Tuesday, April 18, 2017

21 theses about Columbo




1. In Columbo, things are not as they seem. A murder is committed, almost always with premeditation. Sometimes, but not always, the death is made to look like an accident. Either way, things are arranged so that the person who committed the murder appears to be the one with the least opportunity and the best possible alibi.

2. The object of Columbo is not to figure out the identity of the murderer – a banal fact that is almost always revealed to the audience in the opening act of each episode – but rather to examine how circumstances of the murder were dissembled, and finally to uncover the single piece of evidence that can be used to bring the murderer to justice.

3. Therefore Columbo is primarily about the act of staging, rather than committing, a murder. And the talent of the detective consists primarily in deconstructing a fiction.

4. The clue that sets the detective on the right track is a flaw in the story. An inconsistency. A man is strangled, and then his death is made to look like the result of an accident involving a piece of gym equipment. In the process of setting the scene, the murderer must remove the man’s business clothes and dress him in his gym clothes. But when it comes to tying his sneakers, he does it like a man who is tying another man’s shoelaces, not his own. That is what’s wrong with the picture. The detective notices it right away, and spends the rest of the episode turning the clue into an actual piece of evidence. That is the work of the detective.

5. Because Columbo is not interested in human motivation and the social causes of murder, but is concerned rather with staging and representation, in one respect the work of the detective comes to resemble that of a reverse script supervisor or continuity clerk. Sometimes this is literally true, like when Columbo discovers that a security tape was doctored by the fact that a hedge in the earlier portion of the tape appears to have been pruned, whereas later it is shown in a non-pruned state; or when, in one of my all-time favourite endings, he notices that an audio-recording purported to have been made in the murderer’s office is missing the sound of a mechanical clock chiming the hour.



6. As a consequence, finding continuity errors or inconsistencies in Columbo-the-show can be uniquely jarring. The episode in which Martin Landau plays two identical twins, for instance, was spoiled for me by the clumsy choice of the extra who played the other twin when both of them appeared in the same scene.

Not what Martin Landau looks like from behind
7. The problem with Columbo is that every episode needs to be perfect, and not all of them are. Conversely, so many moments and scenes of Columbo are just that, perfect. Like the reverse tracking shot from his car driving down the street into the office where a writer is about to get killed in the Steven Spielberg-directed Murder by the Book. Or the projection onto Robert Culp’s glasses of how he’s going to get rid of the body of the woman he’s just killed in Death Lends a Hand.


Or the long speech that Columbo delivers with his back to the camera in Prescription: Murder.


Often this style calls attention to the artifice, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, like this shot from Lady in Waiting.


8. So Columbo is both about the staging of murder and also of a TV show about a detective. Hence the plethora of episodes set in the worlds of cinema, television, publishing, radio and theatre.




9. As well as being concerned with representation and dissimulation, Columbo is – just as importantly – a show about work. Playing opposite an eminent psychiatrist who murdered his own wife in Prescription: Murder, Columbo explains:
Cops, you know, we're not the brightest people in the world. Of course we've got one thing going for us: we're professionals. I mean, you take our friend here, the murderer. He's very smart, but he's an amateur. I mean, he's got just one time to learn. Just one. And with us, well, with us, it's – it's a business. You see, we do this a hundred times a year. I'll tell ya, Doc. That's a lot of practice.
10. Columbo is a diligent and honest worker. He’s not a genius: he’s just the employee of the month for 38 years running.

11. As well as being good at his job – which he often admits to enjoying – Columbo is both temperamentally and professionally interested in other people’s work. For solving the murder often involves being taught the details of somebody’s else job, no matter how apparently menial. Like when he asks a cleaner to show him exactly how she cleaned the fridge in the victim’s apartment on the day he was killed in It's All in the Game. There are endless examples of this.

Another favourite ending: Columbo was wearing gloves the whole time
12. Yet ironically one of Columbo’s talents consists in hiding the fact that he’s good at his job, in order to ingratiate himself to the suspect and appear less threatening. Just as the murderer stages the murder, Columbo dissimulates his investigation, which becomes a counter-fiction to the murderer’s fiction.

13. The suspense in Columbo consists principally in the murderer coming to the realisation that Columbo is not an idiot.

14. Columbo has very little regard for morality. Its murderers aren’t monsters, even when their crimes are nefarious, and the detective often treats them with respect if not downright sympathy and comradery. In Try and Catch Me, he says to the character played by Ruth Gordon: ‘Sometimes I like the murderers that I meet, if they’re intelligent or funny or just nice.’ By which he obviously means to include her, even though he knows she left a man to slowly suffocate inside a vault.

Oh, Ruth
Similarly, in Ransom for a Dead Man Columbo points out to the suspect that she has no conscience not in order to formulate a judgement, but merely to remark that he exploited this weakness to make her reveal a key piece of evidence.

15. Murder in Columbo is not an index of moral degradation or social malaise, either. And not only because the murderers are mostly the product of affluent Los Angeles society. Murder merely happens because people are sometimes motivated to kill other people, and also have the opportunity to do so.

A murder weapon
16. In Columbo truth is plain, and it can be uncovered via logic and observation. While ‘the boys at the lab’ often lend a hand, they are there to examine the scene as instructed by the detective, not to make their own deductions. In fact the only time a crime scene investigator takes on a larger role, in A Trace of Murder, he turns out to be the murderer.

17. Unlike in the CSI era, truth in Columbo is macroscopic, not microscopic.


18. There is very little darkness in Columbo, both metaphoric and actual. Every interior is thoroughly lit, every surface gleams, as if waiting for the detective to search it for clues. Outside, the Californian sun is always shining, making Columbo’s raincoat seem even more incongruous, and even the night scenes are often shot by day, such as in the climax of Any Old Port in a Storm.

19. Columbo doesn't get old. He always stays a lieutenant. Coming back from the series 11-year hiatus, he wears the same raincoat. His sergeant is still a sergeant. He drives the same car (a dilapidated 1959 Peugeot convertible). The dog is still alive.


20. Yes in spite of the detective’s infinite reserve of bonhomie and anecdotes about the wife, his love of food, the sun always shining, and time never passing, occasionally Columbo reveals a darker side. It’s when we’re allowed to see Columbo through the eyes of his suspect, as an almost demonic presence, or the unlikely incarnation of the narrative principle of detective fiction, whereby the truth will always out, no matter how carefully one might try to disguise it.

You can't get away from Columbo
21. But mostly, Columbo is just nice, and his genial nature is at the heart of the show. ‘That's me. I'd like to see everyone die of old age.’ Columbo would be happy to live in a world in which there is no place for him, and while he’s certainly not naïve (‘Every time I see a dead body, I think it's been murdered’), he’s always kind. Almost to the point of being sorry, sometimes, that he’s so good at solving murders.

In lieu of an ending: a random gallery of what people look like right after Columbo has left the room.











Oh, and one more thing...


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Late capitalism: the infographic


The origins of the literature admonishing the poor for their spendthrift and wretched ways go back some centuries, but every epoch has its particular versions of it. For us – less than ten years after a cadre of bankers seeking to criminally profit from ordinary’s people desire to own a home plunged the world into a catastrophic crisis – it centres around the failure of the poor to accumulate immovable assets. Hence the torrent of newspaper articles purporting to prove that anyone can own a house, if only they set their mind to it, or so long as they commit to making the same sacrifices as their forebears.

These articles have a few things in common: they elide class advantage by giving as little emphasis as possible to the fact that their heroic young homeowners invariably turn out to have received large sums of money from their parents, or to have benefited from living with their family at the time when they were saving for a deposit; and – under the guise of giving sensible and useful advice to young people – they provide moral justification to a massive generational shift in wealth, accompanied by an even greater increase in inequality. It’s not just that older people are relatively better off than younger ones with respect to home ownership: it’s also that the rich are getting vastly richer by purchasing an ever greater proportion of the available stock. Blaming Millennials – standing in more broadly for ‘anyone who doesn’t own a home’ – for being bad at saving, or portraying exceptional stories as an achievable norm, hides the structural nature to the problem.

As is a historical constant of this genre, the articles are also of immense comfort to the rich, who get to view their success – by implication – as having been earned through personal sacrifice, and to displace any residual guilt they may feel during their darker moments.

Yet there is a lot to learn from these stories. When a successful profiteer thunders from the pages of a bourgeois newspaper that wannabe buyers should ‘Toughen up, stop complaining and join the army’, it not only gives us a valuable recruiting tool for bloody revolution, but it also undercuts the myth of equal opportunity from which bourgeois politics derives its legitimacy. Again: every epoch in history provides us with variations on this theme. And that’s what makes them worthy of study.

Writer Linda Tirado uncovered a very interesting example of the genre over the weekend. It’s a guide produced in the United States on how to save money on the minimum wage, written – or rather designed – by self-styled ‘visual capitalist’ Jeff Desjardines for Business Insider. (Tirado has since produced her own step-by-step rebuttal, which makes this blog post almost completely redundant, but I saw it too late.)

What makes this guide exemplary is its visual rhetorical style, combined with its daring central proposition. This time, our aim is not to make you think you will ever own a home (say goodbye to subprime). Rather, we want to persuade you that you can achieve financial well-being on the crumbs that the most advanced capitalist society in the world leaves on the table, simply by following a million easy steps.


Wealth, explains Desjardines, does not consist in owning assets. You could have mansions and jet planes coming out your ears and still be full of debt. (Which is true enough, but.)



No: real wealth consists in being able to survive for a long time should your earnings suddenly stop. Which, interestingly enough, is an impoverished but still somewhat passable version of the old-fashioned understanding in working class circles of the word ‘security’.


In the heyday of post-war social democracy, through such documents as the 1972 report by the New Zealand Royal Commission on Social Policy, western governments had enough faith in capitalism as to suggest that social benefits should be sufficient not only to keep the wolves at bay, but to participate in society as equals, sharing in the same lifestyle and enjoying the same material goods as members of the middle class. Nowadays, by contrast, not only the unemployed or the underemployed, but even people with a modest job are supposed to make do with less and less. Forget eating out. Cancel your cable. Sell your car and travel by bike, as if you lived in an Italian neorealist film. Do the things that are free in life, like phoning an old friend or going for a hike. And above all, move to a cheaper city.


This requirement, which is also quite common to ‘how to get onto the property ladder’ primers (Step 1: buy a place 75km from the nearest paying job) is especially illustrative of how far the dream of universal prosperity has sunk. To shunt all minimum-wage workers to Amarillo, Texas, is not only patently nonsensical – who would be left to clean buildings and serve food in New York? – but is also a dramatic admission that capitalism cannot provide a decent living even to people who are, as it were, fully subscribed.

We knew all this, of course. It just sounds different when a visual capitalist says it. And while relocation may be technically voluntary, Desjardines makes sure to set a guilt-trap for those who may be reluctant to pack their bags.


Abandoning your home, your social networks of support – which are themselves essential for surviving on a low wage – your friends, your family, even your culture, are things that those guilty not of working less hard, but for less money than others are called upon to justify. They are excuses.

Pausing only to remind ourselves that Elon Musk once went a year eating for less than $1 per day, we have come full circle to the basic premise of every anti-poor piece of writing in the three-hundred-year history of this genre. Namely, that poverty is a choice, and all you have to do is to unmake it.


But what good is empowerment without emancipation? What does one gain by beating the odds, if not to become another outlier, or the likely subject of a newspaper article about how to be ‘wealthy’ on the minimum wage? Such are the cheerful, bloodless fantasies of late capitalism: a happy life in Amarillo, your time equally divided between going on hikes and phoning old friends.

Only please, whatever you do, don’t even think about raising a family.



This week I also have a review over at Overland of Jeff Sparrow’s brilliant new book on Paul Robeson.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the things I can say in 800 words


 Originally published at Overland


A writer has been asked to produce a romantic story for a magazine but, as the deadline approaches, finds himself 3000 words short of the required length. Luckily, he thinks of an expedient. He concludes the story with the following exchange between the two protagonists:
‘I love you.’
‘Oh, darling … say it again one thousand times!’

This old gag by Italian humourist Achille Campanile illustrates an apparent paradox: that we are so often asked to write not for as long as an idea or a story requires to be properly expressed, but to fill a given space, whether measured in words, pages or time. Campanile started his career in the age of the Futurists, who wrote plays such as Francesco Cangiullo’s Detonation (1915), in which a shot rings out across the empty stage, then the curtain falls: the spectators therefore would be left not only to reflect on the puzzling brevity of the performance, but also to find something else to do with the rest of their evening. (It is unclear whether the play was ever staged.)

Detonation underscores the fact that length is an aesthetic measurement: what you can do or say in a very short play is fundamentally different, not just in quantity but also in quality, from a play of more traditional duration. There is literally no entertainment if you don’t actually keep the audience occupied for a substantial amount of time. Conversely, Umberto Eco wrote memorably about the sublime prolixity of Alexandre Dumas, père, who got paid by the word and also based his commercial success on his ability to stretch his imagery to its breaking point.

Essays operate in a similar way. If we go back to the beginnings of the form, we find that Montaigne varied the time he spent on his subjects greatly. The average length of his 107 published essays is a little over 3000 words, but ranges from as little as 300 words (‘Of the Parsimony of the Ancients’) to a whopping 25,000 (‘Of Experience’). And although the essays tended to get longer over time, the overall pace of the three books is remarkably uniform, as if he really only devoted to each subject the attention it required, and length were wholly and exclusively a function of content.

Nowadays, mandated essay lengths balance the needs of publishers (or teachers) to have something substantial enough to publish (or assess), with the needs of writers to know the level of detail and depth of engagement required.

One can praise succinctness, and opine that more words don’t always equal better words. (Karl Kraus: ‘There are writers who can say in as few as twenty pages what it takes me as many as two lines to express.’) But what if you don’t have enough to say? The wikiHow page entitled ‘How to Make an Essay Appear Longer Than It Is’ contains many useful suggestions aimed at the US college student who has trouble completing an assignment, but its wisdom is more widely applicable and would have impressed old man Dumas himself.

Some of the suggestions are obvious enough. (Do not use contractions: just do not.) Others are more elaborate, such as encouraging the student to learn to use a highly formal, imagery-rich prose style, or to summarise the key point of each paragraph in a sentence before moving on to the next one (such signposting is almost a rule for good writing). But much greater heights are scaled by the typographical suggestions for the benefit of students who have to fill a certain number of pages, as opposed to reaching a certain number of words. These aren’t limited to the use of large titles, or remembering to mention the name of the instructor in the title page, or double-spacing the text, or using the maximum allowable font size, or even the biggest font for a given font size (it’s Lucida Sans Typewriter, in case you’re wondering, followed by Arial and Euphemia UCAS). The master trick is to make all full stops and commas a larger size than the rest of the text, which apparently can stretch a document a great deal while being scarcely noticeable.

‘Use bigger commas’ would be a terrific rallying cry for an advanced writing course, but we’re in the realm of the comic paradox again. In reality, the length of an essay usefully dictates its range of possible meanings. If I’m asked by Overland to write an 800-word column, as opposed to a 3000-word essay, it will affect not just my style but also my approach to the topic. In 800 words, I can only touch lightly upon a subject. Raise some questions but not fully articulate the answers. It is a length that is growing on me, as it were. And while it isn’t suited to all topics, it’s also true that not all topics that are suited to an 800-word column scale up well to a longer treatment.

With practice, naturally, you learn to pace yourself. Like an accomplished musician, you settle from the start on the right rhythm, which ensures you will never commit the cardinal sin of running out of words in the middle of a


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On only reading old books


First published at Overland

‘A book changes by the fact that it does not change when the world changes.’ Roger Chartier wrote this in The Order of Books, although he knew it not to be entirely true: just a few pages earlier, he had remarked how the practice of dividing the Bible into chapter and verse, originating in the seventeenth century, ultimately modified its mode of interpretation, a fact that troubled the English philosopher John Locke at the time.

Books do change sometimes, as do texts when they migrate to new carriers. Yet they also stay the same. It’s this double nature – at once a physical artefact and, ultimately, a collection of sounds – that gives the book much of its aura and that contributes to it being an enduring unit of culture. Eternal, perhaps, at least as long as human societies exist – for haven’t the words survived? Don’t we talk of digital pages and electronic books, in spite of the radically altered nature of these new objects?

It’s the book’s capacity to resist, as well as to mark the passage of time, that draws me to it as a form, and pushes me back whenever I try to keep up with what is current and new, even to the point of frustration. I consume a fair number of contemporary articles and essays, as well as films and television shows, but when it comes to books, I struggle to muster the necessary interest in new titles. There are precious few novelists or nonfiction authors whose next work I await with genuine anticipation. And even when I dutifully buy the books I know I ought to be interested in – and that I will probably enjoy – they languish at the bottom of my reading pile, constantly fighting a losing battle against library borrowings (which, I tell myself, must be returned before the due date), or second-hand acquisitions, or much older purchases.

It’s as if I need to wait for the world to change around books, making them interesting in a new way. This may have something to do with the Italian education system and its obsession with studying the things that came before in order to properly understand the ones that came after. This pedantically chronological approach led me to encounter the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians at every stage of my education (primary, intermediate and secondary), though my teachers never quite found the time to delve into the Second World War – an interesting omission for the country that gave birth to Fascism, I think you will agree.

With this in mind, I try to fight the ingrained habit. When, three years ago, I finally bought an ebook reader, I thought it would make me more inclined to purchase new books, especially ones I would have previously had to have shipped to New Zealand at extortionate prices. In reality, the exact opposite happened. Bamboozled and enraged by Amazon’s segregation of its international catalogues (theoretically requiring two separate Kindles, one for books published in Italy and one for those from the US), I discovered that my device unlocked vast repositories of out-of-copyright books – books I knew existed but never quite ventured into with my desktop computer. But in this new form, I could take them practically anywhere. So for some months I embarked on an apparent attempt to download the nineteenth century in its entirety. I found almost every single one of the books I plucked (almost at random) from these lists to be immensely fascinating, and a constant source of cues to pursue other readings.

I tell myself that I should change. That it’s in my professional interest, as a putative cultural critic, to be up to date in my readings, just as it was my explicit duty when I wrote my doctoral thesis. At that time, I dreaded new releases by scholars in my field, not out of jealousy or anxiety, but because they might force me to incorporate new lines of thinking into my nearly finished work. I also remind myself that old literature and criticism can be a refuge, an excuse not to engage with new, and newly challenging, ideas. All of which is true.

I am fond of an old joke of Fred Allen’s: ‘I can’t understand why a person will take a year or two to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars.’ The same could be said of new books generally. Why do we still bother? What do they say that hasn’t be said before? The answers will likely be interesting, and interestingly complicated. And while it pays to remember that it’s a joke – of course there is no retreating from culture, or pretending it is finished – the joke has some truth in it: there are millions of books in the world, all of them not changing while the world around them changes. And maybe it’s as simple as that, for me: I am not quite finished with the old books yet.




Speaking of things from magazines, my piece on the politics of fake news and post-truth in Berlusconi’s era is up on the New Humanist’s website.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Tony Alexander Doctrine, or 39 things to give up if you want to buy a home



(After BNZ economist Tony Alexander)


If you are a young person seeking first home ownership what do you do? Take courses in basic building and home maintenance skills, find a dunger or even a meth house to strip (you heard me), and do it up. Basically, be prepared to do what the Boomers did. Start out in a desolate new suburb of clay – or even Hamilton – or build and live in what will become your garage whilst building the rest of the house around you in the following few years. This is completely true. Every house you see around you was built by a Boomer on weekends.

And how to finance it? Go to cafes and spend as much on lattes, muffins, frappes, wraps, etc. as often as the Baby Boomers did. Get takeaway as often as they did and consume as much food beyond daily calorific requirements as they did. Because Boomers were lean, too, the sweat on their chiselled bodies glistening in the late afternoon sun as they endlessly built or repaired their homes after a day spent at the office, servicing the patriarchy.

Sorry. Where was I?

Mend clothes instead of buying replacements like they did. (Yes I know everything about the changed economics of the clothing industry.) Upgrade your electronics as often as the Boomers did. (Never mind that a television in the 1950s cost as much as a car today.) Subscribe to the same number of TV channels as they received. (Never mind that there was only one channel and everyone paid for it through tax.) Change your telephone as often as they did. Drink the same limited range of domestically produced non-boutique beer and wine as they did, at home, at the local motor lodge or working men’s club.

Did I just tell Millennial women to stay at home? So what if I did.

Hire as many gardeners, landscape designers, decoration consultants, plumbers, Feng Shui consultants, window washers, dog walkers, dog washers, cat whisperers and general handymen as they did.

You see, here at the Bank we are staunch opponents of the services industry and of consumer culture generally. We’re willing to put this in writing in the letter accompanying your complimentary, pre-approved credit card, which is in the mail.


Okay so my boss, Anthony Healy, emerged from the world of shadows in which he apparently dwells to point out the thing I wrote about the Boomers was offensive and stupid. But the point is that the world has changed and if purchasing a house is your goal then there is no shortage of things which those who already have purchased sacrificed as they built up their savings. Things people have cut out have included...

· Cafe visits.
· Going to restaurants and bars.
· Smoking. (It is well known that Boomers never smoked.)
· The latest telephones, games consoles, cars.
· Hired help like dog washers, landscape designers, etc. You may not believe that I am banging on this again, but I just did. Every day I see Millennials getting their dogs washed by liveried professionals, all within sight of the landscape gardener whom they keep on retainer in spite of the fact they don’t yet own a home, let alone a home and garden. This is folly.
· Weekend and evening leisure time because they took an extra part-time job.
· Privacy – by taking in flatmates or student boarders, or renting out space on Airbnb, or taking their showers by running naked in the rain.

Here are some other things.

· Yet more consultants like cat fondlers, gutter decorators, ant alphabetisers.
· Not only Feng Shui but also doors, windows and the very concept of indoor-outdoor flow. Go live in a box that opens from the top.
· Sky Television.
· Phrases with the word ‘sky’ in it.
· Looking at the sky, except when overcast.
· Netflix. Freeview. Any audiovisual content you're not getting paid to watch as part of a market research exercise.
· Flavoured rice.
· Potable water.
· Milk not purchased at a petrol station.
· Meat that isn’t shredded or minced.
· Meth, except on weekends.
· One half of all bodily organs that come in pairs.
· Music outside of public domain records on wax cylinders or vinyl that you have trained yourself to play in your head while licking the grooves, and whatever you can overhear by standing next to somebody wearing loud earphones on public transport, or by running alongside cars with very powerful stereos.
· Birthdays and other major anniversaries.
· The concept of human friendship.
· Coffee. If you need a shot of caffeine during your working day, smell the breath of an Italian.
· Store-bought candles or shoes. Learn to make your own instead. Once equipment and labour are factored in, this isn't going to save you any money, but it's going to keep you occupied so you don't take to the streets and set fire to my place of work.
· Any item of clothing not made of sack, or former barrels.
· Expensive holidays overseas.
· Even more expensive holidays under the sea.
· Smashed avocado on toast, which can cost upwards of $55,000 a portion.
· All lifestyles except for the paleo lifestyle – especially the part where you get to live nomadically in a series of rudimentary shacks.
· A full, expensive-to-maintain head of hair.
· Roofs, especially if they go by the more expensive spelling ‘rooves’.
· Bank economists.
· Car and burglar alarms. Replace these by training yourself to live in a constant state of alarm, like a meerkat.
· Any meals that aren't cooked from scratch. And I mean from scratch: I want to see you working that flint.
· The latest videogames. Your grandfather didn't need to play Call of Duty: World at War, because he fought in an actual war. Go fight in a war.
· Pitchforks. Effigies. Gasoline. (You see where I'm going with this.)
· Electric light. The night is surprisingly rich with sources of natural or otherwise free illumination. If you have trouble locating them, consider befriending a moth.
· All poetry except for found poetry.

Above all, remember: the reason why it has become so much harder for ordinary people to own their own home is that the world has changed – big, sweeping structural changes which us poor bankers have neither in any way contributed to or profited from.

The world has taken all the changes it can bear, and it cannot be changed any further.

Please do not try to change the world.

Thank you.



Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The cost of raising children


The cost of raising children is nothing but a statistical construct. As soon as you start reading into it, you discover is that rich children 'cost' more money to raise, but poor families spend a greater percentage of their income on raising their children than rich ones do. A child in a developing country 'costs' less than one thousand US dollars a year. An American child 'costs' over USD 16,000. Young children cost less. Teenage children cost more. Third and fourth children cost more than first and second ones.


In other words, the ‘cost of raising children’ is anything but. The measures, of which there are a plethora – from online calculators on bank websites to government booklets and reports, all ostensibly designed to help parents prepare for their impending financial ruin – only refer to the money that is spent on children, and almost always by the parents alone. They also invariably raise more questions than they answer.

For instance, I would be interested to know if families on low incomes who happen to live in high-income areas spend more money than those who don't – either because of social pressures or lack of availability of budget options. I say this because I'm reasonably certain that my partner and I would have spent a lot more money on our children had we raised them in Italy, both because second hand clothing shops are more common in New Zealand (to name one item of spending) and because it is more socially acceptable in New Zealand to clothe your children in second-hand garments.

(My mother, who was as working class as they come, had a strange obsession with buying Petit Bateau singlets and onesies for our small children – eye-wateringly expensive cotton numbers which I'm sure were of the highest quality, but it didn't matter very much because at their perfectly ordinary rate of growth they got to wear them for approximately twenty-five minutes each.)

The cost of raising children, then, should also account somehow for the cost of not raising them according to the prevailing norms and expectations.


Even more complex are the politics that all of these calculations subsume or conceal. In the United States, typical estimates begin with the privately borne costs of prenatal care and delivery (the latter ranging from USD 9,600 for a regular birth to USD 12,500 for a Caesarean section, although complications can push the price into the hundreds of thousands), and end with college tuition, making the family budget resemble that of a small autonomous state. In other countries, some or all of those items are heavily subsidised or free altogether, reducing the burden on the nuclear unit and thus inequality by birth. Moreover, non-monetary forms of social investment – call it the unpaid labour of caring, not just by parents but by the wider community – are also generally not captured.

And yet, in a world in which as many as a billion children live in poverty – 1 in 4 in the world’s richest countries – it pays to remind ourselves not just of the politics, but also of the crude economics of it all. It is in that spirit that I offer you the following satirical piece, whilst at the same time not being quite sure if it is entirely satirical.


Born in Munich in 1882, Karl Valentin was a giant of German cabaret who counted Bertolt Brecht among his collaborators. While he appeared in a number of silent films, his main talent was for verbal comedy, and he has left us a number of surreal dialogues, monologues and scenes which read as short stories. One of my favourites is the letter to his daughter Bertl, below, translated into English by me from a translation into Italian by Mara Fazio for her 1980 edition of Valentin’s collected writings.

Munich, 3 February 1932

Distinguished daughter,

With reference to our last meeting of 5 August 1931, I take the liberty of forwarding you an invoice for your existence, hoping that you will agree as to the amounts.

- Midwife’s honorarium, paid on 21 September 1910: DM 20.00
- 1 tin bath tub: DM 6.00
- Tepid water, for 6 years, at 10 pfennigs per day: DM 219.00
- Sponge consumption for 6 years, at 5 pfennigs per day: DM 108.50
- 1 baby changing units, plus equipment for a new born child : DM 100.00
- 1 litre of milk a day, for approx.. 6 years, plus breadcrumb-based gruel: DM 438.00
- Compensation for labour pains, estimated by your mother to the statutory minimum: DM 100.00

School years:
- Enrolment fee: DM 2.20
- School uniforms and clothing: DM 500.00
- Books: DM 90.00
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, incl. Saturday afternoons, for a total of 1,386 days: DM 29.00
- Lunch and dinner, at 1 mark per day, until 21 years of age: DM 6,550.00- Half a litre of beer per day, at 10 pfennigs per day, from the age of 10: DM 1,204.50
- Small expenses allowance, from the age of 7 to the age of 21: DM 1,000.00
- Photographic portraits (5),: DM 40.00
- Medical expenses and cauterisation of 16 and 1/2 verrucas on the right hand: DM 120.00
- Ecclesiastical fees: DM 200.00
- School fees: DM 150.00
- 1/5 litre of coffee per day, at 15 pfennigs per day: DM 1,120.00
- 12 litres of water per year - not accounted for: DM ,.–
- Shingle haircut: DM 5.00
- Shampoo for 6 years, at 3 marks per week: DM 936.00
- Cash expenses for movie theatres, dance halls, etc.: DM 3,570.00
- Clothing from the age of 14 to the age of 21, at 500 marks per year including underwear: DM 3,144.00
- French, English and literature lessons: DM 540,00
- Piano and guitar lessons: DM 700.00
- Trip to Königsberg: DM 83.00
- Stamps and phone calls to Königsberg: DM 150.00

Total: DM 24,625.20

In consideration of the fact that we are flesh and blood, I am pleased to offer you a 10% discount, or DM 2,462.50, for a final total DM 22,162.70.

This invoice is payable within eight days, or I shall be forced to refer the matter to a debt collection agency.

Sincere regards

Karl Valentin


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

To kill the King


My father spotted it in the window of an antiques shop, somewhere in France, during a holiday. The Petit Journal of 22 May 1898, bearing news of the recent uprising in Milan and of the bloody repression that followed. He brought the old newspaper home and stuck it between the two panes of glass of a coffee table top. The table now lives in our eldest son's room.


They called them the ‘riots of the stomach’, because the people had taken to the streets to protest the rising cost of bread and other necessities. The government of the time, in the person of general Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris – the butcher of the Sicilian peasants who had revolted earlier that decade – responded using rifles and artillery. The official toll records 88 dead and 450 injured, but is almost certainly conservative. Other accounts place the number of the dead closer to 300, including those killed when the army opened fire on a group of people waiting for food outside a soup kitchen.

But this isn't why the King was killed.

News of the uprising would have reached ordinary people in Italy, Europe and beyond in large part through periodicals such as the Petit Journal, therefore naturally the way they presented such events (largely sympathetic to the citizens, in this case) mattered a great deal. Incidentally, note the language used by the magazines: émuetes, equivalent to the Italian moti, is a classic 19th century word used to describe demonstrations and revolts. It literally means ‘movement’ (like in the English word ‘motion’). In those days, the people didn't protest. They ‘moved’.

The same people who were presented with the vivid pictorial representation of the ‘grave troubles’ in Milan would have been reached one month later by the news that, in recognition of his heroic use of cannons against unarmed civilians, general Bava-Beccaris was awarded by Umberto I with one of the neonate’s kingdom highest honours, the Great Cross of the Order of Savoy.

This is why the King was killed.


By 1898, Gaetano Bresci already lived in Paterson, New Jersey. He had migrated two years earlier, after a period of domestic exile on the island of Pantelleria for the crime of taking part in various demonstrations and being known to the police as an anarchist.

Born in 1869 near Prato, Tuscany, Bresci was a skilled textile worker, and as such enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Paterson. He was able to buy a small cottage in West Hoboken in which to live with his companion, a young Irish immigrant by the name of Sophie Knieland, and their young daughter Maddalena.

The Italian community in Paterson numbered some ten thousand people, of which – according to chronicler Arrigo Petacco – a full quarter proudly identified as anarchists. The anarchists of Paterson printed their own Italian language newspaper and pamphlets, and met regularly at establishments such as West Hoboken’s Tivola and Zucca’s Saloon, where sometime fiery debates took place. At one such event – likely attended by Bresci – the prominent expatriate anarchist thinker Errico Malatesta was shot in the leg by a supporter of Giuseppe Ciancabilla, whom he had just debated on the subject of whether anarchists should organise in order to achieve common political objectives or should rather operate as a constellation of like-minded individuals.

Whatever their position on such fundamental questions, the anarchists of Paterson would have been united in their grief for the blood shed in Milan in the Spring of 1898, as well as in the outrage for the medal that glorified that massacre a few weeks later. The news travelled slowly, but no less surely, reaching migrant communities that often felt a greater involvement in the affairs of the country they left behind than those of the country in which they lived and worked. Biographers suggest that this was less the case for Bresci – who looked at American politics with interest – than for most of his compatriots. Yet on 17 May 1900, two years after the riots in Milan, he embarked on a ship heading to Le Havre, ostensibly so he could visit his family in Prato and discuss the parental inheritance, and without arising suspicions in Knieland or any of his friends that he might have different intentions.


Another painting, more famous than the first, by the very popular illustrator Achille Beltrame, shows the assassination of Umberto I in Monza, just outside Milan, on 27 July 1900. It is compositionally very similar to the one that 14 years later would depict the final moments in the life of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and of Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg. In both cases, the killers are shown from behind and appear in fact identical (and identically anonymous).

Such was, for many years, the fate of Gaetano Bresci, the ‘anarchist who came from America’ to kill the King: that of a person at the margin of the historical picture, often left unnamed, nearly always robbed of any agency other than aiming and firing his gun. Of his words at the trial, of the reasons he gave for his act, the history books made no mentions for decades, leaving pupils like my mother wondering why Umberto I had been killed that day of 1900 in Monza, if not by whom.

Yet Bresci had made his motivations very clear to his interrogators. Of the three shots he had fired, the first one – he said – was for those who had died in Milan, ‘the pallid and bleeding victims of general Bava-Beccaris, and of the power that gives medals to the killers and lead to the exploited.’ The second one was for his friends in Paterson forced into exile, ‘for the male and female workers that are driven from their homes by hunger and persecution. For all the anarchists who are imprisoned, exiled, left on a prison-island encircled by the sea’ (by which he meant Pantelleria). The third one was for the childhood he had been robbed of, his brief childhood in Prato, ‘constantly demeaned by relentless labour’.

Excuse the quality, but I captured this from Google Street View

There are books about Gaetano Bresci now, a monument erected by anarchists in Carrara (with the approval of the local council), and a street named after him in Prato – a meandering affair that turns rather poetically into ‘Via Ernesto Guevara’. That civic recognition seems fitting, and undoes in part the earlier attempts to erase him from history, as well as to end his life and cancel every trace of his very being. Sentenced to life in prison after a very brief trial in Milan (the death sentence having been abrogated in Italy in 1889), Bresci was found dead in his cell on the island of Santo Stefano at the age of 31, mere months into his sentence. The death was ruled a suicide, but in 1947 Sandro Pertini – a socialist partisan who had been imprisoned by Mussolini on the island and would later become President of the Republic – told the Italian Parliament that everyone in the prison knew he had been killed by three guards using the ‘Santo Stefano treatment’: they threw a blanket over his head and beat him for as long as it took.

The exact place of Bresci’s burial is unknown.

The old prison at Santo Stefano today

The story of Gaetano Bresci seems distant now, its historical circumstances alien to us. Why would you even kill a King, or a President? What good could it possibly do? Immediately after his arrest, Bresci proclaimed he had wanted to kill not a man, but a symbol, that is to say the symbol of an order. As for the immediate consequences, the persecution of his fellow anarchists briefly intensified – in search of a larger conspiracy for which no evidence was ever found – but the new King installed a government that departed from the authoritarian ones favoured by Umberto and his equally despotic Queen, Margherita. You wouldn’t call it a victory, but then Bresci’s gesture had no political value: it was merely a claim for dignity and justice.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Of sugar taxes and porridge gospels


These days if you enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Australia or New Zealand and order a medium frozen Coke, they ask you if you wouldn’t rather have a large one, since they both cost $1 anyway. And why would you have the smaller one, when after all you can stop drinking it whenever you want? This basement price for the beverage – part of a promotion that began three years ago – could well be below cost, and seems designed to get you into the restaurant in the hope you will be persuaded to consume something else as well.

A large Frozen Coke contains the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, give or take. The daily recommended intake for an adult is anywhere between seven and 10, depending on whom you ask. If the tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content approved a few mohths in the UK were extended to these parts as was most recently suggested by Green MP Julie Anne Genter  McDonald’s large Frozen Coke would likely attract the highest of the two levels of taxation, affecting the chain’s bottom line. But that’s not to say that the extended promotion would be discontinued. This would be dictated by whether or not the extra cost was enough to offset the benefits in terms of extra hamburgers sold. The choice, in other words, is not the consumer’s, and never was. Just like the choice of the legislator on how to restrict availability of food products judged to be unhealthy isn’t restricted to taxing consumers. A government could pass laws to restrict or ban marketing, or to limit the sugar content of drinks below a certain level, or to label foods more clearly. The benefit of the tax, however, is that – as the UK Office for Budgetary Responsibility expects – it will be passed on entirely to the consumer, thereby reinforcing the ideological notion that obesity, like lung cancer before it, represents a failure in the exercise of personal responsibility. A failure that must be priced accordingly.

The introduction of the ‘sugar tax’ by George Osborne was lumped in with his announcement of devastating cuts to disability benefits. Apart from opposition from the food industry, ranging from the obviously self-interested to the frankly baffling (one industry representative feared at the same time that it wouldn’t raise enough money and that consumers wouldn’t bear the brunt – which apparently would be a bad thing), the tax has also been accused of being classist. However on this latter score I find its defences more interesting than the attacks.

On the one hand, you have the Dickensian paternalism of Jamie Oliver, who cried on cue in front of a camera at the reception he got in ‘the fattest town in the US’ by citizens less than impressed by his decision to reform them, and who has championed the tax in front of a select committee of the House of Commons as the means of ‘sending naughty kids to the naughty step’. On the other, you have the pragmatic rationalism of the likes of Henry Zeffman, who defended the tax on account of its being regressive. ‘Well of course it’s regressive,’ he wrote. ‘So is sugar and so are its effects. The country’s obesity crisis … disproportionately affects the poorest.’ He went on:
That’s not to say the levy is a silver bullet. There are background socioeconomic factors which mean that the most poor too often consume unhealthy diets. Further benefit cuts are hardly going to help in that regard.
Gorge on the saturated irony content of this argument: obesity disproportionately affects the poor. The poor have just been made even poorer, therefore will soon be more obese. Therefore taxing their consumption is the next logical step.

Evidently Zeffman’s vocabulary doesn’t include conjunctions such as instead or but also. His premise lucidly states that poverty, and not the high affordability of sugary drinks, is the problem. Therefore, he should conclude, alleviating that poverty ought to be the solution.

But he has no problem with a government that exacerbates poverty with one hand, and taxes consumption regressively with the other, as if the two measures weren’t produced in the same political space. We must always make distinctions, he appears to say. We must above all be rational.

So long as we are talking health, there is nothing healthy for our societies in heaping stigma upon obese people, an act whose consequences are both psychological – for the individuals affected – and more broadly ideological.


Obesity is the latest sin of the poor, like malnutrition was one hundred years ago. I’ve had the opportunity to write before for Overland about Maud Pember Reeves’ remarkable study of working-class lives in early twentieth-century London Round About a Pound a Week. That study into the food habits of the inhabitants of the suburb of Lambeth actually began as a mission to civilise them. More specifically, to inculcate in the mothers of those one-income families the principles of the neonate science of nutrition and in particular what Pember Reeves and her fellow high-society socialist women called ‘the gospel of porridge’.

Porridge, they reasoned, is cheaper than a breakfast of margarine and toast, and far more nutritious. Their mission therefore, as well as documenting the flawed diets of those families, was to initiate them to the simple practice of preparing this cornerstone meal. However – and this is what makes Pember Reeves a better human than Jamie Oliver – what the book ends up recounting is quite a different story from the one the author expected to tell. Her conclusion is this: the women of Lambeth managed as well as anyone could, better than Pember Reeves – still armed with science but deprived of her income – would have herself. And this goes for the porridge too, which would have taken far too long to make, and even if the women somehow had had the time, they lacked a good enough pot to ensure it wouldn’t burn, and even if somehow they had had the time and a good enough pot, they couldn’t afford the cream or milk to make it palatable to the husband and the children.

It is quite possible that a sugar tax would work, by a very limited definition of working, but I wish we could tax paternalism instead. I wish we could tax the logic that says that if the poor suffer poor health, it’s because of poor habits. Perhaps, like Pember Reeves, some people need to be made to see. To be made to survive on little money and less time, not for a week – as in a Survivor-style holiday – but for a year or a decade. Then they might grasp that the choice afforded to us by market capitalism is false, an absurdity, like asking for a medium Frozen Coke when the large one also costs one dollar and one dollar is all you have.

Originally published at Overland


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Alpha women unable to love


There is nothing especially novel about the ideas espoused by author Suzanne Venker on Fox News last week, but if the internet age of media has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes all you need to do to pierce the wider public consciousness is to come up with a catchy headline. Say hallo to ‘Society is creating a new crop of alpha women who are unable to love ’.


In her panel discussion with the ghastly cast of characters of Fox & Friends, as well as in the essay that accompanies the clip, Venker urges women in search of love or of a more harmonious marriage to be softer, less critical, more compliant; or, in what is undoubtedly her best turn of phrase, to ‘be more service-oriented’. Men, she informs us, ‘are so much simpler than women.’
What men want most of all is respect, companionship and sex. If you supply these basics, your husband will do anything for you—slay the dragons, kill the beast, work three jobs, etc. Men will happily do this if, and only if, they are loved well in return. It is when men are not loved well that problems arise. That is the nature of the male-female dance.
It's like in the game of chess, you see, in which the king is the most important piece but also ‘one of the weakest’. So, too, in marriage will the man follow a woman’s lead, and where she must lead him is a world in which she is ready for him to take charge. ‘It’s liberating to be a beta!’ Venker finally declares.

There’s a whole book to go with this advice, and I’m almost curious to find out how Ms Venker managed to stretch those few cheerfully reactionary ideas into the required length. Or rather I would, had I not stumbled some time ago into the definitive book on the subject.


Modern Woman, The Lost Sex is the work of Ferdinand Lundberg, a financial journalist and adjunct professor of social philosophy, and of the redoubtable Marinya Farnham, a New York-based psychiatrist who also appeared in a memorable short propaganda film aimed at encouraging women to abandon the workforce and resume their roles as homemakers after the end of the Second World War. The book was published in 1947 and became a best seller, going as far as to receive a mostly positive review in The New York Times by no less an authority than Margaret Mead.

It is also quietly horrifying.

The book’s central tenet, echoing Venker’s self-help memoir, is that modern woman is an enigma.
Women in general are a more complicated question than men… for they are more complicated organisms. They are endowed with a complicated reproductive system (with which the male genito-urinary system compared in complexity not at all), a more elaborate nervous system and an infinitely complex psychology revolving about the reproductive function.
Sometimes this nature is so complex that the observer can’t help but glimpse in it a hint of malice.
Each sex represents an organic tracing of reality. But in one instance the tracing is simple (relatively), in the other complex and even devious.
Twisted between nature and nurture, this new brand of devious woman is now ‘the cause of mass unhappiness and uneasiness in our times’, responsible for the spread what the authors call – in a formidable crescendo of pathos – ‘emotional slums’.
The emotional slum may be defined as existing wherever there is unhappiness and deep discontent not generated by poverty, disease or crippling physical disability: unhappiness and deep discontent that is not cured by some rearrangement of external circumstances.
In another striking (and extremely contemporary) turn of phrase, women are depicted as
the principal transmitting media of the disordered emotions that today are so widely spread throughout the world and are reflected in the statistics of social disorder. (My emphasis.)
This apparently recent statistic, which opens the segment on Fox News, is also used as a key piece of evidence in Modern Woman (1947)

Temperamentally unsuited for the independent, competitive life outside the home that the twin forces of consumer capitalism and the feminist movement have pushed her into, women have become riddled with anxieties – and these anxieties in turn have become the veritable index of the era.
Her insecurity, thus revealed, is the insecurity of the age and its future. it is an insecurity that billows around her in ever-widening circles, engulfing all
Evidence of this global creeping malaise is to be found in ‘all the questions that are raised recurrently about them’ (meaning the women). I hope you’ll appreciate the circular thinking at work here. A host of impossible, conflicting demands are placed on women – observe Lundberg and Farnham – resulting in as many conflicting pieces of advice and a great deal of fretting in the popular press. Therefore, the recurring formulation of such questions (along the lines of ‘Society is creating a new crop of alpha women who are unable to love’) is evidence of the problems caused by women, and that they are causing them.

Women, quite simply, are guilty of everything. Of the things they themselves do and don’t do, and of the things that men do and don’t do. Because while it’s true, as the authors graciously concede, that most of history’s major villains, including such recent ones as Messrs Mussolini and Hitler, were technically men, one need not go far to find a female influence in their lives. Indeed…
men, standing before the bar of historical judgment, might often well begin their defence with the words: “I had a mother”.
We may find in this crass psychoanalytic reading of history a precursor to contemporary conspiracist thinking, in which a mass of disparate events or social phenomena are taken as evidence of a theory without bothering to establish causation. Thus, the authors go on to enumerate a vast catalogues of sins, many of which – such as homicides, or white collar crime – are committed mostly by men, but only in order to link them to female anxiety, or to anxiety due to the changing social role of women. Even cynical pessimism in literature, which the authors trace back to Ibsen and a group of almost exclusively male authors, is to be blamed on women. Even conspicuous consumption. Even the over-prescription of drugs.


If terrible men have mothers, as do the male authors of terrible books, then so do terrible ideologies, and Modern Woman devotes one of its most appalling chapters to the vilification of Mary Wollstonecraft, or ‘God’s angry woman’, whom the authors subject to a dubious psychological post-mortem in order to declare her with absolute diagnostic certainty ‘an extreme neurotic of the compulsive type’. And because the ideology of feminism arose ‘out of her illness’ (as the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman), then the ideology must be tainted as well.

To feminism, and the ‘sexual revolution’ (covered separately) Lundberg and Farnham devote a treatment that reminds us again of Suzanne Venker’s advice. It is only by reclaiming her ‘natural’ feminine role, and ceasing to put herself in competition with the husband, that a woman can fulfil both her own desires and his. In Modern Woman, the consequences of failing to do so are nothing short of catastrophic.
Where the woman is unable to admit and accept dependence upon her husband as the source of gratification and must carry her rivalry even into the act of love, she will seriously damage his sexual capacity.
In this rigidly heterosexual world, in which oral sex performed by anybody on anybody is seen as a form of deviance, pleasure itself is a function of filling one’s role in the proper social order.
The rule therefore is this: The less a woman’s desire to have children and the greater her desire to emulate the male in seeing a sense of personal value by objective exploit, the less will be her enjoyment of the sex act and the greater her general neuroticism.

It is when it comes to solutions that the authors of Modern Woman show a breadth of purpose far exceeding the mere call to ‘find your inner beta’, for their proposals are aimed at the policy makers, as opposed to the troubled individual reader. These include the mass funding of psychotherapy; the establishment of a federal department of welfare tasked among other things with ‘rehabilitating maladjusted families’, hence with various forms of social surveillance and intervention, but also with bestowing upon women honours for bringing up good citizens (here the Fascist and Nazi practice of giving medals for exceptional motherhood is explicitly praised); the introduction of cash payments to mothers, to subsidise them for not working outside the home as well as to promote fertility, again in quasi-Fascist fashion; and finally various measures aimed at ‘reconstructing the home’ (meaning the pre-modern nuclear family), including preventing unmarried women from becoming teachers, since ‘they cannot be an adequate model of a complete woman either for boys or for girls’.


Modern Woman was published exactly 70 years ago, but in this era of constant time slippages, you could be excused to think that it comes from the near future. For that boundary has never ceased to be patrolled, just as the language of reactionaries has never ceased to mix cries of national or racial supremacy with calls for the preservation of an archaic social order within the home.

When neo-fascists call men of other persuasions ‘beta cucks’ on the internet, they are laying claim simultaneously to virility and reason, stamping their arguments – as it were – with their manhood. Never mind how profoundly, shatteringly insecure you would have to be in order to use such language. The code stands for something else.

Armed not with the pseudoscientific veneer of evolutionary psychology, like a Dick Dawkins or a Bill Maher, but rather with Freudian psychoanalysis and the entire Judaeo-Christian apparatus for blaming sin and unhappiness on wayward women and impure mothers, Lundberg and Farnham leveraged their best-seller on the idea that ‘the unceasing debate about what women should and should not do and be, is only a surface indication of something much deeper’. On this, at least, they were certainly correct, just as the debate about same-sex marriage or transgender toilet rights in schools is the surface indication of something much deeper: namely, the attempt to restore an archaic, repressive social order, on which to build an equally archaic and repressive political system.

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