The only charitable explanation is that Bobo wrote his column yesterday and it’s a particularly ham-handed attempt at a joke. In “Freedom Loses One” he actually says that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, it will be a victory for living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations. Now he’s just fcking with us… Mr. Nocera, in “Investor Activism Gone Wild,” says that if J.C. Penney succumbs to its financial troubles, a shareholder activist will shoulder much of the blame. Mr. Bruni likes it “When TV Takes Its Time.” He says the answer to too many “Housewives” and too much forensic hullabaloo? The gentle tempo and steadfast puzzles of shows like Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.” Yeah, Frank. On the Sundance channel… We’re on a fixed income and can’t afford all those premium channels like HBO and Showtime, etc., etc., etc., so I guess I’m doomed to continue watching “Hoarders.” (I file that one under “shit that makes me feel normal.”) Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:
I don’t think we’ve paused sufficiently to celebrate the wonderful recent defeat for the cause of personal freedom. After all, these sorts of defeats don’t happen every day.
Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom. Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.
People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.
The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.
Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.
But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.
Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.
Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.
And far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it. Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.
Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.
I suspect that this shift in public acceptance will be permanent, unless it turns out that marriages are more unstable when two people of the same gender are involved.
And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.
The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.
It’s been a while since I’ve served up a large plate of salted weasel dicks for Bobo, but this one deserves it. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
William Ackman, the investor-activist who runs the $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, is like one of those guys you used to see in a certain kind of old-fashioned comedy. On one shoulder sits an angel, encouraging his better nature. On the other sits a devil, whispering temptation.
When he listens to the angel, Ackman does amazing things. He made a $25 million contribution to the Newark school system, an early and important match against the $100 million that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put up in September 2010. Yet unlike virtually every other actor involved in the Zuckerberg grant, who have been squabbling ever since, Ackman attached virtually no strings to his donation. He wants his money to be used to help Newark’s schoolchildren — not to push someone’s reform agenda.
Then there’s his current Herbalife crusade. After making a $1 billion bet that the stock would fall, Ackman released a lengthy report alleging that the company was running an illegal pyramid scheme. I have been sadly constrained from writing columns about the Ackman-Herbalife battle because the company had the wit to hire my fiancée’s employer, David Boies, after Ackman unveiled his attack. I was, as they say, “conflicted out.”
But I will say this: Pyramid schemes are a hidden scourge, hurting millions of people seduced by their get-rich-quick promises. Until Ackman began agitating, the federal government had largely capitulated to the “multilevel marketing” industry (as it likes to be called), even exempting it from a law passed a few years ago specifically aimed at curbing pyramid schemes. Ackman has been heroic in taking on this litigious, well-financed industry. Not since Jim Chanos went after Enron has a hedge fund manager been willing to question whether a company was actually a criminal enterprise. That takes guts.
Also, his track record as an activist has been good; you don’t get $12 billion in assets if you don’t win more than you lose.
But there is always that devil on the other shoulder. A few years ago, Ackman took a position in Target’s stock. Because of the recession, retailers such as Target were struggling. To get the stock up, Ackman began throwing out ideas that amounted to financial engineering. He then mounted an expensive proxy fight to get on the board, which thankfully, he lost. The stock has since rebounded. Target didn’t need financial engineering; it just needed a better economy.
Which brings me to his latest retail foray, J.C. Penney. Is there a single word that can sum up what has befallen J.C. Penney since Ackman took a stake in the company? Yes: disaster.
J.C. Penney had long catered to lower-middle-class families searching for sales. Its chief executive, Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm since 2004, was widely viewed as solid, if a tad unimaginative. He had led J.C. Penney to some of the most profitable years in its history. But, by the fall of 2010, hurt by the same recession that hurt Target, Penney’s stock was way down. That’s when Ackman showed up.
Being a big-time activist-investor, Ackman could hardly allow Ullman to remain at the helm. Activists have to be, you know, active. Within a year, he landed the executive everyone in retail wanted: Ron Johnson, who had built Apple’s retail business. Imagine: a Steve Jobs disciple was going to run downmarket J.C. Penney. What could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything. Johnson decided to eliminate the sales that had always been J.C. Penney’s trademark and move to everyday low prices. He thus alienated the core J.C. Penney customer. He kept talking about how he was going to apply the lessons he had learned at Apple to J.C. Penney, even though the companies sold completely different products to completely different customers. As the core customers departed, Johnson and J.C. Penney didn’t have the merchandise or cachet to attract a more upscale, Target-type customer. People abandoned J.C. Penney.
At the end of 2012, J.C. Penney announced that its revenues had fallen by a staggering $4.3 billion. It has laid off some 20,000 people. Walter Loeb, the former longtime retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who now blogs for Forbes.com, is predicting that its revenues will decline another 22 percent in the first quarter of 2013.
Lately, Johnson has brought back sales and devised a new strategy, revolving around “stores within stores” — selling merchandise much the way Bloomingdale’s does. One of its ministores will be devoted to Martha Stewart-designed home goods. You may have read about that. Macy’s, which says it has a contract that prevents Martha Stewart from selling housewares to other retailers, has sued. On the stand during the trial, I’m told, Johnson kept referring to his experience at Apple. Some people never learn.
The question is no longer whether Johnson will learn in time. If the quarter is as bad as Loeb is predicting, he’ll be gone soon. The question is whether Ackman has learned anything. The next time the devil whispers in his ear, let’s hope he doesn’t listen.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who enjoys classy TV shows:
If you haven’t caught “Top of the Lake,” a cryptic mini-series on the Sundance Channel right now, you owe yourself a peek, if only to behold and savor Holly Hunter, whose character is a mash-up of Pocahontas, the oracle at Delphi and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She’s all hair, her silvery mane accounting for easily half of her body weight and seemingly destined to sweep the ground. Perhaps when the character isn’t providing terse counsel to the damaged women around her at an odd spiritual retreat, she moonlights as a broom.
Most of the women at the retreat, built from a network of colorful cargo containers arranged like gigantic Legos on the lip of the aforementioned lake, are on the lam from destructive relationships with men. One is on the lam from a destructive relationship with a chimpanzee as well. Still they can’t help themselves. Their eyes rove to the scruffy local lads in the gorgeous patch of New Zealand where the story is set, and in the third of what will be seven episodes, a woman leaves her container to spend the night in the less Spartan digs of a lakeside drug lord. Minor spoiler alert: as she slips into his bed, he announces that he’s impotent, and the day after, as they frolic sexlessly in the woods, he stumbles across his mother’s grave, kneels in front of it and begins flagellating himself. This is a pretty good definition of a really bad date.
I’m mesmerized by “Top of the Lake,” which is now halfway through its run, and friends who are watching it constantly bring it up. And what we’re mainly responding to isn’t the meat of the yarn, which focuses on the effort to unravel what happened to a 12-year-old girl who is about five months pregnant. It’s the ancillary riddles and vaguely explained curiosities, like the interludes in Lego land. It’s the gentle pacing. It’s the way in which the mini-series, one of whose principal writers and directors is Jane Campion, insists on a certain opaqueness and bucks the bulk of what’s on television, even in this golden age of the medium.
“Top of the Lake” belongs to a budding genre that several critics, including Alessandra Stanley in The Times and Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, have called Slow TV. Stanley sagely noted the parallel to Slow Food, which rebelled against the metastasis of McDonald’s outposts. Slow TV pushes back at the instant gratification and empty calories of too many elimination contests, too many reality shows, too many efficient, literal-minded forensic dramas that perhaps keep certain plot threads dangling but tie up the episode’s main mystery by the hour’s end.
The term Slow TV has multiple meanings, and has been applied to full-length chronicles of actual, incrementally unfolding events, like a ship’s voyage, and to the practice of spacing out viewings of a fictional serial’s episodes rather than watching them in a marathon session. But I think it’s best deployed in the way Stanley and then Seitz, writing about such shows as “Treme” and “Game of Thrones,” used it: to describe unrushed, atmospheric narratives.
Slow TV mines the pleasures of ambiguity, which are affirmed, as it happens, by one of the best movies I’ve recently seen, “Room 237,” a documentary in limited theatrical release and on cable TV. The title refers to a detail in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining,” and the documentary recounts the riot of messages and meanings that obsessive fans have read into Kubrick’s lone foray into horror.
It’s a testament, hilarious at times, to the human genius for overanalysis. One “Shining” fan points to a German-made typewriter in the movie to support his theory that it’s a Holocaust parable; another cites the feathered-headdress logo on baking-powder cans in a few scenes for his belief that “The Shining” is about the massacre of American Indians. A desktop paper tray is determined to be a metaphoric erection, and so on. The abstruseness of some of “The Shining” is arguably a flaw, but “Room 237” reminds you that only an artistic work that resists tidy explanation can accommodate such enjoyable flights of interpretive fancy.
Ambiguity has never been what TV values most, “Twin Peaks” excepted. But it was central to “The Killing,” which highlighted an additional characteristic of Slow or Slowish TV, the willingness to wander off the main road and down an intriguing cul-de-sac, as “Girls” did in a discrete episode with Patrick Wilson as a guest star. Another HBO series, “Enlightened,” partly redeemed its irritations with its habits of straying, and of lingering: on a sigh, on a glare, on a soulless office building. It cared as much for mood as for plot.
The same is true of “Top of the Lake,” which preserves some enigmas, hirsute and otherwise, and surrenders others on its own timetable, making you wait and making you work. Just like life.