Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: June, 2013

A Letter to Wes on Pete Campbell and JFK-Nixon

by gradus22

I’m sorry Wes, but I think you’re a little late to the party here. The chief conflict in Mad Men, from season one on, has been Pete vs. Don. And yes, they are more similar than they appear.

In my opinion, the first season of Mad Men was one perfect tightly-conceived thematic arc: the Kodak speech, the Kennedy-Nixon stuff, Dick Whitman’s younger brother. Matt Wiener and company gave us just enough dirt on Don Draper to keep us intrigued and keep us watching. In my opinion, the show hasn’t hit those heights since, nor should we realistically expect it to get there again. It’s a common sequel problem; you can only pull the curtain back once.

With the show approaching its end (more or less), it’s circled back to its beginnings. At the end of the first season, Pete Campbell discovered that Don Draper was a fraud. He tried to blackmail Don into promoting him, and when Don refused, he told Bert Cooper everything he knew. Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy defeats Nixon in the1960 Presidential election – an election that was dramatically influenced by the way these two candidates appeared in their first debate, the first time these debates were broadcast on television. Viewers saw a confident, rested and well-prepared Kennedy, and a tired and unshaven Nixon. They didn’t know that Nixon had been campaigning up until a few hours before the debates, while Kennedy had been resting and preparing for days. They didn’t know that Nixon had refused television make-up. They probably didn’t think about how different these two men were: Nixon grew up in poverty, JFK was the scion of a wealthy and powerful political family. That debate is taught us one of the most depressing lessons about American politics in the last century: appearances matter much more than you might think. That’s some pretty good thematic material for a show about advertising.

The Pete-Don and Kennedy-Nixon juxtaposition isn’t a coincidence, either. At a meeting, Pete accidentally reveals that he’s voting for JFK (in a way that makes the older members of the firm – and the viewers as well -.want to smack him across the face). Don tells Roger privately that he sees himself in Richard Nixon. Pete is from a wealthy New York family, Don is the dirt-poor son of a prostitute. We could keep going, but the salient point here is that Don is a charming version of Nixon, and Pete is a less-charming version of Kennedy. And as much as people would like to claim that one was a better person than the other, political views aside, they were moral equivalents. Kennedy may have raped an intern as President of the United States. Nixon::Watergate. Was one of them really a better human being than the other? Bert Cooper was right: who cares?

So for us viewers, the whole Pete vs. Don debate boils down to “who do we like more?” And Mad Men did something brilliant here, casting incredibly likable actor as an utterly reprehensible character. Let’s be clear, Jon Hamm isn’t just a jawline, he’s also a really likable dude. And that likability helps you forget some of those horrible Don Draper sequences. And this is more or less true to life: there are people so charming or attractive or charismatic that they can get away with more.

Pete Campbell, on the other hand, is none of these things. So he pays for most of indiscretions. For him to walk into Bert Coopers’ office claiming the moral high-ground wasn’t just slimy, hypocritical and underhanded on his part, it was his mistake to assume that there was some code of conduct that applied to Don and him equally.


They don’t make them like they used to

by iroqu0ispliskin



I will be honest here: if my contributions to this blog were to solely consist of posting bizarre videos made for late-90s rap jams, I would consider it a moral victory overall. This is how I could help people with my life.

First off, this song is in the Tupac all-time top 5; word on the street is that J Dilla had some hand in the beat. As a bonus, the demands of making posthumous Tupac videos have spurred its creators towards the best possible decisions, viz. claymation, late-90s CGI effects, and tarted-up cartoon ladies.

A brief note about Outkast

by iroqu0ispliskin


Outkast is the greatest rap group of our generation, and, by extension, probably the greatest group of our generation. They are the Rap game Beatles.

I will make use of this metaphor by way of explanation, not because rock furnishes the artistic template by which we measure all pop but because it is convenient way to get at the group’s creative dynamic. Big Boi is the McCartney: the effortless technician, the traditionalist. The one who possesses the flawless pop instincts and the closest connection to the soul elements of modern rap. It is possible that Big Boi was cool in high school. Andre 3000, naturally, is the one who pushes an otherwise-traditional rap group into cosmic directions. Like, I’m not sure if his rap and sartorial ideas were transmitted telepathically from Saturn but it would not surprise me. He has been known to sport a turban, and resembles Jimi Hendrix strongly enough that he could portray him in a biopic.

The genius of the group was really the way the music reconciled of otherwise-incompatible creative instincts of its two protagonists, blending solid rap traditionalism with sonic experimentation. The album arc even fits: in Aquemini-Stankonia, the mid-period masterpieces, you had your Rubber Soul-Revolver. The first is primarily under the sign of Big Boi and the latter under the sign of Andre 3k, and both are about as good as it gets rapwise. And then, as it always does, the creative nucleus spun apart for Speakerboxx/The Love Below, a highly successful rap white album heralding the dissolution of the group.

I won’t belabour all this: while Bombs over Baghdad is objectively the best Outkast song, I have a special place in my heart for Da Art of Storytellin’, above, which is maybe the most beautiful and touching song in their catalogue by virtue of Andre’s contribution. This video unfortunately includes Slick Rick’s regrettable verse, but as compensation it includes a Slick Rick Puppet.  Damn, I miss 90s rap videos.

A Letter to Matt regarding Pete Campbell

by iroqu0ispliskin


We have to talk about Peter.

Now, I have always been of the opinion that Pete Campbell is a grimy little pimp. But I got into an extended discussion/argument this spring on Twitter, of all places, with a friend of mine who lives in Japan. (Modern times!) She had remarked that Peggy is a boring scold and that her favourite person on the show is Pete.

Her argument, distributed amongst several tweets, was roughly as follows: Pete’s only crime relative to his contemporaries is lacking style.  The men of this show are almost uniformly scheming, alcoholic philanderers. But we love Don and Roger Sterling they make it look good. At the very least, we overlook some gratuitous fingerbanging: we’re taken in by them, which is only natural.  It’s not that Don and Roger aren’t phonies: it’s that they’re successful phonies.  They’re good at it.

Pete’s flaw is that he doesn’t have the wit or looks to manage a facade of potency. And without a facade of potency, your misfortunes get played for laffs. To the show’s credit, moments of  Campbell schadenfreude rank among the best of this season:  “Not great Bob!” is probably one of the most hilarious televised interactions in recent history. (ditto “She always loved the sea.”) But he is the object of a very specific kind of cruelty that the show spares its other protagonists: there is never anything noble about his suffering.

It is also to the show’s credit that it has, in this most recent season, deliberately drawn the viewer’s attention to the fact that Pete’s moral framework is more or less equivalent to that of Don and the others. When Pete offers Don the use to his the shabby pied-a-terre in the city, he gets a Draper-standard highground rebuke (“I live here, Pete.”); but we all know that this is pure hypocrisy: the moment he leaves Pete’s squalid quarters he’s slipping into another shabby spot to fuck someone who is not his wife. I think this deliberate contrasting of their lives in the early episodes works well as part of this season’s comprehensive strategy of breaking up America’s love affair with Don Draper. Under the square jaw he’s just another Pete, and nobody loves Pete.

Matt, I think this is a pretty fair argument. I don’t think it gets you all the way, but it gets you pretty far. The problem is that Pete never gets moments of true decency. Don, for example, is also a monster. But he has a grain of decency in him. Pete has moments of recognition, of properly felt disgust: disgust of his colleagues, of his fellow-commuters, and especially of himself. He’s an outsider, he knows things that other people do not. Hence his communion with Peggy. He even has moments of sympathy. But he doesn’t have moments of real kindness, episodes where he forgoes his own pleasure for the happiness of others. Through it all he has been more sinning than sinned against.



A Letter to Wes about politics in general

by gradus22


To the distributor of the second-worst gas in Istanbul:

Did you really describe the protests in the 1960s and the Bush era ones as similar moral situations? Sure, the two line up nicely enough: unjust war, strange electoral practices, human rights restrictions, but in the question of importance, seriously? I think you’re having a serious case of historical amnesia here.

Have you seen any of the footage from the 1960s protests recently? In the archives of our country’s memory, it seems so far away, as though the 1960s were grainy and gray-scaled in real time, PBS voice-over at the ready. Sometimes, it feels like George Washington was crossing the Delaware at the exact same time. America fought the British and won; America fought racism and won. Take a study guide and pass the rest to the person sitting behind you.

Hey, I wasn’t there either. But if you spend any time examining the actual footage or reading the actual documents of the time, it will make you sick. Middle-class men and women, families, queuing up politely on sidewalks for nothing more than a voice in their government and suffering incredible abuse because of it. The civil rights decisions from that era are a testament to the worst parts of human nature: you will be amazed, horrified and depressed at how clever, how creative, how industrious all levels of our nation’s government could be when they were actively conspiring to deny people equal treatment. Before Martin Luther King Jr. was a street in every major American city, he was probably the most charismatic and inspiring American leader in the last fifty years, someone who thought long and hard about what made an unjust law an unjust law. And segregation, voting-rights restrictions, and the like, those were certainly unjust laws: they merited personal sacrifice and protests in the streets.

But 2003? Yeah, our government engaged in an unnecessary international conflict which lead to many needless casualties. We had a human rights controversy that betrayed or country’s principles at home and damaged our credibility abroad. Those problems were certainly horrible enough, don’t get me wrong. But a decade later, it’s a picture of incompetence and failed leadership, not institutional evil. We invaded two Middle-Eastern countries with an intelligence apparatus and military designed to fight the Cold War, the modern equivalent of invading Russia in winter. In retrospect, our government was indefensibly ignorant of Middle-Eastern politics, and collectively, the whole country as well. I certainly hold myself accountable here as well. I don’t know Iraq from Iran, I’m an American.(Interestingly enough, most veterans I’ve encountered describe their service in Afghanistan much more favorably than their time in Iraq. I’m not sure why. I think the answers might be somewhere in this Twilight-type teen supernatural thriller.)

In my family, we didn’t need to argue about the war – we argued if Bush was worse than Nixon. (sigh) He wasn’t; I can see that now. George W. Bush was the worst possible president at the worst possible time, but he was just stupid. (I wouldn’t mind if George W. Bush was still President of the Texas Rangers baseball team, convincing his general manager to trade Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines. He was always trying to win, he was just horrible at it.) Nixon, on the other hand, was a man without a conscience in an office that required one; his crimes were against the democratic system itself. Bush may have profited from a series of flaws in the electoral system, but he was at least following them. And let’s remember, in 2004, Bush won by an even larger margin. Sometimes the American people get what they deserve. It’s good to remember Winston Churchill’s famous one-liner about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others.

It might seem irrelevant to discriminate between Vietnam or Iraq if you lost someone in either conflict, but complicated problems require individualized solutions. It’s no mistake that organized civil disobedience was most effective in combating two of the worst political situations of our time – the struggle for Indian independence and the American civil rights movement. I don’t think we could have prevented the Iraq war if more people had marched, I think the marches made conservatives and moderates roll their eyes, dismissing protesters as radicals and knee-jerk liberals, people who either couldn’t distinguish between Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq/Afghanistan in the 2000s or refused to do so. And these were people who lived through both conflicts. (I think you’re right that Iraq provoked less outrage partly because none of us faced the draft. There’s an element of self-preservation there, sure, but I think it’s more about the limits of awareness. Without a draft, we never had to consider that we might be affected directly by the war or Maybe American government developed a resistance to civil disobedience after prolonged exposure. I think the Iraq war called for a different solution and we failed to provide one.

Will the protests work in Turkey? I’m not sure. I don’t know if the Turkish people have the same experience with protesting that we have in the United States. It might very well be the perfect fit. Personally, the most troubling part of this conflict has been Erdogan’s heavy-handed response; restricting the freedom of the press is not a hallmark of a free and democratic society. May you have plenty of opportunities to explore Turkish gay bars in the future.


Yeezus Counter-programming

by iroqu0ispliskin

This marvellous Kanye song, buried on a Kung Fu movie soundtrack, is like an artifact from a parallel reality where Kanye is nuts about Kim and she helps him to achieve his long-held dream of, just, ignoring all the haters and being happy.  Let’s go to Euro, make this the best summer ever!

A Letter to Matt concerning Yeezy

by iroqu0ispliskin

So, the early line on Yeezus is that it was going to be Kanye West’s angry protest album, which has occasioned some scepticism.

It’s not that Kanye West doesn’t care about other people. I mean, it’s easy to forget that he raced on that stage on behalf of Beyonce, not himself. The trick about him is that caring, deeply, about the advancement of  fellow-humans is a deep feature of his self-conception.  That is, the logic of his titanic self-regard involves a commitment to the belief that, deep down, Ye is for the children. (I suspect this strain of publicly benevolent self-aggrandizement is the key to many political personalities) This element of his makeup is not of recent vintage – it goes back to College Dropout, if not before – but as his stature has risen over the last decade, the scale of his triumphs and sufferings has escalated from “young Chicagoan on the come-up” to “world-historical figure.”

You might have thought this self-inflation regarding his social significance reached a nadir of tastelessness when he compared himself to Martin Luther King in the splendid “New God Flow (“I’m living three dreams / Biggie Smalls, Dr. King, Rodney King”), but he tops himself on Yeezus. Oh, it’s not the Jesus stuff – the Beatles already did that, albeit unintentionally.  On “Blood on the Leaves,” Kanye uses a “Strange Fruit” sample as a backdrop for a tale about the emotional complexities of managing groupies. I don’t mean to be the culture police here, Matt, but there’s something just a little borderline here about using a song evoking a century of terrorism against the South’s black male population to elaborate one’s marital difficulties.

There is a further complication: rapwise, “Blood on the Leaves” is an absolute beast. A city-wrecking godzilla of a track. The distorted Nina Simone sample that leads off the track is like a ultimate, nightmare inversion of the Kanye’s trademark joyful soul sample. Then TNGHT’s brainshattering horns clamber through the track a minute in, and just lay waste to the whole landscape. Kanye  wades through the sonic wreckage, elevating his petty regret to apocalyptic levels though sheer force of musical will. It’s a disgusting, impressive achievement.

I have to say that I’ve been impressed by the progression of Ye’s rhyme skills. Through diligent work, Kanye has elevated himself from “barely competent lyricist frequently killed by other rappers on his own album, with a 50/50 groaner-to-punchline ratio” to “serial microphone murderer with a 50/50 groaner-to-punchline ratio.” Kanye has always been best-in-class when it comes to appealingly lunkheaded rhymes, and Yeezus delivers some great material. (Current personal fave: “Star Wars fur / yeah I’m rocking Chewbacca”)

Actually, the whole damn thing is just splendid in its ugliness. Ye’s been doing ugly/pretty for a while now – “Flashing Lights” was the first Kanye song you listened on repeat despite hating its constituent noises – but this is the first time he’s got a whole album of ugly/ugly. Subject matter, personality, sound: everything works towards the dark. It’s full of boomy and distorted drums in lieu of the crisp snares of Kanye’s early work, and there’s virtually no sung choruses. It’s the first Kanye album I’ve heard nary lush moment: even Justin Vernon sounds haloed in doom, for chrissake. When the clouds clear up over a Ponderosa Twins sample on the final track, “Bound 2,” (seemingly an ambivalent tribute to commitment) it achieves this powerful, if uneasy, sense of catharsis.

Even more so than Fantasy, it represents the perspective of someone (unlike, say, Jay-Z) who is deeply unsatisfied with having everything that America and the world at wide can offer to a human being. It’s a protest album alright, but it’s not a protest for anything.  Certainly not the children. It’s an album that is sonically and lyrically against life, against America, against sex, against money, against Kanye West.

Yeezus completes Kanye’s transformation from likable underdog making the best music of his generation, to supervillain making the best music of his generation. Each generation gets the supervillain it deserves, and this is his theme music.



A Letter to Matt, from Istanbul

by iroqu0ispliskin

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Dear Matt,

Just to be clear to you, my mother, and our double-digit readership: I’ve been totally fine out here. It is entirely possible to live here in Istanbul, even fairly close to the center of the protests, and see very little outward sign that anything is going on.

I ventured out into the fray on Saturday night following the destruction of the tent city in Gezi park, not because I am brave or principled but because (like many expatriates here) I am curious and foolhardy. These are important times and we all just want to be there, to see what happens to the country that is our (albeit-temporary) home. For my trouble I was liberally teargassed out in front of a Turkish gay bar; I owe its propreitors eternal gratefulness for sheltering my yabanci friends and I. I would not make to big a deal of it: tear gas is bad, but it won’t kill you. My own worst-case scenario is getting deported. Many of my associates and countless Turks face far worse.

On the political front, Turkey’s Prime Minister and senior leadership seem to have become a bit unbolted. Let me put it this way: if an official from your government releases a statement including a strong disavowal, to the effect that “Turkey is not a banana republic,” this might be a sign that things have become a little banana republican around here. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

(I cannot resist this further tidbit, from the same release: “[Turkey has] the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world.  Should anyone have a problem with this, then I am truly sorry.  Only for those who feel overwhelmed, the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan is a problem.” I, do feel overwhelmed by Erdogan’s imperial majesty, although feelings of being overwhelmed with imperial majesty are a well-know side effect of constant teargassing.)

I know it is somewhat foolish to head out in this insanity, but feel like I have learned a lot about what it means to be a citizen.

When it came to the chief moral question of our era in America, our generation was a failure. We witnessed a president elected by a minority of Americans drive our nation straight into the ground for reasons any sane person knew to be utter bullshit. His policies killed thousands of servicemen and about 100,000 Iraqi civilians, instituted systematic torture, and indefinitely detained hundreds of innocent people in some Cuban shithole for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I won’t go on about it, it was a shameful era, prominent elements of which presist to this day.

And yeah, we complained. We lamented the situation while we drank at bars and we rejoiced in all the crisp Daily Show satire and we argued with our parents and we voted. To their great credit, some of us protested and campaigned. But all this was not enough. The mass protests of the 1960s, which we saw in response to a similar moral situation, never materialised. Probably because few of us faced the prospect of actually having to throw our lives away for nothing. And without that incentive, we were content to go about our lives and watch all that come to pass.

These Turkish citizens may not accomplish everything they want, but at least they have had the common decency to throw themselves on cogs of a corrupt system. I wish them luck.


If Diane Young won’t Change your Mind

by iroqu0ispliskin



The catchiest, most inventive, smartest band of our generation is profoundly uncool.

Every album that Vampire Weekend has committed to record is packed of fantastic songs and sonically different from the one that preceded it. In terms of pop songcraft they are untouchable. Why is it so fashionable to despise them?

I am at a disadvantage here, as I have never understood the desire to castigate music as inauthentic and I have never been cool.  I suppose that subject matter may enter into the equation (we all hate white people, natch), but this ignores the fact that deeply important music has been written about Hobbits. I mean, Vampire Weekend isn’t Dylan, but not everything has to be Dylan.  They’re not Steely Dan, either; those guys couldn’t songwrite their way out of a paper bag.

Diane Young is so self-evidently perfect that I won’t say much about it, except that I really love the part just before the last shout chorus when you can hear him give a sharp intake of breath.

A Letter to Matt from Beirut

by iroqu0ispliskin


Dear Matt,

Greetings from Beirut!  I have been in Lebanon for three days, in order to take a standardized test. It is a positively lovely country. A pair of young men on the street helped me when I was wandering lost on the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood at midnight, allowing me to use the wifi on the balcony of their sleeping family’s apartment so that I could locate the flat I had rented. I encourage all human beings come here as a gesture of gratitude. (To Andreas and Gabriel: may the winds be ever at your back.  May you make it to Las Vegas again.)

You are probably wondering what is happening in my hometown of Istanbul, Turkey.  Let’s start here: about two weeks ago, the police vacated Taksim square and everyone decided to have a party.

I’m only exaggerating slightly; after several days of sustained, teargas-intensive streetfights over the town’s central square  (described earlier), the protestors took over the place. So what do you do if your ragtag coalition of communists, middle-class secular liberals, youths, Kemalist diehards, and soccer fans successfully faced down the might of the Turkish state?  Apparently, you kick back and crack open some beers.

A small collection of tents in Gezi Park, the destruction of which was the impetus for the protests in the first place, ballooned into an autonomous tent republic: its denizens set up a free lending library, pooled food and distributed it freely, and arranged for garbage collection. In the park in the surrounding square, the entrepreneurs swarmed in, selling watermelon, tea, Ataturk swag, kofte, beers, and Guy Fawkes masks.  Various political constituencies (the commies, the political parties, the environmentalists, the gays) set up booths and distributed literature and held massive rallies.  There was a lot of guitar music and dancing.  A friend of mine told me that the whole scene reminded him of a Widespread Panic concert.

Which is all to say: while the headlines over the past week and a half were still documenting the violence of the preceding weekend, a pretty lovely scene was taking shape in the center of Taksim. Every day and night it was packed with throngs of wellwishers, activists, and partiers. I incline towards skepticism when it comes to hippie-led social endeavours, but even I was cheered and impressed by the air of good cheer, solidarity, and civic pride you felt in the park and around Taksim. I don’t want to oversell the level of social unity on display here: there were very few women in headscarves, and there were very few Kurds.  I heard of clashes between various constituencies in the park.  But the park was kept clean. Beer sales were cut off last Wednesday to honour the muslim holiday. For a decentralized affair involving thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, it was remarkably well-run and peacful.

Nevertheless, a palpable air of dread hung over the whole affair, because Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seems to have lost his mind.

Erdogan has shown himself to be a much less impressive leader than I took him for. I think that he could have come back from his tour of North Africa and said the following: “Dear rabble, I have a broad popular mandate to carry out environmentally destructive, ludicrous infrastructure projects and nudge the country towards an Islamist lifestyle.  I know you don’t like it, but this is representative democracy. Them’s the breaks.” I think this an inadequate response, stemming from an inadequate conception of democracy, but it’s something we could debate over. This would have been a credible response.

Instead, Erdogan has made liberal use of the deluded-autocrat-in-extremis handbook. He has variously blamed the uprising on Twitter, foreign media, “interest-rate cartels”, and bums. (This last contention is most conclusively refuted by a spontaneous demonstration last week at Kanyon, an upscale mall housing the lunchspots of the city’s upper-middle-class) He has imprisoned journalists, lawyers, and twitterers. Ominously, he has tried to cast the protests as a war on the religious: he has repeated lies about the protestors, accusing them of impiety in a bid to shore up his support amongst conservative muslims.  He seems to bank on the hope that Turks who receive their news exclusively from the print and television outlets that are under state control will buy this line. That is, he’s betting that his decade-long effort to achieve a stranglehold on the national media will bear fruit when the chips are down.  This remains to be seen.

In the 3 days I’ve been out of town, the scene has reached a new equilibrium, the exact nature of which I cannot suss out.  On Tuesday the government started cracking skulls and throwing teargas again. On the following day, there were overtures towards compromise.  Last night the protestors hosted a piano concert while a ring of riot police and watercannons encircled the square.

I cannot imagine this will end well.