CANARIES IN THE SILCON MINE:

The U.S. economy is booming. So why are tech companies laying off workers? (Gerrit De Vynck, Danielle Abril and Caroline O’Donovan, February 3, 2024, washington Post)

[G]oogle, Amazon, Microsoft, Discord, Salesforce and eBay all made significant cuts in January, and the layoffs don’t seem to be abating. On Tuesday, PayPal said in a letter to workers it would cut another 2,500 employees or about 9 percent of its workforce.

The continued cuts come as companies are under pressure from investors to improve their bottom lines. Wall Street’s sell-off of tech stocks in 2022 pushed companies to win back investors by focusing on increasing profits, and firing some of the tens of thousands of workers hired to meet the pandemic boom in consumer tech spending. With many tech companies laying off workers, cutting employees no longer signaled weakness. Now, executives are looking for more places where they can squeeze more work out of fewer people.

Profits will be driven ever higher as labor and energy costs trend towards zero.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY HATER:

The Last of the Menckenians: Struggling with an American Iconoclast (Michael Downs, February 2, 2024, LA Review of Books)

The publication of his diaries in December 1989 showed him writing in disparaging, cruel, and vile ways about Black and Jewish people. Ever since, most conversations about Mencken and his cultural value require reckoning with his racism. That September day, such a reckoning came during the Mencken Memorial Lecture. The library invited DeWayne Wickham, a renowned journalist who hails from Baltimore, to offer the talk. When he took the stage, attendance in the auditorium had grown to about 50. About a third of them, like Wickham, were Black.

Wickham told us that he grew up only about two miles as the bird flies from Mencken’s longtime residence, though separated by decades and by “power and privilege.” Since the diaries, he noted, some defenders have pointed to writings in which Mencken seems to champion Black America, especially Black writers. Wickham rejected those arguments, finding racist language and attitudes amid Mencken’s praise. In one of his several examples, Mencken’s positive review of Alain Locke’s literary anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), Mencken ended by noting that, despite their talent, Black writers and poets would create little improvement in Black America’s culture because “[t]he vast majority of the people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas: it will be a sheer impossibility, for a long, long while, to interest them in anything above pork-chops or bootleg gin.”

“So,” Wickham concluded, “was H. L. Mencken a racist? I’ll leave it to you to decide.”

During the post-talk Q and A, a white man (I would later learn that his middle name is Mencken) suggested that people might consider Mencken an elitist rather than a racist because Mencken hated everybody. Mencken’s writings famously attack a wide range of characters, including Southerners, evangelical tub-thumpers, idealists, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Palestinians, jazz fans, university professors, and countless others.

A Black man then rose and asked the central question: given Mencken’s self-damning racism and hatred of nearly everyone he saw, why do we even have a day recognizing this man?

“This is one of the things we’re going to forever struggle with,” replied Wickham, making a statement that could apply to most things Mencken. To read him is to struggle. He allows for no easy agreement on any topic, ever. Wise in one moment, foolish in another. Kind here, cruel there. His literary salvos, often breathtaking in their brio and audacity, can make you forget your quarrel with their substance.

Mencken Society people read HLM, I learned that Saturday, in large part for that struggle. They are readers who want to think and feel complicated things about a complicated writer. To read Mencken, Hart told me, you have to say to yourself, “I’m going to get skewered. Part of the pleasure of reading someone like that—you really have to stay on your toes.”

Aficionados don’t read Mencken because they expect to agree with him. They read him for the adrenaline jolt. That jolt hits because Mencken delivers scorn with wit and reason. He vivifies his 21st-century fans just as he did for readers in the previous century. “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile,” wrote critic Walter Lippmann in 1926, “and he increases your will to live.”
¤

Visit the Pratt’s special collections and you can find a copy of The Great Gatsby with a note inscribed from Fitzgerald to Mencken asking for a positive review. You can also find a lock of hair from Edgar Allan Poe and another from his wife, Virginia.

Baltimore loves Poe, whose visage you see on T-shirts and tattoos. A festival dedicated to him less than a month after Mencken Day filled a weekend with musical acts, performers reciting his work, a film debut, and a parade with a costume contest. Poe is recognized even by the city’s NFL team, the Ravens, and its mascots Edgar and Allan. Nevertheless, Poe, like Mencken, is an intellectual figure whose legacy is complicated by a sordid personal life: he met his first cousin Virginia in Baltimore and married her when she was 13 and he was 27; he died a mysterious death and is buried at the city’s Westminster Hall next to his child bride.

Poe gave much more to literature than Mencken did. The detective and horror genres owe him everything, and through his criticism, he helped define the short story. But he never loved Baltimore as Mencken did.

Yet Baltimore’s love for Mencken used to be stronger and more complicated. In 1965, the mayor gave a speech at the city’s German Day celebration lauding Mencken: “Because he was an extremely bold and forthright critic,” said Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, “he made enemies […] Thus, to this day, one finds honest and otherwise intelligent people who are unable to understand why so much of Baltimore delighted in Mencken while he lived and still cherishes his memory.”

These days, not quite. Consider the Pratt’s own treatment of Mencken Day. In 2012, the library’s much-loved director, Carla Hayden (now librarian of Congress), introduced the Mencken Memorial speaker. For Wickham’s lecture, the highest-ranking library employee in the room was the head of special collections. Mencken’s following took a blow with the diary’s publication, but also the city has changed: Baltimore’s population has shrunk to about 60 percent of its previous size, and six of every 10 residents are now Black. As Wickham’s lecture showed, Mencken is a harder sell to those who most keenly feel his racism. Why have a day for this man when the city’s populace can look instead to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lucille Clifton?

“Do you teach Mencken?” I asked a local journalism professor whom I recognized at the Mencken Society meeting. No, she said. You can’t teach a column or two of Mencken in a survey course without glossing over his history. And to gloss over the history, I said, means you could be criticized for glossing over his history.

The longer I pay attention to Mencken, the more one thing becomes clear: to wrestle with Mencken is also to wrestle with the United States and American culture—and not just as it was in his time. To wrestle with Mencken is to wrestle with the country and the culture as it is now.

THE ENTIRETY OF MORALITY IS THE DENIAL OF THE SELF:

The Profoundly Humane Vision of “Groundhog Day” (Stephen Turley, February 1st, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

And so, Phil interprets his situation as only Phil Connors could: He convinces himself that he is a god. But Phil was soon to learn that there was nothing godlike about him. You see, throughout the movie, Phil would turn a corner where an elderly homeless man would be begging for money, a man Phil avoided as if he were a leper. But on one cold night, Phil decides to walk the old man to a local hospital where he can get warm, and shortly after arriving at the hospital, the old man dies. Deeply moved by this, Phil would spend each day with the old man, [in fact he calls him ‘dad’ and ‘pop’], feeding him at restaurants, keeping him warm, trying to get him healthy, but to no avail. Every night, despite Phil’s administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the old man would pass away. Alas, there were just some things that he could not change.

And it is at this point in Phil’s experience that he begins to discover that what makes life worth living is not immediate gratification, or moral autonomy, or flippant cynicism, or self-deification, but rather encountering those things that give meaning and purpose to our lives. He begins to read great literature and poetry, he begins to learn the piano and ice sculpting, he helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. In fact, all of Punxsutawney is transformed by the caring attention he gives to those in need. And his affections for Rita transform into a love without reservation and without any hope of his affection ever being returned. In short, the perpetuity of February 2 became an arena in which Phil’s humanity was awakened. And the result is that Rita falls in love with him. And it is then that the cycle comes to an end, Phil wakes up on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day, and he lives the rest of his life with his dear Rita…in Punxsutawney, Pa.

As I reflect on this film, especially with regard to Phil’s original self-indulgence, I find that it provides a fascinating mirror for the modern age to which we find ourselves waking each morning. For the last few centuries, the Western world and increasingly the East has engaged in an unprecedented and frankly radical experiment in human civilization. We are in the midst of a collective social experiment that is attempting to construct a civilization based solely on scientifically observed cause and effect processes irrespective of any divinely-gifted transcendent meaning. Rooted in Enlightenment conceptions, it was argued that the enthronement of reason would finally realize what humans have hitherto for attempted to achieve through religious pursuits, but to no avail: wars would end, prosperity and technological advance would reign, and social and economic equality was finally within reach. The toll that we all had to pay for such promise, however, was that we collectively had to surrender the concept of meaning—what the Greeks called telos—as a reality divinely embedded in a created order, precisely because the created order has now been replaced with impersonal nature. But this was fine, we were told, since now we have the freedom to impart to life whatever meaning we as individuals choose to give it.

And so, it is to the self that our modern age has turned for meaning and life. Today, it is ubiquitously believed that the self needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and in this process of turning toward the self, there has emerged a sense of entitlement to self-actualization, and an accompanying right to charge with malice anyone or anything that would seek to stifle the self. The result of this collective self-indulgence is what researchers have called in a recent publication “The Narcissism Epidemic.” The authors of this study have noted “a single underlying shift in the American psychology: Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”

THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT:

A sharp satire perfect for Critic readers (Robert Hutton, 2/06/24, The Critic)

American Fiction sits alongside last year’s hit novel Yellowface as a satire of the publishing industry’s — and the reading public’s — fetishisation of particular minority experiences. “They want a black book,” Monk’s agent tells him after publishers reject an earlier manuscript. “They have one,” replies Monk. “I’m black, and it’s my book.”

The film is merciless on all its subjects, including Monk, who loathes his publisher and nurses a vicious grudge against a more successful rival in ways that I and all my fellow authors will insist under torture that we do not recognise.

Wright, utterly absorbing, gives us a man who is grumpy but tender, perceptive but idiotic, satirical but pompous, dignified but ridiculous. The funniest moments come from Monk’s frustration at the fawning reaction to the book — “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t,” Monk’s agent tells him. “They just want to be absolved.”

THE TRUE BELIEVERS ARE ALWAYS WITH US:

THE BLOODY RIVALRY THAT LED TO THE FALL OF DEMOCRACY IN ATHENS: The clash of two Athenian leaders with ties to Socrates (MATT GATTON, 2/07/24, CrimeReads)

There is no word on Socrates’s feelings about the chatter of Alcibiades being named tyrant, but Socrates’s perspective on tyrants in general is well recorded by Plato. To Socrates, the flaw of democracy is its vulnerability to tyrants. The populace—the mob, as he calls them—are gullible and can easily fall under the spell of a charismatic leader. Alcibiades certainly fits the bill. In Socrates’s estimation, the tyrant first appears as a protector. The people have something they fear, either inside or outside of the state, either real or imagined, from which the tyrant claims he can guard them. He will make them the “victors.” The people flock to him of their own accord, for he pays them in lies, lies they want to hear, lies they want to believe. They are “superior”; they are “true patriots.” His favorite tools are false accusations and unleashing his mob against the “threat.” In time, the tyrant erases any and all opposition, “with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizens.” He and his supporters are empowered by the purge, “and the more detestable his actions . . . the greater devotion he requires from his followers.” These words are as true in the modern world as they were in ancient Athens.