The Intellectual Situation
In the Stocks
“I never expected it,” says R., “but when my favorite uncle S. died he left me some money—well, lots of money. And yet it wasn’t enough to fund my own revolution the way I used to dream (Belize looked promising), and now I can hardly afford my Park Slope apartment. It would help if I had a job, but I can’t possibly work for anyone and right now I don’t have to. Anyway, there’s plenty left for lunch, the Pinot Noir is a bargain and will go very well with that venison steak in morel reduction you ordered.
“The worst part is, all uncle’s money is in stocks—my own private social security account before I even retired. I hadn’t even started to work! He’d wanted to help me with my writing career, that’s what the will said, but it’s strange, I mean he’d only read these poems I wrote at 16. I should be grateful, but then, you know, all that money really burns a hole in your conscience.
“I got these statements every month. At first I couldn’t really look at them. I was told never to throw them away in case I got audited, so I just put them in a shoebox in my closet. Now I have six closets. It’s like they pay for their own storage space. So for a while I couldn’t read them, just thought of it as money in the bank, like a savings account. Then a box tipped over one day and they came spilling out. All those numbers and names! What did they mean? And how could I be expected to read them?
“Those were the Nineties, the tech-bubble hadn’t burst, and there was a sense you could do no wrong with stocks. I read the names on the portfolio, boy, they would not have gone over well in my college chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops: Gap, Walmart, Wrigley, News Corp., and Archer Daniels Midland, world’s largest exporter of genetically modified soybeans. At least they sponsor NPR. I had no idea what the other companies did and their names were no help (I suppose that’s the point): Rentokil, Cendant, THX-88. And then the T-bills, lots of T-bills. The federal deficit could keep going up forever and I would finance it.
“Uncle’s portfolio outperformed the market consistently, that’s what the investment advisor said when I went to see her in her big midtown office with panoramic windows. The barren, ravaged land across the river encouraged the long view—it was either stocks or barbarism. I was wearing my USAS button on my leather jacket and plunged in on the subject of ethical investing. She was sympathetic. She’d heard of people who refused to invest in companies that didn’t promote Christian values or were linked to violent television. It turned out that Uncle had also set some limits: no weapons manufacturers, but he’d had faith in the drug companies (even when they wouldn’t let go of the AIDS drugs patents), and he’d started to go soft on Philip Morris when they rescued the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But what about companies that, you know, treat their workers well and don’t destroy the environment and don’t finance wars? I was getting bolder. What about companies that actively try to improve the lot of the poor?
“‘Like Wal-Mart?’ she asked.
“I liked my advestment advisor, but there was a bit of a gulf here. We settled for a hippocratic compromise: let me own no companies that do positive harm to the environment or their workers.
“For a few years I felt virtuous and continued to make money, even after the tech-bubble, the accounting scandals, and the market dive after 9/11. My advisor was a genius and I tuned out. I got settlement checks from class action suits, was asked to ratify board choices for CEO in several elections. I received big glossy annual reports, though there was a notable decline in paper quality after the first big economic downturn. These, too, I held onto. I’d read them someday. It’s very easy to live as a member of a parasitical rentier class if you don’t look down. Occasionally I had my doubts when I came across a sinister name in my portfolio. ‘This petroleum company you bought, Morgoth Petroleum—petroleum means it’s an oil company, right?’ I had called up my advisor.
“‘Well, actually they deal in recycled petroleum products, plastics, vaseline, engine oil, and, um, lubricants. They’re Canadian.’
“‘So they’re not oppressing the Ogoni people then?’
“‘Oh that’s alright I guess.’
“But eventually it became too much. I decided to take matters into my own hands. These companies all put their addresses at the bottom of the statements, you know. At every shareholder meeting, I was there: eating cucumber sandwiches. On every ballot, I marked an X to oppose whatever the board wanted to do. Dejection. Disillusionment. Anything I voted against was approved, the stock prices soared, I got fat, they’d put cream cheese in the finger sandwiches.
“At the back of the hall lurked a few other people like me, the shareholder activists. But at their meetings, too, in the church near Wall Street, it was hopeless, no one liked my schemes. Was it so wrong to ask for warning statements on credit cards? I drifted to the radical wing. My cell chose me to strike the blow. ‘I’ll pick something up at Dean & DeLuca?’ No, they said. We make them ourselves.
“As I streaked across the podium, landing a cream pie on a CEO’s chubby face, not so unlike my own, I thought: What will they do with me now? ‘To the A train at 59th street!’ I shouted as I jumped in the first cab I saw. ‘No, wait, all the way to Kennedy!’
“And that is how you find me here today.”
Poor R. The double-bind he’s in has made him lose his mind. Or maybe it’s the Pinor Noir? It’s gone to our head too. We part with him on good terms, as he pulls his hat down to shade his face. We’re humming the ballad of the stockholder intellectual.
Ballad of the Stockholder Intellectual
[to the tune of “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife”)]
Und die statements
Kommt too often
Und die index
Meine friends nicht
Can afford me
Und after clearing
Kommt der sturm!
No mehr writing
No mehr thinking
Für ich dwell on
Where die oilmen
Beat dem locals
Und die profits
Buy my Cuisinart!
Die Prison Notebooks
Beat die drum
Ich habe dem alle
In luxury editions
Aber also 1,000 shares of
Over at Pushkinskaya, we spot a group of jugglers performing tricks. They are observed intently by their fans, all in dark suits. “Ah,” we say to a passerby, “is this a literary reading?”
The stranger looks at us. “Those are jugglers.”
“So those—those are the writers?” We indicate the men in suits.
The stranger smiles. “That is the secret police.” He looks around, spots a man in patched-up rags sitting on a nearby bench with a book. “That is a writer,” he says. “A pretty good one.”
“In Russia,” he explains, “everything is as it looks. And everything looks bad. How are things in your country?”
Oh! we begin to tell him. He doesn’t know from bad! In our country there is a crisis. Literature is in danger. Everyone says so! Our authors are calling us to arms . . .