Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Agree To Disagree

The part of the debate coverage that's driven me nuts is how everyone from The Daily Show to Chris Matthews to the McCain campaign has strung together out-of-context clips of Obama saying some variation of "Senator McCain is absolutely right."

Just for the record, here's the full context of every time Obama "agreed" with McCain:

  1. Well, I think Senator McCain's absolutely right that we need more responsibility, but we need it not just when there's a crisis. I mean, we've had years in which the reigning economic ideology has been what's good for Wall Street, but not what's good for Main Street.
  2. Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up. And he's also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests, although that wasn't the case with me. But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important. And in his tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out.
  3. Now, John mentioned the fact that business taxes on paper are high in this country, and he's absolutely right. Here's the problem: There are so many loopholes that have been written into the tax code, oftentimes with support of Senator McCain, that we actually see our businesses pay effectively one of the lowest tax rates in the world. And what that means, then, is that there are people out there who are working every day, who are not getting a tax cut, and you want to give them more. It's not like you want to close the loopholes. You just want to add an additional tax cut over the loopholes. And that's a problem.
  4. But John is right we have to make cuts. We right now give $15 billion every year as subsidies to private insurers under the Medicare system. Doesn't work any better through the private insurers. They just skim off $15 billion. That was a give away and part of the reason is because lobbyists are able to shape how Medicare works. They did it on the Medicaid prescription drug bill and we have to change the culture. Tom -- or John mentioned me being wildly liberal. Mostly that's just me opposing George Bush's wrong headed policies since I've been in Congress but I think it is that it is also important to recognize I work with Tom Coburn, the most conservative, one of the most conservative Republicans who John already mentioned to set up what we call a Google for government saying we'll list every dollar of federal spending to make sure that the taxpayer can take a look and see who, in fact, is promoting some of these spending projects that John's been railing about.
  5. Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families. They have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war. And so John likes -- John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.
  6. John, I -- you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is. I think this is the right strategy. Now, Senator McCain is also right that it's difficult. This is not an easy situation. You've got cross-border attacks against U.S. troops.
  7. So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked. Senator McCain is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in this Middle East. Now here's what we need to do. We do need tougher sanctions. I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies, but have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon. But we are also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough direct diplomacy with Iran and this is a major difference I have with Senator McCain, this notion by not talking to people we are punishing them has not worked. It has not worked in Iran, it has not worked in North Korea. In each instance, our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons. That will change when I'm president of the United States.
    8. And one last point I want to make. It is important for us to understand that the way we are perceived in the world is going to make a difference, in terms of our capacity to get cooperation and root out terrorism. And one of the things that I intend to do as president is to restore America's standing in the world. We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago. And this is the greatest country on Earth. But because of some of the mistakes that have been made -- and I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security -- because of those things, we, I think, are going to have a lot of work to do in the next administration to restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill.

    So, let's get this straight -- the only time when Obama unambiguously agreed with McCain was in his opposition to torture. Every other single time, he opened by agreeing with McCain, only to turn it around and show how profoundly he disagreed with him.

    It's absurd for pundits to endlessly replay loops of McCain saying "Senator Obama doesn't understand" and then not question exactly what it is that Obama doesn't understand (especially when McCain is very often factually wrong). And it's ridiculous to show these clips of Obama saying he agrees with McCain without even referring to the fact that the apparent agreement is part of a strategy to show the absurdity of McCain's logic. Every time Obama ducks McCain's punch to "agree," he comes back with a disagreeable shot to the jaw. And for people who watched the entire debate, it worked.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dig Down In Your Pockets, Come Up With Two Bits

Something else we can look forward to in a new Depression: amazing tap dancing!

The Appropriately Juvenile Response

I can't help but giggle when I read James Fallows's headline:

"The Bush taint becoming the McCain taint?"

Just imagining scenarios where that transformation could be possible -- an exchange? a fusion? a mysterious convergence? -- is a source of unending hilarity.

Artificial Scarcity

Jonathan Gottschall on Prehistory and Homer:

Reconstructing a prehistoric world from literary sources is rife with complications. But there are aspects of life in the Homeric era upon which most scholars agree. Homer paints a coherent picture of Greek attitudes, ideology, customs, manners, and mores that is consistent with the 8th century archeological record, and holds together based on anthropological knowledge about societies at similar levels of cultural development. For instance, we can trust that the Greeks' political organization was loose but not chaotic - probably organized at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine, worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within and between communities.

This violence, in fact, opens an important window onto that world. Patterns of violence in Homer are intriguingly consistent with societies on the anthropological record known to have suffered from acute shortages of women. While Homeric men did not take multiple wives, they hoarded and guarded slave women who they treated as their sexual property. These women were mainly captured in raids of neighboring towns, and they appear frequently in Homer. In the poems, Odysseus is mentioned as having 50 slave women, and it is slave women who bear most of King Priam's 62 children. For every slave woman working a rich man's loom and sharing his bed, some less fortunate or formidable man lacks a wife.

In pre-state societies around the world - from the Yanomamo of the Amazon basin to the tribes of highland New Guinea to the Inuit of the Arctic - a scarcity of women almost invariably triggers pitched competition among men, not only directly over women, but also over the wealth and social status needed to win them. This is exactly what we find in Homer. Homeric men fight over many different things, but virtually all of the major disputes center on rights to women - not only the famous conflict over Helen, but also over the slave girls Briseis and Chryseis, Odysseus's wife Penelope, and all the nameless women of common Trojan men. As the old counselor Nestor shouts to the Greek hosts, "Don't anyone hurry to return homeward until after he has lain down alongside a wife of some Trojan!"

The war between Greeks and Trojans ends in the Rape of Troy: the massacre of men, and the rape and abduction of women. These events are not the rare savageries of a particularly long and bitter war - they are one of the major points of the war. Homeric raiders always hoped to return home with new slave-concubines. Achilles conveys this in his soul-searching assessment of his life as warrior: "I have spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their women."

  1. I don't endorse the anthropology not-quite-cited here, but this is an important motif in Homer. I would almost rather have "Darwinian" literary critics misunderstand the science than misunderstand the text. Gottschall doesn't misunderstand these texts, at least at this level.
  2. Should the banking crisis cause society to completely collapse, it's nice to know what we have to look forward to.

Narcissisms OId and New

Dan Piepenbring at if:book on Facebook's displacement of yearbooks, and what that tells us about the future of the book:

Despite the presence of “book” in its title, few critics to my knowledge have construed Facebook as the ultimate electronic yearbook. They focus instead on its broader “social network” applications. That’s all well and good, but what is Facebook if not the quintessential model of an electronic book done right?...

The site, then, is a better yearbook than any yearbook can be. It suggests that the networked screen is, at least for this purpose, an infinitely more versatile medium than the static page. In considering Facebook as an electronic book rather than as a mere web franchise, we see how this new medium can improve upon the tried-and-true formulas of the print age...

There’s arguably another, bleaker lesson to be learned here, which is that Facebook’s true victory over print is predicated on its ability to massage our narcissism. Perhaps MicCalifornia, a commenter on the Economist piece, says it best: “The first thing we do when we get our yearbooks is see how many pictures we are in. Who needs it when with Facebook, I am in all the pictures.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

If It Raines Or Freezes

Paul Newman Dies At 83.


Image via this post @ Racialicious.

Restoring Confidence in Our Instruments

Charles Bernstein, "Poetry Bailout Will Restore Confidence of Readers":

Cultural leaders have come together to announce a massive poetry buyout: leveraged and unsecured poems, poetry derivatives, delinquent poems, and subprime poems will be removed from circulation in the biggest poetry bailout since the Victorian era. We believe the plan is a comprehensive approach to relieving the stresses on our literary institutions and markets...

Illiquid poetry assets are choking off the flow of imagination that is so vital to our literature. When the literary system works as it should, poetry and poetry assets flow to and from readers and writers to create a productive part of the cultural field. As toxic poetry assets block the system, the poisoning of literary markets has the potential to damage our cultural institutions irreparably.

As we know, lax composition practices since the advent of modernism led to irresponsible poets and irresponsible readers. Simply put, too many poets composed works they could not justify. We are seeing the impact on poetry, with a massive loss of confidence on the part of readers. What began as a subprime poetry problem on essentially unregulated poetry websites has spread to other, more stable, literary magazines and presses and contributed to excess poetry inventories that have pushed down the value of responsible poems...

We are convinced that once we have removed these troubled and distressed poems from circulation, our cultural sector will stabilize and readers will regain confidence in American literature. We estimate that for the buyout to be successful, we will need to remove from circulation all poems written after 1904.
Or as I wrote to Charles, instead of trading mortgage-backed-securities, we should be dealing in high-energy poetic constructs, like Charles Olson advocated back in 1950 in "Projective Verse." On Citizen!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York, New York

I know I promised light blogging while I get myself all pretty for the job market, but this week it's actually about geography. I'm in Manhattan for an MLA committee meeting, so between planning panels and projects and furiously finishing writing samples on Ezra Pound's hatred of classical philology and love for loose-leaf files (seriously) and perhaps a trip to the Superhero Supply Store, I am keeping my schrifts to meself.




Okay, here's the deal. I'm actually in New York for a super-secret meeting with Henry Paulson, Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, and John Maynard Keynes (who isn't really dead). John McCain was invited, but cancelled at the last minute for an interview with Katie Couric instead. We're going to get this mess sorted out. My proposal is that we start a cap-and-trade system whereby companies exceeding strict emissions standards have to buy troubled mortgage-based security assets from the government. We're going to use the money to pay for universal health care. Pray for us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Negatives of Negative Voting ("Delighting in Lamentations")

Daniel Larison, "Delighting in Lamentations":

Even though I was not a Bush voter and voted for Buchanan, I have to admit that my contempt for Clinton and Gore was so strong in 2000 that I was quite pleased when Gore finally conceded defeat.  I was no Bush partisan, but even then I could see that he was somewhat preferable to McCain, who promises once again to be much worse than Bush once in power, so Bush seemed the least awful of the lot of them.  What many conservatives would prefer to forget now is how much worse by virtually every measure Bush has been compared to Clinton, and Clinton was certainly no prize, which should be a humbling realization for anyone who thinks visceral reactions should guide political behavior.  The desire to see Clinton and Gore suppporters disappointed and outraged combined with a politics of contempt for these politicians, fueled by my distaste for the leading Democrats, worked to distort my assessment of Bush in at least the first few months of his administration.  That he launched an airstrike on Iraq within weeks of assuming office should have told me something about the obsession with that country that would cost us so much, but at that point I was still in thrall to my contempt for Gore.  If there is one last thing for which I blame Clinton, it is how easy he made it to despise him and his backers and how he helped pave the way for the appalling joke of a President we currently have.

Delighting in lamentations is a strong temptation, and it is one the selection of Palin was designed to provoke, as there is a powerful urge to cheer on Palin if it turns the likes of Mark “Obama is a Lightworker” Morford into more of an incoherent, sputtering buffoon than he already was.  Even so, we all know that this is a ridiculous way to respond.  It makes your loyalties hostage to the most idiotic of your opponents, and it compels you to ignore your interests and any semblance of independent thought.  I would add another point–even those who seem to break from the herd and back a candidate from “the other side” to repudiate all the worst elements on your own “side” are falling prey to what Conor calls the politics of Schadenfreude, as an important part of the rationale for conservatives backing Obama or conservative Democrats backing McCain is not that these candidates better represent them but that they function as scourges for elements in their own party that they find appalling.  We hear it all the time–an Obama victory would be a judgement on the neocons, or Democratic defections would be a repudiation of Obama’s progressivism–and somehow we do not see it as part of the same moral blackmail that keeps the two-party system functioning.  If we voted our interests and paid no mind to the kinds of people who would be outraged by the victory of one candidate or another, we would quickly realize that neither party represents us and serves mainly as a rallying point for our undefined grievances against other people, most of whom we have never met.

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry

Sam Fulwood, "Why Obama Can't Get Mad":

This is a struggle that black men—especially those of us who work in professional settings and want to remain there—grapple with daily: Showing our anger, no matter how justified, is a death sentence. We feel outrage. We want to say and demonstrate our daily frustrations, but we don't dare because we know that the release of our pent-up emotions can't ever be explained after the fact...

Journalist Mark Shields said as much on a recent broadcast of PBS' News Hour, noting that Obama won the Democratic nomination because he didn't scare white people. "He has always been controlled," Shields said. "He's always been incredibly disciplined. And I think there is a concern about his ever becoming an angry black man that would somehow be a threatening figure to some voters."

Call it the Sidney Poitier syndrome. During the racially tense '60s, Poitier was a huge Hollywood-box-office draw. He made history in 1963 as the first black man to win an Academy Award for his role as a non-threatening Negro in Lilies of the Field. Rarely did he—or any iconic black male celebrity like Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. or Bill Cosby—exhibit any public anger.
There is this great scene in In The Heat of the Night when Poitier's Tibbs slaps the racist Endicott back:

But the point is still a good one. The biggest problem, I think, with the "Obama should tear McCain a new one" argument is that this is a big party; the President-to-be needs to be a little bit above the fray, and the guys and girls in his party need to have his back. Democrats should be lining up to beat up on McCain and the Republicans. Where's Jim Webb? Where's Bill Clinton? Where's Harry Reid?

Every single prominent national Democrat should be clamoring for the megaphone, ready to indict this administration (McCain included) for the disaster of the past eight years, a disaster which is ongoing, like a smoldering grease fire with a hot lid on top.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Uselessness of Yard Signs

Sean Quinn at FiveThirtyEight.com:

Organizers – the people out there killing themselves to win this election – hate yard signs with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.

Barack Obama’s organizers hate them. John McCain’s organizers hate them. It’s because yard signs don’t vote – but they do generate a ridiculous amount of complaining that must be patiently listened to. Until yard signs sprout little legs and go to the polls on Election Day, in a presidential election with universal name recognition they are just a nice little decoration.

They’re little feel good things, making you feel like you’re on the team. There is nothing wrong with that – that’s not the objection. The objection is that there is limited time for organizers to accomplish a wide array of prioritized tasks, and in this election they’ve chosen to prioritize identifying, registering, persuading and getting their voters to the polls. Yard signs cut into the organizer’s sleep time – literally.

A lot of people aren’t going to like hearing this truth, but organizers recognize that the majority of people who walk into offices for yard signs are, for volunteering purposes – and this is a technical term – useless. In the majority, these people are not going to knock, they’re not going to make phone calls. Instead, they are going to throw the organizer’s incredibly precious, sleep-deprived time down a bottomless abyss of irretrievability.

Read the whole post -- some of the best parts are Quinn's made-up responses to complaints about yard signs (e.g., Asked about this dire situation in Virginia, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe responded*, “You have got to be $@!#ing kidding me. Is this a joke? I’m busy, I have to go.” -- where * indicates, obviously, that this is not anything that Plouffe has said but surely, somewhere, what he would like to have said).

Lessons For Teachers, Pt. 2

From the NYT's special magazine on Teaching, Alexandra Starr's "Case Study," a look at Obama's tenure as an untenured senior lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago:

I recently spoke to many of Obama’s former students and asked them to speculate about how the teacher they saw manage a classroom might try to manage a country. Some students thought Obama’s teaching offers a more accurate glimpse of his potential presidency than the oft-cited statistic that he holds the most liberal voting record in the Senate. “I don’t think that there is a ‘teacher Obama’ and ‘politician Obama,’ ” said David Bird, who works at Reed Smith in Pittsburgh. “He came across as very practical and down to earth. I think that reflects who he is as a person and his experience organizing and in the legislature.” Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who lobbies for progressive causes in Illinois, agreed that his former professor isn’t likely to emerge as an ideological liberal if he indeed makes it to the White House. “Based on what I saw in the classroom, my guess is an Obama administration could be summarized in two words,” he said. “Ruthless pragmatism.” [...]

Dan Johnson-Weinberger studied voting rights with Obama two years after Turbes did. He remembers Obama as an able observer of the allocation of power in the American democratic system. As Obama shepherded students through the evolution of how Americans elect their representatives, Johnson-Weinberger told me, he emphasized how important the rules of the game were in determining who won elections.

That background in voting law, the former student said, played a factor in Obama’s primary triumph over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. “He understood how important the caucus states would be, and he grasped that voters in African-American Congressional districts would have a disproportionate impact in selecting the nominee,” he said. “I think one of the reasons he said yes to this race is that he grasped the structural path to victory.” [...]

Obama offered many hypotheticals in his courses to help explain cases. In a constitutional law lecture more than a decade ago, he tossed out one asking his students to imagine him as president of the United States, according to one who was present. Some giggles ensued.
What, he asked, is so funny about that?

Lessons for Teachers

From one of the co-authors of the new Putin-endorsed Russian history textbooks:

You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself will be ventilated out of teaching…. It is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk), or just any amoral type, teach Russian history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does not work, then clear it by force.

And from Putin himself:
As to some problematic pages in our history--yes, we've had them. But what state hasn't? And we've had fewer of such pages than some other [states]. And ours were not as horrible as those of some others. Yes, we have had some terrible pages: let us remember the events beginning in 1937, let us not forget about them. But other countries have had no less, and even more. In any case, we did not pour chemicals over thousands of kilometers or drop on a small country seven times more bombs than during the entire World War II, as it was in Vietnam, for instance. Nor did we have other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance. All sorts of things happen in the history of every state. And we cannot allow ourselves to be saddled with guilt--they'd better think of themselves.

via Leon Aron at The New Republic and Scott Horton at Harper's, who appears to be triumphantly returning to his blog (let's hope).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Better Together

Maybe this is a stupid question, but I will ask it anyway.

I don't have a Kindle, but I would like one. What I would like even more is to be able to easily purchase/download a document that I could read on my laptop (or maybe even my phone/PDA). This is especially true for books that I purchase for research -- I want them to read them, obviously, and to enjoy them and digest the information therein, but part of the advantage of an electronic document is that I can also work with such a document, directly, without having to type notes or scan in a copy, both of which extremely labor-intensive compared to ripping a CD or DVD.

Mostly, though, I would like to be able to purchase a document that gives me options. If I buy a CD, I can easily rip it into a compressed digital format, giving me the option to use it in its original physical form or to port it around in a form that lets me store it, work with it, use it on other devices, and so on. I've got the "original" document -- that is, the item in its retail physical form, at maximum fidelity, and I've got a copy with slightly less fidelity but more malleability. I get to have the best of both worlds.

So why doesn't Amazon, lord of all things bookly, whether digital or non-, offer a special package for books that they sell, consisting of the physical book, a PDF copy for your laptop, online preview access to the scanned copy available at the store, and a version for your Kindle? (Audiobook optional.) Obviously, this would only be appealing to people if the package (I don't know, let's call it the "digital edition") were cheaper than purchasing these items separately.

There's ample precdent for this. Amazon itself will frequently let you stream a copy of an album that you purchase a physical copy of from its store. I've bought special edition movie DVDs where the bonus DVD includes a digital copy (usually with DRM) of the film for your computer or iPod.

Booksellers could even cut out Amazon altogether by offering books with CDs or a digital download code. Likewise, other companies could potentially outflank Amazon by offering a "Netflix for Books" -- in particular, a subscription service that gives you access to as many digital books as you'd like (possibly, again, with a digital timeout).

It just seems like the digital books market is much more timid than they should be; there are new possibilities here, and plenty of lessons to be learned from folks in other media who have this world better figured out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

From the A/V Club via J Kottke comes this question: What movie(s) have you rewatched the most times?

This is a particularly weird question for me to answer because I obsessively rewatch a lot of movies. There are very few movies that I enjoy at all that I wouldn't like to watch again and again. And again.

So the following is limited to movies that I have seen at least fifty or more times, movies whose screenplays I've memorized.

The original Star Wars trilogy
The Princess Bride
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Fiddler On The Roof
The Beatles Anthology
Finding Nemo
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
The Little Mermaid
Citizen Kane
Malcolm X
The Shawshank Redemption
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Annie Hall
The Big Lebowski
Groundhog Day

I've got my eye on you, FF

Has anyone else found Firefox 3 for Mac to be slow, buggy, and crash-prone? I don't understand, because on my Windows install, it rocks.

I've gone for a stripped-down install with a bare minimum of extensions. But otherwise, Firefox, this is your last chance. I've been using you (on Windows, anyways) since version 0.5. Don't make me end this.

The New Needs Friends

Roger Ebert on the job of the critic:

A new documentary by Todd McCarthy opened in New York the other day: "Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema." I saw it at Toronto 2007, and I hope it opens around the country. You likely have never heard of Pierre Rissient, but it is likely he has had more influence on the world of good films in the last 60 that anybody else. I tried to explain why in [this] article. Pierre says his role in many situations is to "defend," by which he means "support," the films and directors he approves. The Telluride Film Festival named one of its cinemas after him, and made T-shirts quoting him: "It is not enough to like a film. One must like it for the right reasons."

That sounds like critical snobbery, but is profoundly true. I don't think Pierre is referring only to his reasons, although knowing him well, I suppose he could be. I think he's saying you must know why you like a film, and he able to explain why, so that others can learn from an opinion not their own. It is not important to be "right" or "wrong." It is important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions. There is no correct answer. There is simply the correct process. "An unexamined life is not worth living." [...]

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some "work" and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are "just looking for a good time." He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Don't think for a second that I am proposing myself as that critic. I am only trying to define what I aspire to. I have learned most of what I know about movies from other critics, and by critics I mean everyone who has ever given me an interesting insight into a film. If "Siskel & Ebert & Roeper" had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.
I'll add to this a chunk of Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author":
Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined, along with the Author. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would bebetter from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law. [Emphasis Mine --TC]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Begin Where You Are

Dean Starkman at CJR on the financial market crash and the business press coverage of it:

Critiquing the business press right now... is a bit like critiquing the London fire department during the Blitz: All the major institutions are on fire. The press is scrambling to cover them. What are they supposed to do?...

And now it seems to me that a significant line has been crossed with a headline on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight
The story is good, with explanations and analysis of what’s happening and why, but it’s the headline that’s important.

They say on Wall Street that no bottom can be reached without what they call “capitulation”—basically when investors give up hope that the market will recover and just sell.

For me, the flat, declarative headline on top of a news story, as opposed to opinion or analysis, on page one of the Journal is a sign that the flagship of the financial press has capitulated.

Back In Time

I've decided that I would rather listen to Menomena's Friend and Foe about a dozen times rather than listen to any more new music this year. Somebody please wake me if something is worth changing my mind.

Who Needs Another Two Cents?

So one of the stories today at TPM and elsewhere is that during an interview John McCain gave which was broadcast on Spanish-language radio in the US and Spain, McCain was asked about meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero, and gave an answer that either

1) ducked the question;
2) indicated that he didn't know who Zapatero was;
3) indicated that he believed Spain was in Latin America;
4) indicated a crazily aggressive position towards a NATO ally;
or 5) indicated that McCain wasn't paying attention or couldn't hear clearly, possibly because of the reporter's accent.

I think the answer is probably more #5 than anything else, and here's why:

Then there's a moment of awkward pause before she says. "But what about Europe? I'm talking about the President of Spain."

McCain: "What about me, what?

Interviewer: "Are you willing to meet with him if you're elected president?"
McCain seems to have heard "what about Europe" as "what about you?" Hence his reply, "What about me, what?"

Bear in mind, too, that when you listen to the audio, you get a crystal-clear recording of the interviewer, much better than what McCain doubtlessly heard over the telephone.

So listen: McCain has probably a less-than-ideal reception. He's tired. The interviewer is speaking quickly and in with an accent. And he isn't exactly a spring chicken. (I'm sure we'll hear that of course McCain's hearing isn't perfect, that there were times that he couldn't hear anything -- in Vietnam!)

But instead of asking the reporter to repeat or clarify the question, he returns to a fistful of generic and not very illustrative talking points about Latin America and democracies throughout the world.

I think this may show more than that McCain is clueless or confused. It shows that he's stopped listening. That he's forgotten that what people liked about the Straight Talk Express wasn't just that McCain said what he thought, without restorting to rehearsed formulae, but that McCain actually seemed to be paying attention to the people around him, to address their concerns and honestly answer their questions. This is the difference between Candidate McCain and Senator McCain -- or even between Candidate McCain in September and Candidate McCain in May:

I don't want to get too nostalgic about either of those guys, because they both had their problems. But it's clear that that time is over, that window is closed. It's going to be "on message" McCain from here until November. And the problem is that the message itself is thin as a wafer.

Update: TPM's Josh Marshall essentially agrees with me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Blackmail and Backchannels

In these heightened days of diss-finishing and job-applying, I don't have time to read much -- in fact, expect my reading/writing of blogs to tail off for a while in the next few weeks -- but if I could buy a book unrelated to modernism or cinema right now, it would be Barton Gellman's Angler, which contains scoop after scoop after story after unbelievable story from Dick Cheney's Vice Presidency.

Here are excerpts from Gellman's book and links to the original Washington Post series Gellman wrote with Jo Becker.

Here is Jon Stewart's interview with Gellman on The Daily Show:

You can also listen to Gellman's interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Last, Scott Horton's interview with Gellman in Harper's is pretty astonishing:

You open the book by recounting the role Cheney played as manager of George W. Bush’s vice-presidential selection process. Cheney, you suggest, milked this position for all it was worth–he gathered compromising information on more than a half dozen figures at the pinnacle of the Republican Party. Do you consider Cheney’s handling of the vice presidential vetting process to cast any insights on Cheney’s later conduct as vice president?

A candidate for the presidential ticket expects to be put under a microscope. Even so, the process that Dick Cheney designed was strikingly intrusive. For one thing, he did not rely on trust. He asked people like Bill Frist, Tom Ridge, and John Kasich to give him direct access to their FBI files (ironically, by way of the Freedom of Information Act, which Cheney has never liked) and to sign waivers of privacy for all health records without exception. He asked the contenders whether there was something that would make them vulnerable to blackmail—and if so, what? (I imagine a sensible person would bow out rather than answer “yes” to that one.) All this has a certain logic: You don’t want a blackmailable commander-in-chief (or understudy), and campaigns don’t want unpleasant surprises.

The news in my book about this process is that Cheney never filled out his own questionnaire; that the heart surgeon who vouched for his health never met him or looked at his records; and that Bush and Cheney never interviewed anyone for the job until Cheney already had it nailed.
That's just the first question.

A Serious Man For Serious Times

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Swirling Milky Way Mind

Gavin at Wordwright has a great list of articles about David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), to which I'll add just one: "Timothy McSweeney is Devasted and Lost," at McSweeney's. [No permalink yet.]

Ryan Boudinot, Martina Testa, Tom Bissell, Mac Barnett, Scott Rettberg, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Peter Cook, Corinne Carlson, Evan Lavender-Smith, Dennis Mahoney, John Erik Riley, John Lingan, Eric Schulmiller, Jared Lipof, Evan Fleischer, Adam Hill, Matt Herlihy, Lorin Stein, Michael R. Hufford, Whitney Pastorek, and Animesh Sabnis all contribute.

From them we learn that Wallace dipped tobacco, smelled terrible, drank Diet Coke and carb milkshakes, used smiley faces for grades, trimmed cards and letters so to not waste paper, was an actual genius, was obscure and eclectic, wore wool socks with Birkenstocks and shorts or parachute pants tucked into his socks, is huge in Norway, liked postcards more than email, had read most of Chekhov, believed in the impossibility of lists, never heard from Thomas Pynchon, offered hope, and regularly took shots from undergraduate critics with humility and good cheer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Such Charming Spies

What a marvelous story:

Ms. Conant tells the story of a handful of young, handsome, cosmopolitan British officers sent to Washington before Pearl Harbor -- at Prime Minister Winston Churchill's direction -- to ingratiate themselves on the social scene, subvert American isolationism and advance the British cause through good manners. America at the time was officially committed to neutrality, though World War II was raging in Europe, not least in Britain during the Blitz.

The central figure of Ms. Conant's volume, Roald Dahl, was a melancholy cad in the Royal Air Force who found later fame by writing exotic short stories and children's books such as "James and the Giant Peach." His colleagues included Ian Fleming, whose Bond renown was more than a decade away but who was in 1940 merely an Old Etonian in his early 30s who had not yet figured out what to do with his life. David Ogilvy, the Scottish wizard of 1950s Madison Avenue, was just developing his knack for polling and advertising when he was sent to America.
Yes; the authors of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dr. No, and “Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream” were drinking it up and doing lady congresswomen on behalf of His Majesty.

Also, they called themselves the "Baker Street Irregulars," in homage to Sherlock Holmes. Awesome.

The Days When Script Was King

New fun site to play with: Digital Scriptorium, hosted by Columbia University. As M.K. Hurley says over at In the Middle, the real value of the online database of manuscript images may be for teachers and students:

it is possible to work on manuscripts in an entirely different way now, even at the student level. Actually teaching graduate students how to read and work with manuscripts is far easier (and, from what it sounds, more pleasant) with the digital technology available on the web, replacing the far more difficult work of transcribing from fax or from a photocopy of the original MS.
But it's also not firewalled, which makes it available to anyone.
It fosters public viewing of materials otherwise available only within libraries. Because it is web-based, it encourages interaction between the knowledge of scholars and the holdings of libraries to build a reciprocal flow of information. Digital Scriptorium looks to the needs of a very diverse community of medievalists, classicists, musicologists, paleographers, diplomatists and art historians. At the same time Digital Scriptorium recognizes the limited resources of libraries; it bridges the gap between needs and resources by means of extensive rather than intensive cataloguing, often based on legacy data, and sample imaging.
Some of the MS scans are a little wonky, but others are mighty good. I was surprised by the detail in Albrecht Durer's "The Resurrection":

I also love this, because (at least I think) it is Francesco Petrarca's handwriting:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Should Have Wanted It More

Tina Fey and her glasses doing God's glorious work:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Man Is Falling

Tom Junod, "The Falling Man":

In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet. In all the other pictures, the people who did what he did -- who jumped -- appear to be struggling against horrific discrepancies of scale. They are made puny by the backdrop of the towers, which loom like colossi, and then by the event itself. Some of them are shirtless; their shoes fly off as they flail and fall; they look confused, as though trying to swim down the side of a mountain. The man in the picture, by contrast, is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else -- something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man's posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 a.m. EST, the moment the picture is taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.
They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building's fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors -- the top. For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph, taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people, evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting, before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds. They were all, obviously, not just killed when they landed but destroyed, in body though not, one prays, in soul. One hit a fireman on the ground and killed him; the fireman's body was anointed by Father Mychal Judge, whose own death, shortly thereafter, was embraced as an example of martyrdom after the photograph -- the redemptive tableau -- of firefighters carrying his body from the rubble made its way around the world...

In 9/11, the documentary extracted from videotape shot by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the filmmakers included a sonic sampling of the booming, rattling explosions the jumpers made upon impact but edited out the most disturbing thing about the sounds: the sheer frequency with which they occurred. In Rudy, the docudrama starring James Woods in the role of Mayor Giuliani, archival footage of the jumpers was first included, then cut out. In Here Is New York, an extensive exhibition of 9/11 images culled from the work of photographers both amateur and professional, there was, in the section titled "Victims," but one picture of the jumpers, taken at a respectful distance; attached to it, on the Here Is New York Website, a visitor offers this commentary: "This image is what made me glad for censuring [sic] in the endless pursuant media coverage." More and more, the jumpers -- and their images -- were relegated to the Internet underbelly, where they became the provenance of the shock sites that also traffic in the autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and the videotape of Daniel Pearl's execution, and where it is impossible to look at them without attendant feelings of shame and guilt. In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers' experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.

It was no sideshow. The two most reputable estimates of the number of people who jumped to their deaths were prepared by The New York Times and USA Today. They differed dramatically. The Times, admittedly conservative, decided to count only what its reporters actually saw in the footage they collected, and it arrived at a figure of fifty. USA Today, whose editors used eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence in addition to what they found on video, came to the conclusion that at least two hundred people died by jumping -- a count that the newspaper said authorities did not dispute. Both are intolerable estimates of human loss, but if the number provided by USA Today is accurate, then between 7 and 8 percent of those who died in New York City on September 11, 2001, died by jumping out of the buildings; it means that if we consider only the North Tower, where the vast majority of jumpers came from, the ratio is more like one in six.


The two things I admire most about (Little) Professor Miriam E. Burstein are her omnivorous reading appetite and her consequently impressive wit about any and all things literary and Victorian. Can you be Casaubon and not take yourself seriously? Who knows? But let's give it a shot.

Burstein's review of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk anthology shows off both her erudition and her humor equally well:

The VanderMeers admit up front that they've omitted several Big Names from the anthology because they write novels rather than short fiction; readers may understandably be a bit puzzled, then, to find that the anthology's first selection is...a brief excerpt from Michael Moorcock's The Warlords of the Air (1971).  If Moorcock, why not something from Gibson's and Sterling's The Difference Engine? In any event, the anthology offers one entry from the 1970s, two from the 1980s, five from the 1990s, and five from the 2000s, without explaining the rationale behind this particular chronological distribution.  Was steampunk all novel-length in the 70s and 80s? No interesting examples? A fad suddenly took off? I also note that only one of the 2000-era stories was originally published electronically, and that in the dual print/online SteamPunk Magazine, which is an interesting contrast to the more extensive online presence in the annual Dozois anthologies.

In some ways, The Warlords of the Air and James P. Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine" (1985; basis for the novel of the same name) were the least effective selections in the anthology, although for different reasons.  The Moorcock entry was just too short and out of context to work effectively as an excerpt.  Beyond that, though, and despite the actual subject matter, its use of dialogue shares a certain...tweeness...with "Lord Kelvin's Machine": both stories want to parody Victorian earnestness, but the resulting archness cloys quickly.  There's only so much of "Certainly, sir.  Steady-on, sir" (19) that a story can bear.
I love it when academics can bring both their scholarly and writerly chops to bear on contemporary creative work. I can only hope that in twenty years, there will be an explosion of fiction of nostalgia for the early twentieth century, where my knowledge of modernist fiction, silent film, and the electroplate printing process will pay off.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In Praise of Genius

I've used the iTunes store to buy music exactly once, right after they started selling albums without DRM. (For the curious, I picked up Saturday Looks Good To Me's Sound on Sound.) So when I fired up iTunes 8 and saw this annoying sidebar showing me all of the things related to my music that I could buy, I clicked it off right away.

But the new Genius feature that helps you make playlists of music similar or related to a single song is, pun intended, pretty smarty-pants.

Again, I've done it exactly once, but I've been enjoying it all day. After iTunes scanned my admittedly pretty monstrous library, I picked a song near the top, Smog's "A Hit" from his singles collection Accumulation: None. This album was catalogued as (Smog), with parentheses -- so Mr Callahan pops up right at the top of my library.

"A Hit" is a pretty genius lo-fi anthem in praise of lo-fi music: the title comes from the refrain, "It's not gonna be a hit, so why even bother.... with it." Just lay it down fast, and forget about it, indeed.

Some of the tracks that Genius pulled to match this one were pretty obvious, even a little dumb. For example, it dragged up two other Smog songs, "Cold Blooded Old Times" (the version from the same album as "A Hit") and, I kid you not, "Be Hit" from Wild Love. It also picked a track from the album Bill Callahan recorded under his own name, "Sycamore," which happens to be one of my best-loved songs.

But the vast majority of the rest of the playlist was nothing short of miraculous. Track 2, right after "A Hit," was Beat Happening's "Godsend" -- a song I hadn't heard in three or four years, but which won me over again immediately with its lo-meets-hi-fidelity beauty.

It also grabbed Guided By Voices' immortal "I Am A Scientist," Cat Power's bewitching "Nude as the News," The Silver Jews' "Tennessee," Pavement's early single "Box Elder," their late single "Stereo," and Galaxie 500's haunting "Tugboat"; a few cuts from My Bloody Valentine, including "You Never Should" and "Feed Me With Your Kiss"; and a few surprises, like Tender Buttons' "America's Boy," The Sea and Cake's "One Bedroom," Built To Spill's "Made-Up Dreams," and Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets," which all complemented the Smog beautifully.

The Eno was especially choice, and almost proved that Genius has a sense of humor: one of the best lines in "A Hit" finds Callahan lamenting, "I'll never be a Bowie, I'll never be an Eno... at best I'll only be a Gary Numan." No Numan in my iTunes catalog, otherwise "Cars" would be a great fit.

Songs, mostly demos, from Sonic Youth, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Yo La Tengo round out the set; I don't know if I could have made a better mix myself.

So, Genius, you have a fan in me. Even if I just got lucky today, I'll give it a whirl again.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

From Cinerama to Blu-Ray

Dave Kehr writing for the New York Times:

The best reason for buying a Blu-ray player right now is Warner Home Video’s high-definition version of “How the West Was Won,” a film made 46 years ago in the highest-definition moving picture medium the world had seen: Cinerama. With its three strips of 35-millimeter film projected side by side with a slight overlap on a gigantic, curved screen, Cinerama offered six times the resolution — which is to say, six times as much visual information — of the standard film of 1952, when it was first used commercially.

Not even the finest home theater installation will be able to reproduce the scale and resolution of the Cinerama experience, or anything close to it. But moving from standard-definition DVD to Blu-ray generates a shock analogous to what the audiences of 1952 must have felt when the curtains parted to reveal the panoramic screen.

The images are so crisp as to feel almost unreal; the depth of field seems dreamlike, infinite, with the blades of grass in the foreground as sharply in focus as the snow-capped mountains in the distant background. Unfortunately, there is no way to bend even a flat-panel monitor to imitate the immersive experience of Cinerama’s curved screen, which tried to fill every speck of the viewer’s peripheral vision. But sit close enough, and that sense of enveloping depth returns. It feels like a three-dimensional experience, and in some ways is a more convincing illusion (and a much less visually painful one) than that provided by the two-camera 3-D processes that followed in the wake of Cinerama’s popular success.
That sounds awesome. You would think that in the digital age we could come up with some more creative ways to project images onto a screen -- you know, besides just using bigger film stocks and really big screens (cough Imax cough).

I sense an art-school project coming on.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Text for an Obama Attack Ad

Barack Obama:

We've seen what happens when Republicans control government. If you think that the government can only be a problem, then you have no interest in making it part of the solution.

I think our politics are the problem; and that good government is the solution.

Over eight years, the Republicans have replaced government with politics, putting people with no skills but the right ideology in positions of authority.

Meanwhile, they constantly denigrate our civil servants, men and women who've sworn to uphold the constitution and work every day to make our lives better.

For the Republicans, government exists to protect the people at the top.

I think change comes from the bottom up.

That's why I want to restore our faith in service: in federal and local government, in our towns and neighborhoods and churches all across the country. That's why I want to recruit an army of new teachers, why I want to invest in our infrastructure, and reward young men and women who choose to serve something greater than themselves.

I know. Michelle and I have spent our entire lives in public service, in Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, working to make your lives better, to let them know that none of us have to stand alone so long as we stand up together.

Forty-eight years ago, we were faced with a terrible threat, one that threatened to destroy the planet itself. But the man we elected President, a man who'd served his country heroically in uniform, knew that we could not defeat our enemies with guns and bombs alone, that we had to devote ourselves to tackling our problems at home, in the hope, faith, and love of country that we would need to create a more perfect union. It's that faith, hope, and love that we need to renew.

John McCain and the Republicans don't believe in that. I do.

I'm Barack Obama, and this is our message.

"You Don't Mind Singing An English Folk Song?"

In case it's not obvious, this weekend I rewatched No Direction Home, the Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan, and spent the rest of it looking up some of the clips on YouTube.

Here's the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing "The Butcher Boy," one of those ballads that, as Dylan says, "absolutely slay you."

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Gypsy Advice

Here's one for Al Filreis's 1960 blog: Muddy Watters's barrel-chested rendition of "Got My Mojo Workin'" at the Newport Jazz Festival. The crowd shots are great.

And clearly, what we miss most from that time is drummers in white tuxedos.

Original Sin and Democracy

Here's something about me that you probably didn't know: I consider original sin to be THE philosophical concept most important to my life and to Western thought.

This stems mostly from my love of two great, weird philosophers: Saint Augustine of Hippo and Martin Heidegger.

In Saint Augustine, original sin forms the basis not just for a religious apology for the existence of death, the problem of evil, and the universal need for an intercessor, but also an ontology (evil is not a positive existence but a lack, all creatures are lacking in perfect goodness except God) and a semiology (since no creature or thing but God is self-sufficient, all things but God refer in some way, however hidden, to Him) and even a teleology (at the Resurrection, we will all be made complete and perfect).

In Heidegger, it's a kind of terminal background concept that recalls what modern philosophy has forgotten, at least since Descartes: that the self is not a purely self-sufficient ego, but a flawed, finite, determinate being, split against itself and thrown into a similarly finite fallen world.

So I was a little surprised to read this claim by Alan Jacobs reflected by Jeffrey Russell and quoted by Andrew Sullivan:

Jacobs’s most original and provocative argument is that original sin has strong democratic impli cations. Denial of original sin leads to elitism: Take, for instance, the duchess who simply refuses to believe that she shares a common nature with the unkempt commoners of field and street, or the self- righteous people who believe that they can make themselves good by stacking up a higher pile of good deeds than of bad ones. Their underlying assumption is that some people have exempt status, or higher virtues, or brighter minds, that others lack— plainly speaking, that some people (usually us) are better than other people (them). Original sin, on the other hand, is egalitarian because it means that everyone is alienated from God and has an innate tendency to sin. Equally egalitarian is the belief that Christ died in order to give everyone the liberty to escape sin. No one person can dare to consider himself or herself better than others, and no nation or race should dare to do so either.
I haven't read the book and Russell's review doesn't say a whole lot more, so I don't know whether Jacobs walks this back a little bit. But I would argue that original sin isn't so much democratic as it is a problem that democracy has to either ignore or adopt some peculiar formulations to attempt to overcome.

Part of the problem of the argument of original sin is that it encourages all sorts of other hereditary arguments that are anything but democratic. Just as we all inherit Adam's curse, we may inherit the obligations of the Mosaic law, some of us inherit the divine right of kings, others the priesthood, others the obligation to obey, others the curse of Ham, the guilt for Jesus's crucifixion, and so on. Hence Filmer's arguments for patriarchal authority, which Locke really quite valiantly strove so hard to refute. Original sin may be universal, but considered by itself it establishes only a pro forma identity between human beings; there are plenty of other compatible ways to draw distinctions without stepping out of the economy altogether.

And it has largely been experiments in democracy that precisely for this reason, HAVE attempted to step out of that economy. After all, if everyone has likewise sinned and is doomed to die -- and more to the point, is capable of real acts of evil -- than a good deal of the utopian dimension of democracy has lost its sheen. You see 19th-century socialism struggling with this idea, whether human beings can just slough off their distorting capitalist social relations and live together in harmony. There's one strain of anarchism that really seeks to abolish violence in the form of the state, and another that just wants to break the state's monopoly on violence. This is a rough but I think fair way to describe the gap between Proudhon and Bakunin, for example.

The real question is what mechanisms, religious or secular, you have in place to address the problem of original sin, the universal capacity for evil, the flawed and fragile nature of human beings. You can have a deeply hierarchical mechanism, a deeply traditional one, a deeply totalitarian one, or a profoundly democratic one. As with so many other things, the concept alone does not do our thinking for us. We are left to do that for ourselves.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hockey As Political Allegory

Sean Quinn at FiveThirtyEight tells the Democrats to suck it up:

Once upon a time, I applied an NFL-replay mentality to hockey playoffs, holding on to outrages over missed calls, blatantly unfair officiating, double standards, and outright getting-away-with-stuff (which always led to an early spring exit for my beloved Blues). I wanted – and unreasonably expected – bad behavior to be proportionally punished.

And then several years ago I had an epiphany about the hockey playoffs – nobody is coming to save you. Initiators win, reactors lose. Expect adversity, because it's built in. The fourth-line, no-scoring-talent, pest agitators (or as we now call them, “energy guys”) have a specific job. Skate in, take a cheap shot, make it after the whistle. Make it against the rules. Stir something up. Put a wet glove in the other guy's face and rub it. Get the outrage flowing. Get the opponent not thinking about the game, get them thinking about your shenanigans. And what happens? The “victimized” team loses its composure, hitting back. The guy who hits second is always the guy who goes to the penalty box...

Sarah Palin is a person who by her own admission found out about the Iraq surge – the centerpiece of the McCain judgment argument – from television. Apologies to conservatives, but technically, objectively, inarguably, this alone makes her unqualified to be President. But we don’t live in that technical or objective world. Political campaigns – as distinct from policy and governance – are the NHL playoffs. It’s only about who survives the war of attrition to the finish line first. Is Brett Hull’s skate still in Dominik Hasek’s crease and was that same situation disallowed in every previous instance throughout that season? Yes, but so what? Dallas had a parade.
He then invokes the sacred names of Red Wings Kris Draper and Steve Yzerman to show that you don't just need guys who mix it up, you need scoring talent who can win in the clutch. In football, we'd call this the Joe Montana/Ronnie Lott dichotomy, where you need one guy who naturally envisions himself winning and another guy who will run from one corner of the field to the other to knock down a pass because he absolutely refuses to lose.

I'd also note, re: the Wings, that Detroit had a whole line of those guys, Draper, McCarty, Tomas Holmstrom, plus Joey Kocur, who (besides Kocur) were also great at faceoffs and scrapping in the crease and the corners. Also, the thing about Steve Yzerman, unlike the other great goal scorers of his era, is that when guys like Claude Lemieux got in his shit he would drop his gloves and work those Canadian fists of his, all 5'11" of him. Yzerman wasn't Gretzky or Mario -- he didn't need his tough guys to have his back. Just to take it to them the next time they came on the ice.

How It Happened

Narratio Fabulosa

I would simply be remiss in my blogly duties if I didn't link to Rachel Leow's amazing journey-via-Google-Maps through The Travels of Marco Polo.

As I commented over on that blog:

There have always been two great moments for me in Marco Polo’s travels.

1) The account of the Khan’s fiat paper currency, which he exchanges for all the gold and silver and jewels in his kingdom, and which everyone honors on pain of death;

2) The Khan’s network of recruiters and inspectors who likewise gather the most attractive maidens of every kingdom conquered by the Khan, who then keeps them as sexual and body servants before marrying them off to other nobles (usually his relatives). There’s a single Y chromosome signature that is overrepresented throughout most of Asia, suggesting a single common ancestor. Scientists believe that ancestor may be Genghis Khan.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Second Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Two years ago, Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland appeared on The Colbert Report's "Better Know A District." Westmoreland had proposed a bill to display the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives. Colbert asked him to name all ten:

Now, the same Lynn Westmoreland has called Barack and Michelle Obama uppity:

"Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they're a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they're uppity," Westmoreland said.

Asked to clarify that he used the word “uppity,” Westmoreland said, “Uppity, yeah.”

Other Democrats have charged that the Republican campaign to paint the Illinois senator as an “elitist” is racially charged, and accused them of using code words for “uppity” without using the word itself...

Political consultant David Gergen, who has worked in both Republican and Democratic White Houses, said on ABC’s "This Week" that “As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'He's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.' Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Defending Peggy Noonan

There's an awesome live mic moment with Chuck Todd, Mike Murphy, and Peggy Noonan where each of them take turns bashing voicing their concerns with the Palin VP pick. TPM has the video and transcript.

Okay, everybody caught up? Good.

Now, Scott Rosenberg at Wordyard (via Romenesko) takes Noonan to task, since her column on Palin today hedged its bets. Rosenberg writes:

Now, if Peggy Noonan wrote a column every week that was as honest with her readers as she is here, with her colleagues, when she thinks the microphone is off, I would read it religiously. She’s part of a world that I don’t inhabit. But now I have a bright picture of the fact that she’s not writing what she knows and believes...

How can anyone ever read a word by Peggy Noonan again and take it seriously? (And she’s been around the block long enough not to get too much sympathy for, you know, not knowing that microphones can betray you.)

If her editors had any respect for their readers, they’d fire her.

Now, I'm inclined to stick up for Noonan, for the following reasons:

1) I think the "it's over" comment came in the context of Murphy's comment that the Republicans were trying to run McCain "like a Texas governor" by running up the base. That is, if the Republicans continue to run this way, it's over.

2) Noonan is a pretty good opinion journalist precisely because she's thoughtful and complex. It's not as though she directly refuted what she said in her column; she just introduced some negative capability.

3) I think this is a good thing to do in writing. You know, I wrote a post the other day that pretty strongly argues against the whole conspiracy-theory view of Sarah Palin, but chatting with friends on IM, I was up to my neck in just that kind of speculation. Journalists aren't paid to hide what they're thinking, but they're not paid to spout off whatever's on the top of their head either.

4) Speaking of which, why no co-criticism of Mike Murphy? Murphy's on TV news All. The. Time. talking about the McCain campaign, and gets quoted in print stories too. He's hardly ever been quite that frank on the record about his opinion of the McCain campaign's strategy. Do we just expect partisan TV pundits to toe the line? If so, how exactly is Noonan (a former Reagan speechwriter) different from Murphy (a former Republican campaign manager)?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In the Armchair Again

I thought Barack Obama's reaction to the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy was classy:

I have heard some of the news on this and so let me be as clear as possible. I have said before and I will repeat again, I think people's families are off limits, and people's children are especially off limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics, it has no relevance to governor Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. And so I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18. And how family deals with issues and teenage children that shouldn't be the topic of our politics and I hope that anybody who is supporting me understands that is off limits.
Especially by including his own mother, it felt sincere, coming from somewhere deep within Obama: don't you dare attack a teenage mother! It is almost a defense: Look at me, my mother, the loving care of my grandparents, and how our family turned out.

The craziness of this story is that it combines Americans' two great democratic loves with respect to the news: getting into our politicians' shit, and judging the parenting and romantic choices of people we don't know. Call it People magazine politics.

The intimations and rumors of a possible sinister conspiracy invokes the third, rooted in the American system of trial by jury and brought into full bloom by detective fiction and Court TV: our collective capacity to invent and imagine scenarios to fit the facts or the absence of facts.

Normally, the problem with American consumption of mainstream political media is its uncritical, uninterpretive assumption of what one is being told -- with its color negative being the paranoid refusal on the political extremes to believe anything said by a media or political authority. The third mode is the hyperinterpretive imagination, the belief by ill-informed pundits and amateur TV-watchers that one can, with a limited amount of information, reconstruct what really happened, from matters of fact to individual motives. In this way any Nancy Grace or Grace Nancy can decide that a parent with a missing child in fact murdered that child and hid the body, that Saddam Hussein secretly orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center (in collusion with the CIA, the Illuminati, and the state of Israel), or that a governor's brother-in-law is secretly the father of her/her daughter's baby.

The assumption is always that all the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle fit, that there is no interpretive remainder, and that lying beneath the surface is not sloppiness or accident but a masterful and sinister lie hiding in plain sight, which only the amateur can uncover. Call it the Purloined Letter theory of the news; or if you don't cotton to references literary, the Jon Benet Ramsey theory.

It's not just a mistake; it's a collective delusion, one not limited to self-righteous TV talking heads or bored midwestern housewives, but a kind of language-game that almost all of us participate in, one that is democratic but perhaps also primal -- an attempt to interpret the motivations of a rival, whether internal or external, our childhood attempts to make sense of our complex family dramas, the animal ability to anticipate the next move of predator or prey.

It's a delusion with a germ of truth, not about its object but ourselves, and it takes immense discipline to dissolve. Obama's naming his mother is a razor slashing a silk balloon. There is too much else to talk about, too much hanging in the balance. An arrow shooting into the future.

Monday, September 01, 2008

New Yorker Goodies

Not much to add to them, but I really liked both this sympathetic/critical/honest profile of Alec Baldwin and this rundown of McCain and Obama's attempts at outreach to faith communities in the new issue of "the magazine."

Neither story tells you much that you haven't already heard before, but both are able to give their subjects a contextual sweep that makes you say, hmm, I think I understand that much better now.

(In addition to my new "Elections" tag, which helps split up my filled-to-bursting "The Polis," I'm going to add one for TV and Movies, called "Screens.")

Those Extra Ten Hours

The inimitable Sarah Vowell reflects on her gratitude for Ted Kennedy and Pell Grants:

I paid my way through Montana State University with student loans, a minimum-wage job making sandwiches at a joint called the Pickle Barrel, and — here come the waterworks — Pell Grants. Thanks to Pell Grants, I had to work only 30 hours a week up to my elbows in ham instead of 40.

Ten extra hours a week might sound negligible, but do you know what a determined, junior-Hillary type of hick with a full course load and onion-scented hands can do with the gift of 10 whole hours per week? Not flunk geology, that’s what. Take German every day at 8 a.m. — for fun! Wander into the office of the school paper on a whim and find a calling. I’m convinced that those 10 extra hours a week are the reason I graduated magna cum laude, which I think is Latin for “worst girlfriend in town.”
There are so many marvelously turned-out lines in this little essay, from the sublime---
My education made my life. In a sometimes ugly world, my schooling opened a trap door to a bottomless pit of beauty — to Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong and Frank Lloyd Wright, to the old movies and old masters that have been my constant companions in my unalienable pursuit of happiness.
to the crackling---
I have spent the last eight years so disgusted with the incompetent yahoos of the executive branch that I had forgotten that I believe in one of the core principles of the Democratic Party — that government can be a useful, meaningful and worthwhile force for good in this republic instead of just an embarrassing, torturing, Book of Revelation starter kit.
Compare [the Democrats] to the incoherent Republican primary field, a set of candidates expressly invented to make the average Republican voter nervous: the businessman was too Mormon-y; the evangelical might worship Jesus more than money; Senator McCain has campaign reform cooties; Ron Paul was Ron Paul.
that you might as well read the whole thing.