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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A tense question

I know there’s almost no point in linking to a New York Times editorial, but then, this has never been a news-breaking blog, anyway.  I just thought that for all the paper’s shortcomings in recent years, it deserves some love for this almost-perfect piece of work:

They Came for the Chicken Farmer

This has been our nightmare since the Bush administration began stashing prisoners it did not want to account for in Guantánamo Bay: An ordinary man with a name something like a Taliban bigwig’s is swept up in the dragnet and imprisoned without any hope of proving his innocence.

A case of mistaken identity’s turning an innocent person into a prisoner-for-life was supposed to be impossible. President Bush told Americans to trust in his judgment after he arrogated the right to arrest anyone, anywhere in the world, and toss people into indefinite detention. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously proclaimed that the men at Guantánamo Bay were “the worst of the worst.”

But it has long been evident that this was nonsense, and a lawsuit by The Associated Press has now demonstrated the truth in shameful detail. The suit compelled the release of records from hearings for some of the 760 or so men who have been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. (About 490 are still there.) Far too many show no signs of being a threat to American national security. Some, it appears, did nothing at all. And they have no way to get a fair hearing because Gitmo was created outside the law.

Take the case of Abdur Sayed Rahman, as recounted in Monday’s Times. The transcripts quote Mr. Rahman as saying he was arrested in his Pakistani village in January 2002, flown to Afghanistan, accused of being the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister and then thrown into a cell in Guantánamo Bay. “I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan,” he said, adding that the Taliban official was named Abdur Zahid Rahman. . . .

Because Mr. Bush does not recognize that American law or international treaties apply to his decisions as commander in chief, these prisoners were initially not given hearings. The transcripts are from proceedings that were begun under a court order. They started years after the prisoners were originally captured—a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. And they were conducted under rules that mock any notion of democratic justice.

Prisoners do not see the evidence against them and barely have access to legal counsel. Now, thanks to a horrible law sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, they have virtually no right of appeal. The law even permits the use of evidence obtained by torture.

If the stories of the chicken farmer and the men with the wrong watches are new, the broad outlines of this disaster have long been visible. It is shocking in itself, and in the fact that average citizens have not risen up to demand that these abuses come to an end. The founding fathers knew that when you dispensed with the rule of law, the inevitable outcome was injustice. Now America is becoming the thing they sought to end.

There’s only one note off-key here: “is becoming” should be “has become.” Otherwise, it’s pretty damn good.

Posted by Michael on 03/08 at 11:42 AM
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Another subject altogether

This blog doesn’t usually do memorials.  OK, yes, I wrote a long piece in August about the deaths of Janet’s father and her best friend’s husband, but you know what I mean—I didn’t post anything on Coretta Scott King, for example, even though her passing was a milestone (and, unfortunately, the occasion for yet more wingnuttery having to do with black folk “politicizing” her funeral, in contrast with the well-behaved white people who refrained from politicizing the death of Ronald Reagan).

But last night when I learned of the death of Dana Reeve, I was stunned.  Not by surprise—I knew she had lung cancer—but by a sense that we’d lost someone of rare grace.  I know, I have a soft spot for caregivers of people with disabilities.  Sure.  And for people who are friends of Mark Messier.  (My god, it was only six weeks ago that she sang at Madison Square Garden in Messier’s honor.) But I think it wasn’t just that she was so powerful as Christopher Reeve’s partner and advocate—it was also that she and her husband dealt with more than most people know about.  Yes, there was the spinal cord injury itself, which is quite enough.  But for a while back there in the 1990s, Christopher Reeve became, in some circles, the example of How Not to Talk About Disability . . . because (so the argument went) he was all about cure, and not about care.  All about the remedicalization of disability, and not about the provision of services for long-term maintenance.  That was the argument, anyway.  If you didn’t have a connection to one or another sector of the “disability community” back then, you may not have seen the point of this critique: after all, who’s in favor of spinal cord injuries?  What’s wrong with curing a disease, or remediating a syndrome, or alleviating an injury?  Isn’t it a general species good that smallpox and polio and tuberculosis no longer sweep through the population?  There’s no such thing as a Tay-Sachs Preservation Society, right?  Well, right, but when you start talking too aggressively about “curing” or “eradicating” certain disabilities, some of us get kinda antsy.  Like those of us who are deaf, for example, or those of us who know people with Down syndrome.  We don’t see the “curing” or “eradicating” of these things as a general, unqualified species good; we tend to see them as perfectly acceptable forms of intraspecies diversity.  (I don’t even want to get into that new ABC show, “Miracle Workers.” All I’ll say is what I’ve said before, namely, disability deranges every political position on the spectrum.  Well, no, I’ll say a little more than that.  On the one hand, this is just creepy beyond belief: it’s the future of American health care, in which your only chance of medical treatment depends on your participation in a reality TV show.  And it’s cure-as-overcoming-as-salvation:  we might as well call it “Touched by a Medical Angel.” On the other hand, who’s against the innovative use of stem-cell research? You know who. And who among us truly wants to deny these people their desires?  Not me.) We thought that Nuveen ad in the 2000 Super Bowl was exceptionally creepy, too.  And we are deeply suspicious, for very good reasons, of the fact that most of the public narratives of disability involve plucky little humans “overcoming” their “handicaps”—even if we don’t mind touting the achievements of individuals with disabilities here and there as well.

So the Reeves caught a lot of extra grief that they didn’t really need, is what I’m saying.  And it always struck me that Dana Reeve dealt with that, just as she dealt with her husband’s injury and its aftermath, with extraordinary equanimity and greatness of soul.  I’m sorry she’s gone. 

Posted by Michael on 03/08 at 10:23 AM
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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reader poll

It’s your call!  Do I have to go to this thing?

___ Yes! Over the past year, you have devoted one-seventeenth of your waking life to mocking David Horowitz, and it is your obligation to hear him speak in person if he’s going to be appearing less than a mile from your temporary apartment in downtown Durham.  Besides, we need to know what he thinks about the fact that Duke has hired Judy Woodruff and David Brooks to teach courses for the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy next fall.  Liberal bias, or . . . liberal bias?

___ No! Life is short, Michael, and it is very likely that you have already lived more than half of yours.  And your National Humanities Center fellowship is even shorter.  Listen!  Even now, full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn, hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft the red-breast whistles from a garden-croft, and gathering swallows twitter in the skies.  Don’t go to this “lecture”; remember, PZ Myers, that dear soul, has already done that job for you.  Take your skates and go work out at this place instead.

Please review these options carefully, and vote no.  Thanks!

Oh, and while you’re voting, check out this thoughtful review of DH’s latest.  And please, please, please vote for me in the all-important Ty Cobb Award competition, because I’m getting slaughtered and murderized in the Koufaxes.  Thanks again!

Posted by Michael on 03/07 at 09:35 AM
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Monday, March 06, 2006

And the Oscar goes to . . .

Driving Miss Daisy through the Grand Canyon!

. . . oh, and we shouldn’t forget to mention, as an important precursor, the breakthough 1997 film Volcano, in which Los Angeles’s racial tensions are resolved when everyone is covered in volcanic ash.  Magnolia gave us “the frogs are general over all LA,” Volcano gave us “the ashes are general over all LA,” Crash gives us “the snow is general over all LA.” There’s your glorious mosaic right there!

Well, I suppose it’s not an utter travesty.  A travesty, yeah, but not an utter travesty.  After all, we survived Titanic and Terms of Endearment and Forrest Gump and Dances with Wolves.  We can survive this.

Actually, I didn’t survive Dances with Wolves.  But you get the idea.

Posted by Michael on 03/06 at 09:29 AM
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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dear Jon letter

Guest post by New Republic reviewer Lee Siegel

Hello, everyone!  Many thanks to Michael for letting me sit in today while he basks in the North Carolina sun and the glow of his Koufax nominations.  I’ve decided to take to the blogosphere because it’s come to my attention that there are some people who still haven’t responded adequately to my recent essay in The New Republic.  It’s available online to subscribers, but I hear that the good people at LBO-Talk have made the full text available on their listserv.  Please read the entire thing right now.  It is critical to the future of comedy in our country.  It takes the form of an open letter to Jon Stewart on the occasion of his hosting of the Academy Awards, and it begins,

Dear Jon Stewart,

As the entire world knows, you’ll be hosting the Oscars this coming Sunday for the first time.

On this august occasion, please allow me to appeal to you as someone who wants to be a fan but hasn’t been able to enjoy you so far. Please allow me to appeal to you as a public service. You of all people know from public service, since you are the very man who has enlisted comedy in the cause of civic clarity. I can’t imagine that what I say will make a difference to you—if you even happen to read this. No matter. Like you, I have a job to do.

First, note my “humility trope” at the end of this passage.  Despite the fact that I am a very important reviewer writing for the house journal of the National Center for Unearned Self-Importance, I say it is “no matter” whether you read my work.  But don’t fall for that little rhetorical feint—it is simply a measure of my craftiness as a writer.  For, in fact, it is critical that my words make a difference to you.  Jon, you have failed to win me over despite my desire to approve of you, and that should concern you.  It should concern all of us.  As I explain later in the essay,

I love comedians who make humor out of current events, out of bad or stupid politics. But the best of them work the stuff into wit. You just point, taunt, make faces. You say something “sucks,” and that’s the joke. You say “sucks” a lot.

Jon, I think the reason you’ve settled into this gross-out expedience is that you think, or you’ve been told, that the young audiences you supposedly draw aren’t up to more sophisticated bits. For one thing, I think you’re selling short the number of people in the magical demographic who have fine senses of humor. For another, I don’t think your audience is that focused on politics anyway. They just like to see people in authority, no matter whether they’re good or bad, torn down. It doesn’t matter whether the deconstruction is funny or not so long as it seems to humiliate the subject. So pretty soon, and especially when politics changes, you’re going to have to rethink your role as the Howdy-Doody Orwell. More importantly, when the chickens come home to roost—yes, the deficit spending on the war—and people start to want comedy with true creative-destructive substance; when they start to crave comic maturity rather than resigning themselves to pandering puerility, you’re going to be in trouble.

Yes, you read that correctly, Jon.  I think you’re condescending to your audience . . . but, you know, that’s my job.  You’re selling short the number of people who have fine senses of humor, whereas I’m quite sure that they’re not very sophisticated politically, and that’s why they’ve resigned themselves to pandering puerility.  But not for long!  Not after they hear from me.

By the way, I have a question for Michael Bérubé’s regular readers: honestly, what did you all think of the “Howdy-Doody Orwell” line?  Pretty good, huh?  When I typed that, I cried, “yes!  Lee Siegel, you have done it again!”

I slay me sometimes.

Now, I admit that every now and then, I’m a party of one in that regard.  No matter.  When I find myself in the critical minority, I know that our nation is deep in the throes of a profound cultural crisis.  For instance, when I informed the world that Eyes Wide Shut was “one of the most moving, playful, and complex movies I have ever seen,” I didn’t simply disagree with everyone else who saw the film.  Rather, I made my disagreement into a Gravely Pessimistic Cultural Statement About Our Entire Culture:

I realized that something that had been stirring around in the depths of the culture had risen to the surface.  After years of vindictive, leveling memoirs of artistic figures; after countless novels, plays, films, paintings, and installations constructed to address one social issue or another; after dozens of books have been published proclaiming the importance of the “great books” and “humanist ideas” to such a point of inflation that the effect was to bury the specificity of great books and of original ideas—after the storm of all this self-indulgence had passed, a new cultural reality had taken shape. Our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate experience; they have become afraid of genuine art. Art-phobia is now the dominant sensibility of the official culture, and art-phobia annihilated Stanley Kubrick’s autumnal work.

As you can see, I know art.  And I know playful!  So please, Jon Stewart, fans of Jon Stewart, and readers of this blog, take my words to heart.  Read them, repeat them, live them.  For your own good, and for the good of all humanity.  Thank you.

Posted by Michael on 03/05 at 01:56 PM
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Sunday Sandy

Last year, this blog was nominated for Koufax Awards in six categories.  For twelve long months, I have waited to avenge my losses.  Fie on you, Mr. or Ms. Digby (Best Writing)!  A pox upon ye, Amanda Marcotte (Best New Blog)!  And a chilblain for you too, Poor Man (Most Humorous Post)!  This year, I’m apparently not eligible in Best New Blog, even though I offered to delete all my entries from 2004 and start over; so far as I can tell, there seems to be no category for Best Middle-Aged Blog or Best Hoary Old Blog.  As for Wider Recognition, this blog already gets all the recognition it can handle.  And there was no Republican National Convention in 2005, so I couldn’t get any nominations for Best Series on that front.  All in all, I figured I would be down to three categories, max, in 2005.

But then, lo!  Someone nominated me for the Really Big Categories, Best Post and Best Blog.  Actually, I have four nominations in Best Post, and comrade John McGowan has one more.  And someone nominated my Jamie posts for Best Series.  So six categories it is, then.  I am now preparing six separate concession speeches.  After I write the concession speech in which I congratulate Todd Gitlin for becoming America’s Worst Professor®, of course.  Though I’m postponing that one until I can verify that there was no voting fraud in Ohio or Florida.

You can vote right here, and, as Dwight says,

Remember, we have your IP addresses. If you try to game the system, we will send your IP address to Bill O’Reilly and you will be receiving a visit from Fox News Security.

So don’t anybody mention Keith Olbermann.  Or Al Franken.  Or that Middle Eastern chick-pea thingy!

Dwight also says “be nice, and have fun,” which I consider an infringement of my New First Amendment rights.

OK, here goes.  I’ll list each category and provide links to the nominees.

Most Humorous Blog.

Oh, please.  Everyone knows this blog has clumpy humor.  Go vote for the really funny blogs out there, like Tbogg, The Poor Man, Zadly, Non!, Fafblog, or the General. Or maybe Josh “Poconos Talking Points” Marshall.  That guy always cracks me up.

Most Humorous Post

Well, at least this nominee is uncharacteristically short and to the point.  But imho, it’s not a serious contender.

Best Blog

Again, not really a contender, but it’s an honor to be among the 70 nominees.  Thanks, folks.

Best Writing

And remember, this blog is almost one hundred percent tyop-free.  I think that should count for something.

Best Post

This was a real surprise.  Here are my four:

“The Sense of an Ending,” here.

“Networking,” here.

“Bush Calls For Disassembling Gitmo,” here.

“Was I Ever Wrong,” here.

John McGowan’s “The Rhetorics of Violence” is here.

Best Series

It would be kind of cool to make the finals here, I have to admit.  At the very least, it made me go back over the entire year’s posts and put together the Jamie Collection for 2005.  Here goes:

The first is a brief notice about our trip to Houston, and the followup has a great picture of Jamie imitating a cobra.  (It just happens to be my current wallpaper, too.) Then there are some more Jamie pix, along with an account of our “pythons” routine.

Then we move to a more substantial post, and one of my personal faves.  After that, there’s my long-overdue apology to Jamie, which was also nominated for Best Post.

Next, sports!  Jamie in the local Special Olympics and Jamie in Challenger League baseball.

After sports, politics!  With an extra special direct address to Sam Brownback.

After politics, fiction!  On orphans and fictional families.

After fiction, amazing feats of memory!  Jamie and his baseball cards.

After feats of memory, orthodontistry!  The amazing but true two-part story of Jamie and his retainers.

Last but not least, Jamie doing his French homework.

OK, I guess that counts as a series.  Vote now!  And remember, if you can’t be just, be arbitrary.  (But fun.) There are hundreds of brilliant nominees this year, and this lonely blog salutes them all.

Posted by Michael on 03/05 at 08:31 AM
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