Friday, November 30, 2007

SHORTER ROD DREHER: See how introspective this nice Chinese millionaire is! Why can't our Negroes be like that?

(Number umpteen in a series. )
AMERICA'S LOVE OF CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM DOOMS DEMOCRAT. Tom Maguire follows the hostage drama at a Clinton campaign office:
Setting aside the human toll, my instant guess is that the political impact of this will be bad for Hillary in a way that would not be true for another candidate. This may all change when we get the perpetrator's story but right now Ms. Clinton carries the heavy baggage of a huge favorable rating and this incident will remind people that she is the candidate that enrages a sizable slice of the public.
More pathetic and politically inert details come in. Maguire's take:
It's bad for Hillary.
Interesting colloquy in the comments:
It's bad for Hillary.

I'm not sure I agree with this. I don't think it matters one bit. It looks as if this is just a poor soul and has no effect on Hillary. At least it doesn't change my view of Hillary either way.

I guess I just don't see it.

You don't see because you don't want to see.

Hillary is bad and therefore everything that involves -- or doesn't involve -- Hillary is bad. Bad for Hillary.

Hillary drove that man to drink and caused his life to become meaningless.

Tom understands.
I'm glad someone else has a sense of humor about this; I was beginning to think the world had gone mad, again.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: ADDENDUM. Sometimes I worry that my film reviews may not be up to snuff, so thank God Jonah Goldberg occasionally steps up to make me look like Manny Farber:
For example, I'm kind of surprised that the movie left no lasting impression on Steve Sailer. First and foremost it made me want to read the novel.
High praise indeed. I wonder if Goldberg has ever read Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
But more importantly, I think you can find some very rich commentary on the American character and predicament in the movie (as Ross suggests in his review in the magazine but, I think, doesn't explore enough). The fatalism, determinism (philosophically speaking), the rejection of cant and the waving away of nostalgia, were all powerful ingredients of the film, at least for me.
Determinism, philosophically speaking! No Country For Old Men is an excellent chase film with twangy talk about the persistence of evil inserted at puzzling intervals. Something that's more like what Goldberg is imagining is John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. Everyone in it speaks a mannered pulp argot, which gives them enough rhetorical headroom to comment in high style on their own "predicament" whether at rest or in action. This keeps the highflown thoughts wedded to character and threaded into the plot.

In No Country, Chighur's conversations are a little in that vein, but the pronouncements of Sheriff Bell and Ellis are closer to the tedious lecture Commissioner Hardy gives the reporters near the end of The Asphalt Jungle: an insertion that is supposed to radiate meaning onto the action from the outside. In Jungle this comes off as a quick gloss or a way of getting around the Hays Office, and is followed by a more appropriate, though downbeat, spurt of narrative; in No Country the Hardys just hang around the periphery being premonitory until near the end, when they surge to subsume and kill the story. This is the real "dismal tide": geezers talking about good and evil (and what do they say, exactly, besides good sure is good and evil sure is evil?) till their chatter drowns out a perfectly good action picture.

Of course Goldberg ends with his own dismal tide:
Anyway we can revisit later. But one last quick point: I've been surprised more people haven't compared it — favorably or unfavorably — to A Simple Plan which I've long argued was one of the most conservative movies made in recent times. The plot alone is remarkably similar (though hardly identical).
Like anything that made Goldberg forget his popcorn for a moment, it has something to do with his politics. I wonder why he goes to the movies at all: doesn't he have a "Star Trek" boxed set and a microwave?

UPDATE. Today's No-Prize goes to Scott C.: "For Goldberg I believe [ars gratia artis] translates literally to farts for farts' sake."

With respect to the Coens, I must say it is rather cheap of me to associate cosmic readings of No Country with Goldberg. For a much worthier essay, see Glenn Kenny.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

BACK IN MY DAY... James Poulos on some new movie where a shrink convinces several young stars to get it on:
What’s a blogger to say? Forget gay marriage, frazzled Christian soldiers. This is the door to doom. The pathetic and preposterous conceit of having therapeutic authority set this ‘plot’ into motion is, of course, unnecessary, as many of the LA Times’ own readers must know... Now the authority of monstrosity has been replaced by an authority vacuum. Our orgies today are lame attempts to patch up the cracks in the psyches of damaged little emotional orphans by collective ‘friend incest’. The latchkey aesthetic reaches its nadir...
I admit I am so confused by this passage that I had to check three times to make sure it wasn't written by Reihan Salam. I can say with some certainty, though, that Poulos has never heard of The Harrad Experiment. But doesn't he even remember the porno film Travis took Betsy to see in Taxi Driver ("My parents were very strict...")? The therapy-driven sex romp seems to have endured as a cinematic form. Aren't conservatives supposed to revere tradition? God bless America, I say, and bring on the nubiles!

UPDATE. In comments, ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© wins Spot the Reference. I go hot and cold on the Stranglers. Here's my favorite, via a video in which Cornwell kind of looks like Hugh Laurie:

THE NEW FRONT. Greyhawk at Mudville Gazette:
This is not to say that Iraq is a safe place - just that it is fast becoming one. But make no mistake about it, if the troops were brought home tomorrow all hell would break lose, in a manner as yet unseen even in this part of the world.
So that's what victory looks like! He goes on:
The next crucial step in creating the world where many of those troops can come home is exactly this - a steady inflow of folks with skillsets other than combat arms who can help create an environment where fewer guns are needed. We are at the entry point of an upward spiral; increased security sets the stage for improved quality of life for Iraqis which means less need for security forces to maintain that quality of life; without despair people have less incentive to sow chaos.
Guess what specific "skillset other than combat arms" he's talking about in this post? Diplomacy.
I admit that when I first heard the stories (recounted by many of my fellow milbloggers, in fact) of [Foreign Service Officers] wetting their pants at the thought of serving in Iraq I was deeply concerned - but one thing I reminded myself at the time is the ability of journalists to find exactly the one quote from some maladjusted member that isn't representative of the majority of the group to which he can only pretend to belong and trumpet said quote as exactly that which it isn't. After all, they do it to the military all the time.

Actions from folks like Brian Heath confirm my impression, and give me renewed hope that we can and will make that charge.
First, it is strange to hear Greyhawk admit that his "fellow milbloggers" are as credulous as other journalists when it comes to the treasonous meme of the Wet-Pantsed Diplomat. Second, I look forward to the exiting combat troops and the entering diplo corps reenacting the final scene of Battleground, with added dialogue:

"Awright, you diplomugs, we done our part -- now it's up to you!"

"Agreed in principle; we'll draft a preliminary resolution. Where's the tennis court?"
NO THIRD WAY. I've been too busy to climb ladders and must content myself with low-hanging fruit. Gates of Vienna is always easy pickings. Here's a review of Robert Spencer's Religion of Peace? What Christianity Is and What Islam Isn't, which review, before it gets to the attacks on Islam any fan of the blog may expect, takes a good deal of time to dispense with some unfortunate myths about Christianity. The reviewer repeats the Goldbergian story that the Church was actually very nice to Galileo all things considered. Our Gater can't let bad enough alone, and goes on to say that the Spanish Inquisition was also pretty mellow:
The Inquisition wasn’t a proud chapter in Christian history, but it should be remembered that its number of victims has been wildly exaggerated, and pales in comparison to the evils of modern totalitarian movements...
One thing you have to understand about these guys is that they don't even really like Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- because, notwithstanding her frank condemnations of Islamic fundamentalism, she's an atheist with an understandable aversion to all religious schooling, including the Christian variety. One of the Gatesians has even gone so far as to say that Ali be denied Dutch protection from local Islamic thugs, ostensibly on the grounds that her cooperation with Theo van Gogh's Submission invited such thuggery ("Actions have consequences, and this one is hers").

That defenders of the satirical Mohammed cartoons would abandon Ali to lynching seems odd until you consider that the Gaters really do think we're in a "clash of civilizations." But it's not about the West vs. the East. In their view the combatants are Islam and Christianity, period, and they expect the unchurched to either take up the cross or go down with the other heathens. No wonder they're working on a new spin for the Inquisition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT. Ken McCracken says the fact that John Ashcroft was willing to be waterboarded proves that the practice doesn't constitute torture because "no one ever volunteers to undergo real torture."

I assume he believes being nailed to a Volkswagen or having one's hand roasted isn't torture either. And that suicide proves there's no such thing as murder.

Why do these people have such difficulty with the concept of consent?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

ANOTHER SUCH VICTORY AND I AM UNDONE. The new idea is that the War in Iraq has been won. Actually that war was won in May of 2003. The subsequent occupation has been a dicier proposition. This too is supposed to be going much better, but we can see the problem in one of the victory declarations:
Do the Iraqi’s like us? Hard to say, but so long as they’re not killing us, let’s be thankful for these small victories and let's pray that the trend continues.
The emphasis, here and elsewhere, on the Iraqi citizens' turn toward the U.S. Armed Forces for protection from militants does not suggest a state of democratic equilibrium, but a Mexican standoff.

It is certainly good news that fewer people are being killed. But Petraeus wants to withdraw the surge troops by July 1. We are still down for a lengthy and (thus far) slow reconstruction, and Administration supporters are downplaying the role of democracy in keeping the lid on. How is that supposed to work?

The aforementioned author says: hearts and minds, and let's take it to Afghanistan (where, we are informed, things ain't going so hot). It seems strange to put such faith in propaganda when the only demonstrable positive effect so far has been achieved by increased force of arms, especially as we are preparing to reduce them.

The Vietnam echoes that Bush resurrected when he announced the surge persist. No one wants a helicopter rooftop scene, so we adjust troop levels, first higher, then lower, in hopes of finding a Goldilocks mean. Conservatives are enraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury's assertion that the U.S. just isn't very good at imperialism. There's a backhanded compliment in there, but I'm afraid the fiddlers of our occupation don't know how to take it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

IN PLAY. Hillary Clinton isn't my favorite candidate but Jeez. Even the nice rightwing college boys are going for the lesbian laughs. The Perfesser plays the angle shot, per usual. Further down the evolutionary scale, the bare notion of celebrity girl-on-girl stirs wistful contemplation of female sexuality among the Acettes:
Do women bother doing that? I never thought of women as having much use for paid escorts.

Yes, powerful, driven women have their lusts -- and better sex toys. I would bet Hillary gets off as much as we do at the thought of having someone beautiful pleasuring her.

I was in Kenya in 1984 and there were plenty of older German women running around with young men. Strapping young men...

As an aside, that's when I found out that topless beaches are not always that great. Sure, there were some hotties, but there was also Cellulite Woman and a lot of grandmothers who.....

I'll stop there.
M-m-m-me too. Forget "Are we ready for a woman President?" or even "Are we ready for a lesbian President?" The real question is: can we establish some Federal standards for sex education? Because I know a bunch of guys who could benefit from being "taught to the test," as it were.

UPDATE. The barrel has no bottom:
You read it at Atlas first here back on Halloween. Drudge has it now. I am not reporting it because it is a lesbian thang, I am concerned and distressed that a Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia would have such intimate access to a would be President.
Can't they extend the submission deadline for the Republican YouTube debate? As entertaining as the expected question about whether black people are as smart as white people will be, a question about what, as President, the candidates would do about Islamosapphic terrorism might just get people interested in politics again.
ROSEBUD. I keep trying to tell you kids what it was like back in The Day. Here's a little nugget from the pre-Giuliani era: Da Willys at what I believe is the old Crystal Palace on the Bowery. You could buy Night Train over the bar, and put it in a bag and take it outside. On the other hand, we didn't have as many condominiums or cops as we do now. You tell me which Apple you prefer.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

MONGOLOID, HE WAS A MONGOLOID, ONE CHROMOSOME TOO MANY. Chuckling observes the state of creationist play:
Today’s New York Times Magazine has an interesting article about a new breed of scientists who firmly believe that the earth is eight thousand years (or so) old. They believe this because they have read the bible and added up the lives of the biblical characters. It’s not as easy as it sounds since some of those ancients lived as long as 900 years. You see? Honest scientists may disagree. The planet could be 7990 years old. It could be 8010. More research is needed. All reasonable people agree.

According to the Times, this new breed of scientists are a heroic bunch. Like cowboys, “laconic but certain” and “deeply committed.” these intellectual outlaws, outlaws in a good outlaw kinda way of course, are “taking on the central tenets of the field” by “resisting mainstream science.“ Beyond that, they are hung like Harvard: “a gathering of elites, with an impressive wall of diplomas... master’s or Ph.D.’s in the sciences from respectable universities.”

You know the type. Total dumbasses.
Indeed I do, which is why I am adding Pharyngula to my blogroll, and about goddamned time.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. For about two-thirds of the movie, I was completely on board with all the critical acclaim. It manages to preserve tension despite a glacially slow pace; dread slips under the viewer's skin, and even the occasional laugh (a Coen trademark in such situations) exacerbates rather than relieves it. Every set piece -- the bright-lights pursuit of Moss in the desert, the coin-toss in the gas station, and especially Moss' first confrontation with Chighur -- is up there with Hitchcock's. Even the gnomic utterances of Sheriff Bell seem to but gently slacken the strings in preparation for further tightening. I thought the Coens had outdone themselves.

[warning: spoilers]

But the last third is a disaster. Instead of paying off the tension, the Coens opted to pay off the bullshit moral commentary. Not only do they let Bell ramble on, they undercut the narrative drive, and when those strings are let loose everything falls apart. They kill two major characters offscreen; Bell's showdown at the motel is impossible to follow; even Deputy Wendell, a brilliant minor character in the first part, becomes tic-ridden and dramatically incoherent. The more people drawl about good 'n' evil 'n' right 'n' wrong, the sloppier and less convincing the film becomes. I haven't read the book, but it looks like the Coens tried to cram a bunch of philosophical literary stuff into the final passage, as if the painful, protracted hunt were not itself the best carrier of the grim vision. Chighur's escape (I told you there would be spoilers!) is typical. The car crash is dramatically sound -- live by the coin toss, die by it too, an unexpected but just resolution. To have him stumble off into the suburbs as the Undying Embodiment of Evil is unsatisfying even if you're not looking for a Hollywood ending: to avoid resolution is not the same thing as removing its necessity.

I can't not recommend it. It's got too much good stuff in it. All the craftwork is first-rate. The Coens ought to write cinematographer Roger Deakins into their wills: every shade from the corpse-blistering sun to the shot-shattered night is exquisitely rendered. And the acting is downright noble. Josh Brolin is quietly amazing, a good-enough man in a bad place, pursuing his mission to the full extent of his capabilities and the bitter end, never accepting the full cost of his foolhardy gamble. Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones and Deputy Garret Dillahut are Texas true 'til the Coens cut them off at the knees. Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root keep the second story alive despite all difficulties; Kelly Macdonald finds the dignity in a dishrag character.

And if Javier Bardem had not made his monster Karloff-scale believable we wouldn't even be having this conversation. This is the greatest kind of acting -- the kind that suggests its own backstory. I can see him as a hollow-eyed, beaten boy, silently absorbing evil and taking all his lessons from it, growing into a creature that cannot be stopped or swayed, but still must have his little games to prove, in the face of uncomprehending fear (his or theirs?), that he has been right all along. Bardem's performance is eternal in a movie that could have been.

UPDATE. Glenn Kenny of Premiere has a very good demurrer. I encourage any interested party to read it all, but herewith the money shot:
The first is the emphasis on the idea of Chigurh as an actual supernatural figure. By the time the killer, so fantastically incarnated by Javier Bardem, strides into the office of Stephen Root—whose character is merely billed as “Man Who Hires Wells”—with that enormous gun at his side, even a filmgoer who’s not one of “The Plausibles” (as Hitchcock derisiviely referred to plot nitpickers) might well ask “How did he get past reception?” But the ugly galvanic action kicks in before the question can finish, and then there’s the exchange with the fellow from Accounting, who finally asks, “Are you going to shoot me?” To which Chigurh replies, “That depends. Do you see me?”

A little later, after the motel massacre, discussing Chigurh with “local law enforcement,” Bell muses, “Sometimes I think he’s just pretty much a ghost.” In the book, Bell summons local law when he thinks he’s got Chigurh locked down at the motel...which he figures by watching the cars in the lot. The film places him in much closer physical proximity to Chigurh, to much more mysterious effect.

Bell goes back to the motel, through the crime-scene tape; he looks at the door and sees the blown-out lock. In a subsequent shot, we see Chigurh himself inside the room; the hole in the door is the only source of light, and Chigurh’s gazing at it, expectantly. We still can’t place him in the room...
You get it. The movie has swung around to where it began, as Sheriff Ed's story, for which the plot is just the major piece of information, not necessarily real, that motivates his abdication. Chigurh is a symbol, the embodiment of all the stuff Ed can't figure, which finally turns him away from crime-fighting.

In answer I would cite two films. Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant has a literally dizzying ending: the camera turns completely around Alice, fixing her in a time and place, removing her from everything that's gone before. But the whole movie has been about dislocation: Arlo's, the communards', everybody's. The ending is extraordinary but expected. Though it hits you hard emotionally when it happens, you sort of knew all along it was coming to something like this.

And there's the shift at the end of If.... I recall (though I can't find the source) that Harold Pinter objected to the moment when Mr. Kemp is withdrawn from a bureau drawer to shake hands with the rebels. Pinter or no, it's a palpable shock to audiences with whom I have shared it, and thereafter the film decisively changes tone: there's no more patty-fingers, no more public-school metaphor, only bloody insurrection.

I am always very careful about saying that anything that is not easy to explain in a work of art is false. But this is, after all, a movie we're talking about, and one in which the full power of traditional narrative cinema has been employed by very sophisticated filmmakers to make the Moss-Chighur battle as vivid and visceral as it can possibly be. If you want to turn it around and say that it's effectively all in somebody's head, you have to answer for the painstaking verisimilitude that came before. Frankly, despite all the signifiers Kenny has turned up (I am especially impressed by his reading of the motel conversation, particularly in view of its weird blackout ending), I don't see it. And without making extravagant claims for my own perception, I think that the Coens had the means to bring me up to speed if that was their intention. Sometimes a work of art fails not because it is difficult, but because it is a failure.
THREE FOR THE FUNNY. Politics, ugh, so discouraging. I want to do something fun. Not in real life -- on my stupid blog! So here's the mission: name three unjustly neglected film comedies. And by "comedies" I mean funny, not necessarily life-affirming goatsongs or anything like that.

I propose:

Slither. This caper film is sort of the comedy version of those 70s paranoid thrillers. Riddles wrapped in engimas. Ominous black vans. Nerve-jangling musical stings. Except they all end in laffs. James Caan's Dick Kanipsia, who walks out of prison into a poorly managed big-money scheme, is a ridiculously diffident hero -- maybe stupid is a better word -- whose journey, artistically speaking, is to figure out that he's finally had enough of this shit. The pace is shambling, with lots of ridiculous digressions (e.g., discussions of the family connections of the various Polish characters). And the climax is one of the all-time great cinematic non-sequiturs. Nothing meta about it -- just a good time on the film company's dime. Slither was indie before there was indie.

A Guide for the Married Man. I take a very strong position on 60s sex comedies, the best of which are so intoxicated by the sexual promise of the era that they achieve delirium. There are cases to be made for the deranged misogyny of How to Murder Your Wife, the SoCal surrealism of Lord Love a Duck, and of course the all-around strangeness of the films of Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall, the Mercury Players of the Priapean Age. Guide covers all the bases and then some as it follows Walter Matthau's attempt, goaded by a Mephistophelean Bobby Morse, to cheat on Inger Stevens. The dramatic stakes are purposefully reduced to Topic A essentials: Matthau's motivation is absurdly slight -- no bitterness, no discomfort even, just a craving to get with what he's convinced everyone else is getting. He's so charmed by Morse's apparent authority that he's oblivious to his more sinister agenda ("And you know how I feel about Ruth"). Morse's lessons, conveyed in celebrity blackout sketches ("That reminds me of a guy...") are the 60s Hollywood equivalent of Godard's alienation devices. I think they're much cleverer than Godard's. What Matthau takes as helpful hints, the viewer will see as rancid jokes on the American way of sex-life. As in all these movies, equilibrium is restored, but with a little more bite than usual: Matthau learns nothing but fear and compliance with old social norms. Guide will remain the capstone of the genre until some genius makes the Lockhorns movie.

A New Leaf. Here's Walter Matthau again (I love Walter Matthau), this time in a spectacularly bad wig, an aging playboy who has run out of money and has to find a rich wife. Though without funds, Matthau retains a high opinion of himself, and is oblivious to most external realities -- as the scene in which his accountant tries to convince him of his bankruptcy ("Just what are you trying to say?") demonstrates. When the fact finally penetrates his thick skull, he drives past Manhattan's palaces of plenty, mournfully crying "Goodbye!" Then he finds his chance: a botanist flush with cash but completely lacking in social graces, or even skills, played with adenoidal vigor by our auteur, Elaine May. Matthau, who is at first utterly uncharmed by May ("She has to be vacuumed every time she eats"), plans to marry, then murder her, but May is a holy klutz and cannot be killed. Eventually this wears Matthau down, and they reach an accommodation that may be something like love. The rich-boy humor is much better than that found in Arthur: the world of wealth is not, as in that film, a nest of vipers from which the hero insulates himself with drink, but a silly if stylish counter-reality that he cannot bear to leave, something more like the fantasies of old screwball films than the vulgar villainy seen in our present social comedies. You could say that about A New Leaf in general: it has a lot of that 30s sparkle, with just a spritz of 70s cynicism for body. The public has never developed a taste for it. It's for connoisseurs.

UPDATE. Speaking of connoisseurs, our commenters bring some exciting dishes to the potluck, some known to and even reviewed by me, some surprising (Ishtar, really? Conventional wisdom sucks). I am happy to see a groundswell for Albert Brooks, and would add Modern Romance, a comedy of solipsism that makes "Seinfeld" look like "Friends," and Defending Your Life, the first and most successful of the later, positivist Brooks films.

Premiere's Glenn Kenny schools us that Godard got his schtick from American comedy rather than the other way around. Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged nicely encapsulates the moral of A New Leaf. And SamFromUtah clues us to the Lockhorns trailer, which gives me hope for the American cinema.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

AS YE SOW... Using the word "scream" for words on paper is usually a conservative trope, but I think we can fairly characterize this New York Post headline as a real screamer:

November 24, 2007 -- Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government had warnings about 9/11 but decided to ignore them, a national survey found.
"Blame U.S. For 9/11"? Seen from a less hysterical angle, the poll result seems like a merely uncharitable reading of the findings of the 9/11 Commission ("'the system was blinking red' during the summer of 2001...")

"Ignore" is a strong word for the government's inaction. Maybe the poll respondents were insensitive to the difference between mishandling and ignoring. If so, this may be attributed to a growing lack of faith in the government -- as we have seen elsewhere.

Government isn't the only institution that's rapidly losing credibility, as the Scripps-Howard summary suggests:
At a time when the price of crude oil has neared $100 per barrel, 81 percent of Americans also said it was "somewhat likely" or "very likely" that oil companies conspire to keep the price of gasoline high.

"It shows that the oil companies are not trusted by a lot of people," said Tyson Slocum, director of the Energy Program of Public Citizen, the consumer watchdog organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Record-breaking quarterly profits stir the pot, too.

"People look at the huge profits and put two and two together," he said. "'Those high prices I'm paying are fueling those profits.'"
Why the decline in benefit-of-the-doubt? It's interesting to look at Scripps-Howard's 2006 summary of a poll that foreshadowed these trends:
The survey also found that people who regularly use the Internet but who do not regularly use so-called "mainstream" media are significantly more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. People who regularly read daily newspapers or listen to radio newscasts were especially unlikely to believe in the conspiracies.
It is suggested that these malcontents are affected by truther websites. But that hardly explains the high oil, Kennedy assassination, and UFO conspiracy credulousness.

Of course, if you want to read about what rascals lead us, and how everything they tell us is bullshit, there are plenty of other popular web outlets that do the job.

I am usually unconvinced by triumphalist claims that online alternative media will trounce the MSM dinosaurs. But I am beginning to suspect these stupid things are at least having an effect -- that the daily internet hammering of institutions has in fact helped poison the outlook of many ordinary citizens who have heeded the call and unmoored themselves from the consensus wisdom of the Main Stream Media. But the Scripps-Howard poll suggests that this effect isn't taking the shape that the blogosphere's rightwing cheerleaders like to predict -- unless their purposes are even more sinister than my black little heart can conceive.

Of course you can look at it the other way, and say our institutions are so thoroughly rotten that bad faith is the only possible response.

Not for the first time I am reminded of the Journal-Affiche.

Friday, November 23, 2007

COME ON, GOP CLASS-WARRIORS: WALK THE WALK! The Washington Times is spreading the word that the Democrats are "the party of the rich." The source is a "study" by Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation -- though I can only find this, which seems to closely track Fred Siegel's Commentary rant, which was treated here earlier, and only works if you restrict yourself to the sort of "political demography" that shows rich people concentrated in blue states, and ignore the median incomes of Republican and Democratic voters. You can dig through the study that started it all, or see Tom Hilton for a good roundup of sources.

In other words, this WashTimes/Heritage thing is a con job, but still a tonic for the troops. Confederate Yankee whoops, "A bit hypocritical for them to label themselves the party of the poor as they carefully sip overpriced bistro coffee to keep from spilling it on the leather interior of their late-model European sedans." Way to class-war, comrade! Maybe he'll join the WashTimes in questioning the Dems' go-slow approach to tax reform:
A "stopgap" bill authored by Mr. Rangel to tax hedge-fund compensation at 35 percent as regular income rather than the current 15 percent capital-gains rate, which passed the House Nov. 9, appears to be going nowhere with Senate Democrats.
Here's a political opening if they're serious: Confederate Yankee and Sun Myung Moon can up the ante and call on Republican Presidential candidates to push the 35 percent rate. Then we'll see who's the party of the working man!
SCIENCE VS. POLITICAL SCIENCE. Having read the William Saletan articles about how black people have lower IQs than white people, and having noted the gleeful agreement of rightwing honkeys that black people have lower IQs than white people, I can say this:

I expect that the march of science will continue to uncover many wonders of the human mind, toward the end of improving all our lives, which is of course what science is for. That will lead along some thorny paths. For example, it looked for a while as if embryonic stem cells were the best way to go in solving a number of medical problems. Now it seems science may have found a less controversial alternative.

This has led some political types to complain that because science did not get there fast enough, its practitioners were bent on the destruction of human life. Such judgments are not surprising, considering the source, because in politics, history is only a series of anecdotes to be exploited for propaganda purposes, whereas science supposes a continuum of educational events, sometimes called experiments, to be used as building blocks toward a better life. There is such a thing as pseudo-science, but the free exercise of the scientific method over time obliterates such fallacies. Politics is much less reliably self-correcting. In fact, many political actors are deeply invested in sustaining ancient errors if they think it will help them retain power.

The historical record leads me to suppose that as cognitive scientists continue their work, they will sometimes come up with findings that politicians can exploit, but they will also learn things that do us all of us a great deal of good. So the IQ debates are a good thing as science. As politics, they are more or less useless except as fodder for racist cranks.

Which can also be a good thing. I am sneakily pleased to see conservatives excited by the current state of play, and encourage them to sing out loudly about it. Let them tell the world that their favored candidates' positions on race show that they agree that black people are less intelligent than white people. Let them tell the world that affirmative action is useless because black people are genetically incapable of benefiting from it. Eventually they will get around to discussing the genetic inheritances of Barack Obama. What a forum that will be, with Andrew Sullivan and John Derbyshire explaining that the most attractive features of Obama's platform come from the white side of his brain!

We may get a new government out of it, and conservatives can use their leisure to play with calipers and brains of varying races. Win-win, as far as I can see.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

IT'S TRAD, DAD. It's never a good idea to get conservatives talking about music.
Gangster rap is crap. Yes, there are some interesting bits and pieces. Yes, there is buried amidst the steaming piles of rationalized b.s. a few trace elements of sociologically interesting ore. Sure, it takes some technical savvy to do it. Uh huh, right, right, right.

It's still crap. Here's how I put it last year in a column about Kanye West...
It's the holiday season so I'll spare you. Anyone who thinks "sociologically interesting ore" is any kind of reason to listen to music has a tin soul. Oh, he also gets around to the indecent dances young people are doing today.

The fracas is built around David Brooks bemoaning the passing of Led Zep and Ed Sullivan, and pimping a restoration via Little Steven platoons teaching Schools of Rock. A National Review correspondent cannot resist the call of the Konservetkult:
I think Brooks and Van Zandt are actually staking out a conservative position here: the importance of common culture, defining it and promoting it...

The problem is that America's cultural and political elites don't have the will, popular capital or sense of need to identify or promote any kind of Americal cultural canon in any area of liberal arts whatsoever.
But get those kids cranking "Born to Run" on the quad again, and Western Civ is saved.

This is the sort of thing that sends me back to the classics.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

TO BRIGHTEN YOUR HOLIDAY. Courtesy of Dr. Helen, the mother of all awful-liberals yarns -- not told by one of those legendary taxi drivers, or even Alan Bromley, but in my judgment outstripping them all:
My sister and brother-in-law are D.C. area residents and wear their politics on their sleeves. I quit arguing with them some 20 years ago when they stated that Reagan was responsible for the Yellowstone Park forest fires. I realized then I could not have a rational discussion with them.

The problem I have with this stuff is that my brother-in-law starts yelling. Who wants to converse with someone who’s attracting attention from all the other diners in a restaurant. I finally decided that he doesn’t really want a reasoned conversation. He just wants to shout down anyone who disagrees with him, so why bother?
So far, so what, you may be thinking: we've seen better in any old Dr. Helen comments thread. But hang on -- the guy's just getting warmed up:
My dad is as mean as a snake. All 8 of his kids bear the scars and deal with them in different ways. The last time I saw him was 5 years ago at the rehearsal dinner for my younger brother’s wedding. He was picking on my niece, and she not being used to that treatment slapped him in the face. I told my Dad to knock it the f—k off. He took exception and we started a fistfight in the restaurant. My dad was so bent out of shape that somebody stood up to him that he didn’t show up for the wedding, and I gladly stood in for him, next to my Mom, in all of the wedding pics.

I cherish Christmas with my family: A day with the estrogen poisoned females of my clan; children yelling and grubbing for the bounty that comes with the crass commercialism of the holiday; the ever present fear that my brother, four Christmases banished from the family for alcohol related lunacy, will crash his drunken, six foot, four inch body through the front door and spray the room with lead. Ah, Christmas! I strap an Officer’s Compact Colt .45 into a pancake holster on my hip in case the door comes off its hinges at the party, pack up my hastily purchased gifts, and I wade into this thing called Christmas. Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go?
And now the kicker:
Through the years of Republican bashing followed by Kumbaya sing alongs (I kid you not), I have found the best strategy is to simply keep my mouth shut.
Surely you see the genius of it. Instead of trying to seed little quotes and anecdotes throughout the story to preserve the political through-line, our author veers into seemingly unrelated tales of spectacular family violence, and at the climax, with a last sneer of contempt for the enemy, retreats into Norman Bates muteness...

Wait -- what? These paragraphs are separate anecdotes?

Well, maybe it's like Casy says -- maybe a Dr. Helen commenter ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to every Dr. Helen commenter. Maybe the individual miseries of the poor wretches who come to Dr. Helen's door for a bowl of soup and maybe some rational emotive behavior therapy are hopeless by themselves, but together they gain stature, dignity, and hilarity.

May all of you enjoy a Thanksgiving free from fistfights, gunplay, and Kumbaya. Unless, of course, that's your idea of a good time.

UPDATE. "Guys," says commenter Craig, "that block quote from Dr. Helen is four different anecdodes from four different respondents. Don't try to mash them all up."

Admitted and addressed in the original post. (See the last three grafs.) And what's wrong with mash-ups? Larry Lessig would approve!
CONTEXTUAL READING. Ed Driscoll thinks you should stop reading the New York Times, but notes that he has just linked to two Times stories. Cognition doesn't get much more dissonant than that, even among fierce opponents of Blue Statism who nonetheless spend all their time in the bluest territories.

I read the New York Post most every day, largely because it is cheap and easy to read even before coffee. I would find it insulting to be told that I should give it up because I am bound to encounter writing in it with which I am inclined to disagree. That is all of its charm.

Driscoll quotes in defense of Times avoidance Rush Limbaugh, who says, "I found myself questioning the accuracy of the paper based on my own knowledge. I too often wondered, ‘Hmmm—is that true?’” Fancy being turned off by that! Just today I read the Post TV critic Linda Stasi in high dudgeon:
Speaking of changing the face of late-night TV and black men, in a move worthy of Michael Richards, in another skit, [Frank] Caliendo channels Charles Barkley but does so without changing his skin color or donning a wig! Every other character wears wigs and makeup. Caliendo has said on radio that TV stations freak out when they see a white man in black face. Talk about racist! Would they expect Eddie Murphy to play a white guy without changing his skin color? But here we've got poor Caliendo doing an exact impression of Barkley, but sitting there in his big, pasty face and beige hair. It's ludicrous and the worst type of reverse racism: politically correct racism!
Stasi's bizarre outrage over a lack of blackface ("worthy of Michael Richards"!) brightened my day, not because I agreed with it, but because it reminded me of the mad variety of human existence. That Stasi was declaiming it, not from a ward for the mentally ill, but in the pages of a popular newspaper, merely sweetened the jest.

You miss a lot by only reading things with which you may expect to agree.

Monday, November 19, 2007

THE GREAT ROCK 'N' REIHAN SWINDLE. Reihan Salam is very high (as is his colleague James Poulos*) on an essay by Kevin Barnes, a rock star who hit the jackpot, sees no need to apologize for it, and thus decrees that there is no such thing as selling out. I am somewhat in sympathy with Barnes, less so with the American Scenesters. The tradition of complaining about complaints that one is selling out is a venerable one that extends from time immemorial ("Better to be a rich man's dog than a poor man's saint") to Black Francis. Barnes is merely flicking off, with more style than most, some impediments to his enjoyment of success; he is not paid to be a deep thinker, and may be excused from that noxious responsibility.

Salam and Poulos*, though, are supposed to be some sort of intellectuals. Yet they take at face value, for example, the rock star's claim that "the pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70’s created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by." I guess it's possible that they have never read Emerson, but they might have phoned a friend; ambivalence about conformity goes a hell of a lot further back than 1977. Poulos* seems to misread his own subject, who states
It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you'll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.
This is not quite coherent (whence come the "too accommodating" sellouts if selling out is impossible?) but it at least hints at some awareness of the difficulties of making a living, which is admirable in a young rock star. Salam thinks it "an insightful meditation on the ethics of commercial life," and Poulos* reads this into it:
The smart today are those who can contextualize themselves as fleeting market actors without despairing, who can maintain, without resolving it, the contradiction between writing ‘authentic’ music and selling it obviously inauthentic corporations. The agony of resolving the contradiction on terms that sacrifice one or another benefit goes away, and Barnes’ manifesto seems to suggest that, with a little practice, we can more perfectly eliminate the big uptick in anxiety that has been our modern tradeoff for trying to minimize agony.
In both tone and content, this is much arty-fartier than what Barnes provides, and more evasive. What Barnes portrays as stark choices in an unsympathetic world -- "you're only a winner or a loser" -- Poulos* describes as a Jedi mind trick. He talks about minimizing "agony" and "despair," but doesn't explain how to do it if you don't have a big recording contract... or a prime slot on the punditocracy fast-track.

One of the advantages of youth is that it keeps the possibility of failure remote. It may be relatively easy for 20somethings to "contextualize themselves as fleeting market actors," assuming they have enough liberal arts education to comprehend those terms, because they are inclined to expect early returns on their generous self-assessment. But even for the young and confident, getting the market to agree is no snap. Though they may find the droopy-drawers non-conformity of ancient punks irrelevant, they may also find that the reality with which they are eager to conform is out of their reach. Despite the optimistic claims of the digerati, not everyone can be a rock star or a pundit; your MySpace music page or blog competes with thousands of others, and over time your may be forced to reckon with the odds.

History is not the only thing written by the winners. They write pop psychology, too. Salam's and Poulos'* concordances to Barnes' essay comprise a self-help tract for educated kids who, despite their natural vigor, are vaguely haunted by early warning signs that the future may not be all they have been trained to expect. These hauntings, Salam and Poulos* tell them, are a Marxist humbug; think positive. Contextualize yourself, eliminate the uptick in anxiety, and find your inner rock star. The possibilities are endless, not only for you but for America:
Because the world is profoundly unfair, those of us born into the US middle class are extraordinarily fortunate, and I tend to think we thus are almost obligated to task risks in pursuit of happiness. The very poor face different constraints, and my hope is that we one day construct the kind of enabling state that will give all Americans, and hopefully all people, the freedom to do the same.
Napoleon Hill couldn't have put it any better.

*UPDATE. Being insensitive to the singularities of their respective styles and new to the Safari "tabs" feature, I confused Salam' and Poulos' contributions in the original. Thanks to Mr. Porrofatto for the correction.
MULLAHS, MALKIN, AND MTV. Michelle Malkin:
I’ve often wondered what it would take for MTV to clean up its act. Now, we know. The aging music network wants Middle Eastern eyeballs, and it’ll do anything to cater to its audience–including toning down raunchy content and covering up scantily-clad hostesses. If it were America, the libs in charge of MTV would consider this caving in to Neanderthal social conservatives. In the Middle East, it’s considered doing smart business and paying cultural respect...
No, no, no, Ms. Malkin, you don't understand how liberal subversion works. First we offer the sheeple a seemingly innocuous cultural product featuring bright lights, vivid personalities, and pretty colors. Then, once we have their eyes and ears, we sneak in calculated outrages. Social conservatives push back, but the battle is already lost; soon even the imams are getting with the program.

This is what's known in the business as Boiling the Camel. Before you know it, the Middle East is frigging and fruging and balling and all that -- their culture rotted away from the inside, their will to fight sapped, their dream of 72 virgins vitiated by random hook-ups and rampant materialism.

If liberal subversion brought our great nation to moral ruin, why should Arabia not also fall prey to its deceptions? Now that MTV has inveigled its Trojan Horse past the gates of Mecca, why should we not expect tits, swears, pimp rolls and phat beats to come tumbling out when the time is ripe, and to similarly disastrous effect? I'm beginning to think Malkin is losing her faith in culture war.
STOP THE PRESSES. In other top stories, Visine announced its intention to "get the red out," and Allstate declared that consumers of their insurance products would be in good hands.

The story is mainly about a Giuliani mailing and actually contains dissenting quotes from a 9/11 family group. Maybe Murdoch is sending the Giuliani camp a signal, and Judith Regan can expect Bernard Kerik to show up at her place with flowers and/or rubber gloves.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

CELEBRITY JOURNALISM. For their inaugural Newsweek columns, Markos Moulitsas and Karl Rove provide innocuous partisan rah-rah. Moulitsas tells us that the Party in power can be successfully attacked for their bad governance, and Rove tells us that Hillary Clinton can be beaten by a Republican who will "create a narrative that explains [his] life and commitments." Stop the presses!

Rove, of course, is not likely to give away strategic secrets for such small honoraria as Newsweek can provide, as his hilarious suggestion that the GOP nominee "aggressively campaign for the votes of America's minorities" makes clear. Moulitsas has far less of a king-making reputation to protect, and his simple litany of Bush failures, tied together with a familiar pro-government message ("If Americans want willfully ineffective government, they'll have a Republican Party desperate for their votes"), adds nothing to it.

If Newsweek is willing to waste money on talents outside their normal hiring pool, how I wish they had shown some of the foolhardy moxie of "60 Minutes" some years back, when the popular show brought aboard P.J. O'Rourke, Molly Ivins, and Stanley Crouch as commentators. This experiment, you may recall, was suspended after eight weeks following an outcry from viewers who felt that Andy Rooney was providing quite enough guff for one hour.

Why couldn't the magazine have picked, say, Gavin MacLeodMcNett* and Jeff Goldstein? After a few weeks of Gavin's investigative reports and Goldstein's semiotics, enraged mobs would be burning piles of Newsweek in the streets, and the victory of citizen journalism over the MSM would be that much closer.

No, they're too clever for that. If I have learned anything from the failure of Newsweek (and Time and U.S. News and World Reports and The Watchtower) to publish any of the hundreds of carefully hand-lettered essays I have submitted over the years, it is that the Main Stream Media is/are a crafty beast that will not cede power willingly. Our best hope is to continue ratcheting up the level of psychic violence on our blogs, poisoning the discourse sufficiently that by the 2012 election, the hot new thing will be columnists who stalk ex-girlfriends and use lots of swears.

Oh, who am I kidding? They'll just call the current columns "Dingleberries from the Turd Blossom" and "It's Kos, Kocksuckers!" thereby giving President Giuliani a media issue to help distract attention from his War in the Ukraine.

*UPDATE. He isn't the guy who played Murray on "The Love Boat"? Another week begins in bitter disappointment.

Friday, November 16, 2007

RACE TO THE BOTTOM. Behold my Blog Readability Test Score:

You'd think I'd be drawing bigger crowds.

Supergenius Jeff Goldstein gets the same rating. I can safely say that fewer education dollars were expended to raise my discourse to the level of a carnival barker's.

Found via the effete snobs at Lawyers, Guns and Money.
FREE RON SILVER. Hey, remember how politically engaged performers were supposed to "shut up and act"? New reality: Hollywood conservatives must be rescued from their celluloid closet --
While Democrats enjoy very public support from Hollywood's top actors and musicians, who often hold lavish events for their favorite candidates, Republican supporters in Hollywood try hard to keep their political views quiet.

"They learn very quickly, if they know what's good for them, to donate to the Democratic Party," said Andrew Breitbart, co-author of "Hollywood, Interrupted." "If they were to donate to the Republican Party, they would be exposed to career-ending ridicule, period."
This is such nonsense that even Don Surber can't completely climb aboard:
Curl’s story is amusing. Hollywood conservatives are backing Rudy Giuliani. He listed Adam Sandler and Kelsey Grammar as Rudy contributors. Well, neither man seems to have suffered much in his career. Sandler keeps making movies despite bomb after bomb. And Grammar continues to get show after show despite a personal life that is as chaotic as a Paris Hilton — or dare I say, Rudy?
Nobody really believes this stuff, do they? You might as well complain about the paucity of liberals at Blackwater.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A SUCCESSFUL OUTREACH PROGRAM. I thought at first that Eugene Volokh's complaint against Howard Dean's seemingly innocuous pro-Jew statement ("The Democratic Party believes that everybody in this room ought to be comfortable being an American Jew, not just an American; that there are no bars to heaven for anybody...") was just weird:
Now I think I understand the message Dean is trying to convey. Many American Jews (the audience here was the United Jewish Communities' general assembly) are uncomfortable with many traditionalist Christians' expressed views that only Christians can go to heaven...

Yet in fact I take it that many Democrats, who are traditionalist Christians [??? -ed.] , do believe (whether quietly or loudly) in salvation by faith alone. The Democratic Party has, to my knowledge, taken no votes on the subject, and the Party hasn't made this part of any platform...

So how then can Dean assure Jews, or anyone else, that "The Democratic Party believes ... that there are no bars to heaven for anybody"? He can assure people that he believes in this; he can surely declare his own theology even if the Democratic Party shouldn't declare one of its own. He can assure people that the Democratic Party stands for civil equality without regard to religion, or make similar secular commitments (assuming that is indeed the official position of the Democratic Party) [?????? -ed.]. But he can no more make assurances about the Democratic Party's stand on salvation through works than he can about its stand on transsubstantiation or Papal infallibility.
But after a while I came to understand the brilliance of Dean's statement, and Volokh's post helped me to see it. First of all: "traditionalist Christians"? (The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto uses the same term in discussing the address.) This may be a redstate/bluestate thing, but though I know a lot of Christians, I don't know any who identify themselves as "traditionalist." Looking around the web, I find the term used more often to describe other people (like Mel Gibson's dad).

I do find a few self-identifying TCs online. Like this group, which proclaims that "Living in a highly sexualised society takes its toll on us even as Christians" (and pitches itself to "Anyone who is dealing with any form of sexual addiction"). And a commenter at a Newt Gingrich site, who says "Bottom line for me: [Ayn] Rand was a lapsed Jew and anti-Christian, who had multiple affairs... You can imagine that is a major problem for an ordained Traditionalist Christian clergyman, like myself..." At The Conservative Voice we see a friendly review of a book that "explains how traditionalist Christians see the Culture War" -- one "in which a President of the United States, with help from a slick attorney, gets a bill passed through Congress that has federal agents remove children from their traditionalist Christian homes and families to stop the children from learning 'intolerance' that leads to 'hate crimes' and 'terrorism.'" And here's a fellow who proclaims "I think the West would be a much better place if it returned to traditionalist Christianity," and goes on a tirade about "Idealists" and "pseudo-atheists" and says "I think the West needs an Orange Revolution." (Heh.)

I realize there are a lot of Fundamentalists out there. But how many of them identify with this particular bunch? And how many of those are at all open to, much less part of, the Democratic Party?

Conservatives looking for some of that old Christian Coalition magic for 2008 will of course beat any bush in their search. But it would seem that the "traditionalist Christians" Volokh and Taranto seek to pit against the Jew-loving Dean are not as numerous as they might imagine -- and to the extent that they do exist they are, to use the charitable word, fringe.

If you're a Christian, how do you feel about being associated with these people? If you're a Jew, how do you feel about Republicans complaining that the Democratic Chairman has taken an erroneous "stand on salvation through works" on your behalf?

So: At a time in which conservatives are doing their damnedest to proclaim the widespread existence of "liberal anti-semitism," Howard Dean embraces the Jews, and Volokh and Taranto publicly complain on behalf of Christians who, for the most part, are unaware that they should be offended.

I don't think the Democrats have done much smart lately, but I can't see this as anything but a net plus.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW. Regular readers will know how annoyed I am by American mopings over putatively conservative art. But I will happily make an exception for British Conservative MP Ed Vaizey's "Modern Art is Rightwing" at the Guardian, if only for its head-exploding potential:
Contemporary art is highly individualistic. It is about freedom of expression, the chance to make one's mark and to speak with a distinctive voice - all characteristics of the right, rather than the left. Contemporary artists are entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. The Brit Artists of the 1990s have turned themselves into brands, selling a luxury commodity to a group of discerning purchasers. The Damian Hirst skull, retailing at £50 million, could not remotely be described as a leftwing statement, except in the sense that, like many projects of the left, it is massively over-priced and a colossal waste of money (only kidding Damian)...

Contemporary artists are busy making money, just like any other capitalist in Britain, or the developed world, today. The contemporary art market is just that, a market where people invest and even people like Hugh Grant can make money. The Frieze Art Fair is a huge trading floor - although its enlightened founders, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, recognise their corporate social responsibility by securing an acquisition budget for Tate Modern...
I'd like to think the essay is satirical, or at least tongue in cheek. The idea of Damian Hirst as a conservative icon is positively Shavian. It may just be that British politics is stranger than I can comprehend. Nonetheless I hope our homegrown morons take it up for debate. It would make Roger Scruton and Roger Kimball bite the stems off their pipes. And if it gets Rod Dreher to support Hirst's Virgin Mother, I will gladly endorse Mr. Vaizey's candidacy the next time he stands. (h/t Joshua Holland)
ARGUMENT FROM ANECDOTE: 2-PLAYER VERSION. At the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz does one of those numbers about how Bush's critics suffer from a "Hatred" worse than any hatred expressed toward any President before him. He makes his case largely by assertion, bolstered by stories about silly liberals acting silly. For example:
To get the conversation rolling at that D.C. dinner--and perhaps mischievously--I wondered aloud whether Bush hatred had not made rational discussion of politics in Washington all but impossible. One guest responded in a loud, seething, in-your-face voice, "What's irrational about hating George W. Bush?" His vehemence caused his fellow progressives to gather around and lean in, like kids on a playground who see a fight brewing.

Reluctant to see the dinner fall apart before drinks had been served, I sought to ease the tension. I said, gently, that I rarely found hatred a rational force in politics, but, who knows, perhaps this was a special case. And then I tried to change the subject.

But my dinner companion wouldn't allow it. "No," he said, angrily. "You started it. You make the case that it's not rational to hate Bush." I looked around the table for help...

Finally, another guest, a man I had long admired, an incisive thinker and a political moderate, cleared his throat, and asked if he could interject. I welcomed his intervention, confident that he would ease the tension by lending his authority in support of the sole claim that I was defending, namely, that Bush hatred subverted sound thinking. He cleared his throat for a second time. Then, with all eyes on him, and measuring every word, he proclaimed, "I . . . hate . . . the . . . way . . . Bush . . . talks."
It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only with worse catch-phrases. Later, "several of my progressive colleagues seized upon my remarks against giving oneself over to hatred. And they vigorously rejected the notion."

I am in sympathy with Berkowitz. Just the other day, I was lunching with several prominent and well-respected conservative figures from politics, the arts, the sciences, and the clergy. I playfully suggested that Bill Clinton hadn't been too bad of a President. A noted radio commentator hissed like a viper and his eyes rolled back in his head. A Bush speechwriter shook his fist in my face and told me that Clinton had raped his wife and killed his cat. I looked for assistance from a former Secretary of State known for his moderate politics and leadership in the First Gulf War. The others fixed their demonically glowing eyes on him (except for the radio commentator, who was still occupied with his fit). The Secretary stretched his face grotesquely till his eyes were mere slits and finally choked out: "Clinton... very... bad... man." Then he urinated copiously on himself as the other guests cheered and exchanged high-fives.

If you don't believe me, you're obviously suffering from some kind of Derangement Syndrome.
BLATHER, RINSE, REPEAT. The Perfesser is in his fifth year of declaring victory in Iraq:
"We are winning" isn't the same as "we have won." But it' a cruel blow to those who've had a lot invested in the notion that we've lost, something that's even been noted on the left. If things continue to play out as they are, Iraq will be stable, and its people will remain deeply unhappy with Al Qaeda, and those -- in Iran and Saudi Arabia -- who have backed its violence and the effort to keep Iraq chaotic and deadly. It'll be for the next President to take proper advantage of that, if he or she is smart enough to.
The cost of the war is heading toward a trillion or higher, and has made Iraq a basket-case state similar to the other new and violently achieved "democracies" of our age which are showing very few of the sort of resources that got America up on its feet after its own revolution. Except, of course, Iraq's political realignment was not at all internally generated. Somebody suffered a "cruel blow," alright.

As previously observed here, even the cheerleaders are not pretending to maintain their old interest in promoting democracy in Iraq anymore. So they, and we, are left with what is called victory now: a relatively quiet occupation. Reduced American casualties are wonderful, of course, but bound to be temporary, as the invasion of Iran is imminent. Thence will come new expenses of blood and treasure, more strewn rose-petals and toppled statues, another lengthy insurgency which nobody could have predicted, another surge, another round of chest-thumps, and, ultimately, another invasion of someplace else.

The American people are sick of this shit, but who cares what they think? They don't know the cost of admitting error. For the Perfesser it might mean the loss of some advertising; for the Republicans, even more ignominious defeat; for Hillary Clinton, a critical loss of stature and high seriousness against her antiwar opponents.

If they're not concerned with democracy anywhere else, why should they stick their necks out for it here?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

THE GENIUS OF THE PEOPLE. W. Kiernan points us to a Roger Scruton piece of kulturkampf in the American Spectator. It is another of those bowtie thumbsuckers about how we ain't got good culture no more. Scruton makes the signal mistake of comparing his subject with something about which he clearly knows nothing: humor.
Works of art, like jokes, have a function. They are objects of aesthetic interest. They may fulfill this function in a rewarding way, offering food for thought and spiritual uplift, winning for themselves a loyal public that returns to them to be consoled or inspired. They may fulfill their function in ways that are judged to be offensive or downright demeaning. Or they may fail altogether to prompt the aesthetic interest that they are petitioning for...
If you were thinking of trying the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the armadillo who walked into a bar on Scruton, forget it:
Good taste is as important in aesthetics as it is in humor, and indeed taste is what it is all about. If university courses do not start from that premise, students will finish their studies of art and culture just as ignorant as when they began.
What, to Scruton's mind, is good taste in humor?
Imagine a world in which people laughed only at others' misfortunes. What would that world have in common with the world of Moliere's Tartuffe, of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, of Cervantes' Don Quixote, or Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy? Nothing, save the fact of laughter. It would be a degenerate world, a world in which human kindness no longer found its endorsement in humor, in which one whole aspect of the human spirit would have become stunted and grotesque.
Did this Man of Letters miss that much of the humor in his cited artworks is at "at others' misfortunes"? Cervantes, for example, has kept them rolling in the aisles for centuries by having his senile hero smacked, brained, imprisoned, and humiliated at regular intervals. And Moliere had great fun with bigots, which Scruton may understandably have blocked out.

No; Scruton knows enough to qualify his statement: "people laughed only at others' misfortunes." Okay: so if we insert some "endorsement" of "human kindness" into the otherwise irredeemable laff-fests, I guess we then have works of art. By that standard, your average Adam Sandler movie qualifies, and Catch-22 and The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes do not.

You may think I'm being too flip about Scruton's lofty aspirations. Try reading the rest of his essay. We are, he proposes, living in "a degenerate world, a world in which human aspirations no longer find their artistic expression," because some of us like Warhol and Andres Serrano. Of course, very few people only like stuff like that, to the exclusion of Old Masters and such like, but by this point Scruton is done with qualifiers: to enjoy things he doesn't enjoy is to lack good taste, which is to lack aesthetic judgment: "By espousing what is deliberately unlovely and unlovable, you make judgment ridiculous, my judgment as much as yours."

What Scruton mourns is a critical deck marked in his own favor. There are critics, of course, despite Scruton's assertions -- thousands of them, good and bad. They have been with us for a long while, and many of them in ages past disappovingly Scrutonized works that have nonetheless lasted unto our own time. For one, Samuel Johnson thought Tristram Shandy, being "odd," wouldn't do. The Great Cham spoke; who should dispute? But the book was kept alive, in part by centuries of countervailing criticism, but mainly because people kept reading it, and continue to read it, for pleasure.

That's what good culture has in common with good jokes -- the persistence of their pleasure. Scruton loathes "democratic culture, which is hostile to judgment in any form, and in particular to the judgment of taste," but in the long run democratic culture has been a pretty good bet -- indeed, it's the only bet there is. The merely faddish and temporal tends to wash out; we're not still roaring over Weber and Fields routines, for instance, nor do we mount Sardou Festivals. What persists is mostly fine. And if generations of Scrutons hammered us to appreciate, dammit, the genius of some long-dead, high-minded, but unlovely artist, he might preserve a thin academic niche, but he would not get the approbation we still give to Figaro -- a property which, Scruton must have forgotten, began as the sort of outrage he now disdains.

None of this is to plead against standards -- far from it -- but to inveigh against Scruton's. I'm no goddamn ray of sunshine myself, but I would blow my brains out if I thought things were as bad as he portrays them. I notice that the cultural life of the West has persisted through long and frequently inhospitable centuries, and I cannot believe that all art has now come to a dead end because some people like looking at Brillo boxes. Were my idea of beauty that narrow, I would seek the fault within myself first. I would take some time off, ingest drugs, and maybe turn my hand to making some art myself, before calling it a day for Western Civ.

Oh, hang on -- I have done all those things. In that case, I heartily recommend them!
I'm sick of your lies Lowry. This is nothing but an unfair criticism. I don't want to say you're anti-Semitic, but if my name wasn't Goldberg, I'm not so sure you would be attacking me this way. You're practicing the politics of pile-on, the blogging of bullying, editing of intimidation.
I confess that before I followed the thread back, I thought maybe someone had called Goldberg a neoconservative.

Meanwhile, John Derbyshire wonders
And incidentally, when did "having sex" become the standard colloquial expression for coitus? Does anyone else dislike it as much as I do? It makes it sound like an operation—like having a haircut or having root canal... I wonder how we got stuck with it.
If Derbyshire thinks "having sex" is limited to coitus, I'd suggest that he take another look at the style guide.

He's also upset that a provocative ad appeared in his Playbill at a recent performance of the opera Norma. "I don't mind soft porn," he says, "But... the Met?" Guess he's never seen Salome.

For added misery, Stanley Kurtz declares that he finds as much "fun" in a 7,000-word New Atlantis essay on Facebook et alia as he does in a Brad Paisley video. Not for the first time, I find his judgment suspect.

Monday, November 12, 2007

WHY WE SNARK. Megan McArdle pleads for comity:
My point, which I stand by, is that calling someone a [censored] does not, in fact, advance the debate. I can think of no circumstances under which someone who is concerned about appearing too feminine will be moved to change his views because you called him a big, fat nancy-boy. Even if it were true, the effect of insulting someone on this level is never to cause them to reexamine their position; instead, it energizes them to seek out reasons that you're wrong, and moreover, a huge jerk whose other ideas are probably equally moronic.
And so on, "anger is something that we're currently a bit oversupplied with," come on people now, smile on your brother.

You have to remember that with these guys, civil discourse is always a one-way street. Just the other day McArdle characterized her bleeding-heart opponents as practitioners of what Julian Sanchez calls The Care Bear Stare ("They'd line up together and emit a glowing manifestation of their boundless caring, which seemed capable of solving just about any problem"). It's a perfectly fine insult, implying that people who disagree with her are moony-eyed dopes who just want to wish problems away. How it's supposed to "advance the debate" is hard to figure.

The post to which McArdle's plaint is a follow-up had to do with a reaction to an appalling 2003 essay -- brought back into the spotlight by Kevin Drum's Golden Wingnut Awards -- by one Kim Du Toit. Called "The Pussification of the Western Male," the essay is chock-full of such Nietzschean aphorisms as "You know the definition of homosexual men we used in Chicago? 'Men with small dogs who own very tidy apartments.'" Read the whole thing, and I think you'll agree that Du Toit is as likely to "reexamine his position" in response to reasoned counterargument as a dog is to stop licking his own balls.

But on McArdle's side of the DMZ, Du Toit is considered a major thinker. He's on the Ole Perfesser's blogroll. His essay has been celebrated by several top rightwing bloggers. He's right up there in the pantheon with Steven Den Beste.

Du Toit's essay richly deserves the often impolite mockery to which it has been subjected. But its essential crappiness is not the only reason why it got such a razzing -- just as a desire to raise the discourse is not the only (or even the real) reason why McArdle rushed to Du Toit's qualified defense.

One big reason why making fun of conservative bloggers is, in some quarters, a popular pastime is that they've been so inflated for so long. After 9/11, when irony was alleged to have died and Republicanism was decreed a unipolar superpower, "warbloggers" and "anti-idiotarians" began dreaming of domination. They were going to take down the MSM, reduce the Democrats to a rump, and remake America and the world in their own, suburban image.

While wimpy-assed liberal columnists deferred meekly to the War Party, mainstream conservatives praised and elevated their digital proteges, and such gibberish was published as would make Mencken blush. To argue with it was to be shouted down as a traitor, a Fifth Columnist, a pre-9/11ist. All a sane man could do was laugh.

Now the bloom is a little off the rose. Iraq's a looted shell, Arabia is not yet the 51st state, and the citizens are asking for health care. The mad mostly remain mad, but they're trying -- more modestly, of necessity -- to shift the grounds of debate. A more muscular occupation replaces dreams of Iraqi democracy, Iran offers new hope of revivifying bloodshed, and the next crop of Republicans promise not to embroil themselves in scandals and patronage.

When we laughed at them before, they were roaring so loudly they couldn't hear us. Now they can't help but notice. And they want us to stop. After all, we're only hurting ourselves! I may indeed bust a gut, but that's a chance I'm willing to take.
UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT. Some guy at Ace O'Spades:
Looks like the Saturday night box office estimates are in and while Lions for Lambs basically doubled its take from Friday, $6.7 million in box office is only good for 4th place.

A distant 4th place: Bee Movie grossed $26 million, American Gangster $24 million, and Fred Claus $19 million.

Memo to Hollywood…we don’t hate America as much as you do. Want to make some money? Make a movie where Americans are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys. It’s not like there’s a shortage of stories that fit the bill.
So he's beating up "Hollywood" by comparing the grosses of Lions for Lambs to those of... Bee Movie, American Gangster, and Fred Claus. Of course I don't read the trades, so maybe these last three were products of the Liberty Film Festival rather than Hollywood. Still, for purposes of clarity, maybe he should cited the record-breaking performance of Indoctrinate U instead.

UPDATE. Hollywood really drives them into paroxysms of beautiful-loserdom: the Ole Perfesser calls this YAF yakfest "an underground society of Hollywood conservatives." Oh, so underground. Like for instance, did you know that Dennis Miller is a Republican? Wow, I bet when the liberals find out about that, they'll make him stop being funny ten years ago. And so's that guy who does 24! Guess that New Yorker article about Surnow's conservatism wasn't just a misprint.

Let me amend my previous statement -- it's not just Hollywood that makes them whine like lonesome puppies, it's every institution they have been taught to hate. Like the New York Times -- here's John Derbyshire projecting in Cinemascope:
One of the abiding mysteries of the New York Times is why the PC enforcers who patrol the rest of the newspaper are somehow kept out of the Science sec[t]ion...

Now here's another Times science reporter, Amy Harmon, telling us that—good grief—"genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA"...

Is the Times Science Editor married to somebody really important? Does he know something about the Times ownership clan they would much prefer not be made public? If neither, how does he get away with this?
The Times publishes an article it could not have published were it the sinkhole of liberal censorship Derbyshire imagines, and his response is that the exception proves the rule. It's like observing the recent behavior of Pervez Musharref or Britney Spears and saying, "Wow, that is so not them."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

THE TIME OF HIS TIME. The quotes offered in the New York Times obituary of Norman Mailer are such a poor introduction to readers who have no experience of him that I am compelled to type out a section of Why Are We In Vietnam?, published in 1967, in which the narrator, Texas teen D.J. Jethroe, tells about an encounter with his hardass father, Rusty:
Yeah, Rusty's a competitive prick, you know, he played for TCU, third All-American AP 1930, 1937, like back in there! look it up! and he was showing D.J. something few years ago on the back lawn of the Dallas ass mansion we inhabit, father and son -- details on request, pen pal! -- and he demonstrated to me I could not run around him. Well, of course D.J. did just that for a while, he ran the fucking ass off and around Rusty cause D.J. at thirteen had a presumptive hip dip halfback's butt about as big as Scarlett O'Hara's waist and he could use it like a double pin universal swivel, and Rusty had acquired a considerable amount of dead ass sticking his brave plunger up all blindly into the cunt-refined wickedness of Hallelujah's sophisticated rumps and vaginal radar rays masers and lasers. I mean, he was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, not so light, and she was one with all those Houris and fakirs and Cossacks and Turks up in the hills who wait to pick each zippy point of meat-nip and therefore know where to cut on down on the Light Brigade and cut off a piece of that charge for themselves. O Kuklos, great god of the seasons, bring back the fox trot, cause D.J.'s embarrassed to tell what's next, how, he, thirteen-year-old swivel ass flunkout in classics at the time, was running Third Team All-America TCU tackle Rusty Deathrow's middle-aged dead ass into the Dallas lawn fertilizer when D.J. made a fatal misestimate of reckoning -- he felt sorry for his dad. He let him tackle him just once. Just once -- right in the dry linty Dallas old navel of Texas. Rusty was so het up, he flung D.J. and -- mail in your protests -- he bit him in the ass, right through the pants, that's how insane he was with frustration, that's how much red blood was in his neck, and man, he hung on, he nearly lifted D.J. up in the air with his deathly teeth -- he would have if he hadn't been a deacon at St. Martin's. That poor D.J. He was a one-cheek swivel ass running on one leg for the next ten minutes while Rusty tackled him whoong! whoong! over and over again. Trails of glory came out of head each time he got hit. "Randy," said Rusty, afterward, "you got to be a nut about competition. That's the way. You got to be so dominated by a desire to win that if you was to squat down on the line and there facing you was Jesus Christ, you would just tip your head once and say, 'J.C., I have to give you fair warning that I'm here to do my best to go right through your hole'"...
Critics generally prefer Mailer's more disciplined books like The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost, in which Mailer's madness is a thrumming engine set safely deep inside the work, sending energy steadily up into the well-ordered prose, with sudden power surges occasionally electrifying the surface. In passages like this one, we see what Mailer was like when nothing was stopping him. It's the first Mailer book that grabbed me, and I still like it. There's glory in it as well as absurdity; it's compelling and not quite convincing; it is colloquial without being conversational. It is inventive to a fault.

Why Are We In Vietnam was his fourth novel. He followed his blockbuster debut, The Naked and The Dead, with a couple of difficult books that were hard to like, maybe even hard for him to like. At the same time he built a career as a public intellectual, or a public nuisance, depending on how you looked at it. He made himself available for ten rounds on any subject: theatre, poetry, drugs, race, technology, female sexuality, what have you and whether or not he knew anything about it. More often than not, at the end of each bout he would climb bloody and exhausted from the canvas and raise his arms in victory.

The way I read it, Why Are We In Vietnam has its roots in The White Negro, in which Mailer commenced a labored, often farcical mission to comprehend black culture, not as a separate reality, but wholly into his own Jewish-American, Harvard- and World War-educated, high-falutin' and bar-brawling perspective; having encompassed so much, he thought he could contain that, too. James Baldwin, among others, spanked him soundly for it, but Mailer had his teeth in his subject, so to speak, and would not let go. Ten years later, Mailer created D.J., inheritor of a distinct culture and surfer on the shock-waves of the 60s, a slicker and a cracker who also imagines himself to be a black disc jockey: the fullest literary flower of Mailer's grand cultural reclamation project.

Writing that book seems to have calmed him a little. This time, after declaring himself victorious, Mailer had the good sense to get out of the ring (for the most part and the time being), and he embarked on a more fruitful literary enterprise. Tom Wolfe had pioneered new journalism, but Mailer saw what it was missing: Norman Mailer. He made himself the central character (aka Aquarius) and attended an anti-war protest, political conventions, a space launch. He got some good books out of it.

Journalism, even a la mode, couldn't hold Mailer, but it did focus him and give a new, cumulative force to his expansive talents. History removed the onerous obligations of fiction by providing him with characters and a plot. Had Mailer invented Spiro Agnew, he might have been tempted to overdraw him; seeing Agnew before him, he was content to observe that his eyes were like slits in the turret of a tank, and that tells us enough. When stirred, as he was by the Democratic Convention floor in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, to the operatic, Mailer takes care to begin at the quotidian base, then build his way up to a soaring aria:
The Ampitheatre was the best place in the world for a convention. Relatively small, it had the packed intimacy of a neighborhood fight club. The entrances to the gallery were as narrow as hallway tunnels, and the balcony seemed to hang over each speaker. The colors were black and grey and red and white and blue, bright powerful colors in support of a ruddy beef-eating sea of Democratic faces. The standards in these cramped quarters were numerous enough to look like lances. The aisles were jammed. The carpets were red. The crowd had a blood in their vote which had travelled in an unbroken line from the throng who had cheered the blood of brave Christians and ferocious lions. It could have been a great convention, stench and all -- politics in an abbatoir was as appropriate as license in a boudoir. There was bottom to this convention; some of the finest and some of the most corrupt faces in America were on the floor. Cancer jostled elbows with arcomegaly, obesity with edema, arthritis with alcholism, bad livers sent curses to bronchiacs, and quivering jowls beamed bad cess to puffed-out paunches. Cigars curved mouths which talked out of the other corner to cauliflower ears. The leprotic took care of the blind. And the deaf attached their hearing-aid to the voice-box of the dumb. The tennis-players communicated with the estate holders. The Mob talked bowling with the Union, the principals winked to the principals, the honest and the passionate went hoarse shouting through dead mikes.
This has the quality of a fine Hogarth or Gillray cartoon: monstrous, vulgar, arguably overdrawn, but with the humanity behind the metaphors preserved.

Mailer did not then cease to scrap, as Gore Vidal could tell you. He didn't entirely cease to be ridiculous, either. He ran for Mayor of New York, presided over the public collapse of the New York intelligentsia chronicled in Town Bloody Hall, tried to hatch a "Fifth Estate" of what would much later be called citizen journalists, championed and helped win parole for an imprisoned writer who then killed a waiter.

But he kept writing. He took up novels again, and if they were not always successful, the long exercise of his talents certainly showed in them. If you dig through any of his work, you will find evidence of his gifts. I recently encountered his very long Evergreen Review essay on Last Tango in Paris, "A Transit to Narcissus." It is full of ripe 70s Mailer hogwash: e.g., "[Maria Schneider] is every eighteen-year-old in a mini-skirt and a maxi-coat who ever promenaded down Fifth Avenue in that inner arrogance which proclaims, 'My cunt is my chariot.'" Ugh. Yet when Mailer talks about the effect of retrofitting Brando's improvisational style to the film's original script, one thinks: oh, wait, he knows what he's talking about.

An editor might have got us to the money shot more quickly. But Mailer was long since past the ministrations of editors. He aimed high -- who else had the nerve, in our earthbound era, to seek to explain Jesus and Hitler? -- and was perhaps dizzied by the thin air encountered in his journeys. He was smart enough to know this was happening, but what was the alternative? His energy and ambition were obviously boundless: he thought big, wrote big, did everything big. If he sometimes found a vehicle or medium that channeled his energies, he could be grateful for the improving effect of the ballast and still be painfully aware that something was holding him back. To wish he had shown greater wisdom about the use of his power is to presume that you would know better what to do with it. Nobody knew how to be Mailer but Mailer.