Tuesday, July 13, 2004
More guest blogging (kind of)
I’ve got to do some paying work and answer dozens upon dozens of academic emails, so today I’ll turn the blog over to one of my off-site email correspondents, Glenn Springstead, a graduate student in government and politics at the University of Maryland. Take it away, Glenn:
The campaign’s off and running˝ time for me to air my big gripe about the Democratic Party’s campaign efforts. I like the Edwards pick. My theory is that the value of the vp pick is how it affects the nominee, not so much whether the vp provides a balance of some sort or enhances prospects in a particular state or region. Does he make the nominee more confident? In this case I think so, much as Gore boosted Clinton.
In any event, the SCLM has dutifully reminded us that prior to being a U.S. Senator, Edwards was engaged in the criminal activity of being an attorney. For poor and disadvantaged people. Cases he won forced changes in medical and industry practice. And worst of all, he made money, which conservatives oppose.
Based on his history, many conservatives are now charging that the Democratic ticket is unbalanced and “very liberal” (Novak) or the “most liberal” (O’Really?) ticket ever to grace our shores. And this is naturally a very odd thing. It seems to me that if there are two conservatives on the other ticket than maybe this ticket should consist of two liberals. But maybe I’m off on a limb here.
Here is my request to the Democratic candidates, Democratic Party, and liberal bloggers. Can we please speak up in defense of liberalism, the benefits of expanding civil liberties, protecting workers and consumers, and promoting economic fairness and corporate accountability? To me, conservative and conservatism are not good words. Let’s call conservatism what it is-- oppressive, authoritarian, and anti-democratic. I don’t want to compete with the GOP over who is the most conservative. Conservatism’s track record is not one to be proud of. It has consistently opposed voting rights, civil rights, workers, consumers, and low-income people at the expense of religious and corporate elites and it has promoted a rogue military-industrial complex that has weakened human rights abroad. I think the more we shrink from the liberal label, the less reason we provide for the disenfranchised to vote and the less of an alternative we present. After the past couple of decades of conservatism, questionable wars and foreign engagements, greater corporate control, the war on the poor, maybe we could use some liberalism again.
I’d also like to see the Democrats campaign in the inner cities instead of playing to largely white, well-to-do audiences in staged scenes.
I directed Glenn to that Boston Review forum, to which he responded:
I’m pretty much on board with Perlstein’s analysis. I would just add that the Party’s defense of individual liberties and rights should remain as much a part of the message as economic populism. But more importantly, I think the whole big-government-vs.-smaller-government argument is a fallacy rooted in another equally fallacious argument that there is a distinction between government and something called the “free market.” There is no “free” market. It is a contrivance that relies on rules and government interventions that favor some and penalize others. And I think the Party needs to begin to challenge the whole notion of the War on Terror(ism). But focusing on the long term as Perlstein suggests is vital.
The issue that interests me with the inner city and low SES areas in general is that while the black vote is pretty solidly Democratic, we don’t know what proportion of blacks and the poor are actually showing up to vote. Now it may be that there are not enough votes to be had here to win elections, but we do know that despite all the rhetoric of how polarized we supposedly are, 50% of eligible voters are still sitting it out and not voting.
I think Ruy Teixeira has argued pretty convincingly that nonvoters aren’t the answer for progressive Democrats, since in the political aggregate, they wind up looking very much like voters; they’re not a reserve army of the disenfranchised. But I’ve got nothing against putting economic fairness at the center of debate, however you want to do it. Back to Glenn:
I think the Democratic Party has two major problems. The first is philosophical, and that’s the question to which most of the comments on Perlstein’s essay are directed. The second problem is operational, or as some might say, programmatic. The two are related. By “operational” I mean primarily those programs and structures that make government “work.” Again, take the inner city. If there’s anything conservatives and liberals might agree on, if for different reasons, is that our cities are a mess. High crime rates, dilapidated and dysfunctional schools, and high unemployment characterize most of our cities. Unfortunately, I think, one of the ironies of the liberal successes of the last several decades in nationalizing public policy like civil rights has been that the Party is not as connected and committed to making government work at the local level˝ particularly in those areas that are of most concern to it and us. I think this has had a dual effect: it has left a void in the area of policy successes that could be used to validate its national and global agenda, and it has diminished the pool of political leadership needed to build both a voting and governing base.
Hmm˝ I’m not convinced of this second point, but I’m willing to be. And I can try the first on for size. I think that one of the reasons the right has been so successful in demonizing “government,” even to people victimized by unregulated capitalism, is that many people only see their government in the form of institutions like the IRS or the DMV. They don’t see the things their taxes build, partly because their taxes are abused by conservative lawmakers who use them to subsidize Enron capitalism, and partly because our tax structure is designed to milk lower-middle-income taxpayers while our anemic-welfare-state structure is designed to serve only very-low-income individuals and households (and not necessarily to serve them well, either). Most of the “safety net” (e.g., SSI, Medicare, WIC) is means-tested to ensure this result, and the only quasi-socialist program we have that’s not means-tested, Social Security, is funded by the most viciously regressive tax on the books. So my sense is that poor and lower-middle-class taxpayers who think they’re being screwed by “government” are largely right (as Tom Frank’s book demonstrates quite compellingly), and that if liberals want to persuade these people to stop voting for their screwers, they have to be able to point to social institutions and services that only liberalism can sustain.
Further suggestions are more than welcome.
Monday, July 12, 2004
Just like Ann Coulter
You all know Ann Coulter˝ when she’s not wishing that Timothy McVeigh had blown up the Times Building, she’s calling for the murders of radical American leftists like Al Gore and Gray Davis. But did you know that many liberal writers are just like Ann Coulter?
Last month, Oxblogger Josh Chafetz wrote in The New York Times Book Review that progressive populist Tom Frank is just like Ann Coulter. Frank’s latest book, WhatÝs the Matter with Kansas? (which I am halfway through as I write), criticizes corporate thieves who defraud investors and taxpayers, and wonders how so many of the people of Kansas, who in the early 1900s were largely progressive populists, have become Christian-conservative supporters of such corporate thieves. “In short,” Chafetz concludes, “Frank resembles no one so much as one of his most frequent foils, a fellow commentator by the name of Ann Coulter.” You see? I told you so! He is just like Ann Coulter!
Now in this week’s Times Book Review, Alan Wolfe points out that many more liberal writers are close kin to Ann Coulter: “Coulter’s style of attack politics, while still far ahead of the pack in the violence of its language, is no longer confined to the right.”
Similar sentiments and language are on display in ROGUE STATE: America at War with the World (Nation, paper, $14.95), by T. D. Allman, a veteran foreign correspondent and the author of ‘’Miami: City of the Future.’’ Bush pursues a ‘’middle-finger foreign policy,’’ Allman writes, formulated by ‘’capos’’ like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and sold by ‘’the Two Stooges of the Bush comedy team, Richard (the Magician) Perle and Kenneth (Cakewalk) Adelman.’’
Wow! Calling the President of the United States a “liar” when he claims that WMD have been found in Iraq is one thing, and it’s quite bad enough. But talking about the “middle finger” is really beyond the pale. And giving Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman these obviously false and derogatory nicknames is . . . is . . . just like Ann Coulter!
Not everyone is just like Ann Coulter, however. Arianna Huffington, as Wolfe points out, is more like Sean Hannity: “Pamphleteering is what happens when no one˝ editorial writers, university professors, publishing executives˝ is doing much ‘filtering.’ Without strong political parties and powerful labor unions, Arianna Huffington’s and Sean Hannity’s politics is the kind of politics you get.” Well said! Here’s more:
Rare among pamphleteers, Huffington has a sense of humor, a disposition that might make her suspect as a true warrior of words. Here she is on ‘’selective amnesia’’ as a campaign tool: George W. Bush ‘’could not recall any antiwar protests when he was a student at Yale. No one bothered to ask whether he actually recalled that there was a war at all in Vietnam.’’ But her humor also tends to the salacious. ‘’Quick, get that man a dose of political Viagra,’’ she says of Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader. ‘’At least get the blood flowing somewhere.’’ This is the kind of ‘’taste’’ one expects to find in a writer who calls the deputy defense secretary Paul Hawkowitz.
What truly lamentable taste! Indeed, when a progressive columnist criticizes Tom Daschle in this way, Sean Hannity inevitably leaps to mind! I think we can all agree that Hannity’s similarly tasteless jibes at Tom DeLay have done much to “polarize the political cesspool,” to coin a phrase.
But, um, wait a minute. What exactly is the argument here? Is it that powerful labor unions would surely have “filtered” Huffington’s work before it reached Barnes and Noble, and that strong political parties would have no use for a Sean Hannity? I’m confused. Is Wolfe really suggesting that the Coulter-Hannity phenomenon is a result of the weakness of the GOP as a party?
Now, before any of you write me any snarky or outraged e-mails about this post, I realize full well that in responding this way to Chafetz and Wolfe, I have become just like Ann Coulter. And that’s why you should think twice about responding to this blog, lest you too become . . . how shall I say . . . Coulteresque. Look what happened to bloggers Simon (of Kikuchiyo News) and Steve (of No More Mister Nice Blog) when they tried to criticize Chafetz and Wolfe: consumed by their own hate and vitriol, both of them! They wound up just like Ann Coulter!
There’s a lesson there for all of us. And let me give you a hint-- it has something to do with being just like Ann Coulter.
Saturday, July 10, 2004
What a week. Janet’s in Connecticut tending to family matters, and I’ve been solo with the boys since Sunday. Jamie’s in YMCA camp and summer school during the weekdays, Nick’s washing dishes at a local restaurant during State College’s “Arts Festival,” the unofficial motto of which is “Because the Under-25 Population Here Doesn’t Have Enough Opportunity to Drink Itself into Oblivion.” (It must be the only “arts” festival that’s ended in drunken riots twice in the past five or six years.) Well, I can do extended solo parenting pretty easily, having done it for a month last year and three months in 1996, but the trick this week was how to coordinate dinnertimes with hockey games. I can’t eat a thing within two hours of game time (ideally three), but Jamie dines regularly between 6 and 7, and Nick is a free agent-- sometimes he’s in the house around dinnertime, with or without friends, sometimes not. And the summer hockey league schedule is extremely erratic, since they have to work us around the youth hockey camps, the figure skating camps, the annual rink maintenance, etc. So as I mentioned on Monday, this week featured four games in a row: Mon 6:45 pm, Tues 8:30 pm, Wed 9:45 pm, Thur 7:15 pm. (Games are 75 minutes long.) Then there’s a game next Thursday, and then nothing until August 4. What a pain.
So Nick took Jamie to dinner on Monday while I played. Then I got Jamie ready for bed on Tuesday, left the house at 8, and Nick did the rest. Wednesday should’ve been the easiest of the bunch, but Nick informed me that he had plans for the evening, so I called a babysitter to watch the place from 9 to 11:30 (Jamie was just about ready for sleep when she arrived). Thursday, Jamie came with me, borrowed a spare helmet from the rink, and sat on our bench. He likes that, and he behaves himself quite well. There were a few other players’ kids at the game, and two of them served in the scorekeepers’ box. I asked Jamie whether he’d prefer the box or the bench, and he went with the bench, where he could keep track of me and tell me when it was my turn to play.
I’m not in the kind of shape 42-year-olds need to be in for this kind of thing. Those childhood pix of me in the corner of this blog depict a young, lithe, fast hockey player; the person typing these entries is an old, slow hockey player who could really stand to lose a body part known colloquially as the “pizza belt.” I tried to do some physically serious things on vacation, like running up and down the side of a mountain for 4 or 5 K, but I hate running and don’t do it well (indeed, “running” in this sentence actually means “stumbling in a generally forward direction"). Still, I managed seven goals and five assists in four games, and we won all four. Five of those goals were “meaningful,” in that they padded precarious one-goal leads; four of them came in Tuesday’s 7-3 win (one on a breakaway), and one of them helped us pull out a 3-2 squeaker on Wednesday, which propelled us into first place in a five-team league. Don’t get me wrong-- I’m the sixth best forward on a team with six forwards, and the entire first line is made up of guys less than half my age. But I can still play this game, you whippersnapper kids.
Also finished rewriting two essays (both under submission, so it’s bad luck to say anything more on that front), cleaned the car, slept in the tent in the backyard with Jamie (he loves this), and saw House of Sand and Fog (liked the first half hour, then turned on it) and 21 Grams (loved the first half hour, loved most of the rest too). Oh yeah, and did some blogging in my spare time. Many thanks to Avedon Carol, Jeanne d’Arc, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Nosey Sean, and Tbogg for sending their legions of readers my way this week. Thanks also to George Cotkin for mentioning this humble blog (favorably, too!) in his recent essay, “The Democratization of Cultural Criticism.”
Off to do weekend things with Jamie, most of which will probably have something to do with water.
Friday, July 09, 2004
John Judis, Spencer Ackerman, and Massoud Ansari have the full story, incredible as it is. But I have the actual letter sent by the White House earlier this week:
General Pervez Musharraf
President of Pakistan
I’m writing to you about an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As you know, I’m facing a tough re-election campaign this year, and my opponents threaten to undo everything I’ve achieved over the past three and a half years. The Democrats have tried every trick in the book˝ spreading fear among the voters, stifling dissent, soliciting special-interest money, and most recently, putting a candidate on the national ticket who’s clearly not ready for the job. I’ll be blunt: defeating the Democrats must be the top priority for everyone involved in the War on Terror.
I’m writing today because I need your help.
I need you and the Inter-Service Intelligence to capture or kill some al-Qaeda people for me. The sooner the better, though anytime before November will work. Also, the Democratic National Convention takes place later this month, and it would be really great if you could produce some terrorists from July 26-29, partly to take the headlines away from the Democrats and partly to help people forget that I said we’d get Osama bin Laden back in 2001. As for the terrorists themselves, don’t worry too much about the details˝ for now, any swarthy, bearded guys named Omar or Abdul will do in a pinch. Just send us their names and head shots, and my friend Karl will do the rest.
My staff has come up with a number of incentive packages to show how excited we are about working as a team with you and your people:
˝ If you produce some HVT (High Value Target) terrorists in the next six weeks, you and a guest will be treated to an all-expense-paid trip to the Republican National Convention in New York City. I don’t care much for New York myself, but they say it’s a fun place to be at convention time, if you know what I mean, and I’m sure my staff will do everything to make your stay enjoyable!
˝ If you can produce any HVT terrorists during the period July 26-29, you’ll win that trip to New York and my autographed photo˝ the very same one I give to my Pioneers and Rangers!
˝ If you can produce an HVT who’s reasonably close to bin Laden, you’ll win the complete Bush Ranger Package, two VIP tickets to the convention, and a signed copy of My Pet Goat, a book so compelling I simply can’t put it down no matter what!
˝ And if you can produce bin Laden himself, you’ll win what we call “the Jackpot”: the complete Bush Ranger Package, My Pet Goat, two VIP tickets to the convention and my Second Inaugural Ball, plus a guided tour of Cheney’s secret bunker! How special is that? Let me put this way-- even I haven’t been allowed in Cheney’s bunker!
As you can see, we’ve put together some very attractive offers here. But these incentives won’t last long, so act now-- or else. Remember, freedom itself is at stake!
George W. Bush
President of the United States
P.S. Is it OK if I call you Perv for short? Putin lets me call him Vladdy Boy.
Wednesday, July 07, 2004
Vacation reading II
Elizabeth Costello is not quite a novel of ideas. It’s kind of like a novel of ideas in vignettes—or more accurately, a series of vignettes that stage ideas that don’t quite go over. And when I say the ideas don’t quite go over, I’m not talking about Coetzee’s—I’m talking about Elizabeth Costello’s. The fictional Costello, as some of you already know, is an Australian writer of world renown, having “made her name,” Coetzee tells us on the first page, “with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce.” OK, for those of you keeping score at home, we’ve got a fictional character whose career—in her own fiction—consists of rewriting a famous fictional character. But in this fiction, she doesn’t write any fiction. Instead, she gives an award-acceptance speech at a college in Pennsylvania; a mini-lecture on a cruise ship; a campus talk and a seminar on animal rights; and a lecture at a conference in Amsterdam, where she plans to speak scathingly about the work of novelist Paul West—and then runs into West at the conference. (She addresses him before her talk, but West does not reply. Nor should he, since he’s being addressed by a fictional character, after all.) Here’s how the vignettes tend to proceed: Costello’s speech-talk-lecture is inappropriate to the occasion and badly received; there is a good question from the audience, and smart, wide-ranging general discussion afterward at faculty dinners, radio interviews, and the like. Costello is old and tired, Coetzee tells us more than more than once, and at times the prose itself is weary too (hers and his), as if it’s not entirely sure it’s worth the effort to keep going on, or as if it’s always muttering asides to itself, “no, no, this won’t do at all, will it, now.” Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Report to an Academy,” comes up a few times, beginning with the first chapter, where it is invoked in Costello’s trite, tired (and inappropriate-to-the-occasion) speech on “realism.” And the final chapter (which gives us Costello in the afterlife), “At the Gate,” is very consciously—let’s say much too self-consciously—an extended take on Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” but a take in which the text continually complains about its own tired, second-hand artifice: “Is that where she is: not so much in purgatory as in a kind of literary theme park, set up to divert her while she waits, with actors made up to look like writers? But if so, why is the make-up so poor? Why is the whole thing not done better? . . . It is the same with the Kafka business. The wall, the gate, the sentry, are straight out of Kafka. So is the demand for a confession, so is the courtroom with the dozing bailiff and the panel of old men in their crows’ robes pretending to pay attention while she thrashes about in the toils of her own words. Kafka, but only the superficies of Kafka; Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody.”
You get the idea: by this point, the novel is skewering its own remaining devices, presenting us with both the superficies of Kafka and complaints about the presence of all these flattened-Kafka superficies. One wonders (as one is reading, that is, particularly if one is me), is it worth the effort to keep going on? No, no, this won’t do at all, now.
And yet the book has a number of high points that have stayed with me over the past couple of weeks. One is the moment in Costello’s animal-rights lecture in which she examines cognitive experiments with apes and imagines all the thoughts that apes might have about the puzzles they’re required to solve, noting that the only “right” thought permitted by the experiment is the narrowly instrumental one that allows the animal to figure out how to eat. This neat little reversal not only answers, indirectly, Thomas Nagel’s famous question (addressed explicitly by Costello a few pages later) on whether we can know what it is like to be a bat (and Coetzee, in according Costello the ability to imagine simian subjectivity, is of course making that ability available to us), but it also makes humans look like the impoverished creatures in the experiment, unable to devise any cognitive tests other than those that measure instrumental reason. It’s a shame the rest of Costello’s lecture is, as one thoroughly unlikeable character points out, so maddeningly incoherent.
Another is the chapter, “The Humanities in Africa,” which narrates Elizabeth Costello’s visit to her sister Bridget, who is a nun in the Marian Order and a famous person in her own right. Sister Bridget is given an award by an African university, and—guess what—gives a difficult and inappropriate acceptance speech. But it is followed by a spirited discussion on the function of the humanities, the German idealization of the Greeks, the role of Christian asceticism in sub-Saharan Africa, the purpose of suffering, and lots, lots more.
This chapter would be good enough in and of itself, and it is, but what made it especially enjoyable for me is that I had the experience, four years ago, of hearing Coetzee read part of it at a symposium on Global Humanities 2000 held by the Leslie Humanities Center at Dartmouth. (This item occupies its own file drawer in my office, marked “Conferences to which Both J. M. Coetzee and I Have Been Invited.” No, I’m kidding. The other featured speaker, by the way, was Samuel Delany, and I got a chance to talk to him briefly about his novel Hogg.) I was slated to deliver a paper that eventually became my essay, “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities” (listed on the “essays” page of this site but not available online), in which I argued—ecumenically but not, I hope, contentlessly—for the centrality of interpretation in the disciplines of the humanities while noting the sublime uselessness of some branches of the theoretical sciences. But the day before I gave my talk, Coetzee did his reading—and in that chapter, Sister Bridget basically dismisses my argument like so: “That man at lunch was arguing for the humanities as a set of techniques, the human sciences. Dry as dust. What young man or woman with blood in their veins would want to spend their life scratching around in the archives or doing explication de texte without end?”
Gulp, I thought, and now I have to get up and give a paper that argues for explication de texte without end. Well, I figured I might as well address Sister Bridget and her chapter directly, so that night I stayed up and rewrote parts of my talk so that they engaged what I’d heard from Coetzee’s characters. The next day, I gave my paper with Coetzee in the audience maybe fifty feet away in an amphitheatre-room, looking down at me impassively but not quite expressionlessly. ("Bemusedly," I think, would be le mot juste.) It was a little like Elizabeth Costello addressing Paul West (except that I was not fictional at the time, and I was not arguing that Coetzee had given voice to evil, as Costello charges West with doing), because Coetzee did not say a word in reply, either after my talk or at any point in the symposium. That’s all right, I thought, it is the prerogative of world-famous novelists. After all, though he spoke in propositions about the topic at hand, he himself did not propose anything, as Sir Philip Sidney might have pointed out; his characters did all the proposing, and Coetzee was somewhere behind or above them, paring his fingernails. I admit that I did have a moment of terror—I hope he’s not thinking we’re all abject fools around here, a thought which quickly took its real shape, I hope he doesn’t think I’m a complete idiot—or a presumptuous asshole—for tweaking my talk so that it responds to his reading—but mostly I was worried that my talk would sound, to quote Sister Bridget, dry as dust.
After all, the “man at lunch” whose argument earns Sister Bridget’s scorn had actually come up with a much better example of the centrality of interpretation than anything I had at my disposal:
“But," says the young man seated next to Mrs. Godwin, “surely that is precisely what humanism stood for, and the Renaissance too: for humankind as humankind is capable of being. For the ascent of man. The humanists were not crypto-atheists. They were not even Lutherans in disguise. They were Catholic Christians like yourself, Sister. Think of Lorenzo Valla. Valla had nothing against the Church, he just happened to know Greek better than Jerome did, and pointed out some of the mistakes Jerome made in translating the New Testament. If the Church had accepted the principle that Jerome’s Vulgate was a human production, and therefore capable of being improved, rather than being the word of God itself, perhaps the whole history of the West would have been different.”
Damn, I wish I’d thought of that. Explication de texte without end as a rebuke to authoritarianism, theocracy, and terror. So that’s my borrowed Thought for the Day. You are hereby invited to read the rest of the book for yourselves.
Monday, July 05, 2004
Calling a spade a spade
I’ll get back to more serious blogging in a bit, but it’s been way too busy a day, and I just learned that a quirk in the summer hockey league schedule has me playing games every night this week. So, instead, here’s some low-hanging fruit that’s been brought to my attention by Eric Wertheimer (professor of American Studies, Arizona State), via Roger Ailes, via World O’Crap. It’s Peggy Noonan in full gush mode-- about flowers:
“Now I think people who put flowers all over the place are the only geniuses. They know flowers are an unasked-for and essentially unearned bit of beauty given to us perhaps to suggest other, greater beauty to come. They’re in Einstein-land, gardeners, and thinking of eternity. And I thought they were just retards with spades. Anyway, flower people are generous. They make everything look prettier, at no charge and for your enjoyment, even though they’ve never met you. So here’s to flower power, and thank you, London from this American traveler.”
Yep, retards with spades. Well, everyone is (rightly) all over this bizarrely abusive term for developmentally disabled folks, especially considering how our priggish Peg has reacted when confronted with foul, uncivil things like Paul Wellstone’s funeral. And then there’s the equally bizarre, dripping condescension at work in the entire passage, disguised (but not well disguised) as effusive praise. Yes, very well, and as Jamie’s father I have more or less the response you’d expect. But wait just a minute here. How do we know what La Noonan meant by “spades”?
I’ll bet dollars to dolphins that Peg wasn’t thinking of Benjy and Luster in The Sound and the Fury-- she doesn’t usually get that literary with us. Much more likely she was thinking of Peter Sellers in Being There and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven. (Or maybe a cross between the two, like Ernie Hudson’s character in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle?) Someday we’ll learn that her original sentence read, “And I thought they were just idiots with darkies,” before the dolphins appeared to her and said, “Peg, dear, surely you can be kinder and gentler than that.”