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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bush’s chat with novelist alarms environmentalists, Christian groups

From today’s New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18—One of the perquisites of being president is the ability to have the author of a book you enjoyed pop into the White House for a chat.

Over the years, a number of writers have visited President Bush, including Natan Sharansky, Bernard Lewis and John Lewis Gaddis. And while the meetings are usually private, they rarely ruffle feathers.

Now, one has.

In his new book about Mr. Bush, “Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush,” Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, “State of Fear,” suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat.

Mr. Barnes, who describes Mr. Bush as “a dissenter on the theory of global warming,” writes that the president “avidly read” the novel and met the author after Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, arranged it. He says Mr. Bush and his guest “talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement.”

“The visit was not made public for fear of outraging environmentalists all the more,” he adds.

__________

Environmentalists were not the only group Mr. Bush considered during Mr. Crichton’s visit.  “They covered the entire spectrum of Crichton’s work,” said Mr. Barnes.  “Crichton warned the President that the rapacious Japanese economy would soon crush America, that female executives are often the perpetrators in sexual-harassment cases, and, most important, that the lost city of Zinj is populated by murderous talking gorillas.  As in their discussion of global warming, Mr. Bush was in near-total agreement.”

Environmentalists have responded with alarm to the news.  “This shows the president is more interested in science fiction than science,” Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said after learning of the White House meeting. Mr. O’Donnell’s group monitors environmental policy.

Curiously, however, Christian conservatives have also expressed concern.  “The president met with Michael Crichton for an hour and they never discussed the dangers of genetic research?  That’s an outrage,” said the Rev. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.  “While we understand that the president needs to stay informed about global-warming charlatans, sexually predatory women and dangerous talking gorillas, we strongly believe that he should take a stand against scientific research conducted by atheistic madmen.  The president needs to reassure Christians that the Culture of Life® will not be threatened by genetically engineered dinosaurs, human-animal hybrids, or deranged robots with Yul Brynner’s face.”

Toxic, rapidly-reproducing crystalline organisms from outer space could not be reached for comment.

Posted by Michael on 02/19 at 01:36 PM
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Friday, February 17, 2006

Autocratic but fun Friday

Sean Hannity on academe, this week on Hannity and Colmes:

Kids are indoctrinated. They’re a captive audience. What can be done to remove these professors with these radical ideas from campus?

My reply (not that I was on Hannity and Colmes at the time):

That’s a great question, Sean.  Let’s break it down into two parts.

Kids are indoctrinated. They’re a captive audience.

The process all starts with the captivity, really.  As you know, Sean, in America, students are assigned to their universities by the Federal Education and Re-education Committee.  Once they arrive on campus, they are subjected to a rigorous system of mandatory coursework.  We like to call it “basic training,” and let me tell you, the foreign language requirements are especially punitive.  Now, the FERC records tell of a student who tried, in 1988, to “choose” an “elective” course at a Big Ten university.  That student was sentenced to twenty years in the Nevada silver mines, where she works today.  And I don’t think I have to tell you what happens to undergraduates who violate curfew!

[Laughter]

Now, you mentioned indoctrination.  Let me dilate on that for a bit. 

Once they get into my course (required for graduation), Advanced America-Blaming and Applied Appeasement of Terrorists, they are graded primarily on attendance and recitation.  They are also required to turn in two essays, one in which they blame America first, the other in which they propose a strategy for appeasing a terrorist enemy.  I am very strict about these essays.  I demand that their essays conform to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition, and that they spell America with a k.  (Extra credit for three k’s!)

The results are quite dramatic.  Many of my students come from conservative backgrounds, but by the tenth week of class, they can chant “all power to the Supreme Soviet” with the best of them.  Basically, we party like it’s 1929.  At the end of the semester, they leave my classroom and plaster the campus with posters reading “Meat is Murder” and “Bush is Hitler.” Two years ago, one enterprising student came up with a “Meat is Hitler” poster.  I have recommended that student to some of the nation’s top graduate schools.

My thinking is that if we can’t get them in college, we inevitably get them in graduate school.  Look at young Ben Shapiro.  When he got out of UCLA he was still an ultraconservative firebrand in the D’Souza/ Coulter tradition.  He even wrote a book called Brainwashed, even though he himself had not been brainwashed.  But after just two years at Harvard, he’s dropped out of law school to join the national touring company of The Vagina Monologues.

As to the second part of your question:

What can be done to remove these professors with these radical ideas from campus?

That’s actually quite easy, Sean.  I think a simple auto da fé should do the trick.  But let me answer you in a song.

Hey Sean Hannity, whaddya say?
I just got back from the auto da fé
Auto da fé? What’s an auto da fé?
It’s what ya oughtn’t to do, but ya do anyway

Sean Hannity:

Great tune, Michael!  Let me join in!

Auto da fé? What’s an auto da fé?
It’s what ya oughtn’t to do, but ya do anyway

Fox News Channel, what a show.
Fox News Channel, here we go.
We know you’re wishin’ that we’d go away!
So all you professors better get a clue
We got big news for all of you:
You’d better change your point of view . . . today!
‘Cause Sean Hannity’s here and he’s here to stay!

UPDATE:  Don’t forget the First Rule of Satire, kids!  The wingnuts are always worse than you can possibly imagine. Right now, in fact, in the sunny state of Arizona, they’re promoting a bill that would protect undergraduates from . . . novels by Rick Moody!  Here’s State Senator Thayer Verschoor on The Ice Storm:  “There’s no defense of this book.  I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material.” Someone get this guy a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow!

Posted by Michael on 02/17 at 12:55 AM
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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Re cycling

It’s 59 degrees in State College today.  I’m in my English department office and I have the window open.  I rode my bicycle to my seminar yesterday, and again to my office hours today.  I’ve never done that in a February.  And we didn’t even get hit by the record-setting snowstorm that covered New York and New England last weekend, so there isn’t any lingering snow in sight.  You know, I could grow to like this whole “climate change” thing.  Besides, there’s so much of northern Canada still underpopulated, and I hear Antarctica is a great place to raise a family.  So I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Riding home yesterday I had a bicycling flashback.  I’m not much of a cyclist, and I don’t have much of a bicycle (though I heart Janet for getting me one for my birthday two years ago; it’s definitely the best vehicle for getting to and around campus).  Just four speeds, but it looks pretty cool, being black and silver like the Raiders.  It’s the first bicycle I’ve owned in over twenty years.  Here’s what happened to the last one.

In 1981-83, when I worked as a word processor at Simpson Thacher Bartlett in midtown Manhattan, a new cadre of middle management human- resources dweebs arrived in the corporate world and began harassing the clerical staff.  By the time I left New York, the HR dweebs had outlawed Walkmen in the office, even though the word processors, in our windowless room, had no direct contact with attorneys (and thus no need to keep their ears open for orders, requests, demands, or ringing telephones).  They argued that listening to music distracted us from the task of revising all those loans, tax memoranda, and merger-and-acquisition documents.  They implemented a dress code.  They tried to drop the overtime “meal allowance” for night-shift WP staff from $6.50 (dinner) to $2.50 (breakfast) on the grounds that no one eats dinner after midnight.  The fact that no one in New York eats dinner for $6.50 somehow escaped them.  And this was in a firm that charged clients $500 per billable hour in 1981.  But I’m proud to say that I fought that one and won on behalf of all my brothers and sisters on the late shifts.  It was my only victory over the HR crew: the other issue on which I challenged them, their brand-new lateness policy, remained in place.

That policy penalized employees if they were more than five minutes late for the start of a shift three times in the course of a month.  I pointed out to the dweebs that with the exception of myself and two other guys (actors who had chosen word processing over waiting tables for their regular-income jobs), the entire support staff lived in the outer boroughs, and had no way of insuring that their various buses and trains would reliably get them to work right on the dot.  I asked for a fifteen-minute period instead.  The dweebs, being dweebs, responded that the support staff should simply plan to arrive extra-special early to avoid lateness penalties.

Yes, well.  I lived only four miles away from the office, but after one week in which two of my west side IRT trains broke down, leaving me late for work and within one five-minute mishap of suffering lateness penalties, I went and bought a crappy used bicycle for $100.  I called it the Plymouth Duster of bicycles.  But it got me to work on time.

More than that, it gave me tremendous adrenaline rushes once I got out of Central Park and into midtown each morning.  And the trip back home was even better.  For those were the years in which the city created bus lanes on Madison Avenue in order to ease the pressure on bus traffic heading to the Queensboro Bridge: through 60th Street, the right two lanes of Madison were off limits to all vans, cabs, trucks, and just plain cars.  Well, the bike messengers and I loved that.  We would slip into the narrow space between the bus lanes, which at 5 pm were lined with buses as far as you could see, and take off.  I thought of it as the urban-bicycle equivalent of surfing, and it was definitely tubular.  Getting out of the tube was tricky, of course, and there was always the possibility that a bus might creep out of its lane, which would leave a cyclist plastered to the side of the bus alongside the display ad, where he would doubtless remain until someone peeled his flattened ancient-Egyptian form off the bus a couple of days later.  But it was, to say the least, a rush.

When I moved to Charlottesville in 1983, I brought my bike with me.  I didn’t have a car, and I believe Charlottesville’s public transportation system consisted of one single bus making lazy circles around the county.  But one day in my very first week in Charlottesville, while I was riding my crappy used bike back to my crappy graduate-student apartment, I realized that I had never been in a left-turn lane before.  Three years of riding around Manhattan, and I’d never once seen a left-turn lane.  Damn!  And here I was trying to make this turn, and like a fool, I was on the left side of a left turn lane on busy four-lane US route 29.  So, looking behind me to make sure I had the room to cross over, I pedaled to the right side of the lane . . .

. . . and flipped completely over my handlebars, heels over head, and smack onto the back of the flatbed truck that had stopped in front of me.

I broke my sunglasses—but nothing more, miraculously enough.  Traffic stopped, and I picked myself up and dusted myself off, apologizing to the truck driver, who, for his part, couldn’t believe that a dumb-ass cyclist had done a 270 onto his flatbed.  (He was extremely kind, actually.) In response, I thanked him for having a flatbed, and for making sure that the payload area was empty and ready for my arrival.  Because, needless to say, if he’d had a mess of equipment back there, that would have hurt; if I’d hit a car instead, I would have wound up on the trunk or the roof, where I probably would have slid off and into the street; and if I’d hit any ordinary truck, I would have gone right into the back end, head first.  Was I wearing a helmet?  Of course not!  Why would anyone need a bicycle helmet?

I’m glad I lived through my first week in Charlottesville.  And I learned how to be more careful with a bicycle, too.  But to this day, I remember that accident vividly, and I’ve always found it kind of pathetically comic that I survived three years of biking in Manhattan, riding the bus-lane tube, dodging thousands of pedestrians and suddenly-opened car doors, and twice being deliberately jostled by crazy cabbies on Park Avenue at 15 mph or so, only to fly over my handlebars and onto the back of a flatbed truck within days of arriving in sleepy little Charlottesville.

Here’s to mild weather and bicycle safety.

Posted by Michael on 02/16 at 02:07 PM
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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cheney incident provokes strong reactions

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14—The 78-year-old lawyer shot by Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident over the weekend suffered a minor heart attack early Tuesday caused by birdshot lodged in his heart, hospital officials in Texas said.

The lawyer, Harry M. Whittington, was moved back into the intensive care unit at Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Tex., to be monitored for up to a week in case the birdshot shifted or additional pellets in his body moved into other organs, the officials said at a televised news conference. Dr. David Blanchard, the emergency room chief, estimated that Mr. Whittington had more than 5 but “probably less than 150 to 200” pellets lodged in his body.

“Less than 150 to 200 pellets,” remarked John Hinderaker of the award-winning Pajamaline blog. “I think that’s the key to this MSM frenzy right there.  If Cheney had been trout fishing and a companion had walked behind him as he started to cast, so that he inadvertently snagged his friend 150 to 200 times, resulting in a hospital visit, would we have seen this kind of frenzy? I don’t think so. I think we’re seeing, among other things, the press corps’ innate ignorance of, and hostility to, firearms coming through.”

Cheney’s friends and associates seemed to agree that the incident has been overblown by late-night comics and critics of the Bush Administration.

“Dick Cheney is one of the most skilled shots I know, and they’ll make fun of it forever,” said Alan K. Simpson, a former Wyoming senator who is a longtime friend and sometime hunting partner of the vice president.

“That’s quite true,” said a former aide to Simpson.  “You shoot just one guy in the face and send him to intensive care where he has a heart attack, and people don’t stop to average out your shooting accuracy over your lifetime.  It’s completely unfair.  Just like nobody ever forgets that one time in 1990 Senator Simpson told Saddam Hussein, ‘I believe that your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government. . . . The press is spoiled and conceited. All these journalists consider themselves brilliant political scientists. They do not want to see anything succeeding or achieving its objectives. My advice is that you allow those bastards to come here and see things for themselves.’ And no one ever remembers all the many times that Alan Simpson did not say this to Saddam Hussein.”

Some reporters have suggested that Democrats could overplay their hand by exploiting the incident for partisan gain.

“Democrats, too, have engaged in these luxury canned-hunting exercises,” said the Washington Post’s Deborah Howell. “Furthermore, Democrats have shot at animals, or asked lobbyists to direct buckshot to animals.  So we regard this as fundamentally a bipartisan scandal.”

Other commentators disagreed about the extent of Democrats’ involvement in the shooting.  “John Kerry would never have had the guts to do something like this,” said former Georgia governor Zell Miller.  “John Kerry would have fed those quail a yes no maybe bowl of mush that would only encourage animals and confuse our friends.  At least when a friend shoots you in the face, you know where he stands.”

Posted by Michael on 02/15 at 06:26 AM
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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

On civility

Friends, readers, fellow humans, I have looked into my heart.

The past week’s posts have made it painfully obvious to me that I do not speak kindly of David Horowitz.  The contrast between my posts on disability and my posts on Horowitz has been stark; the contrasts between my long-running series on Horowitz and my long-running series on Jamie have been downright jarring.  That’s partly because I love Jamie deeply, and Horowitz not so much; and, in turn, that’s partly because Jamie Bérubé is a thoroughly delightful human being, and Horowitz . . . er, not so much.  I have always been struck, for instance, that Horowitz has no sense of humor whatsoever, and I’m afraid I have used that against him rather mercilessly.  This has been somewhat unfair of me.  Mr. Horowitz underwent some difficult times in the past, especially near the end of his career as a New Leftist, when he joined the Symbionese Liberation Army only to find that the people of Symbionia did not, after all, greet him as a liberator.  He doesn’t need snark and mockery from people like me.  Indeed, after reading this thread of comments at Inside Higher Ed, I realized that I have occasionally used the unforgivably racist and sexist term “D. Ho.” to refer to Mr. Horowitz (and have, until now, permitted commenters on this blog to do likewise), whereas he has always spoken of me with civility and respect.

Some of you—particularly those of you who are unfamiliar with my postings on Horowitz from February through April 2005—might wonder where all this snark and mockery of mine comes from.  Well, first and foremost, as a liberal, I blame society.  But upon further reflection, I find that I have to take some personal responsibility for my actions.

I kicked off the decline in civil discourse last February, when Horowitz unveiled his comprehensive guide to the left, “Discover the Networks.” Overlooking the vast amounts of time and research that went into the creation of the site, I mocked it.  Yes, readers, it’s true.  As Horowitz pointed out at the time, I refused to “engage the intellectual argument” of the site; instead, as he put it, I callowly and opportunistically “seized on a quirk in the format, an entirely innocent feature of the site” in order to suggest that Horowitz had tried to link Bruce Springsteen and Mohammed Atta, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and Roger Ebert, Susan Sarandon and Zacarias Moussaoui.  Now, it’s true that he also told Salon’s John Gorenfeld that it wasn’t a quirk of the format at all:

You just can’t separate Ebert from a terrorist like the blind sheik Rahman, Horowitz told me. Chalk it up to the limits of presenting information on a two-dimensional computer screen. “It’s a limitation of—what? Of language? The human mind?” mused Horowitz. “The two-dimensional, three-dimensional, four-dimensional universe?”

It’s probably a limitation of all of the above.  As you know, this isn’t an either/or kind of blog.

Horowitz also defended his link between Barbra Streisand and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, writing, “it should be obvious that even the otherwise innocent Barbra Streisand shares negative views of the Bush Administration and its mission of liberating Iraq with anti-American jihadists like the aforementioned [Abu Musab] Zarqawi, even though we are sure that she deplores some of his methods.” As Horowitz graciously remarks here, Streisand is otherwise innocent—except for her negative views of the Bush Administration.  So he clearly draws an important distinction between two otherwise similar figures.

Still, even though Horowitz has uttered some contradictory and confused remarks about “Discover the Networks,” this doesn’t excuse the incivility with which I spoke of his hard, hard work.  Nor does it excuse my behavior in the sorry episode that followed.

In the course of this Networks-inspired debate, “Is the Left in Bed with Terrorists,” there was an Unfortunate Event.  Horowitz’s assistant, Jamie Glazov, gave me a series of questions, to which I promptly replied; he then emailed me Horowitz’s responses, which were voluminous and omnidirectional.  Feeling somewhat as if I’d been hunting with Dick Cheney, I told Mr. Glazov that I would need a few days to find the time to compose replies to all (or even half) of Horowitz’s charges.  Mr. Glazov sent me a reminder or two in the next few days, urgently but not impatiently, and within the week I managed to find an unbroken three or four hours with which to work.

I was therefore flabbergasted when the debate was published on FrontPage.  All of my second-round replies had been dropped from the exchange, which concluded with the following:

Glazov:  Mr. Horowitz, what is your take here on Prof. Berube’s contribution to our second and last round?

Horowitz: This answer from Michael Berube is disappointing but not surprising. As I have already observed, the left has become so intellectually lazy from years of talking to itself (and “at” everyone else) that it has lost the ability to conduct an intellectual argument with its opponents.

Readers, I parried him.  And I said some unkind things, like calling Horowitz a “sorry old fraud.” I mean, here I’d gone and taken the trouble to reply in good faith to all manner of when-did-you-stop-supporting-your-Islamist- jihad-friends questions, and FrontPage not only dropped my replies but called me an example of the intellectually laziness of the left?  Good grief!  I said some bad words that day.  I may even have uttered imprecations.  For this, I am truly sorry.

FrontPage patiently explained to me that I had indeed been hunting with Dick Cheney, and that, in accordance with the Cheney Hunting Protocols, any damage I’d incurred was my own fault:

In the final round, when Prof. Berube emailed his final response, he did not put his answer at the bottom of the exchange by his name as is the procedure at Frontpage Symposium. Instead, he inserted his comments in an interlineated format which answered Horowitz’s comments point by point and he put his very last paragraph below his name. He did this without flagging his interlineated replies throughout the text or informing the moderator, Jamie Glazov, of what he did. The moderator therefore scrolled down and assumed the final paragraph was Prof. Berube’s final answer.

I was not sure what to make of this at the time, since I’d asked Mr. Glazov for a few days to reply to Horowitz’s first round of responses, and since I’d sent him an interlineated email that was nearly twice as long as the one he’d sent me.  I believe I even expressed some skepticism as to whether FrontPage would have corrected the record if I had not written about the exchange on my blog.  That was uncharitable of me. 

And as a result, things have spiralled downward ever since.  Horowitz has taken to calling me an “intellectually challenged leftist,” though I am sure he did not mean to sleight people with intellectual challenges in so doing.  (That piece mentions me only in passing; it is primarily devoted to a searching, respectful critique of Tim Wise as someone with “a big mouth with a bigger nose” who, despite his place in Discover the Networks, is “too insignificant to justify the allocation of substantial resources to track down everything they have written or said.”) And I, for my part, have continued to treat Horowitz with nothing but snark and mockery.

So, in a spirit of contrition, I stopped by David’s blog yesterday to learn how to address one’s political adversaries with civility and respect. Here’s what I found:

Berube has now posted another attack on me without a addressing a single substantive issue between us. Typical. Just more rehashing of lies about me already told and already refuted, including the Isserman canard. Yes, I did not recognize the stylistic pecularity of Berube’s links, which are merely bold not underlined. Big deal.

In one case, Berube reiterates his slander calling my reference to the showing of Farentheit 9/11 a lie because I couldn’t confirm it (and therefore stopped referring to it). Can Berube confirm that it wasn’t shown? Of course not. Can any of the critics of Bush prove there were no WMDs? Of course not. This makes every critic of Bush a liar by the Berube’s abysmal standard.

Elsewhere, Berube claims he “hyperlinked to facts” in defending his libels. He did not hyperlink to facts. He hyperlinked to an attack on me on a leftwing site InsideHigherEd, whose editor is sometimes more responsible than he was in this particular case. I hyperlinked to the facts. Readers who go to Two Disputed Cases in Colorado will see what hyperlinking to the facts means But readers don’t have to work that hard. They can just read the paragraph I wrote above and note that Berube doesn’t begin to deal with it. The text of Exam is printed in my new book and confirms the truth of what I said. Berube is a liar and a brazen one at that. He can count on his fans not to look into the facts and on the core belief of progressives that if you repeat a slander enough times it becomes a fact, at least for other progressives.

The Isserman canard I answered at http://www.hnn.us. I am weary of dealing with leftwing slanders like these because I know that I am talking to a wall. The Colorado exam is a perfect example. No honest person examing the facts could write and then repeat what Berube has. This is by way of explanation as to why I am not going to look for the specific link on HNN. I’m sure that anyone who cares to will be able to find it.

Berube began this exchange (which has now degenerated to the point where I am going to take a shower) by attacking a book he hasn’t read, then instead of admitting his fault repeating slanders he hasn’t bothered to examine (I’m giving him an enormous benefit of the doubt in this) and then when they have been refued repeating them again along with rehashed others. All this, it should be remembered, is to avoid engaging an intellectual argument about the state of our universities which he knows he can’t defend.

One small point: I kinda sorta did engage an intellectual argument about the state of our universities about three weeks ago, in a 5000-word post that nearly broke the Internets.  I even addressed some of Mr. Horowitz’s arguments in that piece.  But I don’t expect him to read such things.  He’s a very busy man—indeed, right now he’s a very busy man who needs to take a shower.

To his credit, Mr. Horowitz addresses one of my objections about my appearance in his new book, The Professors.  It appears that I have once again seized on a mere quirk in the format—or, rather, a “stylistic conceit”:

Michael quibbles with a bullet-point heading, a stylistic conceit of the book, which claims that Berube believes in teaching literature so as to bring about “economic transformations.” Michael protests that the sentence from which this phrase comes is lifted out of context. This is what the sentence says: “The important question for cultural critics, is also an old question—how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations.” This appears to me like a classical Marxist notion. Michael doesn’t actually argue otherwise. In other words, despite the context Michael supplies, the statement stands.

You heard it here from the Respectful One himself, folks: the statement stands.  It’s official: David Horowitz thinks “correlate” means “bring about.”

Oops!  Sorry about that.  I lapsed back into mockery for a moment.

O, the incivility!

My more polite and respectful responses to Mr. Horowitz can be found in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education

I am puzzled, however, by Mr. Horowitz’s offhand reference to WMD.  While I apologize for slandering Mr. Horowitz by suggesting that he made claims that he couldn’t substantiate (he did, but that is certainly my fault), I do not understand the analogy at work here.  By the Berube’s abysmal standard, critics of Bush are liars, because they cannot prove the negative with regard to WMD.  And because I cannot prove the negative with regard to the showing of Fahrenheit 9/11, I have therefore called myself a li. . . no, wait, I’m confused.  Let me look at it again.

In one case, Berube reiterates his slander calling my reference to the showing of Farentheit 9/11 a lie because I couldn’t confirm it (and therefore stopped referring to it). Can Berube confirm that it wasn’t shown? Of course not. Can any of the critics of Bush prove there were no WMDs? Of course not. This makes every critic of Bush a liar by the Berube’s abysmal standard.

OK, I think I’ve got it now.  “Berube” is to “the nonshowing of Fahrenheit 9/11” as “Bush’s critics” are to “the nonexistence of WMD.” So Bush’s critics, in claiming that there are no WMD, are liars, because I said that Horowitz retracted his claim that a Penn State biology professor had shown Fahrenheit 9/11 to his class. . . .

Golly, that doesn’t sound right.  Maybe Horowitz is to the nonshowing of Fahrenheit 9/11 as Bush’s critics are to the nonexistence of WMD.  In other words, there may still be WMD in Iraq, and someone may have shown Fahrenheit 9/11.  And, uh, anyone who says otherwise is a liar by my abysmal standard. 

No, that’s preposterous.  I think the simplest explanation is the best: if I cannot confirm that Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn’t shown, then there were WMD in Iraq.  Readers are hereby invited to speculate—respectfully, mind you—on whether those WMD weigh the same as a duck.

Posted by Michael on 02/14 at 08:56 AM
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Monday, February 13, 2006

You got served

Last fall, when word went around the disability studies circuit that Johnny Knoxville was going to star in a movie called The Ringer, the premise of which was that his character feigns a developmental disability in order to defraud the Special Olympics, people were—shall we say—skeptical.  I, however, was curious.  For the past few years, I’ve been telling people that the Farrelly Brothers (who produced, but did not write, The Ringer) have been trying, with mixed success, to do something smart and interesting with the dynamic of disability.  Sometimes their efforts have taken the fairly traditional form of deploying characters with disabilities as the moral barometers of their narratives, as in There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal was, among other things, an attempt to redefine beauty in terms of an ethic of care (wherein the most beautiful people in the world are those who serve others selflessly).  But in Stuck on You, by contrast, they tried to pull off something like a disability comedy from an anti-normative perspective: when, at the outset of the film, an obstreperous patron at Greg Kinnear’s and Matt Damon’s burger shack (the two are conjoined twins and short-order cooks) demands that the “freak” be removed from the place, the regulars agree—so they get together and toss the insensitive jerk out of the restaurant.

I imagine, though, that the Farrellys were getting a little tired of exploring disability sympathetically and not having anyone notice.  So The Ringer takes the subject and puts it front and center.

I’ve been asked a couple of times about how I see the film, as a parent of a 14-year-old with Down syndrome.  “With popcorn,” I say, “and a large bottle of Dasani water.  Jamie gets himself a Coke.” Actually, Jamie’s seen it twice—once with Janet and Nick over the Christmas holiday winter solstice break, and once with me.

It’s not quite successful as a comedy, largely for the reasons Stephanie Zacharek explains in her Salon review: we really don’t have a lexicon for developmental-disability humor yet, and we don’t quite know when or how to laugh.  But on the most obvious (and accessible) level, the film is a biting and overdue sendup of the Daniel Day-Lewis/ Dustin Hoffman/ Tom Hanks/ Sean Penn/ Cuba Gooding tradition in which nondisabled actors win Oscars and/or the hearts of millions for portraying adults with developmental disabilities [edited in response to reader comments:  Daniel Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown had cerebral palsy.].  In The Ringer, Knoxville’s disability act is exposed quite quickly by the Special Olympians themselves, and they proceed to take over the rest of the film.  (The National Down Syndrome Society and the Special Olympics have enthusiastically endorsed the movie, and the Special Olympics were given control over the final script and the use of on-screen ad-libs as well.) As in There’s Something About Mary, one would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that angels walk this earth in the form of attractive female siblings of people with developmental disabilities.  But you know, perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world for mainstream Hollywood films to glorify the siblings of people with developmental disabilities.  I mean, it’s not like everybody’s doing it.

In the end, then, we weren’t offended by the film; we were intrigued.  And Jamie liked it (and asked to see it again) in part because it reminded him of his own Special Olympics experience this past November, which I’ve been meaning to narrate on this humble blog for a full three months now.  So here goes.

While I was at the University of Michigan on November 10 and 11 of last year, Jamie went with his volleyball team to Villanova University for the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival.  Those of you who are either family friends or very diligent readers of this blog will know that this constituted Jamie’s first-ever road trip and overnight hotel stay with people who are not members of his immediate family.  The deal was this: Jamie would travel with his YMCA team, the Red and Black Attack, on Friday afternoon; they would check in to the hotel that evening, and Jamie would room with two teammates and one of the coaches.  That night, I would fly home from Michigan, get up the next morning, and then drive to the outskirts of Philadelphia, three-and-some hours away.  The day’s volleyball games would be over by the time I arrived, but Jamie and I would catch up, maybe go swimming, get dinner, and (most important of all) go to the Special Olympics dance that night.

I arrived at Villanova around 4 in the afternoon.  One of Jamie’s roommates greeted me in the lobby of the Doubletree Suites, telling me that Jamie was a little wild; another roommate spotted me on the second floor, and said, “he’s bouncing on the bed and he wants to watch cartoons.” (Jamie is by far the youngest member of the team; the first person who spoke to me was in his thirties, and the second was in his early fifties.) “Has he behaved himself?” I asked.  “He’s a handful,” the roommate replied, in a singsong kind of voice.  When I was finally ushered into Jamie’s room by roommate number two, he was watching college football, and he was thrilled to see me.  Which is to say: he looked over at me, smiled, and said, “hi, Michael!  now can we go swimming?” before turning his attention back to the football game.

As I packed up Jamie’s suitcase and led him down the hall to our room, the coaches stopped us to say that Jamie had been simply wonderful the whole time, and that he’d done absolutely everything they asked (except maybe for eating too much ranch dressing at the previous night’s dinner), and that he was due for some “kid time.” They also told me that Jamie had had some fine kid time earlier in the day at the Olympic Village, where he danced with Darth Vader and some Star Wars storm troopers, introduced himself to dozens of people, and sat on a few of the motorcycles that were on display.  They gave me a Polaroid of a very cool-looking Jamie on a small Yamaha.  It sounded like he was managing to enjoy himself.

The dance, they said, would start at 8, and Jamie could come to dinner with the team or we could have some father-son time on our own.  We took option (b).  Jamie swam for a while, and then we went to the local mall (we were in one of those post-postmodern sprawl complexes that consist of generic motels and shopping centers) where we found that the casual-dining chain, Thank God It’s Ruby Tuesday Applebee’s, had a 45-minute wait.  So we got some slices of pizza at Sbarro and split a salad.

The dance turned out to be quite a scene.  Hundreds of adults and teenagers with developmental disabilities, just hopping and bopping and having a great old time.  Dozens of student volunteers and Villanova athletes, as well.  Jamie led me through the thick of the crowd and then out again, asking me, “where’s my group?” When he didn’t find them, he decided he would just dance by himself for a bit.  “Do you want me to dance with you?” I asked.  “No, you sit right there,” he replied, pointing to a nearby foldout chair.  Clearly, this was his party.  So I took my seat as he danced to two or three songs.  Then “his group” arrived, he spotted them in the crowd, and they all danced together for about fifteen or twenty minutes—until I learned that the van would leave at 6:15 am the next morning for Sunday’s first game.  “But the game is at 9,” I said.  “Yes, but we’re going over for breakfast and some practice first,” the coaches said.  “Yow,” I exclaimed.  “Oh, you don’t have to join us,” they assured me.  “You can just drop him off at the van and go back to sleep for a while.” Good, I thought, but I would still have to get up at 5:30—after traveling from Ann Arbor to State College the night before and then from State College to Philly.  So I got Jamie into bed by 10:30 that night, and crashed a half hour later.

The next morning, the phone rang promptly at 6:05.  “He’ll be down in five minutes,” I said groggily, as Jamie brushed his teeth.  After seeing him off, I did indeed go back to bed, knowing that when the morning’s game was over I still had another three-and-a-half hour drive in front of me.  I packed us up, and set the alarm for 8:30.

Now, a word about Jamie’s volleyball career to date.  Last year he was part of the “skills” class at the YMCA (a half-hour every Sunday in the fall of 2004), at which he learned how to serve and set.  He didn’t move to the ball during games, having no instinct for position play, but when it was hit directly to him (not too hard), he was capable of hitting it back, and occasionally he even hit it over the net.  But that was about it.  He was able to strike the ball sharply when it was his turn to serve, but he never cleared the net from that distance.  This year, he’d improved to the point at which the coaches invited him onto the YMCA team, but he was (as I’ve said) the youngest person on the squad, and though his position play was better and he was bigger and stronger than last year, he still hadn’t cleared the net on a serve.  At the one-day tournament at Juniata College this past October, he played four games; he wasn’t a starter, so he saw far more action in between-game practices than in games (and he sometimes asked to practice one-on-one with me), but he did manage to assist on two winning points, setting up much taller and older teammates capable of hitting it over the net with brio.  Though he’s now over five feet tall, he looked tiny out there; his jersey (he wore number 2) came down to his knees.  But he wasn’t completely out of sync with the general level of volleyball being played at the tournament; each team seemed to have three or four adults with disabilities who were serious athletes, a couple of capable players, and a couple of people who might or might not be able to hit the ball back.  Jamie was somewhere between group two and group three (closer to the latter), I thought, but I loved the fact that he was on the team, I liked the fact that the Red and Black won a gold that day, and I knew he’d improve with experience.  I did notice, however, that some teams allowed their weaker players to serve from a line that was about six or seven feet closer to the net than the back out-of-bounds line, and I wondered why the Red and Black Attack coaches didn’t offer this option to Jamie, who was now capable of reaching the net on a serve.  But I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t want to be one of those sports parents. Why isn’t my kid . . . ? You know what I mean.

So that Sunday morning at Villanova, I got some coffee at a Dunkin Donuts and drove to the campus at a leisurely pace, untroubled by the fact that I didn’t know exactly where I was going.  Games were being played at three different gyms, and even after I found the information desk it took me another ten minutes of wandering through Villanova’s sports facilities before I found the Red and Black Attack.  The game was well under way, and when the Y coaches saw me enter the gym, they promptly substituted Jamie for the player at the front right corner.  This meant, of course, that on the next point won by Red and Black, Jamie would be serving.

I was sitting behind the Red and Black end of the court, and when the team rotated and Jamie took the ball to serve, I sat at the edge of my chair and bit my fist.  If I’d had a towel I would have looked like Jerry Tarkanian.  Jamie tossed the ball lightly into the air with his left hand, swung his right arm through, and . . . delivered a perfect serve, clear over the net and between two opponents, neither of whom was able to return it.

Ace.

The YMCA crew clapped and cheered as Jamie took the ball for his second serve.  This one was a monster: soaring to the rafters, it looked for a moment like it would hit a light fixture and be declared out of bounds.  But it reached the crest of its arc just a few inches shy of the roof, and came plummeting down in the back left corner of the other team’s court.

Another ace.

In the lower-division Special Olympics volleyball games, no team is allowed more than three serves in a row.  (That’s one way in which they recognize the talent disparities among the players.) So Jamie’s next serve would be his last no matter what happened, and, no doubt a bit overeager by this point (for he was truly pumped), he shanked it.  But he had gotten his first two points in Special Olympics play, and when Red and Black won the game—which they did—he lined up with his teammates and shook hands with the other team before he was picked up and swung around in a circle by a very proud father. 

As Cubs fans say, wait til next year!

In the meantime, Special Olympics basketball begins soon.  I’ve been practicing with Jamie at the Y on the weekends, and yesterday, after five or six tries, he hit his first three-pointer.  Nothing but net.

Posted by Michael on 02/13 at 06:12 AM
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