This High-Voltage Blog Post Obliterates Distinctions Between Characters

In the midst of this account of the notional LARB/NYRB beef around Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Marc Tracy writes:
Purely as a reader, I am with Seidel and the NYRB—I stopped reading The Flamethrowers a third of the way through, because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters.
Exactly why I can’t finish anything by Martin Amis! (Kidding. It’s only tough to finish ladybooks.)
Meanwhile, I enjoyed Dan Kois’ subtweeting efforts:

I stopped eating this sandwich because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters
— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop drinking Diet Coke because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters
— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop subtweeting like an asshole because I felt that my high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters
— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013

I know what I’m writing on every workshop story next semester!
I’m generally more interested in high-voltage narration than distinctions between characters, but I haven’t actually found Kushner’s narration especially high-voltage–thought it was sort of understated, actually. I’ve stalled because I stall in absolutely everything that doesn’t cater in a hyper-focused way to that day’s whimsical narrow interest. So far, it’s pretty great. Really fresh.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

24 thoughts

  1. Your our example of “Sudeep” the technology entrepreneur is absurd., as would be obvious to anyone with actual knowledge of Silicon Valley.
    Just because someone is an immigrant from a poor country does NOT mean that they themselves (or their families) are poor. These people tend to come from very high-status backgrounds in their home countries and have access to deep and extensive social networks in this country that provide access to social and financial capital.
    Sons of Bangladeshi dirt-framers do not suddenly become whiz kids in the US. Talented but poor immigrants or second-generation children of poor immigrants gravitate towards established, relatively low risk career paths.
    But you don’t actually know any of these people, so its easier to view them through simple stereotypes.

    1. The only chance of equality existing is in a static state. I have 750 LP’s but no turntable, so each LP has an equal chance, zero, of being played. I have 750 CD’s and a CD player. No CD is playing now so each CD has a 100% chance of being selected, but once I make a choice, an end to the static state, equality is ended. Bob

  2. Thedore Dalrymple makes a similar point in the Social Affairs Unit:

    True equality of opportunity is unachievable – or could only be achieved through a level of social engineering that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire; it would mean poverty, inhumanity and horror. Thus argues Theodore Dalrymple. However, if we embrace intellectual elitism, argues Theodore Dalrymple, at least some level of opportunity could be offered to all – something which is not the case now.

    1. ‘True equality of opportunity is unachievable’
      Noone claims it is achievable, however that does not mean its not a worthy goal

  3. Your examples span the life experiences of less than 5% of the population. To come up with a theory of economic justice based on that is silly. If Harvard’s 200 or whatever number of undergraduate seats is all there is, then life seems very arbitrary – it is the luck of the lottery, and justice seems impossible. If however the focus is on availability of a good undergraduate education, then suddenly the landscape changes.
    Anyway, if this is what goes for think-tank-thought, then there is severe injustice going on; there are lots of people with deeper thoughts.

  4. Will, you lost me here: “Did Sudeep ever have any realistic chance of becoming a partner at Robert’s firm, or an insider in state politics? No.”
    I read on but it all got a bit weak after that.
    Anyway, let’s use the example of a well-known former president of the Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama. Did he have the opportunity to snatch up just about any job he wanted after law school? Yes. Was he born into a well-connected family? Certainly not.
    I do agree with you here, though: “…I want an [sic] entrepreneurial [sic], innovative, high-growth system in part because that’s the kind that increases the chances of landing a desirable position because new ones are always being invented and that diminishes the relative importance and power of many entrenched and exclusive networks.”
    That’s a solid argument. Arguing, however, that there is so much nepotism at Yale and Harvard and in “Massachusetts Democratic Party politics” that Obama (excuse me, Sudeep) the immigrant’s son could never get a shot at the golden ring is stretching a bit. Sure, the “entrenched and exclusive networks” do make it difficult for newcomers. But it is self-destructive for any employer, in either the private or the public sector, to turn away the most qualified applicants for any job in favor of well-connected bums.
    Perhaps the self- (or, say, organizationally-) destructive nature of nepotism can be considered, in a way, creative destruction. Like the current implosion of the GOP. You write: “Elite networks can achieve only limited success [sic] in opportunity hoarding if new networks, new opportunities, and new hierarchies of prestige and status keep springing up.” I would go a bit further. Elite networks can quite possibly self-destruct, or be greatly diminished in “prestige and status,” if they continually pass over the best and the brightest in favor of sailing buddies’ children.
    Anyway, if Sudeep wants to be an “insider in state politics,” I’m sure he can make it if he tries in our great nation. Even in Massachusetts.

  5. Robert and Sudeep are presented with obviously different talents and interests. The end point (too much social engineering bad) is fine if not not exactly deep, but the hypothetical does not connect.

  6. The problem isn’t that opportunities for economic advancement necessarily depend on individual circumstances; the problem is that those differing opportunities translate into permanent differences in power between individuals. There’s very little difference between economic power and political power. The unlucky persons who are born into circumstances where they will never have substantial opportunities are effectively disenfranchised. They might have the formal right to vote, but they never have influence on how policy is framed and they can’t run for office. Their best hope for political change is to hope that some elite politician will take up their cause. Thus the intense anger and despair you often see from working-class voters, and their intense attachment to any political figure who ever talks to their interests. In everyday life, we all recognize the difference between the people who count and the people who don’t.
    Even socialist and communist societies have elites who count and masses who don’t. I’m tempted to say that power inequality is a permanent feature of human society, since all societies have it. But excessive power inequalities are problematic for a society that claims to be democratic and based on equal opportunity. If you buy Jefferson’s claim that “government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” the common people must be engaged with their government for society to be stable. When the power and economic structure is manifestly unfair, people will do something to change it. Try telling a working-class father that it’s perfectly all right that he can’t get health insurance for his sick child and that there are no decent hospitals in his town.
    The problem with Libertarianism is that it tries to justify the existing social structure, whatever it may be, by asserting without proof that it’s an unalterable act of nature. This creates a false dilemma where the only alternatives are laissez-faire or Stalinism. In practice, no real human being wants either.

  7. Can any one point me to an example of equality in the historical record? Biological record? If no one can, what does that tell us about this discussion? My answer, mental wanking. I would like to be proven wrong. Bob

  8. I know 2 young people from the same family.
    One is in college right now. Her mother does all her papers. I mean all of them. They buy two sets of books every term so the mother can have a set. The internet is a great tool to email papers. They are paying lots of tuition right now. When she’s out, I’m sure she’ll be fine. But, she does very little in school. (or otherwise, as a luxury car, condo, credit card are also part of the deal.)
    The other has graduated from school. Pretty sure it was the same deal. But, through his father’s connections, he has a nice job. Oh, he still doesn’t have to pay his bills, but still. Now, he is a great kid, so he probably didn’t even need his father’s connections, but, why not?
    It happens. All the time.
    These young people had everything. They went to good schools growing up. Others, because of financial situations and/or geography did not. Do they not deserve a chance?
    People say that it’s due to lack of education that some folks don’t succeed, yet they don’t want to extend any help to those who are not in a position to get that education.

    1. sus – in the case you describe, I actually feel sorry for those kids. Whatever their parents are giving them, it doesn’t include the ability to stand on their own two feet, and write their own uni papers. My parents didn’t buy me a car or a condo or a credit card, but at least I got enough of an education at school to get a degree without relying on my parents doing the work, and I can get jobs without my parents’ help – things the young people you describe lack. (And of course, since I actually had to learn the material for my degrees, I have enough information stashed away in my head to allow for hours of mental occupation). I think you are wrong in asserting that these kids had everything. They strike me as seriously lacking.
      Others, because of financial situations and/or geography did not. Do they not deserve a chance?
      Well, there’s a problem of scale here. We can’t expect an entire society to function like the family in your example does, some people actually need to learn how to do things directly. Do you want every one in the country to be able to get through medical school with their mum doing all the work? What happens when mum drops dead – who will train the next generation if no young person ever needs to do their own work at university?
      People say that it’s due to lack of education that some folks don’t succeed, yet they don’t want to extend any help to those who are not in a position to get that education.
      Who, exactly, are these people who don’t want to extend any help to those who are not in a position to get that education? Government spending on schools strikes me as one of the most popular forms of government spending there is, and as stated above, scholarships are a common form of private charity.
      I also note again that the 2 young people you describe are not apparently getting an education, instead their mum is.

  9. roxroe – I am a third year student at Teleosis Homeopathic collaborative in Boston MA. This blog is a senior project and exercise in combining my various identities: homeopath, computer professional, chief cook and bottle washer. Join me while I give remedies to everyone and everything - including but not limited to the mailman, cats, relative's dogs, relatives and people who show up at my door - even the houseplants.
    rox says:

    “thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered…either by themselves or others. But for the Civil War, Sherman, Grant, Lincoln and Sheridan would not have been discovered, nor risen to notice.” (Mark Twain, autobiography.)
    “Captain Strormfield arrived in heaven eager to get sight of those unrivaled and unequaled military geniuses Ceaser, Alexander and Neopolian. but was told by an old resident of heaven that they didn’t amount to much there as military genuses…….by comparison with a certain colossal military genius, a shoemaker by trade, who had lived and died unknown in a New England Villiage and had never seen a battle in his earthy life” Mark Twain, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.
    the point being that opportunity is often unequaled to talent – and that fate has a way of deciding who is discovered and who is successful and who is powerful irregardless of talent. Mark Twain insisted when promoted as the world’s greatest humorist that it simply wasn’t true, that he had met the greatest humorist in a mining camp as a young man, who was illiterate and unknown. The best humorist never saw a stage and the best military genius never saw a battle. I think of this everytime I hear someone touted as the best at something. Maybe there is a child in some third world country that would be the worlds best athlete except he most probably will life and die undiscovered.

  10. How terribly sad, rox.
    Leaving aside third world countries for a moment and focusing on the country that we the people of the United States live in and are responsible for, I do believe that there are ways, both a touch socialist and coldly capitalist in nature, to better provide awareness of, and access to, opportunities to realize human potential throughout our population and that anything done to strengthen our greatest resource, our people, makes us a more competitive and successful nation.
    Apparently, “fate” is too powerful a force for you. Perhaps we should all just forget our ambitions, weep about the fate of third world geniuses and wait for “fate” to determine the course of our lives.
    Well, I’m sure that those of us with spines can find ways to discover and nurture our next generation of leaders, thinkers and athletes, wherever they happen to be born. The first question we must ask ourselves is do we want to maintain our competitive edge in the world? If you are a patriotic American, your answer should be yes. The next question, then, is how do we do that?
    Well, there are many roads to Rome. But whining about fate on the side of the road gets you nowhere.

  11. Surely Plato did a better job of following this train of thought in The Republic? According to him, you need to raise the children of the powerful in orphanages to ensure that network effects won’t inefficiently assign powerful jobs to the (unqualified) children of the powerful.
    Frankly, when something sounds stupid coming from Plato, it is doubtful it will sound smart coming from anyone else.

  12. Equality of outcome is not measurable, nor attainable. Equal access to opportunity is easier to achieve. The clearest example you give is with a legacy student versus a merit scholarship student. The very existence of merit scholarships (and of “affirmative action” in, particularly, academic settings) is to counter-balance the inherent *unfairness* of “legacy” (or, as you would say, “network”) access to opportunities. That’s not actually a difficult thing to explain, to measure, nor to implement.
    Anyone who wishes to argue that it “hasn’t worked” needs to review the past fifty years in our country. How many new members of the middle class were granted entry because they “earned in” via the commitment to equality-of-opportunity born in the civil rights era? Our middle class has grown more as a result of this commitment than at any other time in US history – and the necessity of “legacy” connections had diminished, until the reversals of the Heritage Foundation Supremes led by Scalia coupled with the “deregulation” fanaticism of the new Right leadership in Congress to cordon off access to opportunities for those outside their approved networks. And… here we all are again. 🙂

  13. One of the best solutions would be for higher education and training for all citizens.Access to unions for all and eliminate the unpaid internships{who but the wealthy can afford to work for free?}.

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