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11 May 2010


Matins: In our view, no one has better captured the nature of the new American populism better than Mark Lilla has just done in "Tea Party Jacobins." We could not agree more, that the American elite, preoccupied with getting its message just right, has almost completely forgotten how to lead. (NYRB)

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

Lauds: Ingrid Rowland writes about Luca Signorelli’s Apocalypse, in Orvieto cathedral. As Ms Rowland reminds us, this is an unusual theme in Italian art. Orvieto’s recent history (in 1499) may explain Signorelli’s assignment. “The city’s official governor was none other than Cesare Borgia.” The cycle’s anti-Semitism, however, reflected a newly heightened hostility. (NYRBlog)

Just behind the Antichrist, a knot of friars argues over an open Bible. They wear the habits of all the major orders: gray-clad Franciscans, black-clad Benedictines and Augustinians, and, in the center of it all, a Dominican in white robe and black mantle who seems to be guiding the discussion. For most of the previous century, preaching friars, Dominicans above all, had thundered relentlessly against Jewish moneylenders, urging Christians to found civic banks that lent money at less onerous rates. The situation for Italy’s Jews was growing steadily more difficult, and Luca Signorelli’s fresco, for all its striking imagery, marks a new spirit of hostility toward the Jews of Orvieto. Moïsé de Blanis did not live to see the worst of it; he was murdered in 1535. But his son, Laudadio, another doctor and rabbi, would see the establishment of ghettos in Rome, Florence and Venice and suffer banishment from Orvieto simply for his religion. Presumably we are meant to see this gathering of stern-faced friars as the antidote to the Antichrist’s malignant sermon, but Signorelli has set up enough visual parallels between the friar and the Tempter that we can never be entirely sure.

Prime: Why Not: Steve Tobak's "5 Marketing Lessons From SNL's Betty White Show." Aside from the third item on the list (stressing the importance of strong content), Mr Tobak's advice seems to boil down to "intelligent recycling." Nothing wrong with that. (The Corner Office)

4. They brought back great alumni from previous seasons: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer. While this is an old strategy in entertainment, it’s rarely used in the corporate world, and I don’t know why. Bringing back previously successful campaigns, products, and brand images and using them in new ways can be big winners. Coca Cola has made liberal use of this technique by bringing back old slogans, ad campaigns, the bottle, and of course, Coke Classic.    

5. They cleverly revived a classic sketch without using its star! They conjured up our memory of the sketch with Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon as food program hosts but, instead of Alec Baldwin and his “Schweddy Balls,” they had Betty White and her “Dusty Muffin.” When something works, find clever ways to extend it, reuse it, whatever works. Sure, we sometimes accidentally hit upon a campaign or technique that appears to have legs, but we usually just pat ourselves on the back and do nothing while it runs its course and eventually dies. How often do marketers leverage these once-in-a-career opportunities by creatively extending their success? Not often enough.

Tierce: In an essay about the neurobiology of patience, Jonah Lehrer explains why transcranial magnetic stimulation is superior to functional magnetic resonance imaging. (But we still get a headache thinking about undergoing these experiments.)

Confusing, right? Imperfect tools give us noisy data, and fMRI is a very imperfect tool. Brain damage can also be ambiguous, as different parts of the tightly interconnected PFC can compensate for local damage. Here's where TMS comes in handy. TMS involves rapidly oscillating magnetic fields, which can generate weak electrical currents in brain tissue. This leads to a collective depolarization in a specific brain area - the pulses of TMS can be narrowly focused - which makes it harder for that bit of tissue to become excited and exert its influence. The end result is that it's possible to selectively and temporarily "knock-out" circuits in the brain.

This latest study, led by Bernd Figner at Columbia, used TMS to disrupt the lateral prefrontal cortex while people were debating whether or not to delay for a larger reward. The end result was that people became much more impulsive: when the massive beam of electromagnetism was aimed at our forehead, we found it harder to delay gratification, and became significantly more likely to choose $20 right now, instead of $25 next month.

Sext: Chris Lehmann (who admits to trawling Forbes’s Web site for “Rich People Things” material) extends his eyeglass in the direction of “investment guru” and Friend-of-Bono  Roger McNamee, and shares one of the worst technological predictions since you yourself said, “Why would I need a computer/iPad?”

Urstadt and Levy are kind enough to omit mention of McNamee’s oafish 2009 forecast that, a month after the release of the Palm Pre smartphone, “not one” of the millions of iPhone adherents would hang onto their instantly obsolesced Mac gadget once they saw the market-transforming wonders the Pre performed. Palm itself was sufficiently abashed by McNamee’s ravings to go out of its way to dismiss them in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Suffice it to say, in any event, that the company would not find itself on H-P life support if McNamee’s bold prophecy came anywhere within barking distance of the truth.

The company’s 2005 buy-in with the real-estate site proved similarly, um, under-elevated, shedding nearly half its value by June 2008—which, let’s recall, was still three months ahead of the final die-off of that particular economy-distorting bubble.

Nones: A report on Belgium, currently without a government, in the Guardian. As we've noted before, the thorniest aspect of Belgian separatism is Brussels, an artificially (but none the less actually) francophone city in the middle of Flanders. Were Brussels in the south of Belgium (Wallonia), the country could peacefully go the way of Czechoslovakia. (via Arts Journal)

In this crowded political scene, there is only Flemish and Walloon politics, no Belgian. Over the decades, the politicians have contrived to create a system where there is no unifying institution, barring the royal palace and King Albert II.

There are no national political parties, no national newspaper, no national TV channel, no common school curriculum or higher education. There is, however, the national debt, running at 80% of GDP. Like a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, eyeing divorce but unable to agree on the mortgage liabilities, the Flemings and the Walloons may be stuck together because of the cost of splitting up....

If push came to shove, the preferred option would be velvet divorce as in Czechoslovakia, rather than Yugoslav violence. But Brussels sucks in tens of thousands of commuters from both sides and makes a negotiated unravelling of Belgium virtually impossible.

Vespers: At The Millions, Sophie Chung  writes about how reading Chekhov will make you not only a better person but a better writer.

I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it — my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned.  I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed.  His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit — maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living.

Compline: Frank Rich is lustily indignant about MSNBC's indecent non-coverage of last week's Time Square bomb attempt. (NYT)

Apparently little short of King Kong climbing up 30 Rock could have grabbed the network’s attention. When MSNBC did take a brief break from the dinner for news updates at 9:30, Times Square didn’t make the cut. Whether this was due to ignorance, ineptitude or an unwillingness to play party pooper is a distinction without a difference. Real-time coverage of Leno bombing (since when is that news?) mattered more than any actual bombs. Only as the dinner wound down, at 10:54, did MSNBC at last muster a “breaking news” bulletin about the Times Square story that had in fact been breaking for hours. Even then, we were told that NBC News couldn’t independently confirm the facts MSNBC was recycling from Reuters.

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