Saturday, November 10, 2007

SHOP TALK. The only trade fairs I have willfully attended were the New Music Seminar and the CMJ, and I recall them as small hells of self-promotion. As blogging has even more competition, lower barriers to entry, and fewer commercial opportunities than music, I can only imagine that a Blog World Expo would be even worse. The participants certainly look like less fun than, say, GWAR and Henry Rollins. I can see the logic for exhibitors, though: might organizations like this be why the Ole Perfesser is constantly going on about some new skillet or juicer?

But I concede that, as silly as it is to approach blogging as a business, it may be even sillier to approach it as a means toward elevating discourse. Take Hindrocket's account of what he saw at the Expo:
About half the participants in both panels were liberals; these are the people who had me thinking I had passed into a different world, and entered a sort of bubble inhabited only by leftists.

The first panel went off, inevitably I suppose, on Iraq. What was striking was the dogmatic nature of the liberals' assertions about what is happening there. Things aren't getting better; things can't possibly get better; the facts don't matter, it's tautological...

I'm pretty sure the number of people who think the facts don't matter in Iraq is quite a bit less than 70%, and I'm also pretty sure that a political movement that explicitly declares its indifference to reality is in trouble.
He had to go to Vegas to write that? Well, the year's almost over, so I guess it was time to tap out the Power Line distance-learning budget. alicublog's was tapped out on the morning of New Year's Day with a few calls to 900-BIG-BUTT.

(BTW, this Blog World post contains what must be the line of the day: "Blacks in America have become the perfect laboratory for the consequences of annihilating traditional sexual mores. At 70% illegitimacy, they have destroyed civilization at the molecular level.")

Friday, November 09, 2007

HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. Via (the award-winning, until the inevitable Supreme Court reversal) Sadly No, I see Gay Patriot is complaining that somebody wouldn't go out with him because he's conservative.

We've seen this sort of thing before. It is embarrassing to have to tell these "classical liberals" this, but: there is no Constitutional right to get laid.

Believe me, if there were, Ron Paul would win in a landslide.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

AUTHENTIC WESTERN GIBBERISH. While other war fans talk about how great things are going in Iraq, Daniel Pipes contemplates the expected collapse of the Mosul Dam and draws interesting conclusions:
Yet, were a catastrophic failure to take place, who would be blamed for the unprecedented loss of life? Americans, of course. And understandably so, for the Bush administration took upon itself the overhauling of Iraqi life, including the Mosul Dam. Specifically, the U.S. taxpayer funded attempts to shore it up by with improved grouting, at a cost of US$27 million. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has, however, judged these efforts mismanaged and ineffective.
I don't see why they don't just paint it and put a cross on top of it. But Pipes continues:
Mosul's dam replicates a myriad of lesser problems in Iraqi life that have landed in the lap of Americans (and, to a much lesser extent, their coalition partners), such as provisioning fuel and electricity, working schools and hospitals, a fair political and legal system, and an environment secure from terrorism.

Since April 2003, I have argued that this shouldering of responsibility for Iraq's domestic life has harmed both Americans and Iraqis. It yokes Americans with unwanted and unnecessary loss of life, financial obligations, and political burdens. For Iraqis, as the dam example suggests, it encourages an irresponsibility with potentially ruinous consequences.

A change of course is needed, and quickly. The Bush administration needs to hand back responsibility for Iraq's ills, including and especially the Mosul Dam. More broadly, it should abandon the deeply flawed and upside-down approach of "war as social work," whereby U.S. military efforts are judged primarily by the benefits they bring to the defeated enemy, rather than to Americans.
If only Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, George W. Bush, and "Brownie" had thought of this! They didn't build the damn levees, just as the U.S. didn't build the damn dam; why should they take any responsibility for what happened/will happen when they/it collapsed/collapse?

Like other conservatives, Pipes supports our continued occupation of Iraq. But he just wants us to use it as a base for "rollback" (i.e., war with other Middle East states), get the oil, and provide a "benign presence" during the "years, perhaps decades" it will take Iraqis "to learn the subtle habits of an open society." He believes we shouldn't waste our time trying to fix things while we're there, asking bluntly, "how many Americans or Britons care deeply about Iraq's future course?"

Pipes is of course a lunatic, but I must admit I find his approach refreshingly honest and even coherent compared to that of the many dead-enders (no links, go to just about any rightwing rag and fish around) who still tell us how our bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq was, and continues to be, for the Iraqis' own good.

Indeed, the dead-enders seem to be edging reluctantly in Pipes' direction: at the time of the 2005 Iraq election the National Review editors were gung-ho for export-grade democracy, but now many of them are downplaying it ("The Arab world doesn’t have a great grasp of what democracy is" -- Jonah Goldberg; "Our problem in the war on terror is less the absence of democracy than the absence of strong states" -- Rich Lowry, etc). And recent events have forced similar admissions from the same people as regards democracy in Pakistan.

Maybe, if they get time for it, they'll all start talking about the need for a strongman who will keep the Iraqi people in line no matter how crappy their conditions are. Pity we hung the last proven practitioner of that craft.
CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED. Contextual reading, or non-reading, taken to new heights today by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal, writing about Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Clarence Thomas:
By now, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is wholly folded into the political life of the country. It is safe to say that most Democrats would consider the book to be an iconic testament to their legacy, liberalism's greatest achievement. One imagines that Harper Lee would agree with this.
Which statement is rendered odd by his next one:
But as with Justice Thomas's famously sphinx-like demeanor during oral arguments at the Supreme Court, there has been nary a peep in more than 40 years about the book's meaning from Miss Lee (it would sound absurd to refer to her as Ms. Lee).
Well, as long as we're speculating about the political beliefs of a closed-mouthed writer who said she wanted to be "the Jane Austen of south Alabama," why not go whole hog and suggest that, despite her presumed esteem for "liberalism's greatest achievement," she would also be a Clarence Thomas supporter?

First, it would sound absurd to Henninger to use attach "Ms." to her surname -- look, she's halfway to being conservative already! And Henninger points out that she defended (as any sensible person would) the use of the word "nigger" in her book, which seen a certain way supports Henninger's case, as this is a word with which conservatives are historically comfortable. Finally, Thomas grew up black and poor, and referred to his own hearings as a "lynching"; as Thomas was a party disinterested in the outcome, we may take his word for it.

Henninger determines:
We may assume that Harper Lee composed her remarkable story about the unjustly accused and gunned-down Tom Robinson so that some day a Clarence Thomas could rise from Pinpoint to the nation's highest Court.
The "a" is a neat dodge. But the clear suggestion that Lee was working, however unconsciously, to put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court is about as valid as a suggestion that, in writing The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein was working to make Jimmy Hoffa head of the Teamsters.

Near the end, Henninger seems to intuit that he has not made himself sufficiently explicit, and adds:
Today a black man is running for the presidency. Perhaps the campaign is too long and perhaps Barack Obama is too young and too inexperienced to be president. Consider, though, the current knock on Mr. Obama. It is that he won't attack Hillary with sufficient aggression, that he is too gentlemanly, even too "professorial" in demeanor. Presumably his critics would prefer the slashing tongue of a hip-hop performer than the self-contained Barack Obama, who epitomizes middle-class black achievement. Well, 15 years ago they preferred something other than the conservative middle-class black man sent to the Supreme Court.
Conclusion: liberals are so racist that they don't even want Barack Obama to run for President, and would prefer Ludacris or Busta Rhymes.

Henninger's piece is a classic example of Konservetkult criticism. He doesn't deduce Lee's view from her work, but uses shopworn conservative memes as shims to maneuver her into the correct position.
RESSENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. Michael Yon took a perfectly nice photograph of some people putting up a cross in Iraq. But his fellow war supporters can't really enjoy it -- it just stirs their ancient anger at the mean ol' MSM:
The Hypocritical Silence of the MSM -- Babalu Blog.

It’s a story you not see in the supposed mainstream press. It’s a story you’ll never hear about except in derisive tones, on Err America. It’s a happening that will never get any recognition from the Democrat run Congress. It’s something you’ll never hear the democratic party presidential candidates talk about. It’s something you won’t hear Ron Paul talk about. It’s a story that you’ll never hear from the any of the people who have been screaming for our capitulation and our withdrawal in that region. -- Bits Blog.

Rand Simberg thinks Yon should win a Pulitzer for this photo. Frankly, that honor should have come two years ago. Instead, they gave it to a gaggle of Associated Press photographers, one of which, Bilal Hussein, was later arrested with a known al Qaeda terrorist and remains in jail. -- Confederate Yankee.

If it had been taken by a wire service photographer it would be on the cover of newspapers all over the country. -- Tigerhawk.

Some on the other side, who - overwhelmed with images of burned flags and screaming mobs - may have forgotten the humanity of the Iraqi people (people we let down once before, and who had reason to distrust us and our commitment) may see these Muslims and Christians raising a cross together, in a language of brotherhood and gratitude, and say, “but…but…all those people are bad people…” -- The Anchoress.
Think how it must be to go through life like that: to see a heartwarming picture and have the bitter thought instantly leap to your mind that people are being unfair to you. That's what makes them what they are, and why when you say "culture," they say "war." It gives new meaning to the aesthetic concept of negative space.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

NOTHING MEANS NOTHING ANYMORE. If you aren't a Republican with an eye on continuing control of the White House, and maybe even if you are, Rudolph Giuliani's acceptance of Pat Robertson's endorsement might strike you as bizarre. Robertson famously blamed 9/11 on America's godlessness. You might think that the sheer, eerie discordance of Mr. 9/11 standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the evangelical equivalent of a Truther would outweigh any political benefits that might come from it.

Pundits zipped right past this natural response, though, and went straight for the who's-hot, who's-not angle. Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post:
The endorsement will definitely slow Romney's momentum with social conservatives. Romney had recently secured the backing of conservative stalwarts Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III -- endorsements that seemed to strengthen his bid to become the electable conservative alternative to Giuliani. Romney had made no secret of his desire for Robertson's endorsement and has to be disappointed this morning.
Of course, right-wingers who have long been heavily invested in Giuliani and his finessing of religious issues are making the most of it. And of course non-supporters are incensed.

But no one seems shocked. Despite what human nature would suggest, the endorsement seems normal, if a little rich.

And that's the mad genius of it. For months we've been hearing about Giuliani's problems with the evangelicals. His conservative supporters have been openly citing his insincerity on the issue of abortion as a plus -- something that gives him wiggle room over a long campaign. This endorsement suggests there's something to that.

For years people like Robertson have been saying that abortion is murder. Murder! Now Robertson is endorsing the least believably anti-abortion of all the Republican candidates based on his concern about "the blood lust of Islamic terrorists," which certainly wasn't uppermost in Robertson's mind six years ago, when it was most apparent.

Robertson has always been a fraud, but to maintain his position, such as it is, he used to have to hold a hard line on his alleged beliefs. Now I guess he doesn't see the need. Indeed, by accepting his endorsement, Giuliani is sending a signal -- just the latest among many -- that he doesn't see the need, either.

They're both right. Giuliani is leading among Republican nominees based not upon the relevance of his experience -- does America really need someone who can jail squeegee men or crack down on dancing in bars? -- but on his reputation as an unrelenting prick. (As Kevin Drum observed, "And of all the GOP candidates on offer today, which one is most obviously prepared to kick moral decay's ass? I don't even have to say it, do I?") Republicans are drawn to him because they know they share his attitude, and can pray that his policies, despite all evidence, will match their own. The other Party's nominees are led by a woman who -- well, see previous.

For a long time we Americans have expected our leaders to be full of shit, particularly when they came from the opposing side. Now we appear to expect it even more, even when they're on our side. It is brutally just that this should be made clear by an endorsement from a supposed man of faith.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

MONEY SHOT. At Commentary, Fred Siegel says the Democrats are the new "party of the rich." How you stand on this assertion depends on whether you are more convinced by demographic analysis that suggests that, while richer states tend Democratic, "richer voters within states support the Republicans," or by anecdotes about "Democratic fund-raising events in the Park Avenue homes of investment bankers." I say it's all good: any new interest group the Democrats can claim is fine with me. And I look forward to guys like Giuliani and Romney hunkering down in their overalls, preferably while eatin' a mess o' catfish, talkin' about their opposition to bankers and big business.

Monday, November 05, 2007

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE PRATFALLEN. By the time you read this, Kevin Drum's All-Time Wingnuttiest Blog Post Contest will probably have closed. But even if you can't vote, it's worth visiting to read the nominees.

It's also worth remembering that most of the finalists, and even their nominated work, have been praised to the skies by the big-name conservatives. Some of them rode this praise to mainstream success. Ben Domenech blogged for the Washington Post. Steven Den Beste has written for the Wall Street Journal, Ann Althouse for the New York Times. John Hinderaker, aka "Hindrocket," was one of Time's Bloggers of the Year. Hell, a few breaks one way or the other, and Pam "Atlas Shrugs" Geller would have had that Time cover instead of Ann Coulter.

All the hot air in recent years about the blogosphere being the next big thing inflated these worthy contenders to their current Hindenberg proportions, making them all the more satisfying to explode, especially for those of us who knew them when. Stay tuned to alicublog for future nominees.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

YOU WOULDN'T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY. The Anchoress complains that a lot of commercials make men look stupider than women:
The first commercial had the Stupid Spoiled Father stamping his feet and holding his breath (literally) outside of a Subway because he wanted the meat-and-cheese whatever. The Insufferably Sensible Mother said, “no, honey, we have to take Chris to his soccer game.” When Stupid Spoiled Father began whining and holding his breath, Superior Life Form Child said, “yeah, Dad, grow up!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist of it. The whole commercial was appallingly insulting and had me muttering that if I did eat Subway sandwiches, I’d have to stop because of those ads.
The Anchoress seems to think the big ad agencies (and Sesame Street) have been taken over by radical feminists "who cannot stop defensively 'celebrating' themselves, like an old scratched record that can’t move past a skip." Other female rightwingers of the Jesus sort have expressed similar objections here and here and here. It might have something to do with Dominion, or synchronized cycles or something.

Let me explain something about advertising.

Advertisers have always seen the advantage in playing to consumers' desire for status. For a long time these appeals were gender-distinct; women were presumed to want to bake better cakes than the neighbor lady, and men to want to be richer and more masculine than Mr. Jones next door.

Then advertisers began to notice that women held purchasing power for families as well as for themselves. The great David Ogilvy said in the 60s, "The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife." Advertisers sought to appeal to her more directly, and not just as the quartermaster for her brood. When admen pitched her time-saving innovations like frozen foods, appliances, laundry add-ons ("Ancient Chinese secret, huh?"), and even beauty products ("Does she, or doesn't she?"), they began to emphasize that women could obtain benefits for themselves. If a housewife could produce dinner in minutes instead of an hour, the gain was all hers. If only her hairdresser knew for sure whether her blonde hair came from a bottle, that too was to her advantage. The female consumer was no longer enticed solely with improved status within her gender, but also with increased autonomy in the wider world.

So in their little psychodramas of salesmanship, advertisers were obliged to mix up their gender relations a bit. If your bread and butter relies upon telling a consumer how smart she would be to buy your product, you will eventually get around to saying that it would make her smarter than someone else -- maybe even, at times, her husband or boyfriend, since her status as a consumer does not necessarily put him and her on the same team.

Of course, you will also get commercials that portray men as smarter than their wives and kids (see the Verizon commercial in which the Steve Martinesque dad lies to his son, daughter, and wife), commercials that portray kids as smarter than their parents, etc. The market has more niches than the Longmen Grottoes, and there are many viable angles of approach to each. In fact, many of the ads that show men as dummies are pitched at the men themselves, especially when the acceptance of infantilism is part of the pitch -- which is what I think is going on in the Subway ad that so exercises the Anchoress.

That, comrades, is capitalism. Ad agencies don't get their strategies from Satan or the Democratic Party -- they get them from market data, laboriously collected and analyzed. And they employ them because they bring in money.

Conservatives often seem to miss, when raging about the stuff on their teevees, that it's really their beloved Invisible Hand that's slapping them in the face. They would rather believe it was Betty Friedan. If they stopped to consider how much of the damage they perceive to their "culture" is actually done by the free market, it would drive them mad.

Friday, November 02, 2007

NOW YOU TELL US. In the New York Times, former Iraq PM Ayad Allawi says that holding to the 2005 election timetable was a horrible mistake:
The paralysis that has afflicted the government in Baghdad, the sectarian disputes across the country and the failure to move toward reconciliation were all predictable outcomes of the senseless rush to hold national elections and put the Constitution in place. At the time, leaders from all major parties produced a memorandum calling for a delay of the elections, which I presented to Ghazi al-Yawer, then the interim president of Iraq.
Funny, he wasn't telling the U.S. Congress this back in September of 2004:
As we move forward, the next major milestone will be holding of the free and fair national and local elections in January next.

I know that some have speculated, even doubted, whether this date can be met. So let me be absolutely clear: Elections will occur in Iraq on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time.

For the skeptics who do not understand the Iraqi people, they do not realize how decades of torture and repression feed our desire for freedom. At every step of the political process to date the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people has proved the doubters wrong.

They said we would miss January deadline to pass the interim constitution.

We proved them wrong...

And I pledge to you today, we'll prove them wrong again over the elections.
And he was saying this stuff right up to the brink of the elections. Well, he's a politician, and it's not like the U.S. had any power in Iraq anyway. Among Allawi's proposed electoral reforms:
Furthermore, a new law should ban the use of religious symbols and rhetoric by candidates and parties — these have no place in democratic elections.
From your lips to God's ear, pal.
SHORTER PEGGY NOONAN: The American people have seen eight years of big spending, of wars, of spiraling entitlements. They've driven by the mansions of the megarich and have no sympathy for hedge fund/movie producer/cosmetics empire heirs. They sense the system is rigged toward the heavily protected. And like me, they know the antidote is to vote Republican.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

WHO ASKED YA? Eric Shiele reports that one of the IPCC guys renounces his share of the Nobel because he isn't so convinced about this global warming stuff. Shiele says:
What Christy has done amounts to high treason, if not outright apostasy.

Fortunately, the global warming alarmists don't issue fatwas or behead people, so I think he won't suffer the extreme penalty.
Then he goes on about "heresy" as if some global warmist had issued a fatwa or threatened to behead the guy. "Do humans need heresy?" he muses. "Is it possible that there is a deep-seated human need to regard certain views as heresy? I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that there might be a heresy gene..."

This reminds me of a bit from an old Bob Hope special. Martha Raye announced she would not take her clothes off in a film unless the nudity was integral to the artistic merit of the script. To which Hope (or was it Paul Lynde?) rejoined, "Who asked ya?"
SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. From an excerpt from the forthcoming Roger L. Simon book, The New Blacklist:
...But to what extent my political switch or supposed switch (more of that in a later chapter) – a change writ large on my blog and later on Pajamas Media, a change that made me, to my knowledge, the only person to be profiled positively by Mother Jones and The National Review within one fleeting lifetime - hurt my movie career, I simply don’t know...

...I would like to think that my public stand against Islamofascism cost me a half-dozen Academy Awards or three, but that would be blowing my own horn in the extreme. Hollywood careers are fragile things at best, especially for writers. And mine wasn’t at its height at the beginning of the Millennium anyway. I was then a decade past my Academy Award nomination and I was getting on in years for the business in general...

So I have not lost sleep worrying whether I have been blacklisted. Still I am sure this new form of Blacklist exists, but not nearly to the formalized extent of the original list of the forties and fifties with its Red Channels and dramatic hearings in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, featuring ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ witnesses. Times are different and the system functions in a very different manner. Now it operates through an almost invisible thought control caused by a post-Orwellian “liberal” conformity so pervasive a formal Blacklist is not necessary, indeed would work against itself...
alicublog has come across still more excerpts found on microfilm in a pumpkin patch:
..."I'm working on a new screenplay," I told [Michael] Ovitz.

He continued to work the Playstation. Seconds passed. Tiger Woods reached the fairway easily. "Great," Ovitz finally said.

"It involves American soldiers railroaded at Haditha," I explained, turning my head so that [Harvey] Weinstein could hear, "and their lonely search for justice." Weinstein was preoccupied with the starlet who was fellating him. "Ron Silver's on board," I added. Weinstein grunted, whether in recognition, approval, or sexual ecstasy I couldn't tell you to this day.

I then noticed that [John] Lasseter had finished ingesting his cocaine, so I joined him on the waterbed and wrapped up my pitch. From his vacant stare I could tell that my proposal, so far from the usual Hollywood anti-military fare, had blown his mind. Finally he blinked and asked, "How did you get in here?"

I don't need to tell you what happened next. As I painfully rose from the asphalt, dusted myself off, and fished for my car keys, I said, half to myself, "I'm getting too old for this." "Just get the fuck out of here," rejoined the burly thugs who had pitched me into the driveway. Well, at least their pitch had been a success. No, I hadn't left the movie business; the movie business had left me with multiple cuts and abrasions. The major players had internalized Marxist dogma, while I had internal bleeding. Somewhere, Brian De Palma was laughing, but I knew that the blogosphere, and my lawyers, would have the last laugh.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ANNALS OF CITIZEN JOURNALISM. Another funny Republican same-sex scandal. Good thing for the Republicans that they have... a blind item, and retards who are easily obsessed. (Mr. Spades refers to Rosenbaum's mad-libs scandal as "juicy." Are we sure he isn't gay?)

Ron Rosenbaum mulls, "I'm beginning to feel uneaasy about posting one repetetive rumor after another," before remembering who, what, and where he is:
It's a blog, which can be many things but in my case is a kind of public record of personal experiences, often first impressions, thinking out loud etc. Starting a conversation...
To paraphrase an old joke: you know it's bullshit, I know it's bullshit, but blogging is blogging.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN. Right-wing nuts celebrate by holding flashlights under their chins and telling us the dead speak to us just like on the Teevee and foolish atheists will fry in hell. I celebrate by staying the hell away from the Parade and little kids, and watching Count Floyd. Whatever you do tonight, make it extra scarey. Awwoooooooooo!

UPDATE. Oops, forgot the HOLLYWEIRD IS MAKING OUR LITTLE GIRLS INTO SLUTS WITH COSTUMES! evergreen. James Lileks grabs a paddle but his heart doesn't seem to be in it. His daughter is, what, five now? I'll bet she's already telling him he's full of shit. "I'm going to Drusilla's, dah-dee. Don't wait up." "You'll sit here and eat your low-carb dinner first, young lady!" "Oh that birdseed is for manorexics like you, dah-dee. I wish to be zaftig and fierce!" I'm not sure how it ends: I like Lileks going "Sputter, sputter!" and ruffling his newspaper, but him tying the child to a chair and torturing her with old matchbooks works, too. Or this woman could show up at the door, and Lileks could say, "Aren't you a little old to be trick-or-treating, miss?" and then we bring in the fight choreographer.
WELCOME TO THE LINEUP. I'd been thinking of adding a fun, mean celebrity stalking site to the blogroll. But it had to have style. Style high enough to override the inevitable, unhealthy obsession with Britney Spears and other poor souls who actually deserve our pity and concern. Ladies and gentlemen...
Teri Hatcher attended the Dream Halloween charity for children affected by AIDS this weekend, and she went dressed as the Queen of Hearts from "Alice in Wonderland", because if it's one thing little kids high on painkillers need, it's to see horrifying old people dressed like storybook villains.
...What Would Tyler Durden Do?!
WATCHING THE WATCHERS. I didn't watch last night's debate. There will be about 200 more of them, and I don't have cable. I did scan the coverage in The Corner. The women among them hate Hillary a bunch, but the worst vitriol is reserved for Edwards, so now I have to consider voting for him. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard: opposition to neoconservatism is anti-Semitic.

Althouse moment of the thread -- Kathryn J. Lopez freaking out over Biden's good line ("There's only three things [Giuliani] says in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11"):
Now I'm mad ... when Joe Biden gets my New York up in defense of Rudy (on a day where I started out here) ! Maybe the 10 P.M. hour has killed what little sense of humor I've ever had, but that 9/11 sentence line was a low, crass line. And it's disturbing it got laughs. I'll believe they were nervous laughs.
If this ruffles her feathers, she should keep her feathers numbered for just such an emergency. The churlish response from the press office of Mr. 9/11 suggests that the bully felt the blow, and when that gets around everyone will want a crack at him.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

GOOD GRIEF. I recently read John Updike's New Yorker review of David Michaelis' biography of Charles Schulz, and saw the PBS "American Masters" program on Schulz. They both took me aback, though I knew many of the details aforehand.

I was a big fan of "Peanuts" from my earliest days and devoured the Fawcett-Crest paperbacks and (when I learned of their existence) the earlier, large-format Holt, Rinehart, and Winston editions as quickly as I could save up quarters for them. (Oddly, during my juvenile shoplifting phase, I only put "Dennis the Menace" books down my pantsleg; "Peanuts" I perversely insisted on paying for.)

Later, as an adult comics nerd, I got some inside dope on the straight-arrow Minnesotan Schulz. But this added no frissons to my "Peanuts" appreciation. Because the strip was so integral a part of my youthful experience of popular culture, it never struck me as strange that the man who had so radically altered the funnies by minimalizing their artwork (so much so that Chester Gould parodied his strip as "Sawdust," a pile of witty shavings) and by introducing adult neuroses into children (so much so that Al Capp parodied them: "Readers don't want children to talk like children, they want them to talk like little psychiatrists!") was both heavily invested in public demonstrations of his own normalcy, and seriously weird himself. (I should add that the Gould and Capp parodies come from my own memories, not outside sources.)

The recent Schulz examinations made me more attentive to his strangeness, but like any honest history of an artist, they neither reduce nor amplify the glory of the artwork, they just add another perspective from which to appreciate it. That Charlie Brown's romantic foibles echoed Schulz's, and Snoopy's Dionysian period roughly corresponded with his author's, is illuminating but not necessary to their enjoyment. Sparky's (apparently) chaste flirtations with "For Better or For Worse" creator Lynn Johnston as revealed in the PBS interviews suggest wellsprings of sublimation, and his heartbreaking final interview reveals how deeply and painfully he was embedded in the strip and its characters. For those of us who love his work, this adds poignance and resonance to the achievement. But the achievement is all that is left.

And what about that? Schulz was from an early age a comics nerd, but his draughtsmanship was limited. He had to find a mode that accomodated his simple means of expression. There were precedents: obviously he was influenced by Crockett Johnson's "Barnaby" right down to the figure-eight heads of his characters. But he was not cut out for Johnson's kind of whimsy, nor did his mission and era require it.

Despite his midwestern isolation, Schulz must have been sensitive to the postwar zeitgeist and its uncertainty. He must also have been aware of the popular artists that reverberated to it -- jazz players and rock 'n' rollers, filmmakers like Nicholas Ray, writers like James Jones and Norman Mailer. What else could have inspired him to break into the conservative comics world with a strip that began with a cute little kid saying "Good ol' Charlie Brown... how I hate him"? Or that revolved around the universally unloved Charlie Brown, the frankly vicious Lucy Van Pelt, and the emotionally crippled Linus? Few artists in any era are strictly sui generis, and Schulz was sitting atop a mushroom cloud of influences.

"Peanuts" was able to introduce such ideas and characters to the "family" strip (a genre typified by "Skippy," one of Schulz's favorites) for two reasons, one historic, one unique: because comics had always accepted fringe characters (see "Our Boarding House" and "Gasoline Alley"), and because, in a rapidly changing world, unusual ideas would be acceptable if they had a familiar, unthreatening background. Schulz's formless suburb, and his dot-eyed kids, were as neutral as could be.

As the strip progressed and found its groove, Schulz pressed deeper into a strangeness that was both particular to him and attuned to the times. He put parentheses around the kids' eyes to signify preternaturally unchildlike worry. He wrote Pinteresque, non-sequitural stories (Linus: People sure are funny, aren't they, Charlie Brown? Charlie Brown: Yes, they sure are. Linus: And the older they get, the funnier they are. Charlie Brown: "Peculiar" is the word.) He made gags based on the horror of modern life: Linus runs through snowflakes and yells at Charlie Brown, "IT'S HAPPENING, CHARLIE BROWN! IT'S HAPPENING JUST LIKE YOU SAID IT WOULD!" When Charlie Brown says it's snowing, Linus says, "Snow? I thought it was fallout." Careful readers may pause and repeat to themselves: Just like you said it would?)

"Peanuts" would be a perfect hell were its inhabitants not children, and theoretically capable of growing out of their condition. But commerce has played them a trick that would be cruel if they were not fictional. Schulz's ultimate genius was that "Peanuts" could persist over decades without the cumbersome reimaginings that "Little Orphan Annie," "Dick Tracy," "Miz Peach" and other aging strips have found necessary. His children never had to acquire new trappings of childhood, or of adulthood; they are perfect as they are. There's something at work here beyond Schulz's genius, though -- the persistence of something seldom attributed to "Peanuts": the thing called hip.

In 1950, the strip's inaugural year, hipsters called one another "man"; now everyone does. Chuck Berry riffs were sent to the moon, and are now recognizable to every living American. Hip has lost its transience, and so has Charlie Brown. He and the other "Peanuts" characters need not acquire any transient lingo to remain in youthful mode: their ocular parentheses, their curt philosophical exchanges, their unkicked footballs and unremoved security blankets make them as relevant to the terms of youth as they were 57 years ago. They may or may not prove timeless: a few more decades, or a miraculous visit from some guy from the 17th Century, might give us a clue. But "Peanuts" did pick up a little something-something from its birth-pangs at the dawn of the current age of hip, and it seems to be hanging in.

What you might think of this depends on a lot of factors. As a fan of comics, the human spirit, and the arts in general, I say good for Sparky. As to the persistence of hip indicated by my reading of his persistent success, of that I also approve. Let some new comic paradigm find a way to replace the one laid down by "Peanuts." The way is open. Take your shot. Just be aware that there is more to the gig than the momentary wrangling of a trend; you have to identify the zeitgeist and own it. Find what is universal in the Snoopy dance, the World War I Flying Ace, and the Little Red Haired Girl, and you're most of the way there.
WRITING LESSONS. A lesson in detail, from Frederick Lewis Allen's The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1990-1950:
The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage life were part of the universal American experience [in 1900]: the clop-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of the brake being applied to ease the horse on a downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of a carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special male ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing a horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornful glance.
This reminds me of the streetcar scene in Welles' film of The Magnificent Amberson, in which the men get out of the vehicle as it waits on a passenger, smoke and chat, and then give the car a push to help it on its way. But the bit about the horse's sneeze is new and startling to me. The hygenic details of simpler times can pull us sharply into the scene. (Allen also writes evocatively about spitoons.)

A lesson in synthesis of details, from Timothy J. Gilfoyle's A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York:
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the opium dens of Chinatown facilitated and represented an ill-defined, inarticulate bohemian world. While this intercultural milieu fostered little intellectual debate, displayed less middle-class self-consciousness, and attracted fewer females compared with Greenwich Village bohemia after 1900, it nevertheless embodied a liminal space fostering an ethic of mutuality, hedonism, and fantasy. The bohemia George Appo confronted in these early opium dens at once conveyed an exotic and erotic "Orientalism" alongside a "rough," male underworld. In Gotham's opium dens pickpockets like Appo met their "genteel" Victorian counterparts. Respectable actors, actresses, artists, and "clubmen" fraternized with sneak thieves, confidence men, and prostitutes. Evoking an ambiance of Asian mystery, this hidden subculture was devoted to the pleasures of the pipe and the body. Opium smoking then gave birth to a distinct American bohemia.
This called to my mind a hundred years of fringe-dweller imagery -- beaded curtains, orgies, koans, Theosophy, incense, tribal body ornamentation, African masks, seances, and the guy who seems cool but steals your stash -- and reassembled it. I had some idea of the relationship of criminal life to bohemianism, thanks in large part to Luc Sante and my own experience, but Gilfoyle's elegant generalization gathered in what I knew and tied a nice bow on it.

Good writers can work either end of the telescope.
A SIMPLE EXPLANATION. Eugene Volokh spends a long time arguing against a casual comment by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Stevens feels bad that his cryptographical efforts in World War II targetted a Japanese officer for extinction. Similar regrets have been expressed countless times by soldiers throughout recorded history; why does Stevens' so excite Volokh?

It may be because Stevens says the experience soured him on the death penalty, and Volokh is a particularly bloodthirsty character. A few years ago Volokh responded to the Iranian (!) government's torture-execution of a convicted mass-murderer of children thusly:
I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing — and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act — was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way...

I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I'm not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it's cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.
Later, Volokh slightly retracted on the grounds that "attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system." Darn!

It is worth remembering that some of the more well-regarded spokespeople for conservatism are just plain psychotic freaks. See also here.