Sunday, November 30, 2008
I am also wrestling with putting up ads through AdSense. Aesthetically I absolutely hate the idea. And (as with many things in my life) I value this blog in inverse proportion to the amount that I need it. This can't be a job, or a job interview. Not that I get the kind of traffic that would make this much more than an academic question, but as you well know, academic questions are kind of my deal. I could use a little extra money, though. Who couldn't?
Forgive me if saying so is sexist, but Leah from Top Chef is the cutest thing around. Just FYI.
When we are presented with a grief so enormous and incomprehensible, we who have made language our business feel a desperate desire to use that language to make some sense of what we've confronting. We want to be heard, and we express ourselves out of the conviction that we must. That's natural. But the temptation, which we have to work to avoid, is to believe that there is some utility in merely piling up adjectives to express our frustration. The temptation is to believe that if one person is saying "awful," the second says something more in using "terrible". The sad truth is that using "unconsionable" does little more than using "bad". The important question is what we advocate, and with an event like Mumbai, what language could match the event? The desire to express more is admirable. The notion that scolding others for not using stronger language is somehow doing something is lamentable. Poetry makes nothing happen.
Would I ever begrudge anyone their attempts to make some small moves in the direction of sense, in the face of the unbearable? Of course not, never. I am in many ways a hypocrite and guilty of self-deception, but I'm not hypocrite enough to do such a thing from my perch on a blog. What I mean is only that we have to listen to content, to ideas, and regarding the two most important ideas involved in this tragedy, I have seen nothing but unanimity: this is a tragedy of greatest magnitude, and those responsible have to be hunted down and arrested or killed. There are of course vastly different notions of what is the best way to prosecute the latter, and broader foreign policy discussions are naturally of great controversy. But I sense a great frustration in certain corners of the blogosphere that some of us aren't saying more, or acting more angry, or demanding revenge in ever-louder voices. Yet they advocate no different action than the ones we have been advocating, recognized in the intelligence community as the most effective way to combat terrorism: the slow and tedious and dramatically unsatisfying work of police work.
We must never mistake our self-expression for action, for doing something, or worse, mistake the failure of others to say what we want them to as a failure of theirs to do what is right. Saying something more intensely isn't saying something different. At the end of the day, there are no words to express events like Mumbai, though that failure is no reason we have to stop trying. But we must not let anyone mistake our reticence for apathy. The course of action I and others like me are advocating, after all, is among the most extreme we have: find the people responsible, and kill them. The enormity of that, like the enormity of these events, is what will remain, not language.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Celebrities, meanwhile, have to be incredibly careful about how they comment on celebrity, or risk committing the greatest crime a celebrity can commit: appearing ungrateful for their fame. You can beat your wife, drive drunk, get arrested for assault, do as many drugs as you want, even make a sex tape of yourself and a minor, and all can be forgiven-- but don't appear ungrateful for your fame. That is a crime, apparently, that cannot be forgiven.
You can make the case that this speech destroyed Fiona Apple's career. It's true, she may have been a garden-variety musical act who was briefly popular and then became much more obscure. But there's little doubt that she was mercilessly mocked for this speech, and not just for being inarticulate. If being a little disheveled and inarticulate at the MTV music awards was an unpardonable crime, well, we'd have far fewer musical acts around today. Indeed, you can make your speech blatantly wasted. Just don't say something that might be construed as ungrateful. If you do, like Apple, you'll be attacked with extraordinarily ugly rhetoric. (Here's a little such piece from that era.) That's why she was the brunt of so many attacks, not because what she said was too self-serious or a little full of it (and it was), but because she dared to suggest that celebrity and fame aren't, in fact, the end-all be-all of human civilization. In suggesting that achieving fame isn't actually the greatest goal of human life, and further saying that "regular people" shouldn't act as though celebrities are sages and geniuses who should inform how we live our life, Fiona Apple upset the grand bargain: we'll give you fame and fortune, as long as you don't question the game. You can do anything, anything at all, but don't criticize the celebrity system.
Of course, the way a lot of these critiques work is to suggest that Apple, or anyone else who questions the celebrity status quo, is being ungrateful about the material and financial gains that celebrity life brings; why, you're being ungrateful about your success, when so many have nothing! That's bogus. Apple doesn't ask for sympathy for being a celebrity, she merely points out (correctly) that the celebrity world is bullshit, and that it's filled with unreal situations, fake relationships and a general lack of human dignity and grace. No one is saying that we should feel sorry for celebrities. I'm saying we should feel sorry for our culture for being so deeply ensconced in celebrity culture, and for the damage that culture has done to our aspirational longings and desires. I believe strongly that we need to dramatically change our views on fame and success, because they hurt our national notions of worthiness and what is to be valued and pursued. But it's very hard to create that change, when people on the inside like Fiona Apple are punished so thoroughly for calling out the system they're a part of.
Link to Jennifer Gibson's piece via Andrew.
This line, though--
Thanks, Muslim terrorists! You do so much for the world. Your Mumbai adventures on behalf of your faith have killed scores of people, and have jacked up tensions between two nuclear powers that hate each other. And now there are reports that British nationals of Pakistani origin may be involved in the attack -- something that, if true, could make life very difficult for Brit-Paks.Good thing this bloody-minded intolerance is limited to a small number of Muslims, right? Except for the 10,000 to 20,000 ordinary Muslims who assaulted a Coptic Christian church in Cairo this week.
Look, I know that not all Muslims, nor, possibly, most Muslims, are behind these attacks.
So there's about 1 billion Muslims in the world. A billion. A billion is a lot. What would a billion man plot look like, exactly? How would they communicate? Coordinate? I mean if you could really get a billion people together to attack Mumbai, you might as well try to take over a whole country. Ah, but maybe by "are behind" he means "support". That kind of contention is thrown out there all the time, of course, and it has the virtue of requiring no form of proof whatsoever. Just like the contention "The average Palestinian would murder every Jew if he could," this kind of statement has no referent, invites no verification, requires nothing but the author's say-so and the guts to think you can leave it out there, orphaned and unsupported. This in non-falsifiable nonsense. I'm sure, say, the thousands of impoverished Thai Muslims living along the coast with no television or newspapers would be surprised to learn that they support a terrorist attack they've never heard of. Dreher has left himself an out, here, but he's done it in about the weakest form possible: possibly most Muslims weren't behind these attacks. Mmmm.
The fact of the matter is that it's not just some Muslims who aren't terrorists, is not just a few Muslims who aren't terrorists, it's not just some percentage of Muslims who are not terrorists, but hundreds of millions. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. I spent part of my childhood in Indonesia. After September 11th, I tried to tell people that, while certainly the Muslim world needed great reform, it wasn't actually the case, as you heard many talking heads say, that there weren't any Muslim societies where there was freedom of religion or civil rights for women. Indonesia, the worlds largest Muslim country, has a sizable Muslim majority, and yet it has robust Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities. Women have held public office (including President), wear western clothes, work and socialize with men, and in general enjoy emancipation, suffrage and freedom. It simply wasn't true that there were no Muslim countries with religious freedoms or freedom for women, though the civil rights record in most Muslim countries was and is deplorable.
After the Bali nightclub bombing, though, a curious thing happened. When I would bring up Indonesia, people would say "Aha! There was that nightclub bombing in Bali!" The fact of that attack, apparently, was enough to tar every Indonesian Muslim. Nevermind the fact that there are some 250 million people who live in Indonesia. No, the fact that some tiny fraction of them-- the biggest estimate I've ever seen for the number of people involved in the night club bombing was in the low hundreds-- that fact meant that we could tar all Indonesian Muslims with the brush of terror. The fact that we are judging hundreds of millions based on the actions of a small few has simply become par for the course. Forget about political correctness, forget about politics, forget about tolerance. Just as a way of judging data, this is very weird.
Half the world's Muslims live to the east of Pakistan. Islam is as much an Asian religion as a Middle Eastern religion, demographically, though the average American wouldn't bother to learn that fact. The vast, vast majority of these Asian Muslims practice a mainstream Islam. The vast, vast majority of them are completely uninvolved in terror. Middle Eastern Islam, meanwhile, has more of an extremist problem than Asian Islam. Yes, there are far too many Middle Eastern and Central Asian Muslim terrorist. Again, what percentages are we talking about, here? What number of Middle Eastern Muslims have engaged in terrorism, compared to those who haven't? We're talking about a vanishingly small portion, here, and yet that is still enough, apparently, to mock the idea that Islam is a religion of peace. Yes, of course, Islam has a lot of reforming to do, just as Catholicism had many crimes to answer for and many which they continue to refuse to answer for. (And, incidentally, Islam is about 700 years younger than the Christian church. I invite anyone to consider the amount of murder and torture going on in the name of the Catholic church 700 years ago.)
I know of very few people who argue that Islam doesn't need reform. I know of zero people who don't want to confront Islamic terrorism. I know of no people who don't think we should hunt down and arrest or kill the terrorists. I know of no people who consider terrorism no threat to the United States, only people like me who argue that the threat of terrorism to the average American is negligible in comparison to the threat of conventional or nuclear war, or environmental catastrophe. Everyone knows we have to fight these terrorists. Everyone knows the problem is some small number of Islamic extremists. Everyone wants them hunted down, and no one wants another 9/11, another Mumbai. So what is Rod saying? What would he have us do?
No indication from Dreher about what he would have us do about this problem of Muslim terrorism. I don't mean to be too hard on Rod, because he's hardly alone in seeming to agitate for some new vision of dealing with terrorism, either physically or intellectually, without actually advocating any particular change. The world is broadly pursuing what is considered the consensus method for dealing with terrorism, after all: police-style investigation, espionage, information sharing, and legal and financial dismantling of support structures for terrorist enterprise. It's not sexy, I suppose, and it doesn't serve anyone who is more interested in demagoguery than in solving the problem, but it has the virtue of being the most effective way to actually deal with the problem. Constantly stamping your feet and declaring Islam is the enemy, meanwhile, does nothing for us.
So what should we do, guys? There's this resilient movement within our national discourse, since 9/11, of people who are fighting mad that more of us aren't fighting mad. Islam is the enemy! This is an existential threat! You're not taking the threat seriously enough! If these statements are more than self-aggrandizement, if they are made with some goal in mind beyond letting the world know what a brave opponent of terrorism the person making them is, then there has to be some action advocated by these people.
Here's where we're left. We have a host of people from across many ideologies insisting that we don't take the threat of Islamic terrorism seriously enough. Yet they are curiously silent on the course of action we should take. This is the frustration for people like myself: we hear again and again from certain people who fancy themselves defenders of Western civilization that they alone are taking the threat seriously enough, that the average American liberal doesn't understand the threat, that we as a country aren't taking enough action. We hear this from Christopher Hitchens, and from Anne Applebaum, and from Charles Krauthammer, and others. They never tell us what we should do. (Geoffrey Andersen made this point about Hitchens in Slate once, but I'm afraid I can't find the link.) So we're left at this impasse. See, thinking people actually know what "really getting tough" with Muslims means: it means outlawing Muslim iconography and literature, closing mosques, banning the headscarf and other Muslim clothing, registering Muslims, maybe herding them into camps. That's the only thing that "taking the gloves off" can really mean.
Now I don't think the people constantly complaining that we don't recognize the threat from Islam want to us to do these things. (I certainly don't think Rod does.) But if they don't, then they're not saying anything at all. Then it really is just rhetoric. If you want to tell other people they aren't doing enough, tell them what to do. Otherwise, you aren't saying anything at all.
Update: This post originally referred to Rod Dreher as a Catholic, which I'm told he isn't. My apologies.
Update II: See Greenwald:
Any decent, civilized person watching scenes in Mumbai of extremists shooting indiscriminate machine gun fire and launching grenades into civilians crowds -- deliberately slaughtering innocent people by the dozens -- is going to feel disgust, fury, and a desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, regardless of what precipitated it. The temptation is great even among the most rational to empower authority to do anything and everything -- without limits -- to punish those responsible and prevent repeat occurrences. That's a natural, even understandable, response. And it's the response that the attackers hope to provoke.These attacks are outrageous and inhuman and they turn my stomach. We must respond to them with what works, and part of what works is not exacerbating the tensions that created these attacks in the same time. Find these people, and kill them. In doing so, though, we need to prevent the temptation to engage in rhetoric or policies which breed more enemies.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
My bros and some friends and I put together a feast. Here's what our menu was.
- Hickory Smoked Turkey
- Firecracker Corn Bread
- Pork & Shrimp Sin Mai
- Roasted Long Island Cheese Squash
- Homestyle Mashed Potatoes
- Cinnamon Apple Sauce
- Stuffing (Stove Top, natch)
- Blue Hubbard Pumpkin Pie
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I'm excited because I'm smoking a turkey for the second year in a row in honor of Thanksgiving. Last year, it was for a Friday-night-after-Thanksgiving get together with a dozen people or so, and I cooked a 20 pound bird. Smoking is an indirect cooking technique, so it takes a very long time-- last year I was up at 5:30 AM and wasn't done cooking until after 7:00 PM. This year it's for a smaller Thanksgiving day gathering so I'm doing a smaller turkey and will spend less time cooking. Of course, you don't have to sit by the smoker the entire time... but I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to cooking outdoors. And it's a great excuse to sit around outside, listen to the radio, read and drink a couple beers.
Prep is pretty simple, just a thorough washing and salting the night before. With smoking, the key is to allow the wood to create the flavor-- too much flavoring through a rub or similar, and you might as well not smoke it. I keep it pretty simple as far as dressing goes for that reason. As for the actually smoking, with a turkey I'll stick with hickory; some prefer apple, but with this kind of commitment (in both time and importance) I like to stick with something reliable. For the pan I prefer a whiskey mix to beer in pretty much anything, except some kinds of sausage and occasionally ribs. I use the drippings from the pan and a little flour to make gravy, and the whiskey really gives it that something extra.
The key is to avoid the temptation to look. Every time you pull your lid off, you're drying out the turkey a little bit. You've got to trust to your liquid pan and your technique to keep it moist. I might baste a couple times, once every few hours, straight out of the pan, but I really prefer the natural steam moisture.
I'll try to take a picture of the turkey before I carve it so you guys can see the finished product. You can really see the difference in the dark and reddish pigmentation.
Our eighth President, Martin van Buren, has sent me his latest screed, this time analyzing the early decisions of President-elect Obama. Enjoy. -Freddie
THE CHOICES, or, A PATH IN TWAIN: ONWARD TO RESPITE, OR RUIN?
Wherein Martin Van Buren, CITIZEN, evaluates the early investiture of Chief-Executive-Elect Obama’s Regime, &c.
From Mr. Martin Van Buren, CITIZEN
Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New-York
My kindness and sympathy is with you Mr. L’Hote, and to the L’Hote fam. & assoc., as you continue to recover from your recently manifested illness. Though custom and propriety dictate that one should only discuss debilitating diseases in private, I am thankfully exempted from giving any such quarter to scurrilous Jacobin curs who lack honour.
Therefore, forgive this old man’s venturous assumption, but I can only attribute the recent quality of your broadsides to a severely damaged mind. Pray tell…have you sensed Foreign plaques on the brain, or some other encephaloed swelling? Has the enteric fever befallen your community of late? Has a horse kicked you? I further surmise from your previous broadside on beer that spoiled drink has likely hastened the decline. Aye, for only derangement can excuse the amorphous deposits that you have lately deemed fit for the publick discourse. Why, what man of sensible tastes and learning would waste good ink prattling on about his brawling with other drunkards, while plainly ignoring the debates in the Congress on the protective Tariff? You are not well.
As I expect that your descent into madness and incontinence shall be swift, if not already well along (if this letter should reach the care-taker, Madam, please keep Mr. L’Hote’s chamber pot well within arm’s reach), I shall take this opportunity to opine in your place.
* * * Fellow-CITIZENS of Our Republic, I wish you glad tidings as we once again celebrate the harvest this week in a spirit of thanks-giving. Observe, dear friends in Liberty, how the typically staid surroundings of the field, shop, mill, or counting-house will soon be replaced by a mirthful familial feting of the Republic’s bounty! I salute you, Americans, as you gather with family to slaughter the turkie and indulge in the holiday’s signature custards, crumbles, cobblers, buckles, pandowdies and tea cakes.
At Lindenwald, my Special Emissary from Meals on Wheels, Amy, has promised to bring me a luxuriant sampling of the finest fried game for the Holiday. I am told that this game is the “secret receipt” of one of Kentuckey’s most renowned military veterans! I intend to follow this feast with a glass of fine warmed Scotch, a Fish-House Punch, and then indulgence in my newly-discovered “tele-vised” broadsides on Fox’s News. I find it remarkable what gaiety and subversive ribaldry is presented by Mr. Fox! My favorite theatrical at the moment features the untamed gesticulations and war cries of the Wild Irishman, Hannitie. However, I do question the propriety of transplanting this Hibernian shant to the publick stage. Is he not more fit for building our Republic’s palatial urban bridges or mining our precious coal?
Yet as we prepare to fill our bellies to the breaking with roasted meats, we must not lose sight of the latest dispatches from Washington. My post rider arrived with the news today that Sen. Obama is beginning to select his cabinet members, and that he is already crafting his plan to rescue the economy from the cold abyss wrought by those Whiggish, over-moneyed, speculator-banker-canal magnates.
Obviously, I have followed the news of the Chief-Executive-Elect’s plans with great interest. As you may know, my own administration was wracked with the Ills of Financial Panic, and I am eager to see how this tyro Senator of the Illinois Territory will combat the maelstrom. From Mr. Obama’s recent treatises to the publick, I glean the following choice crumbs of their Whig economic plan...
Our future Chief Executive and the Delawarean Mr. Biden will first enact a “windfall profits tax on excessive oil company profits to give American families an immediate $1,000 emergency energy rebate to help families pay rising bills.” Mr. Obama, I heartily embrace this proposal! For far too many years, the rapacious scions of New Bedford and Nantucket have crushed American liberty, their spermaceti-greased fists clutching at the hard-earned dollars of the common yeoman! Big Whale Oil, my fellow-CITIZENS, is corrupting our country.
Yea, our cities may gleam in the night with modern shining brilliance, but at what cost?? And now, as the Briton demand for our oil reserves increases by the year, the price skyrockets! What better fate can we hope for than that we will all soon be pawns in the pocket for the oily rogues of the Near Atlantic! We have no choice but to end this laudanum-like addiction to the whale’s milky gold. I suggest a mass transition to cleaner and more accessible fuel alternatives…kerosene, mayhaps, or coal.
Mr’s Obama and Biden have also pledged to “fight for a trade policy that opens up foreign markets to support good American jobs. They will use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world…Obama and Biden will also pressure the World Trade Organization to enforce trade agreements and stop countries from continuing unfair government subsidies to foreign exporters and nontariff barriers on U.S. exports.” Though I hath not traditionally been a supporter of jingoistic or bellicose sentiments, I can discern the hidden meaning in the Senators’ rhetoric. And I understand that enforcing “trade agreements” will require negotiation by cutlass and cannon. However, so long as the standing army is disbanded when we return with our treasure, I can endorse Pres. Obama’s use of forces to, say, capture the prized Caribbean sugar islands or to obliterate the piratical Barbary States from the face of the Earth. I doubt not too that overland military expeditions against the wily Shawanese and Sioux may also uncover secret Treasures hidden heretofore from the whiteman! I know not how Obama will proceed, but I eagerly await his larger plan for rebuilding our federal stock of precious gold specie!
Sadly, however, I also find that Mr. Obama plans to burden the American publick with a stunning amount of putrid Whig offal. The new Regime believes “that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure – its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems – to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow.” The new Regime further claims that it “will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs.” Oh me! The ghost of Alexander Hamilton walks again, and that lascivious product of bastardy is to be found violating dear and defenseless Liberty upon her bedstead! Must she further suffer the conspiracies of these politicos and Daemons of Public Works? I doubt not that the incestuous melee of banker, speculator, and bureaucrat will once again sully chaste Liberty’s name, if not fully extirpate her Virtue. I pray that such needless Whiggish Waste will not be a familiar stratagem for our new Chief Executive.
And yet, with all the weeping and teeth-gnashing for our Republic’s economy, I feel that the American People are obfuscating the greater Question regarding our children and their preparedness for the future. Should not the substandard education of our offspring be treated as the greatest hindrance to the continued Excellence of Our Republic? Certainly, the conveniences of ready market-food and indoor plumbing have made the latest generation so torpid and languorous, their attentions not attuned to husbandry but to their baubles, dandy-couture, and romantic dalliances. It is no surprise, then, that the educational benchmarks of our fathers have fallen into disrepair. Are you aware, for instance, that our young CITIZENS currently trail their counterparts in Hindoostan in both calving and farriery? It is this true crisis – the death of Yeoman Life itself -- that The Republic must head off, or the economic revivification shall be for naught.
Until next time, I remain your Publick Servant,
MARTIN VAN BUREN
To begin with, progressive has all kinds of historical contexts that liberal doesn't, and many of them are very nasty. The American Progressive movement of the early 20th century had a few good elements, some bad ones, and some really deeply noxious ones. We don't need those kinds of associations. (To those who say that conventional American liberalism is a straight descendant of the Progressive movement... no.) Liberal, in contrast, is a great word with an almost totally proud history. In fact, many conservatives say that the American conservative project is really the classic liberal project.
What's more, not standing up for the term that you self-identify with is precisely the kind of retreat and weakness that we have been tarred with for years. Do you think even now, at a moment of great defeat for their movement, conservatives are going to give up the term "conservative"? Of course not. Conservatives fight for their self-identification. Sometimes, this has negative consequences for conservatism. The refusal to genuinely reassess priorities and the penchant for cultural war, I believe, are consequences of this same kind of thinking. But politics ain't beanbag, like the man said, and if we are resigned to a politics of pugilism (the only kind), then we should be willing to fight for our symbols and our nomenclature. Liberal is a good word, and worth fighting for.
Monday, November 24, 2008
I'll be hiding in the bushes.
You think I'm gonna turn down encouragement like that? I'll confine myself to the last 100 years or so, and to painting. Here's a taste:
Umberto Boccioni. Boccioni is better known for his sculpture, but I prefer his painting, myself.
Marcel Duchamp. Astonishing as both an artist and a person. Controversial for exactly the right reasons, in that he made work that simply couldn't be ignored. If you're into reading biographies you should try one of him, there's a thousand fascinating stories. One of my favorites is that Peggy Guggenheim, the great art patron, was trying to decide if she should sponsor Jackson Pollack, essentially saving his career (and probably his life). So she sent Duchamp to investigate. When he came back and said "Pas mal," she immediately arranged for it to be done; coming from Duchamp, "not bad" was praise high enough to risk thousands of dollars on.
My tastes are influenced a great deal by the fact that I had a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago for a couple years and went at least twice a month or more. I love many more obvious artists, of course, your Gauguins and your Picassos and your Braques and your Pollacks. And if we expanded the parameters to other time periods and media, obviously, there'd be tons. While I don't consider myself big fans of their work, I frequently find myself defending the credibility of Andy Warhol, Salvatore Dali and Rene Magritte. Like many people, I'm sorry to say that my knowledge only runs up until the last couple decades of the 20th century, and I'm woefully uneducated about living working artists. You may be interested in my defense of conceptual art here, and my defense in theory (if not in practice) of Damien Hirst here.
Yet I have to say that when I really think about it, the opportunity afforded by the Web and blogs is pretty breathtaking. Without having to meet the criteria of any gatekeepers, without having to appear under the imprimatur of any news organization, I can speak to many different people, from anywhere around the world. When you compare that to the barriers to entry in any kind of mass media just a decade ago, it really is an amazing change. Personally, my success has been modest. My readership is tiny, as these things go. But it's more than enough; I have people who read what I have to say and react in intelligent, and frequently unpredictable, ways. (It helps that I don't do this for a living, or have any particular desire to; people who would blog professionally obviously have more pressure on them to reach a large audience.) Many popular bloggers have been incredibly generous with linking to me. It's all very gratifying.
Were I to apply for an internship at the New Republic or National Review or one of the major newspapers, I really don't think I would get one. That's not a knock; my resume is my responsibility. But it is a barrier. Here, though, the only barrier is whether people are interested in what I have to say. This blog was literally started on a public computer at the library. The fact that people who work for well-known magazines have seen fit to read what I have to say is pretty crazy.
Some would say that this is the problem with the Internet, that it's a cult of the amateur and that there aren't the necessary barriers to entry into the public conversation. While that may be true in some contexts, I think in terms of blogs, it's pretty simpy not the case: if I or any other blogger doesn't bring anything to the table, or if they are irresponsible, unfair or dishonest, they'll stop getting links. You can't say for sure they'll stop getting read, but then, Sean Hannity having his head up his ass doesn't hurt his ratings on radio. Unlike Hannity, meanwhile, anyone who wants to check the veracity of what I or any other blogger has to say is to click around, and in a few minutes you can have a pretty good sense. Commenters, too, can be a great boon for ensuring fairness and accuracy. My commenting crew is pretty small, but very bright, and also has no conscience when it comes to calling me on my bullshit. Given my penchant for getting ahead of myself, that's key.
One other advantage of the Internet is the ability of small groups with mutual interests to find each other and form intellectual communities. I mean, take the Postmodern Conservatives. That's a pretty unusual philosophical position! And yet, with the web, they can meet (virtually) and share ideas and form a common community, and advance their vision of conservatism in a way that simply wouldn't have been possible even 10 years ago.
This is all banal stuff, I know, but I think it's worth saying. If nothing less, it's very gratifying and meaningful to me.
Bloggingheads combines two things I really enjoy, hearing from smart people about their areas of expertise, and the sensation of being talked to. I actually know a bit about art history and art criticism, but the contemporary art world's economic and social models are foreign to me. So this was cool, check it out.
(By the way, I really hope the word "contemporary" never becomes situated in a particular time the way "modern" has. I mean modern literature, by most lights, is a early 20th century phenomenon. I would hate for contempo to start to mean "late 20th century" instead of now. But I get the feeling that's happening.)
Sunday, November 23, 2008
This picture, if you can believe it, isn't some experiment cooked up in a lab somewhere to define the '50s experience, but is instead actually a photo of my paternal grandparents, my father, and their dog. I think that device my father and grandfather are so enthused by is an air conditioner, but really, who knows. I kind of get agape, looking at it, how perfect it is. I'm sure it's probably not a candid shot. But still. (She's crocheting!) I particularly like how professorial both my grandfather (who I never met) and my father look; very appropriate.
Looking at something like this, it's easy to see the appeal of wanting to cast ourselves back to those steady times. But, of course, our vision of the '50s is illusory, and this family, like so many others, had a few things brewing beneath the surface that would trouble this perfect image. Still, I can't really look at it politically. It's family history, and it really makes me smile.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Update: A couple lines of unproductive snark redacted from the end of this post.
The first is that we have to recent history to suggest that Cabinet appointments might really demonstrate the kind of agenda a president is pursuing. Bush appointed, from my perspective, a Cabinet filled with extremists, and he got an extremist administration. Appoint Don Rumsfeld to Secretary of Defense, and you get a "new warfare" ideologue who agitates for widespread American conflict in the Middle East. Appoint John Ashcroft to Attorney General, and you get an arch-conservative legalist who raids medical marijuana dispensaries with SWAT teams. You appoint people, usually, who you think will work to enforce the kind of administration you've imagined. (A traditional conservative might point out that the agenda of the Bush administration had little to nothing to do with conservatism.)
People forget now, but following the debacle of the Florida recount and the popular vote/electoral college split, the conventional wisdom was that the Bush administration would have to run a conciliatory, centrist government. I had a friend who had just graduated with a political science degree at the end of 2000, and a bunch of his professors was telling him, a Democrat, that he should see if he could get work in DC-- surely, the new administration would be reaching out to Democrats to shore up Bush's limited claim to any kind of a popular mandate. Instead, the Republicans proceeded to appoint one of the most partisan and hard line Cabinets imaginable, and began pursuing policies in keeping with that partisanship. I would invite those who would point to Colin Powell that, yes, Powell has a centrist reputation in the United States, and deservedly so. But I've often wanted people to think a little bit more about the international side of appointing Powell to be the country's chief diplomat: a lifelong military man who had successfully prosecuted a war against Iraq. It may have been a centrist play nationally, but abroad, I think another message was sent.
Incidentally, I find the common postmortem analysis of the Bush administration's initial partisanship and extremity to be correct: believing that they had a one-term wonder, the Republicans moved to enact as partisan an agenda as possible within the four years they had, without having to worry about the moderating influence of an eventual reelection campaign. Then, when 9/11 fell in their laps, the calculus changed.
The second reason I am not convinced that Cabinet appointments amount to more of a political sop than to a genuine message about policy is that Cabinet positions matter. The notion of the Cabinet as a board of advisers is generally correct, but misleading. Individual cabinet members have a great deal of sway both in the appointment or hiring of the people who make up their agencies, and in how the policies of those agencies are enforced. (The Department of Justice being the most important and clear example.) What's more... advice matters. Presidents do tend to listen to their Cabinets, and a President hearing from a mostly moderate Cabinet is going to hear different things than he would from a mostly liberal Cabinet.
Really, it's impossible to say exactly what is going to happen. I am with Matt in thinking that we need to privilege what the President is actually telling us as far as predicting his agenda. But we need to remain vigilant and hold this President to the same kind of critical analysis and distrust that we did to the last one. Presidential elections can be kind of cruel. I've spent two years getting to like Barack Obama, learning about him, assessing his qualifications and his policy positions, trying to maneuver through the political spin and find the measure of the man. I think Daniel Larison is absolutely correct in pointing out that the left wasn't, actually, always in the tank for Obama. Personally, I had a very hard time getting past his demagoguery concerning Iran, although that was tempered by the fact that I had almost no alternatives to choose from on that issue. But eventually, you choose your guy or gal, and you stick by that person. It's not unwavering or unconditional support, but it's pretty close, because elections are tough, and to win them, we become advocates for our side.
Once the election is won, though, and our candidate takes office, he becomes a leader. And a leader in a democratic society, I mean a real democratic society, is not your friend. You can respect them and you can support them when appropriate and you can even admire them on a personal level. But all of that is only as strong as the next decision. Loyalty to leaders has to be as strong as tissue paper, and we all need to be ready to walk away from our support at a moment's notice. It's what democracy requires. The most powerful office in the world is also the most corrupting influence in the world. That's why it's a little bit cruel, because you spend more than a year convincing yourself that you like someone, that they will be a leader you can be proud of, an you vote for them and talk them up and maybe even volunteer for them, and you find it's a pleasant feeling, particularly after the last 8 years. But then that person becomes another politcian, and your duty requires you to let go of love.
What happens as time goes on, though, is that you end up drinking fancier beer through the force of circumstance. Sometimes you'll go to a bar that only has microbrews. Sometimes you'll have a friend that keeps buying you nice beers. Sometimes you'll be on a date and want to show the girl you're out with what a sophisticated guy you are. Mostly, though, you just drink smaller-label brews because you want to try something different. It wasn't that I was resistant to change or didn't want to try different things. I just didn't want to ever switch from primarily drinking cheap beers.
What ended up happening with me, though, is that as time went on and I was drinking more and more expensive/dark/fancy/small label beer, is that I found I couldn't go back to the cheaper stuff. As I acquired a taste for darker and more complex beers, I found it was more and more unpleasant to drink watery, bland beers. Not that, say, Bud Light ever tasted good, exactly. It just tasted like beer. And beer, back then, tasted like mildly alcoholic water. After expanding my pallet, though, and begining to enjoy darker and fuller bodied beers, Bud Light started tasting bad, actively bad. And I've found, to my consternation-- and to the detriment of my wallet-- that at this point I'd rather spend the $5 for a draft of something good than the $3 for another bottle of water beer. (Readers from New York, Los Angeles and other places with inflated drink prices are probably sighing wistfully right now.) It seems there's no going back to the Keystone Light days.
It's important to me, though, that my preference never becomes evangelism. I certainly am not going to begrudge anybody the beer they like. And I'm also never going to recoil at drinking whatever I'm given or is on hand. But when I buy my own, I'm sorry to say, it'll be something more expensive, although I certainly don't know enough to say that I drink "the best". (There are plenty of people who would put me to shame in the beer-knowledge category.) Anyway, this is just to say that, for me, the move towards more expensive beer was a matter of chance, not design.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Getting punched in the face sucks. It's getting punched in the face! And yet the first time you get punched in the face, I mean really punched in the face, by someone outside your family or friends, someone who doesn't care for you and is out to hurt you-- it can almost be a blessing. A blessing, because afterwards, you know what it's like. Before, you walk around with the worry of not knowing what it's like, and that compounds it. Afterwards, you know. It makes it easier.
I prize gentleness and always will. Fighting or anything to do with it certainly has no impact on the way that I confer respect on the people around me. I hate fighting, and I find real gentleness to be a rare and valuable commodity. Someone who really understands the nature of loss, I think, isn't someone who could start a fight frivolously, or imagine that doing so is a mark of manhood. I've never started a fight, and I hope I never do. I do think, though, that there's something to be said for toughness, for endurance. For some people, it's good to know what it's like to fight, and maybe more, to fight and lose. To fight, and lose, and to know you've lost, and to know other people have seen you lose. That's an education. You can look back on it, even years later, and know that you can go through it all again, if you had to. And that's where toughness comes from. And sometimes that toughness helps you win the fight.
OK, enough drunk blogging for me. Might burn down my credibility! Sleep tight.
I've taken pains to argue that I don't think the "abortion is murder" line works, really, and to point out ways in which many who say so don't actually follow that thinking through to its natural ends. There's a flip side to that, though, that I think has been batted around endlessly (like everything else in this debate): how can we reconcile a belief that a fetus has no rights with a feeling of sadness towards abortion? If a fetus has no rights, and its termination represents no crime, how can someone like myself feel that an abortion is still an unfortunate and unhappy occasion? It's a thorny question, though not an intractable one. For now, all I can do is consider it in the spirit that abortion is far from the only issue in which we look for the least bad choice. I'll think hard for us all.
Traveling through the Dark
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Oh, and by the way, my style is to jot off a post quickly, then read it back after it's posted and change little things here and there, mostly typos and grammar but occasionally word usage I don't like. (Stupid, I know.) From what I understand, RSS feeds don't show those changes. So if you find I've said something particularly incomprehensible, check the site and maybe I've changed it.
I did several African and black philosophy independent studies in college, mostly thanks to Lewis Gordon (who I dreamed of studying under). I had this professor, a really great, friendly guy. In a class he was letting me sit in on as part of my credit, we were talking about negritude and dramatic self-presentation. We were discussing how, according to the proponents of negritude, living life with a sense of dramatic narrative and presenting yourself in that spirit could create a sense of purpose and dignity, particularly important for those facing racial discrimination. I asked my prof what, precisely, would prevent such behavior from becoming pretentious. He cocked his head and smiled a little bit, and said he didn't think there was any difference-- living with a sense of dramatic arc in one's life was bound to be pretentious.
Let me say that I know that some of the elements of this blog are pretentious, even self-parodic; the French name taken from a classic short story, the Shakespeare quote, the earnest picture. At the risk of attempting to excuse through explanation, let me say that I'm aware of the silly-seeming seriousness of it all. I have two things to say in my defense. First, I think that it's possible for something to be at once earnest and self-parodic. I've long thought that there's a difference between acknowledging that something is ridiculous and ridiculing it. Lots of times, when I say I like a movie or song, people will assume that it's a matter of "so bad it's good." But really, it's a matter of "so good it's good." If you catch my meaning. My Shakespeare quote is in earnest, and that's how I really feel. I also recognize that putting a quote from Titus Andronicus up on your weblog is very mockable.
The other thing I would say is that there is a difference between the creator and their creation. This blog is an outlet for me to be a little pretentious, I guess, to be a little full of it sometimes. If you're like me, you often find that life is kind of, well, discouraging towards that notion of dramatic living. Here, though, where things are all cognitive, all intellectual, I can allow myself to stretch out, so to speak. I mean if you can't be a little self-involved on a blog.... Anyway, I hope you'll all take it on faith that, in real life, I'm not so certain, or so contrary, or so in earnest. Not taking yourself too seriously is a virtue, but a hard one to maintain, so luckily enough for me life keeps interceding whenever I get a little too much wind in my sails. (The "I look good/cool" trip is one that life puts a stop to with frightening speed, for me.)
I guess this is all just a way to say, I hope you like the new layout. Catching just the right tenor around here is difficult, and I'm working on it, but sometimes I screw up. If I haven't exhausted your patience yet, perhaps you can hold onto it a little longer.
To do: us the word "thing" less in this blog.
(The header is still too big, huh. Fuck.)
Update: OK, I've changed it from the "vertigo" picture (which you can see below) to something a little more generic, a picture I took on my mountain spot. I'll probably play with this for awhile the next few days.
Can't decide about the width-- I like the width of the widgets on the right a lot bigger this way, but the actual text is definitely too wide. It would seem like it would be easy to change one and not the other, but apparently not.
The issue is less of the expressions of grievance and more of the way in which those expressions are treated politically. The excess of the left is to say that the simple expression of grievance makes the political treatment a foregone conclusion. But this is to be cashed out as the despotic exercise of political power by fiat. Whereas I am inclined to agree, Freddie, that the purpose of democracy is to “take time” turning the wheels of politics, instead of shortcutting by automatically granting goods, services, rights, whatever to whomever voices a demand for them. Probably it should mean something significant that me and Conor and you and Andrew and plenty of other people with wildly diverging takes on, say, the marriage issue all conclude that the best or proper way to politically treat the grievances expressed is through the actual practice of democratic politics — and at the state level, too, right?
James is, presumably, talking about the complaint that the courts short-circuit the democratic process. This is a classic argument about Roe: not just that it reached the wrong decision (though most arguing this believe that) or that it was poorly argued (ditto), but that it was anti-democratic, because it legalized abortion nationwide without using the democratic process. That's a very popular point of view, even among some who are pro-choice, but it's wrong, and crucially wrong: the use of the courts to resolve disputes is a part of our democratic process
How did we arrive at a system where individuals and groups could challenge the state to have certain rights recognized, or to be enfranchised into preexisting categories of rights? It was created during our constitutional conventions, where the progenitors of the American system determined how our civic governance was going to run. In other words, it is a function of democratic process, and thus the outcome of court proceedings are themselves the products of democratic process. True, the process which created our constitution was of limited democratic value. But if we want to start questioning that process, we might as well tear the whole damn thing down. Meanwhile, we live in a country with a democratically produced system to adjudicate claims for equal rights, which refers to democratically produced state and federal documents which enumerate such rights.
Consider the gay men and women in Massachusetts who sued for the right to marry, based on the claim that they were being denied equal rights enshrined in the state constitution. The complaint immediately rang (often from places nowhere near Massachusetts, natch) that this was an undemocratic change of the law, because the voters or legislature didn't vote on it. Hogwash! The system of grievance-resolution-through-judiciary is a part of our democratic system, and one very few people want to do away with. The Massachusetts state constitution, meanwhile, is a document produced, ratified and amended according to democratic procedures. The decision was the process of a group of judges, sure. The fact that they had the authority to decide this complaint was the product of democracy.
Now let's consider Roe v. Wade. Again, a standard complaint is that the ruling was not the product of democratic process. In this instance too, though, we've got a document in our constitution that was democratically designed, ratified and amended, and the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution has an implied right to privacy which protects the right to an abortion. Now, you can argue that was a terribly decided case, and many have. But it's not "undemocratic". It's the product of a system created by democratic process. We don't have the ability to reformulate every procedure of democracy whenever a controversial issue comes up, so we use the processes we already have, even if they sometimes leave us with decisions we don't like.
Note, also, that's it's not like there's no recourse for those who are opposed to abortion. There's another democratic process that they could attempt to use to get rid of Roe: they could amend the constitution. Yet that's not on the table, and why? Because proponents of such an amendment know that criminalizing abortion isn't possible, politically, in this country, and likely won't be anytime soon. Outlawing abortion just isn't a popular enough position. That means it's like many other policy preferences that don't enjoy enough support to be codified into law. That's democracy. In a more radical vein, you could do away with the court system as a way of refereeing disputes entirely, but there are many reasons why we disconnected the judiciary from direct influence by the people in the first place.
People can and should still argue against decisions they dislike, of course, but I think that saying that court decisions are undemocratic is really just pretense, a way to lend a special sense of illegitimacy to court decisions you don't agree with.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
One consequence of this, it seems to me, will be that gay people will stop being an identifiable part of this country's liberal coalition. As homosexuality becomes less and less differentiated from conventional life, and there are more and more victories for gay normalcy and gay acceptance, there will likewise be less reason for a gay rights movement. And as gay people become fully integrated into the American experience as equal participants, the need for gay people to ally with any one partisan or ideological apparatus will shrink. One of my frustrations with conservative opposition to grievance politics and special interest groups is the fact that some groups of people actually have legitimate grievances (like being denied marriage rights). Sometimes certain groups of people actually have special interests, and as democracy is a system of individuals and groups competing for their own best interests, it's natural to have affinity groups dedicated to pursuing those interests. So the cure for minority politics is to remove the complaints of the minority groups in the first place.
This is, really, in keeping with an ideal most of us hold about any identity group or minority group: that as we progress towards eliminating their differentiated status, we want their status as minorities to mean less and less in terms of politics or culture. In other words, when there stops being a "gay identity" (which is inevitably constraining), there should equally be a end to the gay political identity. (Or at least, as we have come to know it.) If homosexuals are going to truly become just citizens, it's both natural and in their best interests for them to adhere to political parties or ideology based on their visions of political philosophy and public policy. That's democracy, after all, that's our vision of a community of equals who define themselves by their ideals and not through matters of race, ethnicity, sexual preference, religion or sex. (Though, of course, those things will influence our ideals.)
Not that I think gay men and women are likely to become majority conservative, or evenly distributed along the ideological axis. Heritage and traditions are more powerful influences on political affiliation, I believe, that we tend to account for. The social cues and experiences of gay men and women, if a gay culture can survive integration, will probably stay largely "liberal" in the mushy sense. It's impossible, of course, to fully divide what part of any person's political identity is a function of minority grievance and what part is "just ideology". I'm not suggesting that gay liberals are so oriented (uh, politically, that is) because they are gay. It's just that people will rally around the side that argues for them, more often than not, and there are I think quite a few people who stand with liberalism on social issues but not on economics. At the very least, anyone who knows more than a few gay people is sure to know some gay conservatives, and I'm sure more gay people will self-identify as such when conservatism gets out of the business of telling them who to marry, or that they are immoral or sinful. Bad for my ideology, perhaps, on a purely tactical level, but I think good for anyone who believes in a politics based on universal issues and philosophy.
I doubt I'll be around to see the end of the gay movement (through victory) and the requisite ending of the gay/liberal alliance. These things just take too long, and there is still far too much work to be done. If it does happen in my lifetime, I'll miss having the gays in the liberal alliance. They bring the style, if you'll forgive the stereotype, and politics is much more about aesthetics than many of us would like to admit. Plus (generally speaking) you can kid a lot of gay people about their minority status, in a way you can't kid a lot of other people with legitimate minority grievances. I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with this, but it's always struck me that a sense of the ridiculous is an essential element to dealing with oppression. Oppression is at its weakest, intellectually, when the utter absurdity of it is laid bare. You're going to tell me I can't drink at this water fountain because I'm black? Are you serious? You're going to tell me who I can and can't marry? Are you kidding? Put the spotlight on oppression and the intellectual underpinnings of it become so transparently weak, you almost have to laugh.
Anyway-- this is all pretty far flung and hypothetical. For now it's time for opposition, protest, organization and work.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
It's weird, on the cruise I defended Allan Colmes dozens of times. Lots of people don't understand that he's their (sic) to play a part, to annoy conservative viewers and make Sean look good. He's great at it. I know that's his schtick. And yet, everytime I go on that show, he pisses me off — and it shows. I wish I could just guffaw at him or roll my eyes the way lots of folks do. Can't do it.You see? Conversation isn't important; debate isn't important; constructive argument isn't important. What's important is theatrics. That's why Alan Colmes is "their". This is precisely the attitude of the Corner, and of Goldberg's posts about criticism in email. Whenever he posts a critical email, he mocks the person writing it, ignores their complaints, and takes a kind of "haha, look at this guy, everybody!" attitude. Because the point isn't to be convincing or be convinced. The point is to be a footsoldier, and barring that, a clown.
Jonah Goldberg, everybody.
Nothing can alter my emotions more easily than those which trigger memories from childhood. Watching this video I literally get chills, sometimes. It has a connection to a thoughts and feelings I can't begin to unpack, shades of images and memories that cut me deeply, effortlessly. It's funny; when I look at my old school pictures from the elementary school days (I was a proud Snow School Owl), I think to myself, damn... my style was fresh back then. I believe a lot of what people think of as good style, secretly, is based on whatever they used to wear as a kid. For whatever reason, the movies that touch me the most deeply are movies that I use to watch as a kid. (I don't know if we were typical, but my siblings and I watched the same movies over and over again.) The books I gobbled up again and again are burned into my brain. It's not just that those memories are important or, well, memorable. It's that they have a closeness to the bone, an immediacy and depth, that's startling. Strange to say that decades-old memories feel a little more immediate than day to day life, and a little sad.