tennessee [Williams], Eleanor [Roosevelt], Orson [Wells], Mick [Jagger], Sting).

Vidal was born at West Point because his father, a former Olympian in the decathlon, was the track and football coach at the academy. Vidal's maternal grandfather was the blind Senator Thomas Gore. Born Eugene Louis Vidal, he dropped the first two names and took on his mother's surname Gore after his Christening. After Phillips Exeter, Parini recounts, Vidal chose not to go to college:

ʻAfter Exeter, I didn't want to go to Harvard, as I might have' he recalled. ʻMy

father had saved some money for my education, but I wanted the money. I’d have a small but tidy sum to launch me in the world.' He would actually receive about $10,000 from his father - a substantial amount in those days worth roughly $120,000 today.

Perhaps ironically, Vidal left his $37 million estate to Harvard upon his death in 2012, a strange act that Parini interprets as a desire to connect himself with a great institution, despite not having attended it.

Vidal was a fairly frequent visitor to the White House because he was a stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy, but he soon had a falling out with Robert Kennedy, who he called "a self-righteous little prick." Before his death Vidal released a book of photos of his days in Camelot, suggesting he may have regretted cutting off such a historic association. And this is the topic of Parini's book and Robson's review: Vidal's ambivalent and constant self-reflection. The New Yorker article suggests Parini was too biased from his close friendship with Vidal to be an impartial chronicler, and it's true that he saw Vidal as a kind of father figure. Parini describes their meeting in Italy:

We [Parini and his wife] had a rooftop terrace, above ... limestone cliffs. A massive villa - alabaster white, clinging to the rocks, like a swallow's nest - loomed above us, and we wondered who lived there in such opulence. Some Italian nobleman? A local mafia don? A film star? When I asked the tobacconist in town about its resident, he said "Ah, lo scritore! Gore Vidal. Americano." 

He sent a note and Vidal was soon pounding on his door inviting them to dinner. "A friendship blossomed ...we both loved Henry James, Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and Henry Adams - and we invariably found we had more to talk about than time allowed."

 

Parini was not blind to Vidal's flaws but intersperses them with fawning praise:

He was both angel and monster, even at the same time. For all this, he was an astonishing man, inventive and shimmering, with a superb linguistic facility and capacious memory. If he could be petty and difficult, that was part of his total being. He was an alcoholic, no doubt ... He fought bravely against the stereotypes of gays, of course, coming out publicly in The City and the Pillar ... As late as 2011, he told me ... "I would have liked a son" ... But this was just the old imperial self again, never wrote happy with territorial limits.

Robson faults Parini with missing the large archive of writings of Anais Nin, a close friend and critic of Vidal, who claimed he needed "to conquer, to shine, to dominate." Never was this mania to build an "empire of self" seen more clearly than in his debates with William Buckley and their aftermath. The debate between the conservative pundit and editor of National Review and liberal writer Vidal at the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions came at a moment when Americans had supreme confidence in TV news, which offered little controversy or diversity. The debate also seemed to mark the beginning of the polemical screeds that pass for debate today, and Americans' addiction to them.  As Buckley observed of TV in one of his most cogent moments: "there is a conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is illuminating." It was also the end of the moderate Republican.

The debate began, in a sense, as a publicity stunt to save ABC News, the "budget car rental of television news," from its position at the bottom of TV ratings. It became a "confrontation about lifestyle ... [about] who is the better person?" Buckley held that people looked to government to provide goods that they should try to find in their religion, their culture and themselves. Vidal held that a party, the Republican, whose political platform was "entirely based on greed," could not hope to attract sufficient voters to win - he was, of course, wrong - but the reasons for his error constitute the story of the conservative rise since that time. Where he was right - and even the brother of Buckley admitted this - was in calling America an empire. That this is not surprising to us today shows his prescience. Vidal reminds one of the protagonists of Saul Bellow's books Herzog and Humboldt's Gift: brilliant, aging, losing the sharp edge of their chin and their sex appeal.

Buckley kept referring to Vidal as "the author of Myra Breckenridge," the risqué tale of sexual license, which Buckley and others viewed as pornographic. Vidal came out swinging in the first debate, citing a quote from National Review in which Buckley advised the nuclear bombing of North Vietnam to Ronald Reagan and Nixon. Later in the debates Buckley, clearly losing, dropped his own bombshell: an alleged letter from Bobby Kennedy lambasting Vidal. Vidal retained his composure, though clearly shaken, and in a witty comeback accused Buckley of forgery. It is this composure that The New Yorker calls his "delusion of candor." His seeming unshakability was a "mask behind a mask." What strikes one in fact is how similar the two debaters were - merely two sides of the same social class.  According to Columbia linguist John McWhorter, "America has always been anti-intellectual" and the two both represented the hated ruling class. Vidal's position on the side of the poor thus felt to Buckley like betrayal. Where they differed was on "law and order" (which, ironically, was the title of a film that starred Reagan).

Riots began to swell in Miami as the "lily white" Republican convention continued, and the shape of the future of the Republican Party of Nixon began to form. Vidal cited economic inequality statistics that sound positively egalitarian compared to today's extremes, and his description of the barricaded environs of Chicago during the Democratic convention as a police state resonates today.

By the seventh debate the gloves came off. Parini describes the scene:

[Vidal:] ʻAs far as I’m concerned, the only ... crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.' It was a deadly assertion and Buckley curled his lip and sneered: ʻNow listen you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.' Buckley added with a wicked glare: ʻGo back to your pornography.'

Buckley also reminded Vidal he was a veteran - all this on national television in front of 10 million people. Unfazed, Vidal leaned over to Buckley after filming had ended, and said, "Well, we gave them their money’s worth." Vidal later reflected that he had meant to call Buckley a crypto-fascist. Buckley wrote a twelve thousand-word essay examining the question of what constituted decent discourse on television in Esquire, which Vidal responded to, suggesting that Buckley himself was a closeted homosexual.

Buckley’s star soon rose with the Reagan revolution, just as Vidal's seemed to set. As the public began to forget Vidal, critics differed on whether he would be remembered for his historical novels or his essays. Meanwhile, Buckley swam shirtless with Reagan, who said publicly that National Review was his favorite magazine. His skill as a debater was never in question. When asked why he was always sitting when he spoke and whether that meant he couldn't think on his feet, Buckley responded, "It is difficult to stand with the weight of what I know."

The resentments lingered for over thirty years, with suits and counter-suits, and bitterness that seemed to break the men over decades. Vidal apparently spoke of Buckley everyday, even years later, and Buckley said on Charlie Rose at the end of his life that he was tired of living on. Upon Buckley's death, Vidal wrote in his journal that he hoped Buckley was with his masters in hell, continuing as servant of their greed. This disillusionment with American politics led Vidal to a self-imposed exile to the Amalfi coast of Italy: "the perfect place to oversee the decline of the West."