Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sunday Reading

Transcendent — Charlie Pierce on Muhammad Ali.

I play it cool/I dig all jive/That is how I stay alive

—Langston Hughes

There is no real place to begin with him and no ending fit enough for the life he led. Muhammad Ali died on Friday, true enough. They will take him to his final rest on Wednesday in Louisville, which was only his first hometown in a world that he made his true hometown. So he was not immortal, the way we all thought he might be, but he lived a life beyond the bounds of mortality anyway, a life that has no real beginning and that still has a vital spirit for which no ending is adequate.

He was an iconic human being in an era that produced icons with every turn of the television dial, every front page of every morning newspaper and, my god, most of them died young. John and Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. None of them ever made 50. None of them ever made old bones. Only Ali lived to see how he truly changed the world around him, how it had come to understand that some lives are lived beyond the mortal limits.

He was a transcendent athlete, first and foremost, every bit as skilled at what he did for a living as Michael Jordan or Pele. The greatest change in athletes over the span of his physical life is that big athletes got fast. LeBron James plays basketball and he is just about the same size as Antonio Gates, who is a tight end. When he first arrived at Wimbledon, Boris Becker looked like a college linebacker. Ali was tall for a heavyweight, bigger than anyone who was faster than he was and faster than anyone who was bigger.

You have to have seen him before he was stripped of his livelihood to appreciate fully his gifts as an athlete. Foot speed. Hand speed. Before it all hit the fan in 1968, Sports Illustrated put him in a lab with strobe lights and everything, to time the speed of his punches. The results looked something out of a special-effects lab. In one of his routines, the late Richard Pryor used to talk about sparring with Ali in a charity exhibition. A Golden Gloves fighter in his youth, as Pryor later put it, “you don’t see his punches until they comin’ back. And your mind be sayin’, ‘Wait a minute now. There was some shit in my face a minute ago. I know that.'” He was an accelerated man in an accelerated age. Saying he was “ahead of his time” was only the half of it. His time was all time.

That was what led to the rest of it—the opposition to the criminal stupidity that was being practiced by this country in Southeast Asia, stated in terms as fundamentally American as the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law…” His stubborn insistence that his life was his own, that it did not belong to the sclerotic old gangsters who still ran boxing, nor to the sclerotic old men who still ran the government, with their wiretaps and their phony indictments and their lawbooks. He was too fast for them all to catch, ultimately, and too pretty for a country that was vandalizing its most beautiful elements. That stubbornness also likely led to his physical downfall. All gifts have their dark side. All debts come due.

He was a prophet, in every way that America makes its prophets, in the same way that was William Lloyd Garrison, who told his country “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD,” and in the same way that was Dr. King, who told that same country that:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note.”

He embodied the country, in all its historic, inherent contradictions, in all its promises, broken and unbroken, and in all of its lost promises and hard-won glories. He insisted on the rights that the country said were his from birth and, in demanding them, freed himself to enjoy them, and freed the country, if only for a moment, to be something more than even the Founders thought it would be. And now, he’s passed from the earth. It was a great, golden trumpet of a life he led, and it is calling, calling still, and will still be calling, as the old hymn puts it, when time shall be no more.

The Real Scandal — Julianne Hing in The Nation on Donald Trump’s scam “university.”

This is where we are at this point of the collective national nightmare of the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign: On Thursday, Donald Trump toldThe Wall Street Journal that because of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s “Mexican heritage,” the federal judge has an “absolute conflict” in presiding over a lawsuit brought by former students of Trump’s self-named real-estate courses. Curiel’s ethnic background is of importance because, Trump said, “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.” Trump clearly misunderstands the concept; a defendant’s own prejudices have no bearing on whether a judge is unfit for the job.

When Trump first mentioned the Indiana-born judge’s ethnicity at a San Diego rally last Friday, it was to do his usual jabbing and dancing to avoid ethical punches. At that event, Trump raised Curiel and mentioned his ethnic background in the same breath: “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine,” adding that he was sure that Mexican Americans would come around to support him “when I give all these jobs, OK?” Then he circled back around. “I’m getting railroaded by the legal system,” he said, “Frankly, they should be ashamed.” Trump labeled Curiel “a hater of Donald Trump,” and also called him “a total disgrace.”

It was a classic Trump move: create bogeymen out of thin air in order to prop up his self-imagined victimhood; home in on a person’s race or sex as the basis for his attacks; and then antagonize as a form of diversion from the matter at hand. That matter would be Trump University, the mogul’s real-estate courses that purportedly taught customers how to become like Trump, for as much as $35,000, or starting at the low, low price of $1,495. The lawsuit alleges that far from teaching students actual real-estate expertise, Trump ran a fraudulent business scheme.

The marketing schemes for Trump’s real-estate seminars at times sound ripped straight from the recruitment playbooks of the scandal-plagued for-profit school industry, which has preyed on single moms, people of color, veterans, and those who’ve been locked out of more prestigious avenues for higher education.

Take, for instance, the 2010 Senate testimony of Joshua Pruyn, a former admissions representative for Westwood College, a for-profit chain of, at the time, 17 campuses. Pruyn was technically an admissions advisor, but in reality his position was that of a glorified sales rep. “During the interview, we were taught to portray ourselves as advisors looking out for the students’ best interests and ensuring they were a good fit for the school. This fake interview would allow the representative to ask students questions to uncover a student’s motivators and pain points—their hopes, fears, and insecurities—all of which would later be used to pressure a student to enroll,” Pruyn testified.

The for-profit schools industry targeted people of color, poor people, and veterans because they more likely to be eligible for public financial aid like Pell Grants. This much-parodied Everest College commercial should be very familiar with anyone who watches daytime television.

Students of color ended up forming the backbone of the industry’s explosive growth in the early and mid-2000s. In the 2010–11 school year, just as the Obama administration’s regulatory hammer started to fall on the industry, the for-profit system University of Phoenix was the nation’s top producer of new black undergrad graduates. The nation’s second-highest producer of new black baccalaureates that year was Ashford University, also a for-profit college.

When the industry’s comeuppance came, it was devastating. In lawsuit after lawsuit, universities were accused of fleecing students of their federal student-aid money and saddling them with debt they couldn’t repay, and leaving students with an education and credits that weren’t transferrable or recognized as valid by other educational institutions. In December 2015, after multiple settlements in various lawsuits, Westwood College—where former admissions recruiter Pruyn worked—agreed not to enroll any more students.

After suffering a barrage of these kinds of lawsuits and increased regulation from the Obama administration, the for-profit schools industry is now in the tank these days. Enrollment is down; many have been maligned for the shady businesses that they were, including Trump University.

Hours after Trump brought Judge Curiel into his campaign theater last week, Curiel unsealed documents related to his case, at the request of The Washington Post. Those documents detail the aggressive marketing and recruitment playbook that Trump University sales staffers worked from. The playbook urged sales members to not let prospective customers be deterred by their own lack of money (“If they believe in you and your product, they will find the money”), and to guide consumers through “the roller coaster of emotions,” so as to encourage students to cough up cash. The guides urged sales members to home in on people’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect “during closing time.” (“For example: are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food?”)

These tactics, Trump would rather not discuss. Always easier, after all, to pivot to the most base of appeals—racial and ethnic antagonism—and the cheapest of tactics—bullying others and calling it self-defense.

Spectacles Spectacle — Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker on the latest art craze.

A recent little sensation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art delights and bemuses. Two teen-age boys from San Jose were perusing, with perplexity, the museum’s exhibits of contemporary art when they had a notion. One of them, Kevin Nguyen, sixteen, set his opened eyeglasses on the floor, neatly perpendicular to a nearby wall. He and T. J. Khayatan, seventeen, then stood back to watch what ensued: viewers observing the glasses with the curiosity and respect befitting a work of art—which, under the circumstances, they were.

Not that the glasses were good art, necessarily—an issue made moot, in any case, when Nguyen picked them up and put them back on.

But consider: an object manufactured to enhance seeing, presented as something to see. By being underfoot, the glasses were divorced from their function and protected only by the don’t-touch protocol of museums. They might have seemed, to a suggestible audience, to be about being-in-a-museum—and that audience could have included me. Suggestibility, undaunted by fear of proving foolish, is essential to art love.

Invoked, of course, was the evergreen aesthetic of the readymade, demonstrated by Marcel Duchamp with a urinal, in 1917. But that trope is hardly surefire. During their visit, Nguyen and Khayatan ventured two other placements, of a jacket and a baseball cap, which, at least visibly, intrigued no one. Some conceptual poetry or satirical bite is needed to bring a readymade off. The glasses managed both the former, at first, and then the latter, when their backstory emerged.

Many sane citizens will deem the spectacle of the spectacles ridiculous. They won’t be wrong. A risk of absurdity always attends the willingness to surrender oneself to the spell of any mere object: the dirtied swatch of cloth that is a painting, for example. It’s a game, whatever else it is, which makes sense only with knowledge of the rules and customs that are in play.

Museums edit, for our convenience, the universe of existing things. What they let in and what they keep out shape culture. How far in the way of inclusion is too far? How much in the way of discrimination is just crabby?

Have we witnessed the entire art career, now, of the San Jose Two?

You go, boys.

Doonesbury — Heir Apparent.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Re: the eyeglass art: I visit Chicago’s Cultural Center frequently, and one of the features is regular — and constant — exhibitions of the work of local artists, some of which is, even to me, puzzling. (Note: I worked in the art business for most of my career, including nine or ten years at the Museum of Contemporary Art — I’m not unfamiliar with it.) Recently, in the atrium of the north entrance was a barrier with a sign that said “Construction Zone.” I really wasn’t sure if it was an exhibition or an actual construction zone. It was one of those cryptic sorts of things that you run into from time to time in the city that could go either way.

    As they say, art is in the eye of the beholder.

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