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Hello: it's me! Again!
I have once again delayed my weekly wrap-up until very nearly past the last plausible moment. I will strive to do better.
To Sleep With Anger
Some of you may not know that, in addition to writing for The Week on (usually) politics or policy, I’m the film and theater critic at Modern Age. It’s a quarterly, so my work there is infrequent, but that affords me the opportunity to take the long view on things rather than trying to chase whatever is new, which I rather like.
My most recent piece took rather more advantage of that fact that usual:
What is it like, in 2021, to watch a movie like The Godfather, a film that practically defines the term classic? It and its sequels are referenced and quoted with the confident assumption of familiarity that once attended the Bible; the gangsters in The Sopranos not only quote it but imagine themselves as characters in it, even as the series itself aims to dismantle the myth in which they believe. After all that, can one still experience the thing itself? Or is it, like an icon, so begrimed by decades of candle smoke and kisses that the image can no longer be discerned beneath the residue of devotion?
It’s a question that any classic poses, and the standard answer is a double one. No, we cannot see it with the eyes of its first viewers—but we can see it with our own eyes, and perhaps make it new thereby. Indeed, what makes something a classic is precisely its ability to transform and transcend in this way, becoming timeless not by being changeless but by a protean ability to remain itself even as we change it.
The question lands with particular salience, though, when the artist himself will not let the work go and be seen for what it is, but hangs around the frame fretfully, palette and brush in hand, daubing and touching up and instructing us: Look here! No, look here! Francis Ford Coppola is one such artist. Through books like The Godfather Notebook and new cuts like 1977’s The Godfather Saga—a chronological splice of the first two films—and of course the Godfather sequels themselves, Coppola has not only encouraged the excavation and transformation of his work but has led that process. There is always a pecuniary aspect to these decisions (earnings from The Godfather Saga helped fund the completion of Apocalypse Now, for example), but there’s something more behind the impulse to fuss and worry old work, some sense that the work still isn’t done, still isn’t properly understood.
Coppola is still at it. The release last winter of a new cut of the third Godfather movie, retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, presents an opportune time to revisit the entire saga and try to see it afresh. Fresh it proved to be. As I moved through the series, I was increasingly surprised by what I was seeing. The Godfather constructed a myth that subsequent treatments of the genre—most notably The Sopranos—have labored to analyze and dismantle, revealing the hollowness of character beneath the mythic surface. What I learned from my revisiting was that this critique was embedded in the original myth all along.
I’m really curious to hear from fans of the films—any of the films, but particularly the second part of the trilogy—their thoughts on my take.
Intellectual Property is a Virus
Meanwhile, over at The Week I’ve got a column taking a hammer to the idea of intellectual property—arguing that, in fact, it isn’t property at all.
Intellectual property lacks an essential characteristic of property as we normally understand it, a characteristic that is central to why we have property rights at all: natural scarcity. If I build a house, and you occupy it, I no longer have the house. If I have a lawnmower, and you take it, I no longer have a lawnmower. But if I write a book, and email you a copy, I still have my book to read, and so does everyone else who wants a copy. If I make a new kind of cake, and you, inspired, do the same, my cake doesn't become any less tasty or filling. Giving you what I have doesn't diminish what I have in any way.
Ah, but what if I wanted to sell my new cake — then if you were able to make it just as easily as I could, I'd face more competition, wouldn't I? And facing that competition, my ability to make a profit would be diminished. So in that sense, I'd have lost something. This is true — but it actually reinforces the point that intellectual property isn't property. After all, if I had no special knowledge of cake-making whatsoever, but had a monopoly license from the state to make cakes, then I'd make more profit than if there were no such license issued and everyone could freely make cakes. Would you call that license my property, something that it would be unjust for the state to take away without proper compensation? I doubt it. But even if you did, it should be clear that it is the license — a creation of the state — that you'd be calling the property, not whatever innovation (if any) the state cited as justification for granting it.
That's what intellectual property really is, whether we're talking about the copyright for a book or a patent for a vaccine: an exclusive license that the state issues specifically to allow the holder to earn monopoly profits. Once this is understood, it becomes easy to see how strong intellectual property protections can discourage innovation just as easily as they can encourage it, just as any other kind of monopoly does: the incentives of a monopolist are to maximize the rents they can extract from monopolies they already have, rather than pursue the much riskier and more expensive process of innovating. If we want to maximize innovation, then, we need to strike a balance: a system that adequately rewards risk-taking but that also adequately encourages the sharing of results that can spark further innovation.
The argument is embedded in a larger discussion of the patents for the new COVID vaccines, which some are arguing should be waived to facilitate vaccinating the world and ending the pandemic more quickly. At the start of the column, I point out how this is probably unnecessary; the patents aren’t the real obstacle to expanding vaccination efforts anyway. But at the end of the column I point out that the main argument put forward by the defenders of the patents—that they are crucial to national competitiveness—are also largely wrong; in fact, an IP-focused strategy is kind of a disaster for national economic competitiveness (though it’s great for the profits of IP-oriented firms). It’s a complex argument overall, and I encourage people to actually read the whole thing.
What I want to add here is that very much the same processes apply to culture. A lot of the pushback I get when I point out that intellectual property is not property is that without copyright protections writers like me wouldn’t be able to earn a living. But I think this badly misjudges the situation. First of all, I’m not arguing that there should be no copyright protections—I’m arguing that we need to balance the need to reward creators against the danger of overly-empowering monopoly. I think we’ve tilted way too far in the latter direction, and that ordinary creators are the biggest losers in consequence, because the owners of the most valuable IP are enormous corporations who therefore pour vast sums into maximizing the value of that IP, eclipsing virtually all other culture.
More broadly, though, I think that this process has corrupted our understanding of culture itself, and damaged the very process of creation, which is always—always—about adaptation and transformation as much as it is about originality. Put our actual culture behind a paywall, and you break that process. Everybody loved Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse, but if you take the movie seriously the conclusion one should come to isn’t just that everyone could be Spiderman, but that everyone should be able to make a Spiderman movie—nobody should have to pay a toll or convince any corporate master to get permission to do so. Instead, we’re looking around, realizing that traditional cultures aren’t owned by corporate masters, asking why not, and trying to wall them off as well.
The problem culture-makers have is that new intermediaries like Spotify and the algorithms that they are based on have accumulated vastly more power than the old ones did. Strong IP does absolutely nothing to help solve that problem. The solution probably looks something like One Big Paywall, some version of a system that bands creators together against algorithmic distributors not to enforce stronger IP protections but to capture a large percentage of the surplus those distributors generate. The algorithms themselves are a problem, and I don’t know if “One Big Paywall” would in itself change the incentives that have made them so ubiquitous (nor, for that matter, are the precise contours of what “One Big Paywall” might mean in practice entirely clear to me). The one thing I do feel confident of, though, is that ever-stronger IP protections are sending us in precisely the wrong direction.
(Matt Yglesias had a bunch of other intelligent thoughts on the problems of overly-strong and overly-lengthy copyright over at his Substack a couple of months ago, which I encourage everyone to read if you can.)
Three pieces here this week:
“Kathryn Garcia: The Anti-Yang” is about, well, just what it sounds like: how Kathryn Garcia is, in terms of temperament and character, pretty much the opposite of Andrew Yang, something I view as entirely positive—all the more so since, in terms of positioning, they’re much more closely aligned as outer-borough moderates. The more I learn about her, the more I like her.
“James Carville Wants to Police the Language Police” tackles Carville’s interview with Sean Illing where the former Bill Clinton strategist rails against the harm wokeness is doing to the Democratic Party brand. I have much less sympathy for this stance than I probably would if I were a Democratic Party strategist.
“The Autobiography of an Idea” is a meditative post about the whole “is America an idea? or a nation?” question. I hope I wound up saying something more interesting than “it’s both!” but you’ll have to read it to decide for yourselves.
The World Elsewhere
I remain morbidly enthralled by the whole Blake Bailey saga, and if you are too I recommend two piece in The Nation, one by Jeet Heer and the other by Katha Pollitt. Note that a self-consciously left-wing magazine is doing the best job I’ve seen at teasing out all the strands of this complicated scandal, holding the right people to account while defending the importance of keeping ugly and offensive books in print, not to mention standing up for the worth of Philip Roth’s oeuvre as such against the influence of “bad fans” like, well, Bailey. I suspect there’s a lesson for those on the right—or even more so those in the anti-woke center—from that fact.
Along similar lines, I am heartened to see brother Cornel West take to The Washington Post to decry the dissolution of the classics department at Howard University. And probably the most cheering thing I read all week was “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” excerpted from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin, which a friend sent to me by way of response to this piece in The Walrus making the case for (mostly) canceling Shakespeare. The good answer to bad arguments is, as always, better ones, but it doesn’t hurt when those better arguments come from the mouths of prophets.
Meanwhile, if you want something big-picture to worry about besides the virus continuing to rage out of control in India and South America, consider the possibility, as Henry Olson does in The Washington Post, that Europe may take a sharp populist turn after sliding back into recession. It’s not as simple as that of course; Germany is far more likely to turn to the Greens (or, even more likely, a Black-Green or even Jamaican coalition government) than to the populist right or left, and the right-wing populist governments in Poland and Hungary are among those currently sinking in public esteem. But in France the far right is already musing about civil war, and even if that winds up hurting Le Pen in the short term, it’s an ominous portent for where serious ructions could lead. The proximate cause of Europe’s slide is the failure to roll out an adequate vaccination effort (though Europe is finally moving forward in a serious way on that score, and will soon pull even with America now that our vaccination rate has slipped), but as this Dylan Matthews piece in Vox delineates, it’s worth recognizing that America also did a better job of responding to the economic consequences of COVID than the Eurozone did, something far fewer people are aware of.
Still in the department of Big Things to Worry About, I expect to write something about Taiwan this coming week, and any such discussion must have the larger context of the U.S.-China rivalry in the background. Two very interesting pieces I read recently in that regard are Charles Glaser’s in Foreign Affairs about how America needs to rethink the scope of its commitments in Asia generally and to Taiwan specifically if it actually cares about avoiding war with China, and Noah Smith’s piece on his Substack about how China is starting to screw up in a host of areas, from the defaults that are bedeviling the Belt-and-Road initiative to the poor performance of their COVID vaccines.
Finally, returning to the smallest-scale and to matters of culture, I want to recommend Freddie deBoer’s lovely appreciation of A Portrait of Ross, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I don’t know that the particular work in question would have landed with me the way it did with him. If I came into someone's home as a guest for dinner, and found that they kept a pile of candy in the corner of their living room, and, puzzled, asked about it and got this explanation—that it is a memorial for a lover who had died of AIDS, and that guests are encouraged to take a piece before or when they leave—I think I would be deeply moved and also profoundly impressed. I’m not sure reading a placard on the wall in a museum to explain a pile of candy in the corner of the gallery would do the same. But that’s arguably entirely on me, and I entirely endorse deBoer’s self-appreciation of his own openness:
I am glad that I am, and was, the kind of person who can walk into a gallery in an art museum, grab a piece of candy, and enjoy it, without wondering if it’s pretentious, or ridiculous, or if someone’s making a fool of me.
I’m glad, too, and I strive to be the same.