Tuesday, September 30, 2008

John McCain, canvas

So I'm breaking my no election rule, here.

I think the answer, Victor Davis, is no.

One of the central memes of this campaign has been the notion that Barack Obama is a cypher, or just a symbol, or a placeholder for liberal fantasy. We're tpld again and again that he won't possibly live up to our expectations, that he is bound to disappoint, that he is an empty suit into which we have projected our dreams. Setting aside the strange fact that the candidate with a much more explicit policy package is thus regarded, it's worth pointing out that this meme has been so powerful and around for so long that I think it effectively undoes itself. Liberals have been told this, and (even more) have been telling themselves this for so long, I question to what degree the body politic will actually fall victim to this kind of naivete. Human nature is what it is, of course, and we will in some sense fall into this trap. But where many see worship, I see a healthy skepticism.

For myself, Obama is a charming guy who has less horrific foreign policy rhetoric than his opponent and whose domestic policy agenda is more in tune with my own. Make no mistake, though; Obama's foreign policy is only as palatable as American politics allow. Sadly, for those of us who don't believe in the worship of militarism, war all the time, and aggression and expansionism as the default stance of the American brand, there is no alternative party. There is no anti-war party in American politics, and every election at one point or another boils down to a race to see who can become the most thoroughly and unapologetically militaristic.

No, what I want to talk about is the other sides rose-colored glasses for their candidate-- or, more accurately, for what they think their candidate might be. I read the above Corner post and ask, what would compel anyone to believe that this within the capacity of John McCain? On one level, this is asking very much of a man who is by personal admission largely economically illiterate. But that's not really what I mean. What I mean is, what in the past 4, 8, 10 years could convince you that this man is the kind of leader Republicans imagine he might be?

To their credit, most express these thoughts in the same way Hanson does, in the slightly hopeless parlance of the rhetorical question. They believe that he has the capacity to become what they want more than they believe that he is what they want. And who can blame them? Electoral politics in America is the scramble to find the least bad, a long, demoralizing slog where most every candidate of genuine substance and real character is picked off by the relentless accumulation of disqualifying criteria. What else but a war of attrition could have left principled conservatives with the options of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain? No, I can't blame conservatives or Republicans for having at the heart of this campaign a yearning, a desperate desire for their candidate to cast off the cloak of debased politics and reveal the warrior within.

But there comes a time when, as the man said, you have to put away childish things. The "your side does it too" argument, as I've intimated, is in some ways inarguable on this issue. And yet I find that there is a quiet, unspoken narrative within this race that makes the desire for a candidate to be more than he is cut particularly deeply against conservatives. I've long felt a sense in which it is precisely Obama's perfection as a liberal symbol that enables people to carry with them the suspicion that we should feel towards every politician. He's too perfect a symbolic object not to approach with a certain degree of incredulity. So what we are left with, I think, is policy preference, and I work hard to remember that my vote for Obama will be for a set of policy proposals that, at the end of the day, stink somewhat less than that of John McCain.

McCain, on the other hand... his campaign is about character, about leadership, and about the sense that within him is actually the principled maverick that we've been sold. I'm not contrarian enough to say that Obama isn't trafficking on the biggest cult of personality since Eva Peron. But change can't be embodied, not really, no matter what the people on Daily Kos tell you. Experience and character can't help but be embodied. We are a story telling species. I think many conservatives look to this race and imagine the movie where the aesthetics of their opponents are finally defeated by the substance of their champion. Where Obama is good-looking, tall, young, exciting and bold-- and, crucially, black, in a way that allows many to imagine that his election would erase some of the sins of the American past and demonstrate a post-racialist ascension that, I'm sorry to say, hasn't really happened-- where Obama has those qualities, McCain is old, short, cantankerous, weathered in every sense, at once glib and overly serious. On the obvious level this might just make people prefer Obama to McCain.

But drama also requires reversals, it requires the unexpected, and we love Ugly Duckling stories. It would be the stuff of great drama if, in the final reel, McCain threw off the cloak of aesthetics and showed the American people the beating heart of character, and principle, and the ability to lead, that so many have hoped is inside him. And what better way to show it than this financial crisis, so all encompassing, so multilayered, political and yet apolitical, ill-understood and threatening, threatening, threatening. This is the kind of political Sauron that a person like McCain-- a person who believes he is living history, someone with a keen eye to his legacy, to his story-- could wait his whole career for. If he let go of the pettiness and anger that have shrouded him this election and stood up and vanquished this Wall Street beast, well, it'd make a great movie. I'd gladly pay my $10.50 to go watch it.

Sadly, this is not a movie, and the crisis isn't some dragon that can be slayed, not by Henry Paulson or the Congress or the technocrats. And certainly not by John McCain. I have no idea how this monster of a moment will play out, but I know that the narrative and dramatic arc that we will someday impose on it will be just that, imposed and unreal. McCain will not be the vanquishing hero, first, because there are no vanquishing heroes outside of our stories.

Sadder still, McCain will not be the vanquishing hero because he does not have it within him to be. Yes, Obama is the symbolic candidate. Yes, Obama is representational, in ways good and bad. But McCain has always been the aspirational candidate. He is the candidate whose appeal depends on a strangled notion of what he might be, rather than what we are reminded he is again and again. This is the lonely truth for Hanson and so many others: John McCain is not the man you think he is. Or, at least, he is not the man you keep hoping he turns out to be. He is the sad, wizened, burned-out career politician who will, like all of them, sacrifice anything to win. At what point will Republicans cease asking for this metamorphic moment? Obama too has many wishes and desires cast upon him. But I don't see anyone who continues to expect him to suddenly bloom into another candidate entirely, and I think it is precisely the fact that Obama represents for many liberals and Democrats the candidate they desire that so wrankles some Republicans. I imagine messianism is even more annoying to those who themselves are desirous of a messiah.

I'm not predicting anything, here. As I said, we are a story-telling species. It is plausible that some string of events and some saavy marketing could make McCain out to be the heroic savior of our economic future, and in doing so win him the election. Bailout or no bailout, McCain has a good chance of pulling this thing off. But at some point an election, if it's going to function at all in the way that democracy is designed, has to involve letting go of the notion that, somehow, a candidate is more than he has shown us in the past year or more. It is vanishingly unlikely for a genuinely great person-- or a genuinely real person-- to sneak into the Presidential race. I promise you that I take no pleasure in saying that it's time for some McCain die-hards to swallow hard and realize that they, like most of us, are voting for a candidate who is far less than what they want their candidate to be.

the libertarians' existential moment

As I've commented on before, and as has been much discussed in the last couple of years, libertarianism appears to be an ascendant ideology. The visibility of libertarianism, if nothing else, has surely grown. I think that libertarians should understand this: I think that their reactions to the present financial crisis will do a lot to define the public face of libertarianism moving forward.

Libertarianism has long been a minority viewpoint. It's actually pretty startling to me, when I research about how much of an ideological ghetto libertarianism represented for a long time. But as the chattering class has expanded by leaps and bounds, and more and more viewpoints have become available for public consumption, libertarianism has appeared ascendant. In many ways, though, it has maintained some of the culture of an insurgent ideology, in ways both good and bad; I think continuing to grow the franchise will necessary involve sloughing off some of these old habits. On the good side is the clarity and rigorousness that comes from the fierce internecine squabbles that any affinity group goes through. Also, libertarianism has the advantage of being able to work almost exclusively according to principle; when you have no meaningful chance of leading, in most areas, you are free to choose purity over pragmatics.

On the negative side, libertarians tend to embrace the kind of excess and rhetorical flourish that pin many political niches down and ensure your point of view won't be embraced by a broader part of the electorate. When your inter-ideology discussions amount in many ways to a dorm room argument, the person most willing to be unreasonable or coarse is often at an advantage. Thus the libertarians who spend as much time ridiculing their opponents as winning converts. This has a corollary in the other major disadvantage in my eyes: Will Wilkinson syndrome, where your argument is constantly delivered in a argumentative style that insists that your opponents are simply buffoons for failing to see the profound truths that you are enunciating, and where it is self-evident that.... Will Wilkinson is a very bright guy, clearly, but I only have to read his blog for a few minutes to remember again that he has not only disagreement but contempt for me and my ideological compatriots. I know of few people less likely to question the basic assumptions of their point of view than libertarians, and I think that they have a near total preference for expressing disbelief that people disagree with them over doing the necessary work to convince people otherwise.

Now, though, comes this bailout, a time when I think clarity and purity are very important for a minority movement like libertarians. This, I think, is a truly profound moment for their cause. Do they side with what many see as the pragmatic good of the money men, and support their heroes? Or do they stick to principle? I have a hard time accepting that this bailout represents anything else than the opposite of laissez faire capitalism. I can't see a real economic libertarian believing that this bailout is somehow pure and in line with their beliefs. But as libertarianism's influence has grown, it has created an investment (if you'll pardon the pun) in a more pragmatically oriented, governance-ready perspective.

Like others, I have long suspected that what libertarians and other free-market purists really want is not so much free markets as whatever is good for big business. This bailout could represent the absolute confirmation of that notion. I've always felt that, surely, a real free market ideology, that privileged neither the workers or the capitalists, would eventually, in some ways, work to benefit workers. It's a source of frustration for me that for many libertarians that moment never comes. There is never the time when it is necessary to embrace change that helps the lower classes at the expense of the upper. Well, this bailout, if what we're told is correct, would benefit either both or neither, and doesn't represent a sop to working people. What it does represent is a clear moment of free market ideals vs. the needs and desires of big business and the rich. This is an existential moment of the highest order for libertarians. I don't know which way it'll go. I am not nearly smart or studied enough on this issue to be able to decide if the bailout is in fact a good idea for the country. But make no mistake, it represents a pure declarative moment that this is a country with free markets for the poor and socialism for the rich. So where will the libertarians turn?

Update: Cole Porter suggests in comments that libertarianism has historically been less of a ideological minority than I've suggested here, and that I am unfair to (and more annoying than) Will Wilkinson. It's likely all three are true.

Monday, September 29, 2008

better a real fake than a fake real

James writes at the Confabulum

Growing interest in cultural pursuits, diversity, authenticity and social responsibility is changing the way companies need to reach consumers, a new book argues. In the book, “RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer and What It Means to Your Business” (Platinum Press), Patricia Martin cites early and more recent examples, like Absolut Vodka’s advertising collaboration with Andy Warhol and Starbucks’ promotion of socially responsible practices. — The New York Times

Because nothing says authenticity and social responsibility like Andy Warhol.


Again, what's the alternative? The alternative is camp, pastiche, irony that has the gall to pretend to be sincere. The greatest threat to genuine authenticity isn't the abandonment of authenticity, as in Warhol. The greatest threat to real authenticity is fake authenticity, Norman Rockwell, paintings of covered bridges and American flags. It's art that presumes it can pull the rug over your eyes, and its authenticity is inversely proportional to the degree to which it insists it isn't knowing. Andy Warhol may have been full of shit, but he was straightforwardly, openly full of shit. There's nothing more meta, and more corrosive to the real, than what sells itself as sincere and knows it's doing it. I know people are very tired of the wink, but god, the wink is preferable than the thought that if you don't wink, you'll have people fooled.

You can't choose to be premodern! If you're choosing, by definition, you're postmodern. You have to be.
"Death to Crackers"? Really? That seems... unlikely, for various reasons. No way to know, of course. But I mean, I've never seen a "Death to Crackers" t-shirt, nor have the particularly militant black men I've met seemed likely to wear one; people are loathe to express their ideological leanings in ways that reduce them to stereotype. I'm not calling this blogger a liar. It's just weird.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

should government try to expand home ownership?

I'd love to hear some explicit thoughts from various bloggers about one of the fundamental questions of the mortgage mess: should we as a society be invested in spreading home ownership?

I am extremely unimpressed by the efforts of some (most prominently Ann Coulter, but also more respectable pundits) to make this debacle into the fault of minority and poor homebuyers, and the guilt-ridden liberals who pushed for mortgages for these buyers. People smarter than I have already made pretty short work of this nonsense, so I won't belabor the point beyond saying that the timeline makes no sense, CRA mortgages are a tiny portion of the subprime mortgages contributing to this mess, CRA mortgages have performed better than the average subprime loan, and that ultimately the system rests on the idea that the lenders are responsible for judging whether any individual loan is prudent.

There are two reasons for why this meme has developed. The first is the simple desire for any partisan to be able to spin bad news against his or her opponent. The financial crisis is scary, it's huge, and it is in everyone's face, which insists that it will be used as political fodder. I'm not complaining about the use of national events politically; Democrats are doing this sort of thing too, and this sort of opportunism is inevitable. But I find this a particularly ugly and frankly baseless charge. And that leads me to my second reason: there is, in fact, an undercurrent of distaste and quiet hatred for the real underclass in this country. This is the sort of thing that gets me in trouble, so let me be clear: I'm not saying that all conservatives or most dislike the poor. And there are some liberals and Democrats who feel this way too. But I find that, in America, we tend to only ever talk about class conflict when conservatives are accusing liberals of waging "class warfare" by, say, advocating universal healthcare. As much as there is resentment from the poor to the rich, there is also resentment towards the poor from the rich and the middle class; the latter just tend to be more politic and quiet about it.

But, look. Let's set aside the questions of which mortgages in particular are to blame. Clearly, there was a failure in the mechanism used to make home ownership available to more people. But I think it makes sense to ask whether or not we as a society think that we should continue to make home ownership more accessible and common. My answer is yes, and I think that better integrating the working class into the middle class experience should be a goal for our country. That seems to me to be a rather non-ideologically stratified notion, though I admit that there are many (primarily libertarians, I imagine) who would disagree. I hate the fact that "abundance" is made to mean "consumption" in so much of our discourse, and I don't think that relative affluence is a good proxy for fulfillment, happiness or actualization. Home ownership, though, has more salience and more meaning than simple consumption, and I think it is an appropriate use of our government to use responsible means to extend home ownership to more of our citizens. (When I think of this subject I immediately think of Grand New Party; this sort of policy seems right up Ross and Reihan's alley.)

There are many psychological and symbolic cues to the notion of the middle class, and it would take someone smarter and more patient than I to untangle them all. As I harp on constantly, though, I think it say a lot about our culture that two of the most important status markers of middle-classedness are home ownership and a college degree, both of which require, for almost everyone, taking on enormous debt. I would hazard that we should think less about the ways for government to subsidize them, and more about ways to effectively lower the costs to begin with.

Of course, there's an "and a pony" to all of this, because of course the larger question is how government could do this without creating the kind of situation we're in now. But I do think it behooves us to decide whether this is a venture we want to commit to in general. I'd love to hear Megan McArdle, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Will Wilkinson, and/or Matt Yglesias weigh in on this.

Update: Geez.

OK, here we go. CRA is not responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis. It's not even close. CRA has been on the books for over 30 years. The idea that it created a speculative bubble after three decades on the books is ludicrous. The vast majority of subprime mortgages were sold by institutions not under the umbrella of CRA. CRA mortgages have a better default rate than other subprimes. Here's another article that contains statistical information that pretty much demolishes the notion that CRA is responsible for this mess.

Of course, as it is utterly clear that CRA is not behind the subprime problem, Steve Sailer, George Will, Ann Coulter et al. are moving on to new ways to try and blame this problem on black and Hispanic people and the liberals who tried to get them mortgages. It's still bullshit. As Stephen Bainbridge points out, 72% of subprime mortgages are held by white people, in line with their percentage of the population. Black people got 16% of the subprime mortgages, or about 3% higher than their percentage of the population-- not a significant enough number to filter out the statistical noise. What's more, it's been credibly suggested that black people were much more likely to be sold subprime mortgages with identical qualifications to white counterparts, making their slight overrepresentation a product of the banks, not the people. (This, of course, also does a lot to damage the idea that lenders were being overly kind to minorities.) Hispanics, despite the efforts of some to make them out to be a culture-destroying menance, only hold 6% of the subprime mortgages, less than half their percentage of the country. Additionally, there's no way to know how many of the people represented in these percentages actually defaulted.

Bainbridge links to this in an update:

ComplianceTech, a provider of technology and business intelligence for consumer lending institutions and government agencies, has released an industry report indicating that the majority of subprime-rate loans originated in 2006 were made to non-Hispanic Whites and upper-income borrowers (conventional, 1st lien, 1-to-4 family, owner-occupied, home purchase and refinance).The findings are contrary to the way subprime-rate lending has been portrayed. Frequent media portrayals and congressional dialogue refer to subprime-rate lending as a minority and low-income issue. Findings in the report are based on data submitted by lenders under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) analyzed with the data-mining tool LendingPatterns(TM).

What is particularly absurd is the line of argument that says "Well, it's true that the large majority of subprime mortgages were taken on by white people, and by middle class people... but the effort to get minorities into houses created a culture that made easy lending and borrowing more acceptable, and created this mess." This is a favorite kind of argumentation for Sailer and the like, taking an inherently unknowable and unverifiable thread of quasi-sociological argumentation and backing it up with the usual Sailer dancing. How could you possibly prove that it's a "culture of irresponsible lending" that created this problem, and how could you possibly prove that it was political correctness that created that culture? That's just it exactly; you can't prove it, so you can't prove the opposite. Sailer relies on this sort of thing all the time. The data doesn't bare it out, the causal thread is nonsense, but he's Steve Sailer, so dollars to doughnuts, the conclusion will be to blame minorities and liberals. As usual, the thought "because these ideas are not-PC, they must be true" carries an awful lot of logical water here.

On his website, apparently, Sailer's crew is grabbing bits of statistical data and ignoring the national percentages. So they say "look! in this largely minority community, X percentage of people have subprime loans!" Which is just about the most flagrant and obvious cherry-picking I could possibly imagine. Could I find communities where 100% of the people with sub-prime mortgages were white? Yup! Easily. But I won't do that, because that's intellectual dishonesty of the highest order. This is a national problem; nationally, minorities are not over-represented in the sub-prime mortgage pool relative to their percentage of the population, and that's what's important. Looking to find tiny chunks of data that prop up your opinion, when the great majority of that same data cuts against your opinion, isn't fighting political correctness. It's fighting basic standards of intellectual integrity and meaningful analysis.

Update II: I've lightly edited the update for clarity, to tone down some rhetoric and remove a little bitchiness.

Update III: rortybomb, an extremely bright guy or girl, nails it in the comments: "Getting the median wage to more closely resemble the GDP/capita would do more wonders for stability of home ownership than another government program here."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna-- spoilers abound

I really can't remember the last time I saw a more confused movie that Miracle at St. Anna. (Uh, what was the miracle, again?)

You know, it would have been awesome if Spike Lee had decided not to let an 11-year old write the dialogue for this movie. Shitty dialogue makes bad actors out of good. And, boy, is this shitty dialogue. It's like someone set up a macro on a word processor, with entries for "homespun", "black slang", "tough guy", "serious".... Tiny little roles like the judge seem so out of tune. John Turturro, a great actor, sounds like he's doing some SNL sketch as a hard boiled detective, I swear to god. It's so over the top I suspect it must be intentional. But why stylize in such a throwaway, offhand way?

My adviser in college was always scolding me for using the word "tone" in my papers. She thought it was a needless and vague word. She was right, of course. But I think tone is real, at least in movies, and this is yet another movie where the tone makes no sense in connection with the plot. I saw the trailer and was so jazzed, man, Spike Lee showed such a light hand in The Inside Man, and I loved the World War II/hidden secrets of the past/murder mystery angle. And the trailer got the vibe just right, a kind of eerie, quiet sadness. So why was the first half of the movie in this bizarre kind of slapstick tone? It was like I was watching a WWII-era, black Stripes. The plot wasn't comedic, but the tone was, and it gave the first half of the movie this weird, sickly vibe.

It's a confusion that grows to envelope the whole movie. So many things don't make sense, which I'm sorry to say seems a growing problem in movies. Like, big spoilers here: so the big, annoyingly pure-hearted guy Train is choking that minor character for no particular reason I can divine, and his head is rolled back so he looks like the Sleeping Man, the figure in the mountain. And the old Italian dude says "The Sleeping Man!" But what does that mean? The locals say the Sleeping Man will awaken to save them. But he doesn't save them; he gets killed like every other character in the goddamn movie at the end. He doesn't even save the boy, really. And why does the main character say "I know who the Sleeping Man is"? Ok, movie, so it's this Train guy. Who the hell cares? Why does it matter if he's that guy? That has nothing to do with the main character shooting the Italian dude in the bank. At all. It's just some portentous shit to say in your movie, but when it doesn't have any actual connection to what's going on in terms of content, it's pretty cynical, dudes. (And how the hell does the main character know he's the Sleeping Man? He heard the old Italian dude's quiet aside and was like "Aha!"? It's all nonsense.)

He shoots the guy in the bank, you see, to avenge the massacre at St. Anna-- I'm still not comprehending what miracle is referred to in the movie's title, by the way-- this massacre that he heard about... when, exactly? I mean the chain of knowledge here makes no sense. The kid, I guess, was at the massacre, and the deserting German. OK, so the kid sees the German lieutenant guy talking to the Italian traitor. Then he sees the German lieutenant guy shoot his friend. So far so good. But does the kid really know the Italian guy was (kind of, sort of) responsible for the massacre in the Italian village? That's a pretty large logical leap for an 8 year old to make. And more to the point, how does the main character find out? The kid never tells him the Italian guy was (vaguely) responsible for this massacre, if in fact the kid knew. As far as the main character knows, all the Italian traitor did was betray his friend and kill the deserting German. Is that bad? Sure. Is that enough to compel you to bring a pistol to work every day in case you see this guy again, and then when you do happen to see him, shoot him in cold blood and ruin your life? The movie wants us to think that he shoots the Italian because of the massacre, but I see no way he could have known about it. (And the idea that this guy is guilty of a massacre is weird too. Yes, he betrayed his friend to the Nazis, and that sucks. But all he did was tell them what village to look in. That really makes him responsible when the Nazis massacre the village? Really?)

This kind of confusion tends to beget confusion, to the point where your movie makes such little sense, you get to the point where you're like "Hey, let's put this scene in the Bahamas for no fucking reason. Why the hell not?"

I really, really wanted to like this movie. Boo.

(What are German POWs doing in an ice cream parlor in rural Georgia in 1943?)

Friday, September 26, 2008

manifesto?

Inspired by the Pomocon gang, now posting at their new digs at Culture11. This is also deeply influenced by my notes from a class, so all respect and credit to my great teacher, Dr. Eleanor Godway.

1. My first responsibility, and my greatest priority, is my own existence.
2. I will recognize that this existence has no inherent meaning, but that my actions will give it meaning. Nothing and no one can instill my life with meaning, not philosophy, creed, code, honor, family, community, country or God.
3. My existence will therefore be forever mutable. I will always be able, for good or for bad, to change what the meaning of my life entails. Kierkegaard wrote of a monk who lived on a mountain and drank nothing but dew. One day he traveled down to town, had a single drink and became an alcoholic. I likewise live on a precipice, where everything I value about myself is at constant risk. There is no consignment to a meaning I do not want, but likewise there is no rest.
4. I will likewise judge those around me solely by their actions alone, and not by their associations, their attributes, or their utterances.
5. I will remember that like myself those around me are always mutable and changing. They have never become anything. They are in the process of becoming.
6. My responsibility for the choices I make amounts to no less than this: as man has no meaning and no purpose beyond the meaning and purpose men make, I must be an exemplar for man-- in my actions I not only create the meaning of my own life, I define what I believe it means to be a man.
7. I must remember that I will fail again and again to create the meaning of my own life in a way consonant with my beliefs about morality, ethics, interpersonal relationships, justice and fairness.
8. The recognition of this failure will in no way excuse it.
9. This above all: I will find within myself the courage to be human, even while everything around me asks me to be otherwise.

How do these beliefs effect my political beliefs? Forthcoming, I hope.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

little steps

Contra Jim Manzi, I don't necessarily think that liberalism is going to take some great leap forward, electorally or in the national consciousness. But then, I don't think that this is how liberalism generally moves forward. True, the sixties represented in many ways a flowering of liberalism. But I think that moment was sui generis, and I don't think it represents the general movement of liberal growth in popularity.

Instead, I think that the culture gradually moves towards liberalism in a subtle way, which helps to create the rhetorical and media atmosphere we live in where everything is always bad for liberals and Democrats. I don't have it in me right now to make a comprehensive post about media bias, but I will say that I think that the general conservative line that the media is simply biased towards liberals and liberal policies is absurdly reductive and oversimplified. Media bias is complicated and nuanced, and has nothing resembling a simple directional vector. One sense in which liberals are most certainly not the benefits of bias is in the phenomenon where the mainstream media interprets every possible political happening, short of actual electoral victory, as being bad news for Democrats and liberals. And, of course, this fits with the conventional wisdom of at least the last decade and probably longer, of ascendant conservatism.

So why don't I frequently feel like I'm living in an era where my ideals and policy preferences are threatened? Because I think that, while conservatism and Republicans have had more high-profile victories and better pub, I think liberalism has been on the march in a less visible way. Gradually, what is considered liberal changes, so that ideas that would be viewed as leftist in the recent past have become mainstream and moderate. Much has been made of the steady march of social liberalism into the mainstream of American life, with gay rights being the most obvious and visible factor. I don't like to engage in notions of political inevitability-- the recent hysteria about illegal immigration, which became the most important issue in America and just as quickly was forgotten, helps to demonstrate that you shouldn't ever consider any particular changes inevitable.

But I find gay marriages in all or a majority of states within my lifetime to be very likely. Indeed, the gay rights agenda as a whole seems on the verge of being a non-ideologically situated movement, firmly ensconced within the political center. What that means is that, should gay marriage eventually become the law of the land, it's unlikely to be seen as a victory for liberalism. That's the sense in which moving goalposts create the impression of constant liberal weakness. (Of course, if gay marriage does become widespread-- a development consonant with my ethical and political preferences-- who cares how it looks?)

That's just one issue, of course, and this idea is subject to many exceptions. In general, though, I'm resistant to "grand narrative" notions of politics, and I think that this explains part of the reason why the project of liberalism is rarely in as bad shape as it may seem.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

sharks alive

Helen Rittelmeyer has written a smart, probing piece that I disagree with completely.

Anyone is free to like or dislike or like any artist, of course. (Which, incidentally, frequently confounds people writing takedowns like Rittelmeyer is here.) Rittelmeyer can bash Damien Herst to her hearts content, and should, when so inspired. That's her prerogative.

But her piece is filled with unfair arguments, and a penchant for a lazy acceptance of old tropes about the mores and motives of contemporary artists. Let's dive in.

Art majors will be art majors

Indeed.

the super-rich will have their trinkets

Indeed.

but why must we pay for their indulgence with the coin of public attention?

Well, we don't have to... though of course, Rittelmeyer is, perhaps contrary to her interests.. What we should do-- what critical integrity requires of us-- is to attempt to confront a work of art on the level at which it is intended, to consider it in good faith, and to make an effort to evaluate its quality based on not only universal notions of artistic success but on the specific success or failure of the work's assumptions. And, again, Rittelmeyer is free to reject Hirst on either level. But we should insist on the attempt to see where art and the artist are coming from as absolute preconditions of principled criticism.

Hirst’s work on 'outmoded ideals' of beauty — or, heaven forbid, the artist's 'moral responsibility' — we'll find that Hirst and his customers are only that much more self-satisfied ('more happy' seems the wrong phrase for these people) to have tweaked our noses.

I don't know that Hirst would call beauty outmoded. But Hirst, like many, seems to believe that beauty is not the end-all, be-all of art, or of life, and is interested in exploring things beyond beauty, or conventional ideas of beauty. That's an old saw, but a good one; the degree to which he succeeds or fails at it is a matter of personal taste. As for the second part, the nose-tweaking, well.... I accuse people of contrarianism often, and the urge to say "You only think that because it bugs other people that you think that" is a powerful one. So I'm none to judge. But this is essentially unknowable, and relies on a capacity for mind reading that neither I nor Rittelmeyer possess.

This is the biggest problem of all.

The important thing about the girl in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere is that I feel something about her; the important thing about the shark in Hirst's tank is that I 'get it.' A full appreciation of Manet's painting requires actually seeing it, whereas there's nothing in Hirst's piece that I can't 'get' simply from comprehending the concept. Never mind a thousand words; Hirst's 'masterwork' is worth four: shark in a vat.


This is wrong, deeply wrong, and crucial. The aesthetic value of conventionally un-aesthetic things is precisely at issue in a work like this. The shark has aesthetic value, it has a look, a texture, a visuality, that most certainly cannot be condensed into words. Yes, this work of art-- like, incidentally, "Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère", like all art-- has a concept, has cognitive value as well as aesthetic. That no more excuses us from eliding past the aesthetic reality of the shark than it would excuse us from eliding past the work (quite radical in its own fashion, by the way) that Rittelmeyer expects us to take seriously. "Shark in a vat" is as reductive as "Chick at a bar".



The reason Duchamp's "Fountain" hangs on a museum wall at all is to be confronted as a work of art, for its aesthetics. To put a urinal on the wall is not, in fact, to say "Haha, I'm unmaking art!" (though, truth be told, Duchamp might have said exactly that). It is to ask us to consider it in the way that we consider a painting, or a sculpture. It's to ask us to consider a mundane, unartistic object according to the same principles that we evaluate a Rembrant, or a Giotto, or a Simone Martini. It's similar to John Cage's "4:33", another much-ridiculed flogging horse of postmodernism's discontents. That piece, which asks you to listen to the ambient noise around you with the consideration and open-heartedness that you would bring to music, is also a study in bringing the mundane and the everyday into the arena of art. Is that a gimmick? I don't know. I do know that both excite me, and expand my notion of what it means to live and breath in an aesthetic, corporeal world.

A pickled fish, of course, is not a urinal, and putting it in front of us as a work of art is a different thing than planting the urinal on the wall. And, of course, the shark in the tank happened decades after the urinal on the wall, though in that I suppose I am indulging in the language of novelty that Rittelmeyer probably wouldn't appreciate. But what remains is the notion of this shark as an aesthetic object, and, it's true, the question of what that shark means to us when confronted as art. Whether or not it works or inspires is subjective. I don't find it damaging, or debasing, or fraudulent, or otherwise illegitimate. Like many artistic cri de couers, Rittelmeyer's seems to advance a notion of art that requires artistic fragility. As with my beloved "Portrait of Ross", Hirst's shark can be enjoyed or reviled in a way that doesn't threaten art, in this moment or forever. Visual art, for all of its bad press, is a resilient thing.

If everything we needed to know to experience the full force and meaning of De Chirico's work, for example, was captured in acknowledging that he repeatedly represented a bunch of buildings casting shadows, who would ever bother actually going to the gallery?

Not many! See above.

By declaring that trying to be authentic is the closest we can ever come to being authentic, conceptual art sets its own trap. It tells us that the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify — that the only thing we can tell each other honestly is that we're trying to tell us something. Nonsense.

Ah, well, here's the shame of it. I don't think the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify. I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.


Look. In the modern era, wherever you'd care to place that, there was a crisis of representation. (I should say that this next bit isn't mine alone but rather is boilerplate undergrad art history. It's still true.) Everywhere, traditional structures of certainty and meaning were being subverted. Religion, science, government, civic society were all facing new and frightening challenges. Into this maelstrom came the popularization and eventual universality of the camera and the photograph, a direct and insurmountable challenge to the preeminence of the artistic image as the primary mode of representation. In the face of this challenge, the response of many artists has been to abandon the notion of representation at all. Just as literature in the modern era was the literature of exhaustion, art in the modern era was the art of a tradition that had, in a small but significant way, admitted defeat. Art itself fails, in the modern era.

This Piet Mondrian print above may bother you. It may say nothing to you. It may satisfy none of your concepts of worthwhile art. But it does not lie to you. It doesn't pretend to perfectly or accurately present you with a true or real image. It recognizes the failure of the artist, and of art, to distill life into easily digestible aesthetics. (Interestingly, the Impressionists that Rittelmeyer admires were themselves straining against a neoclassical notion of art that imagined the role of the artist as a small-scale God.)

Art has never really stopped being in crisis. Luckily enough, this move away from representation as the default mission of visual art came at just the right time. There are, with apologies, only so many different ways to paint waterlilies. And while we shouldn't turn our backs to that kind of representation, and haven't completely, the turn away from it did represent a frankly astonishing moment of artistic fecundity and abundance. Free from the constraints of a limited artistic vision-- from artistic conservatism-- there was a flowering of new and bold methods of expression. Of course, for many, the problem with taking the lid off is that soon the jar is bare. I don't quite agree, but whatever else is true we are left in the place where there is no greater cliche than the "My kid could paint that" assumption of the universal vapidity of contemporary art. Jackson Pollack's work, an attempt to turn pure emotion into a canvas, is beautiful and invigorating and fierce. But it is also deeply vulnerable, like Hirst's work is vulnerable. There is no referent, no seascape or covered bridge or model to compare it to, to legitimize it. It requires trust, and an open mind, and a above all a desire to appreciate what it has to say, the very things Rittelmeyer seems unwilling to extend to Hirst's oeuvre.

Anyway... we're left with the shark in the tank. Not to be repetitive, but you can judge the shark as you see fit. The problem, if you're Rittelmeyer-- if you're anyone who wants to move beyond Merz, Pop and ready-mades-- is where do you turn, if not in the direction of the crisis? As some book I once read somewhere said, the trial for anyone who feels the way Rittelmeyer does is that soon you are left asking for yet more paintings of "green and pleasant land". I'm willing to listen to those who would say that the admission of the limits of art in the early parts of the 20th century was an tragedy for art. But where else to turn? We risk, as Ben Marcus wrote about a different kind of artistic conservatism, an art that can only "slap mortar onto an already stable artistic world".

In visual art, this has meant a new aesthetic code. It sets the perverse expectation that the viewer's expectations are always to be confounded and never to be satisfied. Stuck having to both satisfy and not satisfy this requirement, the code must eliminate the distinction between art as a means of expressing an idea and art as a means of evoking one. So the evocation substitutes for the idea. What you see is what you get.

I would simply suggest that Hirst or any other self-conscious experimentalist doesn't, in fact, think that his art is eliminationist. I imagine he thinks that the dichotomy between expressing an idea and evoking one is a false one, and that if art does not challenge the arbitrary, it would fail in exactly the way Rittelmeyer laments; Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, in more insidious ways, are evoking rather than inventing. There is a sense in which the most ardent traditionalists are also the cruelist ironists. The more that a covered bridge becomes a hotel-wall cliche, the less meaning it has, the less it represents, the more it subverts precisely the artistic tradition it purports to be honoring. It's silk-screened art, as effortlessly tossed off and photocopied as Warhol at his most nihilistic, with the added poison that it thinks it's being genuine. What you've seen is what you get.

What's more, I find a strange reversal going on here, a sense in which Hirst is getting it coming and going. Rittelmeyer criticizes him for having nothing but a concept, an idea, and then turns around and questions the use of art as only a thing. This are opposite notions. I know that what Rittelmeyer wants is emotional content to spring from this aesthetic/corporeal content and cognitive content. The question I have for her is whether she's sure that her inability to discover such emotional meaning ensures that there is no such meaning to be found.

But do contemporary artists really imagine that they are so much 'deeper' or more complex than their predecessors?

Well, no, at least not to my knowledge. I don't know of any contemporary artist who thinks this, and would have appreciated it if Rittelmeyer could have provided a citation that supports this notion.

Oscar Wilde said it was far easier to make history than to write it, and writing history is more than a presentation of brute facts. It's the crafting of our facts into tragic, inspiring, seductive, fascinating, or even simply beautiful stories. Unfit for such a challenge, Damien Hirst and his ilk have found it easier simply to make one damned thing after another.

But that's my problem with art traditionalism exactly: it privileges just one damned thing after another. It's why this year will see the publication of another thousand lame riffs on middle-period Updike, and sadness for those of us who don't want to read a new repackaging of "Daisy Miller" yet again. Where is represenationalism? There are many artists working in myriad media and with various aesthetics in representation, and good for them. But this is a post-representationalist representationalism, a gift from an art world that, whatever its faults, has been bound and determined to wring out meaning and appreciation from every corner it can find. We can criticize many of the specific outputs of that, and I frequently do. But to insist that the Damien Hirsts of the world are doing and saying nothing of value is to insist on the artistry of cliche, of deference, and of vapidity. The line from Rembrandt to Damien Hirst might be tangled and scary. The line from Manet to Thomas Kincaid, painter of light, is a kind of death, more profound and sadder than any shark in formaldehyde.

(All of that being said... "Hanging's Too Good for Him", as a title, is fantastically clever and funny.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Can someone explain to me how it is that Jezebel can have an entire recurring feature dedicated to lashing out on people who criticize women based on their looks, but still pull stuff like this?

I am an ardent feminist, but the conflict between equality vs. special protections is a nearly omnipresent problem for feminism.

who rules Iraq

Stuff like this adds to my continued frustration with how people interpret Iraq's current government and the degree to which it is, and isn't, a functioning democracy.

If a foreign army is occupying your country, and can dictate terms of when they will withdraw based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with the good of your country, in what meaningful sense is your country a democracy at all? I have asked again and again and again whether anyone thought that the al-Maliki government could make a decision, and implement that decision, if the United States government was deeply opposed to it. No one ever answers in the affirmative, and for good reason. The United States military is the real power in Iraq; they have the real ability to affect change; and they can act with impunity in the country, with no pragmatic recourse for the people of Iraq to change their behavior.

It is often the fashion of colonial or totalitarian governments to present a pretense of democracy, with elections and puppet leaders and parliaments. The people involved, of course, know fully well who really has the juice. In what way is the al-Maliki government different, if the United States government and its military are dictating terms? I know Vichy governments when I see them. Some, I'm sure, would ask whether I thought that Japan or Germany are similarly under the thumb of the United States. First, the American military and foreign policy establishments have nothing like the the influence or interoperability in those countries that they do in Iraq. Perhaps more importantly, the degree of American influence in those countries is, indeed, greater than we're often comfortable discussing, particularly in Japan, as Chalmers Johnson has discussed at length.

Some, of course, abandoned the democracy do-si-do along time ago. Once al-Maliki and various members of his government, as well as many Iraqis on the street, began calling for an expidited American withdrawal (as any sane country bent on self-governance would) it became difficult for people with more intellectual integrity than the Bill Kristols to continue to flog the democracy-building angle. For my part, Iraqi democracy was of course never to be avoided. What was true then and true now is that American intervention within the country is an impediment to democracy, and will be. The men with guns always have the power.

There are some sad signs of a decline in security in Iraq, and I could see the country devolving again into violence and sectarian strife. This is only to say that Iraq exists in the real world, a world of violence and war, and that sadly no amount of elevated troop levels will solve the country's problems if the inter-necine fighting and divisions within (which the surge has not solved, and cannot solve) aren't fixed. Of course, those who are committed to American presence in Iraq, for reasons of good faith and bad, will see this as more evidence that we can't leave, not now, not ever. When violence declines, we must stay because it's working. When violences erupts, we must stay because it isn't. Every road leads to more American misadventure in Iraq, every situation begs more aggression and expansionism, and no problem created by violence and force can't be solved with more of the same.

Some would say that I am the same, and that every road for me leads to withdrawal. And right they are. I am convinced on the need for American withdrawal from Iraq, I am bent on it. The question is, which stance is moral and pragmatic enough to function as a default state?

Monday, September 22, 2008

So I've been thinking. I could use a small loan... but what to put up for collateral? Then it occurred to me-- I'm now a part owner of AIG, the world's largest insurance company! That's gotta count for something. Maybe it's time to give Bank of America's loan office a call....

Friday, September 19, 2008

Iron Cal

In a piece about the most important sporting venues, Jim Caple says "went to work for the 2,162nd day in a row". All respect to Cal Ripken, but he didn't really; he had the offseason every year. Now in a sense it's true that your average worker has weekends and vacations and such. But I don't know many jobs where you take off half the year, every year. That's not really meant to degrade Ripken's accomplishment-- I think in the context of baseball it's very impressive. I'm just not a big fan of the effort to make his streak into something he's not. Ripken wasn't some iron worker who didn't miss a day in 20 years. He played a game, a difficult, often physically painful game, but a game, for half a year, for a long time, and was paid very very well to do so. Quite a feat, but not something that turns Ripken into a symbol of the blue collar or really hard work.

By the way, Wrigley not in the top ten... inexcusable.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

excommunicating Allen

Personally, I find the fun being made at George Allen's expense (and its hardly only Yglesias doing it) to be a little sad and unfair.

Was Allen a being a world class jerk when he called that guy an ethnic slur? No question. I didn't and don't buy for a second that he didn't know what it means, or that it was an appropriate light jest. It was a nasty, rude thing to say. But he said it, he apologized for it and appears appropriately contrite. Does that mean that we completely forget it, or not hold Allen accountable for it? Of course not. But we don't act like it is permanently dispositive of the man's character or his attitudes on race. People have to be able to demonstrate appropriate contrition for racially insensitive attitudes, and forgiven when appropriate. The more that racist or racially insensitive remarks are treated as a permanent scar on someone's public perception, the more that racist attitudes are allowed to fester, and the more that decent people are unfairly marginalized from popular discourse.

People are always a process. They are never a product. People in the liberal blogosphere are acting like Allen is the worst possible spokesman for racial and ethnic outreach because of his history. I think that, if his remorse is genuine and he doesn't have ugly views on ethnicity, he's the best spokesman for such an event. We have to demonstrate that the wheels of racial and ethnic justice are powered by education and understanding, not by exclusion. Look, I believe that it makes perfect sense for black and other minority voters to vote Democratic. But this is because of policy, not the absence of prejudice. I do think that there is more simple racial animus in the Republican party than the Democratic party, but the Democratic party is hardly pure on that front. More importantly, the presumption of one party or another's attitudes towards race are largely irrelevent. It is the policy prescriptions that minority voters should worry about, and it's there that I think they would do well to vote Democratic, not on unsubstantiated notions of widespread Republican racism.

Could it be that George Allen is just a jerk with ugly attitudes about ethnicity? Sure, it's possible. Would I vote for him? No. But he has to have a second (and third and so on) chance to demonstrate his character. What good does it do for racial or ethnic justice to exclude George Allen from polite society? Very little to none at all. You can see irony in Allen speaking at an event for Republican outreach, or you can see an opportunity to demonstrate the capability for people to make mistakes without defining themselves forever. The coverage of this in liberal blogs has been far too much of a snarky gotcha, rather than an opportunity for real discussion.

more fallout

Ross Douthat is a writer who I admire almost without reservation. He's bright, funny and perceptive. He's a social conservative without being preachy or hectoring, which is quite a feat if you ask me. His writing is incisive, but fair, and he has the quality I like to see most in political writers, the sense that even in disagreement, they can understand and respect the feelings of their opponents.

That's why its so difficult to see what he's come to this election season. His new tack for defending McCain/Palin is to largely deny that there is any such thing as appropriate or ethical conduct for a presidential candidate, that political lies and distortions are unremarkable, and that the ends of gaining the presidency generally justify the means. If you think I exaggerate, I invite you to read his own words, and if you find somewhere that I've misrepresented Ross please comment and I'll update this post. (I would certainly love to be proven wrong on this account.)

Look, I'm not going to go in depth into why I think that, in fact, process, integrity and honesty matter. Those things are matters of first principles for me, and I find their appeal to be pretty self-explanatory. Let me just say this: It certainly seems odd to me that I've never heard about this stuff before. I'm a devoted reader of Ross's blog, and I've read both of his books. I try to follow his stuff in the print media. I don't remember, in all of that, ever hearing something like his recent skepticism of right process and honesty. Isn't that strange? Don't you think that a political writer who's written about elections and campaigns for years would have made this ambivalence towards political integrity known a long time ago? It's completely possible, of course, that he's written about the subject often before and I just missed it. I still wouldn't agree with him, but it would make more sense. As it stands, I feel like this stuff is sort of coming out of left field. I guess what I'm asking is, why did I only hear about this studied indifference to lies and distortions when the Republicans began a (to my mind) uniquely dirty campaign?

Ross is, of course, a very well respected and connected guy, and I don't think he'll suffer for these views. Certainly, I'll continue to read him, and to read with interest, as he really is a very valuable voice in the discussion. I'm willing to extend to everyone an assumption of election-cycle derangement syndrome, and hope the same is extended to me. (I could use it!) The whole business is just a little strange, I guess, coming from the perspective only as a fan (which is the only perspective I've ever really tried to engage any of these bloggers on). I care about this stuff and wish Ross would reconsider. But who knows? It could very well be the case that I'm the one, deranged by the campaign season. As I've said before, I'm having a hard time trusting any of my initial reactions these days. Time will tell.

Update: Also, reading this post again... he almost gives the game away. Almost. I mean you can really feel that he is pissed about this Obama ad, but can't say so, because he's hung his response to the despicable McCain campaign on the notion that you can't get mad about this stuff. I think far more likely is that Ross is a conservative Republican, McCain and Palin are on his side, and so he is circling the wagons for them. And with this ad, he's mad, because McCain is his guy. Which is human and natural and normal. It just doesn't play into his recent abandonment of political honesty as a net good.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

faux Americans

Daniel Larison makes me very happy, in that he (as far as I know) is the only conservative I can find who has repudiated Ericka Andersen's comments which excommunicated me, my family, most of my friends, most of the people I have loved, and many thousands of people I care for or admire, from real America and real American culture.

It bothers me, that more people aren't bothered. Telling people they cling to guns and religion, I guess, is a far worse crime than telling them straightforwardly that they aren't American, that they aren't America, and they never will be.

Watch out, by the way, for Daniel Larison-- Daniel Larison-- to be relegated to the same status of "leftist blogger" that Andrew Sullivan and John Cole have been. This is the party that you've built, conservatives, this is your baby, a vehicle fueled by exclusionism and eliminationism. And if any of you think that you can't be one of the ones pushed out of the tent... think again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In happier news, did you guys know the greatest horror movie of all time is available on Google Video?


elitism, continued, and my sad coda

I'm sure everyone's tired of hearing about this. But there's another aspect of this elitism business which is strange.

Americans are an aspirational people, or so I'm told. Both ideological camps seem to believe this. The stereotype of the conservative position would be that everyone is capable of becoming rich, and inevitably will, if they are hard working. Everyone in this conception desires personal wealth, and that desire is seen as among the highest virtues. The stereotype of the liberal position is that Americans routinely root against their own economic best interests, because they believe they will someday be rich. Sort of the What's the Matter with Kansas argument and one that, actually, I largely endorse.

(I used to do this experiment, in college classes where we talked about politics a lot. I would ask everyone in the class if they though that someday, they would be rich. Not if they wanted to be, but if they expected that they would someday be wealthy. Inevitably, at least nine out of the ten people in the class would raise their hands, and in talking with them privately most were quite certain that it was just a matter of time. I would then ask who in the class thought it was the case that everyone who had just raised their hands would actually become rich. No one would ever raise their hands, which I think is interesting.)

Most people seem to agree then that Americans want to be rich, and that is sensible and fits basic human psychology. So here's my question: why, then, the contempt for elites? Isn't the point of gaining wealth, after all, to become one of the elite? I'm thinking that someone has to watch all of those shows on VH1 and E!, the luxury porn where we see how much better the leisure class lives. Do those people have this disdain for elitism? I know that those shows work on a combination of envy and resentment. But surely, an aspirational people can't have such basic contempt for the people they aspire to be.

I'm sure some would say that there is a difference between economic elitism and cultural elitism. But I find that weird too. It's profoundly strange, to me, that the most powerful and important kind of elitism, the elitism of wealth, is somehow excused from the pernicious elitisms certain elements in our country hate so much. John McCain is not just wealthy, he is profoundly, massively wealthy. Now I'm not socialist enough to begrudge him his wealth, but when his campaign turns around and accuses Barack Obama of elitism, when John McCain (for example) spends more than $200,000 a year just on servants... attention must be paid.

As for Ericka Andersen... what can be said about a simple appeal to the idea that I and those I love are not real Americans, that our culture is not real American culture? I tend to think that the bounds of "my culture", if we insist on rending our country into broad camps, extends further than the New York and Los Angeles that Andersen invokes here. But okay, let her have it her own way. I would hasten to inform her that those two cities have more people than 44 states in our nation, and if we include greater metropolitan areas, they have more people than every state but California, the most populous.

I've tried and I'm trying to stay out of this mess, but it stings to see someone so quickly and effortlessly excise countless millions from the "real" America, it really does. My maternal grandfather lied about his age to join the Army and fight the Germans, and he fought them with distinction. He worked his whole life, and raised two daughters, and was every inch the stoic Army man his entire life, unflagging and uncomplaining. And he was a Democrat, and a liberal. I wonder what he would say to see his grandson outcast from the foundation of our country, from real America, from real American culture.

Am I an American?

Monday, September 15, 2008

The bane of my Monday nights

Friends and family of Tony Kornheiser, look away.

Tony Kornheiser is the worst announcer I have ever heard on any sporting broadcast. Ever. He ruins Monday Night Football for me, to the point where the urge to mute the television becomes overpowering and I must submit to it. His jokes are terrible; his commentary is the worst faux-populist, forced-jocularity-filled banter imaginable; and his philosophy about football and sports is the worst imaginable. I can't take anymore of him. I can't take it. And we're two games into the season!

Is there anything worse, in sports commentary, then when people pretend to be laughing and goofing off in the booth? Does anyone actually believe that Ron Jaworski and Mike Tirico find his horrible forced jokes amusing? Be real with me, man, be real with me. That's the most important thing. Don't bullshit.

And it's not just the faked laughter and the bogus fraternity. It's his studied, affected "aw shucks" demeanor. What you hear on the MNF broadcast isn't Tony Kornheiser. It's a character Tony Kornheiser has created. He makes a point, every game, of failing to understand some glaringly obvious aspect of football, that anyone who has watched football as long as he had would know, to prove... I'm not sure what. That he's not trying to show anybody up? That he's trying to openly acknowledge his deficiencies as a football analyst? Look, that's fine. I'm all for someone who's no expert admitting as such. But when you try to shoehorn that idea into every game and hit us over the head with it, it just becomes another obnoxious tic. Forced awe and faked open-mouthed wonder is the pits. It really is. Stop acting like you've never stepped in a football stadium before, or seen big-time athletes before. It makes you seem like a liar in a very off-putting way.

Add in to this stew the fact that Kornheiser has the most obnoxious attitudes about sports and football imaginable. He's an inveterate front runner and fair weather fan. He wants every favorite to win, and roots openly to do so. (His performance during the Patriots-Ravens game last year was execrable.) I don't expect national sports commentators to be Walter Cronkite. But I also don't expect them to act like the commentators from YES or similar and pull for one team, either. And the tic is made doubly annoying by Kornheisers explicit support for the bandwagony NFL teams like the Patriots and Cowboys. (How can you be a sports fan and always root for the favorite?) What's more, he seems to want every game to be 56-49. He likes touchdown bombs and poor tackling, highlight reel throws and catches, both quarterbacks with 500 yards and nary a sign of defensive fundamentals, hitting, fighting for every inch, bruising runs, and character-filled grind it out football.

He is, in other words, the worst kind of football fan, a high-score and Cowboy loving doofus who would rather watch wide receivers run uncovered for 50 yards than defensive brilliance. And this is the guy whose opinions are shoved down my throat every week.

What can Tony Kornheiser do to improve, you ask? It's quite simple. Calm the fuck down. Every game, Mr. Kornheiser, is not the most important game in history, or the best game in history. Every play does not turn a season. Every game doesn't, in fact, make or break a team, a quarterback or a coach. Logic tells us that every game cannot have the best player at position X playing in it. There are very, very few season-turning plays in football; I highly doubt that ESPN is blessed with one of them happening in every Monday Night Football game of the year. Stop faking that the game is great when it isn't. Stop turning every quarterback into the second coming of Joe Montana. Stop insisting that the pressure on this player or that coach has never been higher, stop telling us that every single fanbase will riot if their team doesn't win the Super Bowl, stop with the hyperbole and the hype, stop flogging the same silly phrases and storylines, and for god sakes, stop the faked jocularity, the false populism, the bogus "aw shucks" attitude, the pretense that you're blown away by everything you see every game, stop it, stop it, stop it. Be real. Be real. Be real. Cause I just can't take it anymore.

ps FYI, Brett Favre sucks.

foreign military entanglements and the crisis in democratic responsibility, continued

Check out Christopher Hitchens's interesting piece on the challenge of Pakistan and its relevance in the campaign to pacify Afghanistan and the war against jihadi terrorists. It lends more credence, I think, to my belief that our imperialist/colonialist/interventionist/humanitarian (or whatever terminology you prefer) further strains the ability of a democratic populace, like that of the United States, to have a meaningful understanding of the actions of its government and military.

Hitchens's piece talks briefly about the oddity that is Pakistan, about the strange hodgepodge of ethnic and religious alliances that were behind its creation, and how the nation is the result of political necessity and negotiation rather than through organic means. (I would argue that no nation-state is genuinely an "organic" body, but that's an argument for another time.) As I've said before, I think that this demonstrates an overlooked consequence of our imperial adventures. The principle of democracy is that the people lead. If the people are to lead (either directly as in Athens or through surrogates as in America), they need to have a workable understanding of the issues that confront them. The price of democracy isn't just vigilance, but education. Leaders need to educate themselves about the issues confronting their nation. When the people lead, the people face a responsibility to educate themselves to one degree or another about what, exactly, is going on in these issues.

This is hard enough when the questions are about domestic issues like the environment, taxes, energy policy, transportation and infrastructure, and other day-to-day aspects of governance. When you broaden this responsibility to include the many intricate layers of the internal policies and conflicts of foreign countries, you are ensuring that the populace of the United States does not have the possibility of even a rudimentary level of understanding necessary to accurately judge the country's foreign policy. I'm a political and foreign policy junkie. I read tons of blogs, newspapers and magazines, with a particular eye to our entaglements in the Middle East. But I don't have anything resembling a complete picture of what's going on around the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Foreign policy adventurism and aggression ensures that the people don't have a firm grasp of the nuance and complications involved in our military entanglements.

more reason for depression

Via Ross, Ezra Klein explains why, in fact, America is bent for dishonest campaigns and gutter politics, and why politicians who are more conversant in those arts will likely succeed, leading us inevitably to having the worst possible people as leaders and ensuring we continue to reward those who act in the most dispicable way possible in electoral politics. (OK, I through a little of my own editorializing in there. Read the post.)

I've always found the saying that "in a democracy, the people get the leadership they deserve" to be a little too flippant-sounding. But it's largely correct. Our democracy will be as our people make it. What if the people aren't good enough or smart enough to demand a righteous form of self-government? I do think that process, honesty and character matters. I do think that there is a right way to act on the campaign trail, I do think that lies and distortions should be punished electorally, and I don't think that you can just wave your hand and say "everybody does it". But I have no expectation, anymore, that the majority of our country feels that way. What happens when the people in a democracy consistently don't support what's right or what's best? If the press and the government act according to what the people want, and what the people want is consistently self-defeating... we're in trouble.

Meanwhile, the economy is showing more and more signs of being close to utter and complete collapse, or at least a severe downturn, which will further damage a down job market that I (at least ostensibly) am currently searching in. Your humble servant may soon be blogging about selling pencils and oranges on an onramp to the interstate.

(If anybody out there works for a college or university and wants to hire me in any capacity, drop a line. I'll do anything and relocate anywhere for very little money. Seriously.

I make great coffee.)

yet more on elites and surrogacy

Peter Suderman and James Poulos write insightfully about my (sadly poorly expressed) thoughts on elitism. Peter is right that it was stupid for me to make a categorical statement that liberals don't look down on "rubes"; James's point about Joe Lieberman is great-- Lieberman isn't a moderate because he holds views from both ideological camps, but is rather just an extremist whose extremist views are taken from both sides. Both are correct to point out a difference between cultural and political elitism, and to suggest that my reading of the situation was too categorical, so I'm glad they troubled the waters.

Meanwhile, some douchebag has written something stupid on the Huffington Post and made things harder for us trying to avert, or at least undercut, cultural war. (See also: Jill Greenberg.) These examples, again, demonstrate to me the uselessness of ideological surrogacy. (Yes, that's my obsession these days.) At first, I'm tempted to say that these people don't speak for our side. But then, I chafe at the idea that they are on "my side". No one so boorish and ugly is on my side, in any meaningful way. If the only division is "he or she plans on voting for Candidate X", I'm afraid all sides have their fair share of frankly reprehensible people. You can't, for reasons I've laid out before, begin to attribute the excesses of individuals who self-define as being on one side of the spectrum to all the people on that spectrum, or to the candidates preferred by that side. If you do, you quickly end up in "Hitler was a vegetarian" territory.

(The ombudsman! I hope I'm not nearly as annoying as that makes me sound. Ugh.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

keep thinking

Do I exacerbate the problem, when I post about the cultural war, the flyover/coastal battle? I think I do, unfortunately. It's easy to fall into the trap of at once saying "it's wrong to pick sides" and then turn around and say "your side does this", and of course, that's what I'm criticizing in conservatives. I still broadly agree with my own point, haha. But there are some nuances that need to be added, obviously.

It's as stupid to say "liberals don't do this negative thing" as it is to say "liberals all do this negative thing". So I shouldn't say liberals/urbanites/elites/cosmos don't mock conservatives/red-staters/rurals(?)/flyover-ers, because that's the kind of generalization that I think is stupid. It's a classic all/some problem. What I should say, and be smarter about saying, is "not all liberals etc. mock all conservatives etc.". I should also be much more careful about saying "conservatives do this" or "conservatives do that", when those are precisely the kind of sweeping statements I am telling others to avoid.

Of course, broadly speaking, this doesn't solve the problem, because both sides continue to argue about the number of people on the other side who deride them and the frequency with which thy do so. So Megan thinks liberals mostly sneer at rubes, and I mostly think conservatives snarl at snobs, and sadly, we'll both cherry-pick our evidence to support our side. It's the kind of question that can't be answered impartially, I suspect. Not that I don't think that I'm right, but that my standard for evaluating the question is necessarily contingent.

(See, liberal guilt has its uses.)

Here's one way to know a thinker you respect: when you think about them reading what you've written, you want to both think and write better. So when James comments on this blog, and that's how I immediately feel-- I think it's to his credit.

Update: As is usual, I forgot the most important point: that, of course, the nation isn't divided between culture A and culture B, and that those divisions are amorphous and vague, and ultimately unhelpful. When I put conservative bloggers or pundits into the cosmopolitan or cultural elite camp, the point isn't to say that they are really on our team; the point is to say that most of us have aspects that would seem to put us in both camps. And it does bother me when people who have many of the outward characteristics of own stereotype use those stereotypes against their political opponents.

you lost me at Sloane Burgdorf

More from the cosmopolitan elite front: if you are a paid, professional blogger and writer, you are a member of the cultural elite.

One thing that I think needs to be kept in mind about this discussion is the fact that this sort of post is only insulting if you really believe it's an insult to be a part of the cultural/cosmopolitan/urban elite. I don't like any of those terms, but they've all arisen around the blogosphere as a way to talk about a certain subset of the liberal population, or just liberals generally. And they are almost always used derisively. Much has already been said about the bizarre and destructive notion that it's bad to be elite, and I continue to maintain that thinking that a president should be "a regular guy" or whatever is lunacy. I like urban people. I like educated people. I like entertainers and artists and nonconformists and thinkers and writers and, yes, I tend to like liberals. None of this indicates that I dislike the "common folk", or whatever other euphemism is in style at conservative blogs. It's no insult to the salt of the earth to say that I also really dig the pepper.

But, look, those are specific notions of why I like "cosmopolitan elites". What conservatives tend to indicate is that they don't like it when liberals go around bashing "the flyover states" because doing so violates a principle of not applying broad labels to people or making lazy generalizations. And bully for that. It's wrong to do those things. But conservatives seem to lack any kind of perspective whatsoever that would inform them that it is sad, ironic and hypocritical when they turn around and sneer at the snobs in the coasts. If the principle is wrong when the target is the rubes, the principle is also wrong when the target is the snobs. You dig?

Despite what Megan McArdle and others keep asserting, no, in fact, liberals and urbanites don't constantly look down their noses at the other half. If we did, though, it would be par for the course, because conservatives unapologetically, straightforwardly insult the cosmopolitan elite constantly. They don't bother to try to hide it or dress it up. Check the comments in that McArdle link. It's passed 400 posts. There are literally hundreds where conservatives explicitly say that liberals, urbanites and similar are just bad people, that there should be a culture war, and that it's right and proper to constantly deride us. Contrast that with the liberals posting who, almost to a man, argue without any kind of an appeal to a notion of general wickedness in "flyover land".

If you're going to attack people for engaging in cultural war, attack the people who are waging it openly and actively. Or, if you are a cultural warrior, go for the gold-- but don't turn around and complain that the other side is constantly disrespecting you.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

(is it breaking my "no election" rule if I just post a link?)


Update: Yes, I decided, it is breaking my rule. Redacted!

Friday, September 12, 2008

self parody watch

In a Lifetime movie I just watched, the main character's mother-- no joke-- was a schizophrenic, legally blind, alcoholic, AIDs-afflicted heroin addict.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kuo's will

David Kuo is an odd guy, to me. He seems to veer from being eminently reasonable and normal, to saying things that make me question how some other of his beliefs are possible. Not in the sense that he becomes unreasonable or out-of-line at the other times. He appears to me to be a consistently gracious and calm guy. What I mean is that he seems like a rather conventional moderate-conservative, and yet when he delves into the theology that underpins his political views, it strikes me that he's more mainstream than it would seem to allow. He's very religious, which, as always, I find in some ways admirable and in some ways disturbing. This post, for example, makes me wonder how he can be such a moderate (or appear to be such a moderate) and yet hold a politician's religious convictions as they relate to behavior to be of such preeminence.

Clearly, I'm not one to unravel the philosophical strings of the "all that is, is God's plan" idea. But even on a cursory level, it creates some weird contradictions and strange logical alleyways. Kuo, mockingly, says
Does that mean that Gov. Palin is open to the idea that God’s will is for the United States to become a Muslim nation? One under Sharia law? Does Gov. Palin believe it might be God’s will for the United States to pass laws outlawing the freedom of speech?
Well... what about those contingencies? Does Kuo think they are literally impossible? Obviously not. And yet he believes that whatever happens is God's will. So if these things happened, they would have to be God's will, and yet Kuo mocks the idea of them being God's will. It's true, these things have not happened. But they could, and the fact that we might find them unlikely seems a very strange way to justify the belief that they couldn't be God's will. Certainly, there must be things in the world that Kuo believes are wrong, things that he would change if he could. Kuo, as I understand it, is a firm believer in the Christian duty of charity, and to his credit is someone who has fought hard to bring the fight against poverty into conservative respectability. So presumably, even though it is God's will for there to be poverty now, or any other situation Kuo finds undesirable, Kuo doesn't find the fact that these situations are the way they are now proof that the idea that they could be different ridiculous. (Follow that tortured string of logic?)

I imagine I know what an evangelical Christian would say-- the things that are now true are God's will to be true now, but can be changed, and when the change comes it will be God's will that they be changed. But that still leaves the question, why does Kuo find the notion of Sharia law in America so self-evidently crazy? Is it the degree of undesirability? If the fact that something is really undesirable makes it very unlikely that it would be God's will, there are many historical events that render this reading disturbing. I say this with no desire to ridicule whatsoever, but I don't get it.

More importantly, and sadder still, is the fact that Kuo correctly says that the second commandment is to love one's neighbor as himself, but he doesn't seem to question whether, in fact, invading Iraq and directly causing the killing and exile of a significant fraction of the country's citizenry might be at odds with that second commandment.

I don't say this specifically in regards to David Kuo. But religion teaches me again and again that people can use anything to justify anything. When a guy like Joel Osteen preaches to thousands that Jesus wants them to be rich, and they believe him, it strains credulity. This isn't a question of some hazy interpretation of obscure scripture but a flat contradiction of what Jesus said again and again and again. I mean you could make the argument that, after the central notion of the divinity of God/belief in Christ=afterlife, and the need to give charitably, the wickedness of personal wealth was Jesus's most obvious and repeated position. And yet Osteen and TJ Jakes and other charlatans can directly contradict these central tenets and never really get called on it.

Jesus wasn't a liberal. He was a radical, somewhere between a socialist and a anarchist. He didn't just say to give to the poor. He said to give more than you're asked to, to give everything and expect nothing in return, to give more that you're capable of. He didn't just preach personal nonviolence. He preached nonviolence to the point of total passivity, to abandon the notion of self-defense, to aid the person who is attacking you-- turning the other cheek doesn't just mean ignoring and forgiving the slap, it means presenting the other cheek to be slapped as well, to give to the other even at the point when they least deserve it. Jesus didn't just say not to make work the only or central task of life, he said to abandon work as it was conventionally though of, to consider toil in the ordinary sense a sin, to be like the lilies of the field and neither reap nor sow.

This is probably unfair, but I often feel like many Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus but not the philosophy, whereas I believe in the philosophy but not the divinity. I don't follow all of Jesus's teachings, because no one could, or at least, I never could. But I respect, precisely for their radicalism, and precisely because they are so uncompromising. The project is what's important, and the bland stew that's made of it by too many Christians rob the religion of its poignance. I don't believe in walking on water or coming back from the dead or exorcising ghosts from pigs, but I believe in the idea of ideologies born out of impossible demands and contradictions. And I find very little of that in contemporary Christianity, evangelical or otherwise.