Geithnerana

Geithner, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, offers us the following vignette:

My wife occasionally looks up from the newspaper with bewilderment while reading another story about people in the financial world or their lobbyists complaining about Wall Street reform or claiming they didn’t need the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She reminds me of the panicked calls she answered for me at home late at night or early in the morning in 2008 from the then-giants of our financial system.

His wife. Huh.

Why is she there?

Timothy Geithner, you see, is a real flesh-and-blood man, as the preceding hackneyed attempt at gesturing towards the attitudes of everyday Americans is supposed to remind us. His real flesh-and-blood wife, invoked prosopopeia-ically, is the only thing that keeps Geithner anchored to some approximation of Life on Earth.

(Apparently they went to Dartmouth together. That’s adorable.)

In a game with some friends on Twitter, I suggested and others contributed novelistic touches, to complete the gesture.

I especially like Neil’s imperceptible moaning. Nice touch.

Jokes aside, the Treasury is not a person. The Treasury can accuse no one of ingratitude, a slight which it is unable to feel, not being, you know, a person. If the Treasury were to have a wife, however, who really keeps it/him grounded, well, it would be possible to authorize a new kind of moral claim, one grounded on mores grounded in human sociability, from which institutions are ordinarily excluded, even those institutions with regulatory authority over those who treat them so shabbily. This is the obverse of the right-wing claim in which the government, like a household, should “tighten its belt” in hard times. That argument is pro-cyclical and stupid, of course, and I agree with Geithner’s argument for regulation. That said, it’s important to recognize that the two arguments share a rhetorical basis.

(A related note on the Treasury Secretary’s prose: His sentences are long and curiously comma-less, and they plod along breathlessly, as if Geithner no longer needs the register of speech. Seriously: try to read that passage aloud. The ‘or their lobbyists’ in the first sentence is just agony.)

Hitchens is “Complicated.”

A quick post: Much of the press on Christopher Hitchens’ passing has called him “complicated.” If you’ve read even a few of the pieces of opinion from the usual suspects, you get this (I like those pieces, BTW: recommended). We hear a lot about his courage, the clarity of his moral vision, the force of his prose, and then we hear about his alcoholism, his irritability, his misogyny: you see, he was a complicated man.

But does any of this amount to complexity? Leaving aside the man — it seems to me that prickly, high-functioning alcoholics whose views run to the misogynistic are actually and unfortunately a staple of our literary culture — was Hitchens’ work really so complicated?

While I haven’t read so much of his work to really say, my suspicion is that it was not. His humanitarianism could be quite admirable, but he loved to over-simplify complicated moral questions and press them into service as bludgeons. He was uninterested in detail and *often* wrong. The link in the embedded tweet above is to a John Barrell review of Hitchens’ book on Paine; he found it to be basically an extended string of solecisms. His take on religion can be most generously described as tedious (cf. Terry Eagleton); it cannot be described as complex. I have long suspected that his position on the Iraq War was self-serving: it was a good career move, c. 2003, to be, not quite but almost literally, the only intellectual in the world in favor of the invasion, a view he never gave over.

That’s contrarianism, not complexity.

My take is that “complicated” is a symptom: it refers less to Hitchens than to the form/content contradiction he posed to the intellectual class he leaves behind. Culturally, he was identifiable in broad strokes as one of ours, a late exemplar of that unicorn-rare entity (in American media, anyways) the public intellectual, but I have great difficulty recalling any of his positions that I have found even minimally interesting, let alone agreeable. He offered all of the downsides, the bluster and egotism of the real thing, with none of the actual thought-provoking substance. Hitchens papered over these cracks with a well-chosen word or a metrically-balanced phrase; we’re left with just a few ill-chosen words to do that work.