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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fun random assignment of the day

In a few minutes, someone from BBC News is going to call me to ask me what I think of these:

The general subject is “selling out”—a topic about which, as you already know, I am emphatically and determinedly ambivalent.  I mean, these are pretty seriously disturbing on so many levels.  On the other hand, I kinda perversely loved the idea of using “Lust for Life” in ads for Carnival Cruise Lines Royal Caribbean [thanks for the correction, O anonymous commenter @ 34!  fie on me for misremembering this], because when I was a wee thing I used to work in advertising and marketing and such, and I imagined the meeting in which someone pitched to Carnival’s reps the idea of using a song that goes,

Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He’s gonna do another strip tease.
Hey man, where’d ya get that lotion?
I’ve been hurting since I’ve bought the gimmick
About something called love
Yeah, something called love.
Well, that’s like hypnotizing chickens.

Well, I’m just a modern guy
Of course, I’ve had it in the ear before.
I have a lust for life
Cause I’ve a lust for life.

I’m worth a million in prizes
With my torture film
Drive a GTO
Wear a uniform
All on a government loan.
I’m worth a million in prizes
Yeah, I’m through with sleeping on the sidewalk
No more beating my brains
No more beating my brains
With liquor and drugs,
With liquor and drugs.

And so on, right to the lunch buffet, the waterslide, and the miniature golf.  It’s the Cognitive Dissonance Special!

Hey, I feel an ABF Friday coming on!  Let me know what you think of these things, and of “selling out” (if there is such a thing), and I’ll be back tomorrow with a response of some kind.  Which will be brought to you by Monsanto, proud sponsor of American Airspace since 1985.

Posted by Michael on 02/19 at 08:18 AM
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday potluck

Off to Temple University to do some real work for a change.  You know, trying out some ideas for the next book.  Going Greyhound—and leaving the driving to them.  (When I was little I thought this slogan meant “Go Greyhound—and don’t criticize our driving.")

Yesterday, my copy of this fine volume arrived in the mail.  I wrote the Afterword, and it was much fun.  I mean, you have to love a book in which Ben Carrington’s essay references this famous match and my essay references this post-postmodern classic.  (Ben notes that Marx was right after all these years—Socrates was offside—and I complain about the ESPNization of sports while also complaining that the NHL is available only on the “Versus” channel, which is something like ESPN Ocho-Cinco.  Just trying to heighten the contradictions, folks.)

Speaking of sports, the William Henry Harrison Appreciation Society is upset about the new AP rankings, which place their man three spots below George W. Bush.  “What did ‘H’ ever do to deserve this?” asked William Benjamin Henry George Harrison IV, secretary-treasurer of the society.  “The poor guy died a month into office, long before he could start any illegal wars or detain and torture anyone.” Moreover, Harrison noted, the national debt increased only $1.12 during Harrison’s tenure, “and much of that was the fallout from the panic of 1837.” Historians reply, however, that William Henry Harrison failed to pass any tax cuts during his time in office, leaving him behind Bush in the critical “lasting achievements” category.

Last and least, just to tweak one of my comments on another fine blog, I recently learned that Gattaca is a conservative movie because liberals believe it’s all in the genes (these would be The Bell Curve liberals, I’m guessing) and/or are techno-utopian transhumanists (these would be your Instapundit liberals), and Brazil is a conservative movie because it exposes the evils of government-approved torture.  Next week:  Matewan is a conservative movie because it testifies to the importance of hard work.

And yes, the Wolverines are there in full force:

Red Dawn (1984): From the safe, familiar environment of a classroom, we watch countless parachutes drop from the sky and into the heart of America. Oh, no: invading Commies! Laugh if you want—many do—but Red Dawn has survived countless more acclaimed films because Father Time has always been our most reliable film critic. The essence of timelessness is more than beauty. It’s also truth, and the truth that America is a place and an idea worth fighting and dying for will not be denied, not under a pile of left-wing critiques or even Red Dawn’s own melodramatic flaws.

You had me at “laugh if you want.”

Posted by Michael on 02/17 at 10:40 AM
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Week in review

Washington, D.C. – Republican firefighters responded to a series of blazes that swept through the financial districts of the nation’s major cities this past week and continue to rage from coast to coast.

The cause of the fires is not known, but some Democratic analysts are suggesting that the fires may have started in the electrical systems of the buildings, which were stripped of insulation as a result of the Free Industry and Real Estate to Unleash Power (FIRE UP) Act of 2002.

Republican fire marshals dismissed the suggestion, accusing Democrats of “playing politics” with the fires, and called for bipartisan solutions to the crisis.  “If anything caused these fires, and we’re not convinced of that to begin with,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), “it was excessive regulation.  Red tape is notoriously combustible, and these buildings were shrouded in it.  Sarbanes-Oxley has a lot to answer for.”

Democratic electricians were surprised by Boehner’s remarks, pointing out that exposed wires carry electrical “current” and are widely considered a fire hazard.  “This isn’t rocket science,” said electrical analyst Paul Krugman.  “It’s really EE 101.  It’s very basic stuff.”

Speaking on CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company,” however, Nobel Prize nominee Ben Stein argued that “conductivity” was just a theory, and that more research was necessary before it would be possible to determine whether in fact electricity “flows” in such a way as to be associated with the outbreak of fires.  “Wires and fires are completely different things,” said Stein.  “The one thing we do know is that rubber is extremely dangerous.”

“We don’t need the Democrat party to tell us about impedance,” added Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.  “Impedance we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban.”

The Obama Administration has announced that it will offer a two-part response to the crisis, consisting of a “fire brigade” armed with high-pressure water hoses and a sweeping plan to re-insulate the buildings’ electrical systems.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, promised to filibuster any bill that consisted of “simply throwing water at the problem.” “This is not a firefighting plan,” McConnell charged, “it’s a water plan.” Noting that Obama’s re-insulation initiative would be costly and that its effects would not be felt for years, McConnell proposed instead that Republican firefighters respond to the blazes with flamethrowers and oil-soaked rags.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, added that the historical record indicates that Democratic policies could lead to disaster.  “Just look at FDR,” said Gingrich, an avid student of history.  “Roosevelt’s creation of the Federal Deposit and Insulation Corporation led to the Great Chicago Fire that killed hundreds and destroyed four square miles of that city.  If you want to see America gutted and smoldering, just follow Democrat advice.”

From across the political spectrum, commentators David Broder and David Brooks indicated that the threat of a filibuster would likely bring down the Obama presidency.  “We need to take the best ideas of both parties,” Broder told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.  “If Obama can’t find grounds for compromise—some water and insulation, yes, but also some flamethrowers and oil-soaked rags—he will have betrayed the promise of his presidency, which was, after all, to transcend partisan politics in Washington.” Brooks agreed, adding ominously that “Obama’s credibility is at stake, and so far he’s not passing the test.”

Congressional Democrats have indicated that they are willing to consider oil-soaked rags and flamethrowers in the final bill.  In a gesture to moderate Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that Democrats would also add oxygen, polyester, and small explosive devices to the compromise.  But thirty-six GOP senators stood firm, declaring in a press conference that they would not accept any bill that contained water.  “Water will simply be neutralized by my superabsorbent undergarments,” said David Vitter (R-LA).  “And it’s socialist,” added John McCain (R-AZ), who pointed to the widespread use of water among Swedish firefighters.

President Obama, speaking in Ohio, said he would “continue to reach across the aisle for oil-soaked rags.”

The emerging Washington consensus appears to be that Republican firefighters and political leaders have won this round of the debate.  “Obama’s popularity has taken a hit,” wrote Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal.  “Last week he had a 68 percent approval rating, but this week fully one-quarter of the American people disapprove of him.  These are alarming figures that suggest the Obama honeymoon is finally over.” Fox News firefighting analyst Neil Cavuto agreed, noting that “Obama has been going around telling people that ‘doing nothing is not an option,’ but that’s patently misleading.  No one is suggesting that we do nothing.  On the contrary, Republicans are insisting that we fight fire with fire.  And that’s a winning formula if ever there was one.”

Posted by Michael on 02/15 at 01:10 PM
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Nixon

Last weekend, while Nick and his girlfriend Rachel were visiting, we (Nick, Rachel, another friend Sarah) went to see Frost/ Nixon.  Janet stayed home and worked on a talk (which she gave last night at Rutgers), and Jamie stayed home and amused himself, not having much interest in either David Frost or Richard Nixon.  Realizing I had the opportunity, at last, to see The Wrestler, I argued for that, but was overruled by These Rotten Kids Today and their preference for frothy, insubstantial entertainment and/or gratuitous and graphic violence.

Well, I could have done without the narrative embellishment of Nixon’s drunken late-night phone call to Frost, which sounded like it came out of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, but on the whole the movie was pretty utile et dulce, and so way better than Barely Tolerable by the most exacting of old-school standards.  I had two rueful thoughts on the way out.  The first is that the film takes as its climax the moment when Frost gets Nixon to say “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”: Nixon’s associates and handlers, especially Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), gasp and hang their heads, knowing the game is up.  It was a different time, huh?  Because if Dubya were to say such a thing in an interview two or three years from now, you can bet there would be all kinds of fist-pumping and hell-yeahing from the Mayberry Machiavellis.  Alberto Gonzales would hug Karl Rove, John Yoo would clink glasses with John Ashcroft, and Dick Cheney would be so happy he’d shoot someone in the face.

The second follows from the first, and consists merely of the reminder that the Clinton impeachment was only part of the long–term Republican payback for Nixon’s disgrace.  Granted, Clinton’s crimes far outstripped Nixon’s, since they involved blowjobs, which are expressly forbidden in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution (“The President . . . shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, blowjobs, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”).  But it’s worth remembering nonetheless that the wingnuts started planning Clinton’s impeachment years before Monica set foot in the White House—pretty much from inauguration day 1993.  The second part of the plan, of course, was the Restoration—not exactly along the lines imagined by the great Tom Tomorrow, but rather the restoration of the Theory of the Unitary Executive.  (This time with a brand new theory of the extraconstitutional superpowers of the Vice Presidency!)

The film Frost/Nixon closes with the claim that Nixon never saw his reputation rehabilitated, and never appeared again at any state functions, and that’s true.  It reminded me, as well, of a little epiphany I had ten years ago when I realized, upon visiting Washington just after the opening of the Reagan Building and the renaming of National Airport, that the Watergate Hotel is right next door to the Kennedy Center, and that hardcore Reaganauts’ drive to name every building, park, and monument after Ronald Reagan while adding him to Mount Rushmore and kicking FDR off the dime surely had something to do with their seething resentment at the fact that Kennedy’s name is everywhere in American official life and Nixon’s name doesn’t grace so much as a ceremonial punch bowl.  But if the film was trying to suggest that after the resignation and the Frost interviews, Nixon was sent into exile and Never Heard From Again, stripped of any influence over the course of American politics, that’s not quite right, is it.  In some ways we’ve been living with the fallout from Nixon’s impeachment and resignation for the past twenty-five years.  [Update:  or thirty-five, if you, uh, count from 1974.  Sorry about that.  My, how time flies.]

So later that night, before going to bed I peered into the YouTube and found this:

The exchange is reproduced almost verbatim in the film (Frost’s litany is trimmed down a bit, iirc).  And although Frank Langella does indeed do amazing things in the role of Nixon, rendering Nixon faithfully without quite dissolving into him, this clip reminded me that there is one thing Langella couldn’t do. He couldn’t do Nixon’s smile

Check out the very end of the clip, around 1:45 - 1:48.  It is utterly and completely terrifying; it manages to be goofy and chilling at the same time.  It is far more unsettling than Cheney’s smile, because Cheney’s default expression is already a smirk, and when he broadens that smirk and bares his fangs it’s quite clear that he is about to eat your children.  There’s no ambiguity about it.  And it’s more unsettling than Rumsfeld’s smile, because when Rumsfeld smiles you know he’s going to get off another well-timed zinger about how many vases there are in Iraq.  Nixon’s chuckle here is somehow more unheimlich than either, and it is definitely the wrong thing to see just before going to bed.

It’s so odd.  Those of us of a certain age (I was just under 13 when Nixon resigned) remember Nixon scowling and glowering and muttering darkly and sweating and waggling his famous jowls; there’s even a nice meta- moment in the film when Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), “playing” Nixon to help Frost (Michael Sheen) rehearse, lowers his voice, shakes his head, and growls, “That Jack Kennedy, he screwed anything that moved. He had a go at Checkers once, and that poor bitch was never the same after that.” It’s the kind of caricature that everyone associates with Nixon; it helped to make Rich Little famous, and it’s precisely what Langella, to his credit, does not do.  But we forget (at least I forgot) that sometimes Nixon smiled and chuckled and tried to “make light” of things, as he does here with Frost’s damning recitation.

Shudder.

Posted by Michael on 02/12 at 01:29 PM
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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deathly jargon

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (sub required this time—really), Russell Jacoby discusses Astra Taylor’s new film, Examined Life.  Ms. Taylor generously sent me a screener a few months ago, and though I haven’t blogged about the film, I did offer a couple of comments in this Crooked Timber thread, and I was pleased to see that that thread soon led to this very fine Inside Higher Ed essay by Scott McLemee.  One snippet from that essay:

But then Taylor takes another step. What might seem like a gimmick (the “philosopher-in-the-street” interview format, as I called it when blogging about the trailer last week) becomes a way to reflect on questions of context, meaning, and mobility. She does not explicitly mention Aristotle and Nietzsche, but the allusions are there, even so. Confirmation of this comes in her introduction to a book that The New Press will publish this June, based on interviews that Taylor did for the film. There, she cites another inspiration for her approach: Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

One of the figures onscreen is her sister Sunuara Taylor, an artist and writer — shown zipping through downtown San Francisco in her wheelchair with the queer theorist Judith Butler. They discuss what it means for a disabled person to “go for a walk” (and to insist on using that language even when it involves a motor). I don’t dare try to paraphrase the exchange. The segment, which comes near the end of “Examined Life,” is beautiful, fascinating, and transformative. It changes the context of all that has gone before in the film, and leaves the everyday world looking strange and new.

That, folks, is why there’s a Scott McLemee Fan Club, complete with its very own t-shirt.

Anyway, contrast Scott’s take with that of Jacoby, who, as you probably know by now, has an obsession or two that a film like Examined Life is sure to provoke.

You do not have to be a denizen of the American Enterprise Institute to regret the uniform leftism of Taylor’s cast of philosophers. And deathly jargon abounds. Ronell finds “fascistnoid nonprogressive edges if not a core” in the question of philosophical meaning. West flicks off phrases like “structures of domination” and American “imperial power” and emits clauses as if breathing about an “America predicated on the dispossession of the lands of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of African peoples, the subjection of women, and the marginalization of gays and lesbians.” Hardt considers where Lenin may have gone wrong about revolution in America. Zizek himself should be classified a “Left-Fascist,” according to a recent New Republic reviewer.

That there is some grade-A concern trolling, it is.  I too am deeply concerned about the uniform leftism of Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek, just as I am concerned about the uniform leftism of Al Gore, Karl Marx, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm X, and Shirin Ebadi.  And what’s all this deathly jargon about “structures of domination” and “imperial power?” Speak English, man!

Ah, but it’s not clear that Jacoby was in a listening kind of mood.  One paragraph up, he writes, “The lines tumble from West in cadences. He sprinkles names about like glitter: Vico, John Donne, Walter Benjamin, Goethe, Adorno, Yeats, Montaigne, Chekhov. West is no intellectual wallflower, but is this philosophy or showmanship? At one point West calls himself a jazzman in the life of ideas. He may be right.” This is clearly intended as an insult—a jazzman!  Heh!  Indeed!—but it’s a tad ill-aimed.  Because as you’d know if you saw the film, West doesn’t merely sprinkle names about like glitter.  He actually quotes the figures he mentions, sometimes at length, always from memory.  That might still be showmanship (West referring to his favorite Beethoven string quartet by its opus number can sound a little pedantic, after all), but it’s not quite as superficial and glittery as Jacoby makes it out to be.  It involves, you know, actually reading and listening and remembering stuff.

Anyway, you should definitely go and see the film if it’s at a theater near you.  (Here’s how to find out whether it is.) As I put it in my little blurb, “Famous philosophers discussing mortality, poverty, justice, cosmopolitanism, relativism, disability, revolution, democracy, ecology, ideology, and the meaning of meaning:  what more could one possibly want in 80 minutes?  Examined Life is a truly engaging and edifying film, reminding us all—by way of a dazzling range of discussions—why the examined life is worth living.”

And join the Scott McLemee Fan Club while you’re at it, too.

Posted by Michael on 02/10 at 02:19 PM
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Monday, February 09, 2009

Random Monday

In a couple of hours I’ll be doing a gig with Maud Newton—we’ll be talking about blogging and the arts.  As you might imagine, I’ll be arguing that American newspapers were just about to expand their arts-and-culture sections so as to make room for in-depth review essays on contemporary literature, theater, art and music when the Internet came along and destroyed everything.  But if you have any other suggestions, make ‘em fast.

In other news, I am shocked and saddened to learn that the Beatles have appeared in a photograph with a marijuana pipe.  I fear for what this will mean for our impressionable young children.  Don’t those boys realize they are role models?

Last but not least, this is really weird.

Posted by Michael on 02/09 at 10:25 AM
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