Radio silence from this smooth-sailing digital ghost ship has been occasioned by rougher-than-usual waters just outside the harbor. The winds gust and shift, scudding across the gray water and into the still grayer sky. The glass is dropping in every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Blog of Watson and farther westward.
Still, we stir as we must. Not to invest any time in mourning lost retirement accounts or decrying the nagging midnight omnipresence of a harsh economic challenge. But in some ways, to keep personal identity from fading out into that gray impalpable world.
We invest so much of ourselves and our time in building these social networks, our webs of blog links and wispy threads of virtual friendships - a weaving process that began during flush times, when the sheer frivolity of a goofy Twitter message or silly Facebook app was yet another dash of whipped cream on our bottomless American ice cream sundae. Still, that wide network has a binding quality that may grow more important as the economy continues to sink like the Skipper in a soundstage pool of Hollywood quicksand bellowing for Gilligan to bail him out.
Last weekend, it was my birthday (Jesse Orosco's number) and I was stunned by the outpouring of (apparently sincere) greetings that came flinging my way via Facebook - some from well-meaning friends I've never actually met. Modern friendship is broad, but it may not be particularly deep. That doesn't stop the sharing, the social graph of Mark Zuckerberg. As Jason Chervokas noted at Newcritics, "the Facebook tag-you’re-it, chain letter style list making craze is hitting fever pitch."
The big trend is lists: your 15 favorite albums, or 25 things about you other people may find interesting. Someone does a list and tags you; by the law of all that is sacred, you're supposed to post - then tag a bunch of other saps - er, friends - who will then keep the chain-letter meme of personal musical taste and "how I lost it" retrospection alive like a grid of Farrah-haired blondes in a Faberge Organics shampoo commercial from the 1970s.
And it works, mainly because of the earnest replies of so many Facebook friends. You can't but groove to an acquaintance's obsession with the guitar stylings of the late (and oh-so-great) Ron Asheton or a business colleague's description of her Jane Austen collection. And sometimes, you just smile at a line from Twitter - or you feel a moment of shared humanity with someone you know virtually. As Fred Wilson writes on his blog, "The status update has become the ultimate social gesture."
The true test for this new wired world - one that my children are growing up with, but that I adapted to - isn't on the far horizon; it's right here in our faces. Will the still-fragile but enormous online social networks help sew together our society as the pressure of unprecedented wealth loss threatens to rip the stuffing out of our lives?
Those birthday greetings, those album lists, those 25 things, those myriad status updates offer a hint - as, I think, blog experiments of small communities like Newcritics do as well. The virtual gathering does, occasionally, make us a bit strong, if only for the sharing. The shadows are falling and I've been here all day, but it's not dark yet.
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
- TS Eliot
Whoever drove columnist Errol Louis of the New York Daily News over to Crank Street and left him there should double-back immediately and pick the dude up. He's taking root, and needs a lift back to the land of equilibrium.
Louis, an erudite voice at the News and a frequent cable talking head who generally leans to the left, took a gratuitous shot at one of the city's important voices in progressive policy and it's got me steamed.
Here's the background: Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a wonderful New York-based think tank whose middle name is "feisty" and whose DNA is progressive, is taking a leave of absence to serve as a policy guru in the reelection campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Now, before you go on, know this: Andrea's a good friend of mine, and I serve on the DMI board. So sprinkle your grains of salt, uh, liberally on the rest of this post if you're of a mind.
In today's News, columnist Louis decided to imagine some motivation on Andrea's part - some reason that would make her push progressive policy in Bloomberg's campaign - see if you can pick it up:
Okay, I made that easy. Errol Louis thinks Andrea's in it for the Bloomberg fortune. He also labors under two other misconceptions: that DMI was essentially Freddy Ferrer's policy shop during his last campaign and that Andrea is too dense to realize she's simply being used as a liberal token by the Bloomberg campaign.
On the first: of course Freddy Ferrer (also a friend, and in my view, somebody who saw of a lot of our current troubles coming) was strongly in favor of the middle class policy orientation of DMI - it was Freddy who first rejuvenated DMI around those very issues a few years earlier. But DMI did not (and I was there) either actively support Ferrer nor oppose Bloomberg. Indeed, for a think tank, our record is remarkably transparent - we generally blog the whole thing.
Secondly, Andrea Batista Schlesinger is nobody's fool. In my personal experience, she can't be humored - at least not without significant risk to both body and psyche.
It amazes me that someone of Louis's caliber who toss such gratuitous mud, holding Andrea's to a higher moral bar than the campaign pros who have signed on to the Bloomberg campaign. Imagining sinister motivations of public figures is a columnist's lowest tactic.
Now, I'm not suggesting there isn't legitimate news here. Aiming for a third term after disposing with voter-enacted term limits, Mayor Bloomberg has angered a New Yorker or two. Most Democrats dislike, at some level, his former Republican registration and association with the 2004 GOP national convention. Others strongly favor one of the two leading Democratic challengers, William Thompson and Anthony Weiner. And I'm not immune to the idea that billionaires in the current economic climate make for convenient targets - nor, frankly, to the notion that we cede too much power and influence on our public commons to those who are successful at business.
But Andrea's choice to work on policy for the Bloomberg camp is not about money: hers or his. It's about her commitment to activist government and progressive policy in the lives of the millions of New Yorkers who don't own multiple homes or fly on private jets. She - and the DMI board - made a conscious and mature decision that a third Bloomberg term was likely, that the candidate was receptive to change, and that this was the time to push the kind of progressive policy on education, transportation, healthcare and other issues from the inside.
Differ with us on that choice, if you'd like. That's fair. But please leave wrong-headed, imagined, cheap-shot personal motivations out of it.
In this, that short period between the Super Bowl and pitchers and catchers, let's go inside a couple of the numbers, shall we?
The first is $400 million - that's what bailout baby Citicorp is on the hook for over the next two decades to slap its misspelled metropolitan moniker on the home of the displaced Metropolitans. But really, what's the reason big companies pay big money get their names on new stadia anyway?
Branding. A positive association of the company's name with the great game of baseball. The recognition that the suits in the midtown office tower - and the the friendly little branch on the corner - are doing their patriotic best to help fund David Wright's long-term deal.
But let's face it - that positive association is gone, torn like the ligaments in Billy Wagner's shoulder, a mere vestigial sponsorship that ties a brand that is, shall we say, mired in robber baron territory to a new stadium whose hometown fans generally despise the naming, thereof.
Now, that new ballpark looks to me to be brilliantly designed, just right in scale - and I'm guessing it'll be the feel-good sleeper hit of the upcoming stadium unveiling season. From the pictures, it reminds me inside of Seattle's Safeco Field - wide open concourses, open views, and a lower-than-usual upper deck. Outside, it's all brick and huge arched windows - the Queen of Corona.
Still, every Mets I know hates the name. Some of us pine away for the rotgut pile of concrete that was Shea Stadium, now just a crumbling half-shell, soon to disappear forever. Others despite the too cute "Citi" - I once knew a girl named Patricia who spelled her name Patti, but I digress. Many just can't stand the chump change of corporate stadium sponsorships.
But this might not be chump change - that's because of the other big number: $50 billion, the rough estimate of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, a scandal that enveloped the Wilpon family in losses and may have been the death knell for any hopes of signing the transcendent professional hitter named Manny Ramirez to play left for the Metties. I think it certainly influenced their decision to allow innings eater Derek Lowe to sign with Atlanta.
It's amazing to me that Ramirez can't find a job, given that he's a hitting machine who constantly delivers despite occasionally goofy behavior. Sure , Manny can be a pain - but he's light years from Barry Bonds.
The Mets need Citicorp's $20 mill this season. And the company said today that despite looming Congressional hearings on the money, the bank "signed a legally binding agreement with the New York Mets in 2006," a warm and fulsome endorsement if ever we've heard one.
Of course, the Citi execs won't be lining up for luxury boxes this year, now that their pay has been capped at a mere half a million a year, just above major league minimum - or less than the price of the last guy in the bullpen.
When Blue Girl's step father died on Inauguration Day, her mother gave back the plaque she'd given the old man three decades earlier, and in her moving elegy this week (a post her blogging friends have been sadly expecting), Blue Girl gave us the rallying cry for the long, cold middle section of this endless winter:
No such transcendence among some of the stronger, angrier voices in the new era, no loving memories of wisdom and the eternal verities among the bloggers I've turned to as an antidote to the hope and change placebo - just an angry slogan that fits this grim Super Bowl Sunday like a linebacker's shoulder pads. No particular knock at President Obama from this quarter: I thrilled at some of the imagery like everyone else with an American pulse, and I'm generally pleased with the early days. It matters who sits in the Oval Office.
But there are three-hundred million of the same species roaming these badlands, and damned if the anger's not building out there. To many of us, the most important utterance in public life undoubtedly came from Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill in reaction to the news that Wall Street bankers took a record $18 billion in bonuses at the end of 2008, even as the Federal treasury pumped billions of our sorry dollars onto their book to prop up their sorry, unpatriotic, anti-American, traitorous asses: “They don’t get it,” McCaskill said on the Senate floor. “These people are idiots.”
Yes, they are - and what heart among us doesn't embrace the hope of a parade of orange jumpsuits? That's change we can believe in. An angry voice among the angry, Digby raps the Republican suggestion that McCaskill's proposal to limit the pay of top executives of TARP-subsidized companies to $400,000 or less will send too much talent overseas:
I say if there's an overseas market for these greedy, incompetent bastards then the best thing we could do for the country is to exile them. Unfortunately, they've managed to take down pretty much the entire world with us, so I don't think there are a lot of jobs for failed wall street executives out there right now. But hey, let them put their resumes up on Craigslist like everyone else and see what the market for such superstar talent will yield these days.
Lance Mannion taps into the lighting of the torches and the slow heat of the melting tar, as he rips Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus's opposition to pro-union legislation, which Marcus decried as the "demise of a civilization":
...a civilized nation by his lights is one in which a chosen few get to live like kings and queens, comporting themselves as they see fit, following highly flexible rules they set for themselves and can ignore at their convenience, paying no price for their crimes and depredations, while getting to tell the rest of us how to behave and how to work and how to accept our lots without complaint or expectation of any other rewards besides the ones they deign to toss our way like scraps to the dogs, a nation in which they rake up piles and piles of money and cart it home in wheelbarrows while the rest of us are so desperate for work we'll take whatever we can get at whatever insulting wage they decide, begrudgingly, to pay, in which we're so terrified of losing our job that we'll cringe and fawn and work ourselves to exhaustion to please our unpleasable betters and then grovel and apologize and accept our punishments meekly when we we fail to be sufficiently slavish.
Meanwhile, our back-to-the-country pal Neddie Jingo sees denial and poison in a visit to Tysons Corner Mall:
....the density of the crowd made it impossible to escape the thought: For a country that has, this week alone, shed 100,000 jobs with no end in sight, there sure were a whole lot of people out spending money on fripperies. Second, what the fuck are these people here for? Where's the appeal? Thousands upon thousands of people of every age, income group and ethnic identity, aimlessly wandering among exactly the same PacSuns, Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombies, Williams & Sonomas they'd find in any other mall...for what? They'd actually packed into their XTerras and Priuses with the thought in mind that the best kind of Saturday night consists of grabbing a plate of Heat-Lamp Italian and a large Sprite, wandering the halls of America's Fourth-Largest Mall, and seeing and being seen in this plastic zocalo, this carefully-policed polis?
This is a theme that has been owned of late by the original angry man of exurbs, mall culture, foreign oil and SUV-clogged traffic jams - the rural future loving gadfly/novelist Jim Kunstler, who takes his upstate reaper's scythe to the bailouts and stimuli:
All the possible actions tried so far have have seemed absurd. Why even try to prop up inflated house values when the single most crucial need in this sector is for house prices to return to parity with incomes so the shrinking pool of ordinary people still employed can begin to think about buying one? Well, the obvious explanation is that politicians can't bear the pain of watching mass foreclosures and the ruination of families. This is pretty understandable, and it is tragic indeed. Frankly, I don't know of any political narcotic that can mitigate the pain that results from having made poor choices in life -- even if those choices were promoted and reinforced by the mighty ideology of "American Dreaming." Anyway, the foreclosures are well underway now, and perhaps the salient question is how long will the public's fury remain constrained while they hear about Wall Street executives buying $80,000 area rugs? Surely there is a tipping point of collective distress that is not too far from where we're at now.
But none of them can touch the anger of our old blogging compadre Dennis Perrin, one of the lone red dots in a sea of feel-good blue in these early Obama Era days - and the red ain't for Republicanism, my friends. Dennis has taken another path, and damnit if he isn't churning out some of the best, most vicious prose on the Internet these days (his Updike piece was simply the finest bit of writing to hit an RSS feed after the author's death). Sure, you may still feel pretty rosy and hopeful (I do, some days) but like the bottle of Xanax calling your name on the worst of down Dow afternoons, Perrin's rants have become ground zero for that restless ire that seems to afflict everyone I know over 40. You can love Obama, and still spoon up Dennis's choler like Recessional tapioca:
It seems that in order to be a "good" progressive, if not a Decent American, one must remain starry-eyed about Obama, regardless of reality. How long this condition will linger is up in the air, though I doubt it will ever fade away. Too many liberals are too attached to the myth of benevolent power. They want someone to worship, to obey, confusing their conformity for "inspiration," or worse, "patriotism." Feedle fiddo foo. What you gonna do?
Tonight, we jump into the jello-wrestling pit of national consumption like John Candy's buck private Ox in Stripes. Unless you love the Steelers or Cardinals, you're there for the ads and the spectacle. And the halftime show. For some reason, I'm thinking the singer from New Jersey should roll with this particular tale:
Workin in the field till you get your back burned
Workin `neath the wheels till you get your facts learned.
Baby I got my facts learned real good right now.
You better get it straight darling:
Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings,
And a king aint satisfied till he rules everything.
Note: Tom Watson's book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World - about the rise of online social activism - is available at Amazon.com. If you read the blog, pick up the book.