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Friday, June 24, 2005

Now I know my life has meaning

We suspend this blog’s customary Friday Follies—the widely-popular Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgments—to bring you two special announcements. 

One: After months of effort—much of which, as veteran readers will recall, was expended on this very blog—I have finally been accepted into the Inner Party.  Yes, my friends, I have been awarded my very own page in David Horowitz’s “Discover the Network!” And it’s not just a perfunctory entry, either!  Horowitz assigned somebody to read no fewer than five of my essays (even the one on Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist!), and Discover the Network provides links to all of them, including two .pdfs that come right from the “essays” section of this website.  I am faulted for my “forbiddingly clotted prose,” and I’m described as someone who “believes in teaching literature so as to bring about ‘economic transformations.’” (The evidence for this last bit is provided in the fifth paragraph of the entry:  “Arguing that the purpose of ‘cultural critics,’ among whose number he plainly counted himself, was to advance economic change, he wrote: ‘The important question for cultural critics, then, is also an old question—how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations.’")

Well, so what if they’re not sure of the meaning of the word “correlate”?  This is not a time to nitpick.  This is a time to celebrate! There are only about 250 people listed on Discover the Network’s “academics” list, and some of the entries are really perfunctory.  The one for Paul Gilroy, for instance—one of the leading figures in British cultural studies—basically consists of “Paul Gilroy:  is uppity.  Teaches at Yale.  Criticized the Iraq War.” Compared to that, I got me a stretch limo with complimentary hemlock, folks!

I’ll have more to say about my entry next week, but in the meantime, do check it out.  It’s a piece of work, and for that, I am very grateful.  I only hope I can find some way of repaying the favor!

Two: The College Republicans are gathering today through Sunday in Arlington, Virginia, for their annual convention.  The Heterosexual-in-Chief, General J. C. Christian himself, is mounting a heroic campaign to help these young men and women gain some real-world experience and support their country in a difficult time.  It’s a win-win:  the College Republicans will help our armed forces meet their recruiting goals, and they’ll pick up some much-needed moral legitimacy at the same time.  Please stop by the General’s place and support the troops today!

UPDATE, June 26:  Discover the Many and Varied Networks (yes, Anthony Smith’s comment below is right, they’ve recently made “Network” plural) has revised my page, making it 40 percent more spiffy and 25 percent less nutty.  (For instance, they no longer hold it against me that I asked graduate students to analyze a theoretical essay, and they’ve dropped the “forbiddingly clotted prose” bit, too.  They’ve also looked up the correct spelling of “losing.") But thanks to the wonders of the Internets, you can still read the original draft here.

Posted by Michael on 06/24 at 10:02 AM
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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Connections and Apologies

Thursday guest post by John McGowan

Since I’m leaving town for a few days, I wrote this post yesterday—before I had read Michael’s response to the Durbin apology.  So it is not so much a comment on Michael’s post as a thinking along parallel tracks.

I’ve been binging on novels lately, including my first encounters with the fascinating head-case Nicholas Mosley (thanks to Allen Dunn and Robert Caserio for alerting ignorant me to Mosley’s work).  And the binge was meant to carry me away from politics for a while.  In his book about the Ali-Frazier fight, Norman Mailer walks along a high ledge in his hotel in Zaire because he’s convinced himself that he must risk something in order for Ali to win.  I find myself entrapped in a similar superstition: unless I keep paying close attention, the nation will go completely off the rails.  Obviously, it’s not working. 

So I thought I’d give myself a vacation—and then I’d have some neat novels and some utterly new thoughts to offer this blog’s readers.  Get us all out of the box.  Remind me and you that there are things that interest, entertain, delight, terrify, and sustain us besides the country’s ongoing determination to undo itself. 

I was especially going to think/write about the novel and connections.  “Only connect,” E. M. Foster exhorted us all in Howards End.  In my recent reading, it struck me how dedicated novels are to connecting, how novels, unlike so much academic work, aspire to place all sorts of random things in relation to one another.  And this is not just true of ambitious novels like those of Richard Powers and Madison Smartt Bell, but even of what seem relentlessly “personal” novels written by John Cheever or Ann Beattie.  There’s a will to inclusiveness, to getting the whole field and the whole feel of a life down on paper, more to place it on record than to offer some sort of explanation.  The connections are often just collisions, not causes or reasons or necessities.  But those connections register what it is like to be bound to this world, bound to the project of one’s own life and the consequences of one’s own past actions; bound also to the others for whom one cares, and to the settings and networks and institutions within which one acts, and to the larger communities (like the country) about which one worries.

Then apologies came into the news—and they made me think about just how dangerous connections are, about how much work goes into preventing connections from being made. If people begin making connections, just think what might result.  Start with the Senate’s apology for its long inaction in the matter of lynching.  You would think that an apology would be a privileged form of connection.  An apology places me in relation to a deed that hurt you; I take responsibility and say, “I won’t insult you by pretending that the damage can be undone, but I admit my fault, and undertake to stand in better relations to you in the future.” An apology is about repairing a torn social fabric and establishing a new connection that can underwrite our future relations with one another.  It involves, then, both continuity and discontinuity—it connects me to a past that I also now will reinterpret as harmful and as a bad precedent for future action. 

The Senate’s apology did some of that repair work, but it was also (this being the Senate after all) salted with lots of self-congratulation, lots of self-assurance that this bad past was not our fault, but that of our benighted predecessors.  It was an apology, but no senator understood him- or herself as apologizing for personal actions.  And even that was too much for over twelve Republicans, who chose to absent themselves, and were saved by Bill Frist from having to actually vote against the apology. [From ABC News: “To the surprise and outrage of the resolution’s supporters, more than a dozen senators declined to sign on as co-sponsors. Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., did not require a roll-call vote on the resolution and scheduled debate to begin after normal working hours.”]

Now let’s move to Philadelphia Mississippi, where Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner (killed by the Klan in the summer of 1964), did—in her NPR interview—draw a connection between the manslaughter verdict just passed on her husband’s killer and the failure of both of Mississippi’s senators to endorse the lynching apology.  How did we ever evolve a set of journalistic ethics that renders drawing such connections outside the purview of a reporter?  If it does not happen today or is not uttered by someone being interviewed today, then it cannot be brought into a new story.  We have condemned ourselves to a perpetual present, shorn of all connections, in the way we report our daily news.  Thus, no one mentioned that Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 Presidential campaign by making his first appearance after accepting the Republican nomination in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Did Reagan make a connection to the 1964 slaying of the three civil rights workers that day in 1980?  Only by pointedly not referring to the event at all.  Isn’t Reagan’s visit—and the subsequent politics of the party he led to victory—relevant to the discussions of “racial healing” that are surrounding today’s reports of the manslaughter verdict?

One more apology is in the news: Dick Durbin’s.  Why is Durbin apologizing?  For making a connection.  He asked his audience in the Senate to play an associational game.  Take this description of certain behavior and then connect it to the regime that you think most likely allowed, even encouraged, that behavior to happen.  Durbin was roasted because he thus insulted our valiant and worthy soldiers.

The administration has a very clear no apology rule.  It was manifested in the contrast between Richard Clarke’s moving apology to the families of the 9-11 victims as contrasted to the administration’s stone-walling.  It was manifested in the presidential debate in which Bush would not admit to a single mistake.  And apology avoidance has become a fine art in the ongoing scandal (which it heartens me to see will simply not go away) of our illegal detention and criminal treatment of various prisoners.  Durbin must apologize because he impugns the integrity of the American soldier, who is doing a tough job and faithfully does what he is told.  How can you compare the GI to a storm trooper?  Oh, then the connection must be made to the higher-ups who give that soldier his commands?  You know how that one has been played: not at all, we (the higher-ups) have nothing to apologize for, nothing for which we are responsible.  It’s a few bad soldiers.

Only connect.

Posted by John McGowan on 06/23 at 07:08 AM
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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

About Durbin’s apology

A few points, from little to big, about the wingnut show trial that culminated yesterday in Dick Durbin’s apology for his remarks of June 14:

-- Durbin said nothing for which any reasonable, honest person should request an apology.  I know it, you know it, even Andrew Sullivan knows it.  Durbin said that America should treat prisoners better than brutal dictatorships do.  But I suppose we all know the real reason why wingnuts have a problem with that.

-- Richard Daley is a fool.  A craven, cowardly fool, at that.

-- Nobody made John McCain the Arbiter of Justice while we weren’t looking.  McCain has been pulling this stunt for some time now, ever since he set the rules for the 2004 presidential campaign.  You remember that one: McCain decided that the Swift Boat Vets should not lie about Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and, in the interest of fairness and balance, that MoveOn.org should not tell the truth about Bush’s service (and mysterious disappearances) in Alabama.  The Swift Boat Vets won that one, and the “referee” helped immeasurably.  Now here comes Honest John to demand an apology from Durbin, while saying this about Bill Frist’s serial lying and pandering in the Schiavo case:

I don’t want to criticize Bill Frist. He obviously had very sincere feelings about this issue. All of us were very emotional. We—Terri Schiavo had a loving parents and siblings that wanted to care for her for the rest of her life. I think our hearts went out to her in that situation and her family. Maybe we didn’t use our brains as well as we should have. So I can’t—I know that Bill Frist has denied that he “diagnosed” Terri Schiavo. I think we ought to get this issue behind us and move forward.

I don’t want to criticize Bill Frist.  I know that Bill Frist has denied that he “diagnosed” Terri Schiavo. Straight talk from the quintessential maverick.

And a hat tip to Arianna Huffington for calling out McCain on “his near-operatic lie that he’s ‘totally in agreement and support of President Bush.’”

-- As for the odious Frist himself, and his press release this Monday—“Shameful does not begin to describe this heinous slander against our country . . . and the brave men and women risking their lives every day to defend it”—well.  I am sorry to admit that this humble blog does not have the rhetorical capacity to give any of Frist’s remarks on the subject the reply they deserve.  That, clearly, is the purview of the Rude Pundit.  And this is one of those times when I wish I really was the Rude Pundit.

No, wait, here comes another one of those times:

-- Rumsfeld:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an interview to air Wednesday on Fox News Radio’s “The Tony Snow Show,” tried to equate Durbin’s comment with actress Jane Fonda calling U.S. soldiers war criminals during a visit to North Vietnam in 1972.

“Some people always in their lives say something they wish they hadn’t said,’’ Rumsfeld said. “We just watched Jane Fonda run around trying to recover from the things she did and said during the Vietnam War. . . . He said some things and he’s going to have to live with them, and I think that that’s not a happy prospect.’’

I suppose this means we can look forward to forty years of knuckle-draggers spitting in Durbin’s face.  (No offense meant to any actual draggers of knuckles, mind you.) Meanwhile, Rumsfeld contemplates a new round of prizes for the senior officers in charge during the Abu Ghraib atrocities: 

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering new top command assignments that would possibly include promoting Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former American commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Pentagon and military officials say. . . .  [W]ith the most senior officers cleared of wrongdoing, there is a belief among many at the Pentagon and in the military that the scandal may be receding in the rear-view mirror of public opinion.

So there’s your Dick Durbin Show Trial roundup, kids.  The people who criticize torture are vilified, and the people who oversee it are rewarded.  And the United States takes two more confident, emphatic strides toward the abyss.  Thanks, all you wingnuts, both in and out of office.  You’ve done more to aid and comfort the enemy than you’ll ever know.

Posted by Michael on 06/22 at 02:49 PM
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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mister Answer Man:  Special Human Rights Edition

Dear Mister Answer Man:  At Obsidian Wings, Charles Bird asks, “Can we agree that, no matter how the words are weaseled, putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse?” Is this just another tendentious wingnut reading of Dick Durbin’s June 14 Senate speech, or is it really the morally serious question it purports to be?  I can’t make up my mind.  – J. Humphrey, Montreal

Mister Answer Man replies: It is a morally serious question of the first order, Mr. Humphrey.  And that is why, if Mister Answer Man ever encounters someone saying, “do you know, the Americans have tortured and killed just as many people as were tortured or killed by the Nazis” or “in the gulags” or “by the Khmer Rouge,” he will declare that such sentences have no place in civil discourse.  Mister Answer Man frowns menacingly at all sentences that suggest that America is exactly like Nazi Germany / Soviet Russia / Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Indeed, one of the most profound things about Mr. Bird’s question is that it implicates numerous other rhetorical maneuvers that have no place in civil political discourse.  Applying the Bird Principle, we can agree that, no matter how the words are weaseled, the refusal to hold all nations to a single moral standard—for example, Article Five of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has no place in civil political discourse.  Equally important, in light of recent events, we can agree that whenever an elected American official argues that the United States should not employ the tactics of brutal, totalitarian regimes, smear campaigns against that official have no place in civil political discourse.

After all, it is axiomatic that when morally serious persons encounter horrific crimes against humanity, they do not resort to casuistry, pettifogging, or related forms of bullshit, such as arguing that the crimes are not nearly so widespread or systemic as other crimes.  Still less do they waste their time and ours by parsing the words of those who call attention to those crimes in order to try to stop them, demanding that human rights organizations and elected officials should say “a couple of bad detention centers here and there” instead of “gulags.” On the contrary, they welcome and applaud the efforts of all those who seek to uphold the ideal of universal human rights, and they especially welcome American political figures who seek to prevent the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, from engaging in behavior that undermines that ideal.

Mister Answer Man thanks you for your question, Mr. Humphrey.  It was a bit naive, but perhaps greater familiarity with the work of Mr. Bird will help you think more rigorously about human rights in the future.

Posted by Michael on 06/21 at 09:15 AM
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Monday, June 20, 2005

Hannity, Hewitt call for torturing Dick Durbin

Prominent conservative commentators Hugh Hewitt and Sean Hannity today called for the torturing of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D.- Illinois), in response to Durbin’s much-remarked denunciation of torture early last week.

Speaking on the Senate floor last Tuesday, Durbin read from a statement written by an FBI agent, describing the conditions under which Americans have been holding detainees in the war on terror.  The statement included graphic accounts of prisoners chained hand and foot on the floor, urinating and defecating on themselves while chained in a fetal position for 18 to 24 hours or more.  Durbin then said:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

In response, Fox News analyst Hannity sharply criticized Durbin, saying, “this guy’s trying to tell us that torture is un-American!  So why does Dick Durbin hate America?  Listen, our founding fathers fought and died so that we could torture our enemies around the world, including people we think might be our enemies or might become our enemies.  Maybe a few months in Gitmo will give Dick Durbin a deeper appreciation of America’s freedoms, and I for one would be happy to ship him there.”

Conservative blogger Hugh Hewitt concurred, writing that “the vast, vast majority of Americans” have decided that “Durbin is a pathetic and repulsive political hack who should exit immediately after a lengthy and detailed apology.”

Hewitt was especially incensed by Durbin’s citation of a letter written to him by former Florida congressman and Vietnam POW Pete Peterson, which read,

From my 6 1/2 years of captivity in Vietnam, I know what life in a foreign prison is like. To a large degree, I credit the Geneva Conventions for my survival. . . . This is one reason the United States has led the world in upholding treaties governing the status and care of enemy prisoners: because these standards also protect us. . . . We need absolute clarity that America will continue to set the gold standard in the treatment of prisoners in wartime.

“Peterson’s probably one of those Democrat Kerry-vets,” said Hewitt, “the kind who was never actually in Vietnam, and then lied himself into getting a couple of purple band-aids.  He and Durbin need to be chained hand and foot for a couple of days.  Let’s show these weasels and slimeballs that America doesn’t have a place for people who say that America shouldn’t practice torture.  Besides, why are we making all this fuss about a couple of prisoners defecating on themselves?  I defecate on myself all the time.  It’s not a big deal.”

In a related development, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz pointed out that many of the detainees in U.S.-controlled prisons had helped to plan the attacks of 9/11, and that many more have vital information that might prevent terrorist attacks in the future.  “These are people who can save lives if only we apply the right pressure,” Dershowitz said on Hardball with Chris Matthews.  “I have no doubt that the intelligence we’re getting from them has helped us defuse innumerable dirty bombs throughout the United States, often with only one second left on the little LCD ‘countdown clock’ that terrorists always attach to their homemade explosives.  There’s no question in my mind that if we weren’t torturing, maiming, and killing these people, we’d never get access to the vital information we need to keep America free.”

Thanks to Jeralyn Merritt, Billmon, and Roy Edroso, fine Americans all.  And hey, folks, that first Hewitt quote is for real.  You can look it up.

Posted by Michael on 06/20 at 08:32 AM
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Friday, June 17, 2005

Arbitrary but fun:  bonus edition!

I’m pleased to announce that John McGowan and I have reached a Comprehensive Co-Blogging Agreement, whereby he will post here on Thursdays, beginning next Thursday, June 23.  He will of course keep working on his own blog, Public Intelligence, which you should visit on a regular basis; he’ll probably cross-post on those Thursdays.  The Comprehensive Co-Blogging Agreement acknowledges, among other things, the rarity of such arrangements in the blogosphere, whereby a single-author blog dedicates one day to a guest blogger who keeps his own blog as well; accordingly, the Agreement stipulates, in section 147(c)(3)(iii), that “we will do this for a couple of months and see how it works out.”

You can see why it took us more than a week to decide on the exact wording of this complex undertaking.

On those Thursdays, I will (most of the time) resume my long-neglected duties as a member of the third or fourth string of the American Street team, and try to post something light and airy over there.  The Agreement mentions this in Annex C, but only in vague terms.  Personally, though, I think this is a good idea for blogs in general: every Thursday, everyone should post something on somebody else’s blog. Then we’ll see some common social spaces on the Internets!

Now, to some of the things I didn’t do this week: I didn’t post anything yesterday, but that’s because I spent all Wednesday afternoon writing Wednesday’s post, and I just can’t crank out those 3000-worders all the time, you know.  I’m still plugging away at That Other Thing I’m Writing, and will be for a while yet.  So I didn’t stop in to cheer the House of Representatives’ vote on Section 215 of the Patriot Act.  Always nice to have a glimmer of hope here and there for the nation’s collective sanity.  Sure, 238-187 isn’t veto-proof, but it’s better than last year’s vastly annoying 210-210 tie.  And yes, the new provision would still allow the government to track the Internet viewing records of library patrons, but that’s all right with me: the Internets are very dangerous places, and the Department of Homeland Security obviously needs to know who’s checking out videos of pie fights and then clicking on sites that tell you how to handle anthrax.  If we are to protect ourselves from having our ample breasts smeared by terrorists wielding anthrax-meringue pies, we need to keep tracking Internet use in public libraries. That’s the important shit.

Also, I didn’t say a word about President Bush’s visit to State College on Tuesday, where he spoke to the Pennsylvania FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium on the subject of Social Security.  One of my friends wrote in to say, “the President comes to your little town and you don’t even take notice?  And you call yourself a blogger?” Well, it just so happens I have a good excuse:  I was speaking about blogging that day, at the very same time as Mr. Bush (just after 2 pm)—at Web 2005, a conference for Penn State web professionals.  It was the first time I’ve ever been on a panel about blogging, unlike all you really famous bloggers out there who leap bloggily coast-to-coast from blogging panel to blogging panel.  But even though I have this ironclad excuse, the real reason I didn’t say anything about Bush’s visit is that I completely misread the local news.  Fool that I am, I thought President Eisenhower was coming to speak at Bush Auditorium, and I assumed that he was just going to recite those great lines about Social Security and Texas oilmen – you know,

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this—in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything—even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Imagine my disappointment when I realized the truth.  Apparently President Bush didn’t say anything like this!  Instead, he said almost the exact opposite thing!

“It’s not the government’s money. It’s the people’s money,” Bush said to the audience at Eisenhower Auditorium that was limited to FFA members and a few invited guests.

Bush has proposed allowing Social Security recipients to invest as much as a third of their 12 percent payroll tax in private accounts. Doing so, he said, would give them a “nest egg” that would earn better returns than Social Security and could be left to family or friends.

It would be part of the Social Security system, and a supplement to Social Security, he said.

“But it’s your money. No one can take it away from you. It’s your money. It’s money you can pass on to whomever you choose,” Bush said.

Although the local paper didn’t mention this, apparently Bush added, “all of your money is yours.  That’s right, it’s not the result of complex social contracts and agreements, many of which are underwritten by government.  It’s simply yours.  That means taxation is theft!  And that’s why personal Social Security accounts make so much sense.  Nobody can take your money away from you in a personal account.  Unless, of course, you invest your money with people like me or one of my friends, in which case you can pretty much kiss it goodbye.  Heh.  Heh heh.”

And finally, it’s time to resume that popular Friday Feature: Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgments!  Today’s judgment is a little more complicated than my previous declarations of the best this and the creepiest that.  That’s because during my convalescence, I watched dozens of movies, including things like Garden State, which all the kids were talking about however many months ago.  So today, I’m taking nominations for Movies that Most Efficiently Combine Two or More Other Movies, and I’m starting things off with the recent Paul Haggis film, Crash, for its brutally efficient fusion of Magnolia, Short Cuts, and Grand Canyon.  Until Crash came along, if you wanted to see a movie about race relations in Los Angeles and/or a movie with variously intersecting story lines and a large ensemble cast, you had to sit through all three films—eight and a half hours in all, two-and-change of which were directed by Lawrence Kasdan (which adds two penalty hours to the total).  And Crash even gives you snow at the end instead of frogs!!  Much more plausible, while still being quirkily “conclusion-like” in a “the snow is general over all Los Angeles” kind of way.  That’s why I call it Grand Magnolia Canyon Short Cuts, and that’s why I think it’s ideal material for Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgments.  Your turn!

Have a fine weekend, everyone.

Posted by Michael on 06/17 at 11:31 AM
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