I wish to write of three deaths (among a few million) that have occurred thus far, this year.
One was the “just folks”, “son of the soil” celebrity journalist Tim Russert, who made a mockery of aggressive interviewing while peddling provincial platitudes and gossip on CIA operatives, or providing a forum for dissemination of lies in aid of waging wars (Cathie Martin, aide to Cheney: “I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used. It’s our best format.”). His departure went down as a “national tragedy”.
The second is University of Virginia professor Randy Pausch who died of pancreatic cancer three days ago. Prof. Pausch became a celebrity after his “Last Lecture” speech at Carnegie Mellon University, in which he offered various inspirational words and acts, in the face of his imminent death.
Both these men were listed by Time (in different years) as one of the World’s Top-100 Most Influential People. Pausch appeared on Oprah, had scholarships and bridges named after him, and even had his “childhood dream” fulfilled through an invitation from the Pittsburgh Steelers to practice with them.
My friend and comrade, Carl Remick, died about six months ago. I have made three attempts to write something about it, but stopped on each occasion. Anything I write about such a masterful wordsmith as he was, would be an embarrassment to his memory. It would have been best if Carl had supplied us his own eulogy before departure, but his irreverent and iconoclastic nature would have yielded anything but the endearing and saccharine prose that is expected on such occasions.
Carl wasn’t on any Influential People list, as no “man of the left” (as he called himself on his Amazon Profile) has a chance to influence events in a rhetorical world that has reached its zenith in the person of Barack Obama. Nor did his simple last wish (or rather dream) of making it to Italy in his lifetime come to fruition. Carl did not spend the last few months of his life making money on pulp biography/non-fiction or the Oprah Winfrey show basking in the adulation of cheering fans. As a man of the left, he instead spent those months fighting the insurance companies when not beset by anxiety regarding his finances and future.
WikiQuote offers a few maxims from Randy Pausch (no disprespect to whom is intended in this post) that, to some extent, account for his accidental celebrity:
- Remember brick walls let us show our dedication. They are there to separate us from the people who don’t really want to acheive their childhood dreams.
- Show gratitude.
- Don’t complain; just work harder.
- Be good at something. It makes you valuable.
- Junior faculty members used to come up to me and say. “Wow, you got tenure early; what’s your secret?” I said, “It’s pretty simple, call me any Friday night in my office at 10 o’clock and I’ll tell you.
An almost perfect cocktail of Christian and capitalistic values! Carl had something to say on this matter too as in this post from the Marxmail list, with an introductory comment by Louis Proyect who runs the list:
(This afternoon I forwarded an item that Carl Remick had posted to lbo-talk. After doing some googling, I found a more exemplary item–a letter written to the Guardian on March 24, 2003 in response to a Madeleine Bunting article on balancing work and non-work lives. It is Carl at his best.)
Dear Ms Bunting,
Having a (rare!) idle moment, I would like to commend you on your continuing concern with the importance of achieving a work-life balance.
I believe the cult-like devotion to work that swallows whole lives these days is yet another nasty idea of US origin – and I say that as an American.
I am 53 and have spent my most of my working life, as a corporate writer, noting a steady decline in the quality of working conditions. Any number of things have combined to make the workplace the hellish place it is now.
a) The shift from a manufacturing to a service economy
b) The leveraged buy-outs of the 1980s and “outsourcing” of the 1990s that created “lean, mean” companies, permanently wiping out tiers of middle management and corporate staff
c) The globalisation of commerce and advent of the PC/internet/cell phone that cleared the way for 24/7 feats of Stakhanovite excess
d) Above all, the rise of the “winner-take-all” society, where CEOs and suchlike are seen as entitled to live large at everyone else’s expense.
What amazes and depresses me is how readily over the years my colleagues have acceded to their exploitation. […] Yet, I will admit that – as seems to be the point of your investigations – it is impossible to escape the gravitational pull of today’s work-maddened society, even for someone as inclined toward dolce far niente as I am:
a) Working for a PR firm in New York during the 1990s, I never for a moment imagined I was participating in the creation of a “New Economy”; even at the time the decade seemed no more than a steady succession of harebrained schemes. Nevertheless, I was up at all hours with everyone else, attending to urgent-urgent-urgent (but always nonsensical) document revisions. Of course, a PR firm, like a law firm, imposes its own special tyranny: billable hours. Billing by
the hour – around as much of the clock as inhumanely possible – makes coffee machines as key to office productivity as computer printers.
b) That, however, was the 90s. Now I’m my own boss – meaning: I got chucked out of my job. I foolishly assumed that staying with one employer for 12 years would give me some protection from the inevitable major downturn, but quite the contrary. I was one of the first laid off at my firm, right at the start of the US recession in April 2001. Ever since, what with endless futile chases after a fulltime job combined with fitful periods of freelance work – again, often at crazy hours – I find have less control over my time than ever.
But enough lamentation about the woeful state of the States. May I end simply by wishing you the best with your project. I regret to say that the UK – via the awful example set by Margaret Thatcher in everything – made its own contribution to the decayed condition of American society today; nevertheless, the UK has something the US entirely lacks – a leftist political tradition that amounts to something – that, just possibly, could prove inspirational to the US
in the correct way. I earnestly hope you do find ways to turn Workcamp UK into a more gemutlich place. Here in the US there’s a lot riding on your success.
I write above that Carl was my friend and comrade. I like to believe that Carl was my friend, even though I have never met him in person and our correspondence has not been significant. But my comrade he certainly was in his instinctive support for and understanding of the rightful underdog, an attitude I only aspire to: on mailing lists we have both been members of, we found ourselves arguing on the same side, such as against the majority, and in support of a steadfast critic of US-based criticism of Iran. He was also my comrade in that we stood jointly accused (an honour for me!) on that very list of being against “the great”:
This is a basic conflict of value and I don’t think there is a rational resolution of it. Carl, Ravi, many leftists, really do hate, distrust, despise talent, and if they weren’t nice people they’d urge on use the advice of the counselor in the proverb who showed his prince how to handle the menace of the great by taking him to a wheat field and cutting down to the common level any stalk that rose above the average height.
(The person who wrote this is an intelligent and committed leftist and it would be unfair on the reader’s part to generalise about his overall attitude from this snippet from a heated dialogue.)
This accusation is not new to me and is frequently hurled at me by Randian right-wingers who delusionally identify themselves among the winners! Well, so be it! Carl was my comrade in that neither of us are winners, and now he is gone. But it is only a confusion of talent with success that would blind anyone to Carl’s value — he was great without needing to be above average.
I wrote to him privately, in response to his post detailing his struggle with cancer (and his fear that his post would be found to be “whining”):
I responded on list, but also wanted to write to you off-list to say: your post was anything but “whining” — I abhor that right-wing term, designed to make us not engage in a collective manner to discuss, share and perhaps even solve our difficulties. Your posts to LBO are witty, intelligent and full of knowledge that defies the modern obsession with specialisation.
To which he responded:
Many thanks, Ravi. Well, since having cancer seems to be all the rage right now, I didn’t want to come across as still another cancer “survivor” inflicting his/her tale of heroic woe on the defenseless public. I was particularly reluctant to divulge my backstory, if you will, on a political listserv, since I’d like my postings to be judged on their own merits, without giving readers any possible cause to think, “Uh-oh, this is that cancer guy — better go easy on him even if he is a horse’s ass.”
BTW, I decided years ago that I would finesse the modern obsession with specialization by specializing in generalization. This, too, proved to be a poor decision :)
Carl was indeed a splendid generalist, a man of letters if you will permit the term, and his poor decisions left us richer!
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