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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Time for liberals to stop politicizing politically-motivated killings

So I’m reading Brian Beutler over at TPMDC, who says

Back in early April, the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning that the ranks of right wing extremist groups might swell. There was nothing especially controversial about the memo, which was put together under the supervision of a Bush appointee. It was the sort of threat assessment certain government agencies are supposed to provide; and DHS had prepared a similar memo about the threat of left wing extremists just three months beforehand.

But that didn’t stop conservatives and Republicans from turning on the outrage. The story drove cable news coverage for days, and inspired elected officials like Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) to stand before Congress and denounce the report.

“The Homeland Security Secretary [Janet Napolitano],” said Bachmann, “has redefined pro-life gun owning veterans who like smaller government and who believe America should secure our border against invasion from illegal aliens are labeled the domestic right wing extremists.”

Napolitano was ultimately compelled to apologize for the memo. But she probably shouldn’t have since subsequent events have vindicated the original warnings.

Let’s take stock of what’s happened in the months since President Obama was elected just over six months ago, and in the weeks since the DHS story broke. In November, the New York Times reported that “gun owning” Americans—responding to rumors that the incoming administration would confiscate their weapons—had embarked on a shopping binge and were hoarding guns and ammunition. By the time Obama was inaugurated, the climate of fear on the far right had grown hotter. In February, MSN’s moneyblog noted that the surge in sales had led, unsurprisingly, to a surge in gun stock prices.

Then on Sunday May 31 of this year, George Tiller--a Witchita doctor who provided late term abortions--was murdered while attending church services, allegedly by a right wing anti-abortion zealot named Scott Roeder.

And today, a white supremacist, Obama birth certificate conspiracy theorist--and World War II veteran--named James W. von Brunn entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with a shotgun and opened fire, killing one guard. . . .

All of this seems to indicate that the DHS report was actually prescient; its critics refuted. Indeed, one of the chief sources of that criticism was Fox News--which led the charge against Napolitano in the media

All quite true, and all the more reason for every card-carrying wingnut to issue a prompt and sincere apology to Janet Napolitano.  But isn’t there something missing here?

Ah, yes.  A shooting in Pittsburgh that had nothing to do with hockey.

Now, I do acknowledge that the above link takes you to an essay by Dave Neiwert, who happens to be a hysterical left-wing blogger of some kind.  If you want more sober and reliable coverage of the Pittsburgh murders, I can direct you to this evenhanded piece by Tommy Christopher, who calmly urged “the liberal blogosphere” to “stop exploiting the Pittsburgh shooting tragedy.” (Likewise, after George Tiller was murdered, Mr. Christopher decried those who would “scapegoat” Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter.  “This is an argument of opportunity, and it reeks,” said Mr. Christopher, professional-strength clothespin to nose.)

Well, Mr. Christopher, we did stop exploiting the Pittsburgh shooting tragedy!  Indeed, Richard Poplawski has already been forgotten.  And I should add that even if we did remember the shooting incident involving a far-right lunatic in Pittsburgh, it would have no connection whatsoever with more recent shooting incidents involving far-right lunatics elsewhere.  Besides, some liberal bloggers use the f-word, so we should be concerned about civility across the political spectrum.

Posted by Michael on 06/11 at 08:44 AM
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Game 6 analysis

That was totally worth doing.

Posted by Michael on 06/10 at 02:02 PM
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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Special Olympics - Les Faits Saillants

I know I’ve posted Jamie’s Special Olympics exploits before, but this is different. Now Jamie’s in the big time. The statewide Special Olympics.  The Show.

Since 2005, he’s competed in three events in the Centre County games: the 50m run, the standing long jump, and the softball throw.  Bless his heart, but only one of these events really challenged him athletically; as I remarked four years ago, he hadn’t ever run 50m—or 10m, for all I know—in his life.  The important thing, though, was that the local Special Olympics introduced him to the idea of athletic competition.

This year, as many of you know, I had the Bright Idea® of introducing Jamie to competitive swimming.  And after his stupefyingly triumphant debut this spring, it looked like this was one Bright Idea® whose time had come.  But then, a few weeks later, because Jamie’s parents are sometimes confused and discombobulated, we forgot that the next meet took place on a Saturday rather than a Sunday, so Jamie missed that one.  Last week’s Pennsylvania Special Olympics, in other words, were only Jamie’s second experience of doing the swimming-racing thing.

And I had to miss the games!  But Janet was there, and she brought our brand new digital videorecording device, and here, for your Jamie-blogging pleasure, are the results.

First, however, you need to know that Janet’s visual style is rather different from mine.  Janet studied for nine years with legendary videocam director Max von Schaechenholden:

The object of this technique, as you have probably surmised, is to disrupt the subject’s suturing into the Western scopic imaginary and its panoptic regime of “visibility” and “intelligibility”:

Note how the camera refuses to “represent” the large “crowd” at the Special Olympics, turning instead to the shoes of the common people, in a détournement of the well-worn Van Gogh motif.  Interestingly, Janet employs this “de-personalization device” even when the camera is ostensibly “identifying” a “person.” In the following clip of the opening ceremonies, we briefly see Jamie in a grey hoodie; then, at 0:12, Janet asks about Jamie’s dorm roommate, “where’s Austin?” Though she answers her own question, crying “there’s Austin” at 0:22, there is a crucial irruption in the ideological-identificatory apparatus:  the camera immediately proceeds to evoke the opening scene of Blue Velvet, as it plunges deep into the very grass of the field itself before pulling back and revealing the “person” known to the Western scopic imaginary as “Austin.”

Michael’s going to make fun of my camera work? Merciful Moloch, do I look like the kind of asshole who makes fun of his wife’s camera work?  (Though of course asking what I “look like” is itself a speech act that testifies to the hegemony of the Western scopic imaginary.)

OK, enough making fun of Janet’s camera work.  Because once the Olympics got going, Janet had a much tougher filming task than I did: whereas I was allowed to walk up and down the length of the pool at St. Francis University, Janet had to sit in the stands at the Penn State Natatorium and film from a great distance.  Which is, you know, harder to do.  So here’s Jamie as he makes his entrance—with the new bathing suit and goggles Janet bought him a few days earlier.  What a He-Man!  What a Hero of the Beach!

And here’s his first prelim, the 25 meter backstroke.  You can see he’s up against much stiffer competition than he saw in April; but even though he finishes fourth or fifth (we can’t tell, cough camera work cough), he shaves a few seconds off his personal best time.

His next prelim was the 25 meter freestyle, with much the same result: back in the pack, but 3-4 seconds faster than in April.  Clearly, he’s stepping it up, bringing it, playing his game, and staying within himself, though he’s not quite at that Next Level yet:

The really dramatic improvement, though, came in the 50 meter.  Check out the very end:

He finishes third in a four-man race, yeah, but that was a good kick, and ZOMG look at that time! 1:06.07!  Ten seconds faster than the 1:16 from the sectionals! And that 1:16, in turn, was a dramatic improvement on his 1:32.85 qualifying time.  Citius, altius, fortius, my son!

Two more clips, this time from the final competitions on Saturday.  First, the 50m, where he’s dead last by a full body length at the 35m mark until he busts it and somehow kicks himself into second place:

Second, the 25m, where he finishes either fourth or fifth by a fraction of a hair, but breaks the 30-second barrier for the first time:

Congratulations, Jamie!  You did not win, but you were brave in the attempt.  And you came away with a silver, a bronze, and a ribbon.  Not bad for your second meet, and your first appearance in the statewide games.  Your reward is . . . game six of the Stanley Cup final!  (Aside: Oh, and by the way: he did really well living parentless in the Penn State dorms for two nights.  Our young man is growing up.  And now I am going to cry.  Don’t mind me.  Discuss among yourselves.)

Many thanks (really, sincerely this time) to Janet for capturing all this—and much more!—from way up in the stands.  And for yelling encouragement to Jamie from way up in the stands, too!  Janet says she was trying to make up for the fact that (a) the other athletes had entire cheering sections and (b) her husband the bum wasn’t even there to cheer on the kid.  Well, I’ve learned my lesson.  No more speaking gigs this time of year!

OK, off to Pittsburgh for the final home game of the year.  Here’s hoping there will be one more away game left to play....

Posted by Michael on 06/09 at 02:05 PM
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Monday, June 08, 2009

Easy as ABC

Apparently I missed quite a day in the wide world of sports yesterday.  Federer wins in straight sets at Roland Garros, tying Sampras with 14 majors, not that he cares about such things, and Tiger shoots lights-out 65 to win the Memorial, not that he cares about such things either.  It seems like it was a really good day for guys who use Gillette Fusion razors.

Hey, I use Gillette Fusion razors!  And I learned something important about them last fall when I was traveling with Jamie to Omaha.  We’d boarded the plane and were just settling in when the flight attendant announced that one of the planeside-checked bags was vibrating.  A silver-colored bag.  My bag.  Alarmed both by the news that my bag was vibrating and by the possibility that I would be detained by TSA, I assured Jamie I’d be right back as I dashed to the jetway and was met by two members of the ground crew, who, thankfully, seemed more bemused than worried or exasperated.  They asked me if I had an alarm clock or an electric shaver in the bag, and as I tore through it I assured them that I didn’t have any electrical anything—ah, wait, I said as I thought to open the toiletries bag, I do have a fusion razor.  Sure enough, it had switched itself on somehow.  And that was how I learned something important about the Gillette Fusion razor, namely, that you should take out its battery when you travel by air.

Speaking of traveling.  I’ve spent the morning pretending I’m going to buy a ticket to game six of the finals in Pittsburgh, even though (a) tickets are going for one quintillion dollars on the Penguins Ticket Exchange and (b) I have to leave for the AAUP national meeting on Wednesday evening, so that I only have three days to catch up with Jamie’s exploits.  Besides, I’m all travel-exhausted again.  I seem to be aging.  But dang, that Penguins Ticket Exchange is a fascinating thing.  When 500 tickets went on sale this morning at 10, of course I tried to buy a face-price ticket, but they were gone by 10:01, and then I spent an hour watching tickets appear and disappear on the Exchange.  It was almost like a “market” of some kind!  But where do people get the money for this kind of consumer activity?  Second mortgages, perhaps?

So I’m now going to spend a few hours downloading Janet’s footage of the Pennsylvania Special Olympics onto Jamie’s computer, editing the stuff, and putting les faits saillants on Ye Olde YouTube for the benefit of the blog-reading public.  In the meantime, here’s a snippet of the kind of thing I sometimes say on these gigs.  I think I now have nine or ten different talks I’ve been shuffling around this year; half of them are drawn from The Left At War, a couple are stand-alone things written for specific occasions, and a couple are reminders of The Next Damn Thing.  One of them ends more or less like so (though I’ve added the appropriate hyper-links).


You’re probably acquainted with the genre of cultural criticism that consists of worrying about the fate of reading in the age of the Internet.  But while it’s true that ours is largely a visual culture, and that nearly everything in the world is available on YouTube, I think we tend to underestimate the degree to which Internet culture is actually a textual culture.  As the blogger known as Fafnir put it in his 2005 State of the Internet Address:

This year brought us the Blog Revolution, which wasn’t that big but moved so fast it went from Blog Bastille Day to the Blog Reign of Terror to the Blog Buncha Ol Fat Guys Talkin About Blog Bastille Day in like a week! The internet has executed all mainstream television news personalities and replaced them with what the people really want to see: scrolling columns of text linking to other scrolling columns of text!

And whenever my students or my colleagues get too depressed about the fact that everyone on campus loves “new technologies” whereas “books” are something like Bronze Age relics, I like to think of this passage from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which suggests that alphabetic writing is one of the most remarkable and impressive technologies humans have devised:

Inventing a writing system from scratch must have been incomparably more difficult than borrowing and adapting one.  The first scribes had to settle on basic principles that we now take for granted.  For example, they had to figure out how to decompose a continuous utterance into speech units, regardless of whether those units were taken as words, syllables, or phonemes.  They had to learn to recognize the same sound or speech unit through all our normal variations in speech volume, pitch, speed, emphasis, phrase grouping, and individual idiosyncrasies of pronunciation.  They had to decide that a writing system should ignore all of that variation.  They then had to devise ways to represent sounds by symbols.

Somehow, the first scribes solved all those problems, without having in front of them any example of the final result to guide their efforts.  That task was evidently so difficult that there have been only a few occasions in history when people invented writing entirely on their own.  The two indisputably independent inventions of writing were achieved by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia somewhat before 3000 B.C and by Mexican Indians before 600 B.C.; Egyptian writing of 3000 B.C. and Chinese writing (by 1300 B.C.) may also have risen independently.

You know, everyone gets all worked up about the wheel, like it was some big thing.  We even tell ourselves we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Well, compared to writing, the wheel was child’s play.  Literally: the wheel was invented all over the place, time and time again.  It’s as if humans around the globe woke up, fell out of bed, and invented wheels before breakfast—even when they had no productive use for them.  Diamond again: “Ancient Native Mexicans invented wheeled vehicles with axles for use as toys, but not for transport.  That seems incredible to us, until we reflect that ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to their wheeled vehicles, which therefore offered no advantage over human porters” (248).

Diamond’s lively appreciation of the intellectual challenges entailed in the invention of writing reminds me of a passage from Pale Fire, a passage I love not only for itself but for the fact that it comes out of nowhere in one of the most playful, involuted works of fiction written in English.  The narrator, of course, is Nabokov’s idiosyncratic or insane Professor Charles Kinbote:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.  We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats.  What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read?  I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students).

In the pursuit of literature we find that our subject is fugitive—like Pale Fire itself (and a few of its characters).  Sometimes mimesis holds the mirror up to nature, and sometimes it holds the mirror up to a hall of mirrors.  But that’s what happens when writing reflects upon the impossibly difficult and delightful invention of writing; and though I wouldn’t want to resemble Professor Kinbote in any other sense, I do want my students to gasp not only at what they read but at the everyday miracle of its being readable.

Posted by Michael on 06/08 at 11:18 AM
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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Game 5 open thread!

For anyone who’s inclined to comment on the game during or after.  I’ll be watching in my lovely hotel, which is lovely.  Here’s one way to tell your hotel is a lovely hotel:  the fire-exit staircase has marble stairs.

Though 5 pm is just a bad hour for a hockey game.  Pacific Time is so weird.  It’s kind of like real time, only slower.

Posted by Michael on 06/06 at 06:29 PM
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Friday, June 05, 2009

Apologies to somebody

Detroit, Detroit.  Got a hell of a hockey team.  Got a left-handed way of making a man sign up on that automotive dream.

Posted by Michael on 06/05 at 10:02 AM
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