Thursday, January 31, 2008

Janet for First Lady

Please take this opportunity to enjoy a political post that doesn't involve Barack Obama. (This trend won't last longer than tonight, I'm sure.)

Instead, let us focus on wives (with apologies to Bill). The night of the New Hampshire primary, I watched the various victory and concession speeches of the Republicans. Of their wives, only Janet Huckabee caught my interest. Everyone else stood by supportively, without much expression. Cindy McCain, as usual, looked like she had come straight from a L'Oréal testing lab. But Janet looked feisty and fun. Her laughs seemed genuinely spontaneous. She nodded along vigorously, sometimes looking like she wanted to grab the microphone.

I also suspected she could crack her husband in half over her knee.

Now, thanks to a Slate series on the candidates' wives, that suspicion is confirmed. It turns out that Janet Huckabee has stalked bears. And they say John McCain is like Teddy Roosevelt.

But her gentle side is very gentle:
...when Janet Huckabee joked that she'd like to build a Habitat for Humanity house on the White House lawn—she's hammered nails for such homes in 20-some states already, and slept under bridges with homeless people once a year to bring awareness to their problems—Republicans in Arkansas were half-afraid she wasn't kidding. Because back home, the Huckabees' empathy for the luckless is one thing that has never been in doubt.
She sleeps under bridges with homeless people. So easy to picture Hillary doing that, no?

Sadly, her self-consciousness (or maybe the campaign's) has kept her mostly quiet during the primary season. Many have written persuasively about the class divisions in the Republican party, and how even a conservative Christian doesn't cut it if he's unpolished enough. Christopher Hitchens called Mike Huckabee "an unusually stupid primate but who does not have the elementary intelligence to recognize the fact that this is what he is." Jeez. It's not like I'm gonna vote for the guy, but that seems a bit harsh.

Such press must not help the confidence of Janet, of whom Mike says:
"For her, one of the most difficult aspects of being Arkansas' first lady was the inevitable confrontation with some of the snobby elitists who had always been on the side of the culturally correct in Little Rock."
Did you get that? She can't handle the snobby Little Rock.

Well, God bless her, as the Huckabees themselves might say. My favorite candidate has a very strong wife, but I have to say Janet might be my choice for First Lady if that was a separate contest. Along with the deep compassion she'd bring to the office (to everyone but gays, anyway -- I'm guessing with that), she'd probably make for some great press clips, too:
She once likened their oldest, John Mark—no, he's not the one who killed the dog at camp (ASWOBA note: "killed the dog at camp"? I might vote for Huckabee just to have the first White House reality show)—to a radio signal that fades in and out, so that you only catch every third word: "You tune in a radio and every now and then you'll hit a frequency and think, 'Man, I wish I could get that,' and you don't quite get it, but every now and then you get it? Well, John Mark is kind of like that."

Visual Ellipses

This is very funny, but also very not safe for work. . . . I've been meaning to say that I like this ad, and now Slate has a piece about it. . . . If this isn't the funniest newscast blooper ever, it's gotta be close. (Via Freelancette)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Song in a Strange Space

Your song for this Wednesday, before it's too late.

Last fall, at a small venue downtown, I saw a charming band called Clare & the Reasons. People I know are friends with people in the band. That's about as specific as I can get, not because of discretion but because I'm pretty sure my memory is full. I recommend seeing them. When they're done playing, you'll want them to continue; not in a raging way, but in a very satisfying "bring me a small cocktail, and perhaps even an old book, and have the band keep playing, please" kind of way.

I just found this clip, which features the band playing my favorite song of theirs -- "Nothing/Nowhere" -- in a greenhouse. Not just any greenhouse, but a greenhouse called Super Bien! in Berlin, a "project initiated by three Berlin based artists aimed at developing alternative strategies for the display of visual art and thereby examining the role of the gallery within contemporary culture." The gallery is walled with one-way mirrors, as you'll see by the guy outside in the first few seconds -- somewhat confused, but enjoying the music. You, too, enjoy:

An Exciting New Project

For a brief portion of my tenure at HarperCollins, I was lucky enough to work with Dan Menaker, who stopped there for a spell before returning to Random House as that house's editor in chief. He also spent a couple of great decades as an editor at The New Yorker, where he published more notable fiction than I could possibly list here. Dan is also known for his generous spirit. At a time when I was still very much a publishing neophyte, his office door was always open for serious conversation about the business and pleasure of books.

So I'm very excited to say that I'm working on his latest project, Titlepage, which was written up in today's New York Times. An online talk show, each episode of Titlepage will feature Dan interviewing four authors of new books. The three people mentioned in the article -- Dan, and the two producers, Lina and Odile -- are all impressive and accomplished. The fourth person on the project is yours truly. I'll be writing more about this in the near future, as you might imagine. For now, perhaps you'd like to visit the official site and sign up for our mailing list. It's all you can do there for now, but soon it will be a very active place.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Different John Gray

John Gray -- not the one who understands the genders through some interplanetary calculus that escapes me -- has an excellent review in the January issue of Harper's (probably off all newsstands by now; sorry) called "Faith in Reason: Secular fantasies of a godless age." In it, he considers three books -- A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, Secularism Confronts Islam by Olivier Roy, and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla. He begins with a summation of a certain type of argument about religion's fate:
There exists a widespread belief that as people become more modern they become less religious; that the ongoing growth of human knowledge contributes to the development of human reason, with the result that societies become ever more secular. Religion retreats as science advances, and the end point of this process will be a world in which the traditional faiths of humankind disappear. This was the expectation of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, along with many other political thinkers, and in the twentieth century the same expectation had a powerful influence in the social sciences. Religion, in this view, is not the expression of a primary human need; it is a by-product of ignorance, or else the result of poverty or political repression. Once these adverse conditions have been overcome, religion will vanish from human life, or at least dwindle into insignificance.
He's careful to contrast this idea ("secularization") with the less radical idea that the public role of religion should be limited ("secularism").

It once hit me (long after it should have hit me; I'm a bit dull) how strange it is for evolutionary biologists (like Richard Dawkins) to recognize religious impulses as some kind of brain activity and then get angry at people for not...having different brains? It's not unlike the few, mystifying people who I've heard describe homosexuality as both genetically determined and immoral. I do believe that religion is very often an "expression of a primary human need," and while it's perfectly reasonable to think that the nature of the expression can (even should, in some cases) change, the primary need doesn't strike me as a likely candidate for extinction any time soon.

Most trenchantly, Gray sees a specifically religious tint to the work of the New Atheists:
In pre-Christian Europe, history was seen as a succession of cycles similar to those that occur in the natural world; it had no overall purpose or goal. This is a view shared by such non-Western religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, which understand salvation not as an event in time but as liberation from time itself. Christianity, by contrast, has always viewed history as having an end point -- when salvation is granted to believers. ... Ironically, the modern belief that the terminus of historical development will be a universal secular civilization could have arisen only in a culture shaped by a particular kind of religion.
It's a long(ish) review, and my post doesn't cover all its salient points -- just the one I found most interesting.

Back to the Attack

I imagine that after Super Tuesday, this blog will look a lot less like a campaign journal, but for now I (regretfully and briefly) need to move the focus away from Obama's positives and on to Clinton's negatives. Of all the things she and Bill have done to show their true colors (no pun intended, but have at it) during this primary season, her making noise about the delegates from Michigan and Florida takes the shameless cake. The Union Leader in Manchester, NH, ran an editorial about it that came in under 200 words, but gets to the point in just five: "Hillary Clinton is a liar."

Not exactly a "stop the presses" conclusion, but one worth remembering.

Cassandra's Dream

Over at Pajiba, I consider Woody Allen's latest, which I liked. As always on the site, you don't have to look far for a dissenting opinion. Commenter "reesy" writes: "John, I normally love your reviews, but are you kidding me? I saw Cassandra's Dream and wanted to stab someone less than 10 minutes in." At least he or she normally love my reviews. Another unhappy commenter compares Woody Allen to Garrison Keillor. Garrison Keillor?! Kids these days. Or is it old folks (like me) these days?

Here's how the review starts:
Woody Allen’s best movies — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters — have been comedies flavored with genuine anguish. The laughs come when people can’t decide what they want, can’t effectively love or be loved, or can’t fend off a paralyzing fear of death. It’s no surprise, then, that when Allen tells ostensibly more tragic stories, a whiff of the comic trails along. In his psychological thrillers — like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and his latest, Cassandra’s Dream — characters bumble their way through crimes they’re not constitutionally equipped to commit. Like his bookish romantics, Allen’s criminals can’t get life straight.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The State of Keith

Watching cable news coverage leading up to the State of the Union (which I'm now essentially ignoring as it plays in the background), I thought once again of that sad sentiment, which I would have thought unimaginable during the heyday of "SportsCenter" in the early '90s: Keith Olbermann is insanely annoying.

Just as I was thinking this, though, he saved himself with a line that made me laugh. One of his viewers had written in to say that Bill Clinton might be putting his foot in his mouth lately because he's not used to the 24-hour news crush. Olbermann rightfully skewered this viewer on air, saying that cable covered the Lewinsky scandal "from hot and cold running taps."

I laughed, and then I switched to HBO (election years are terrible because they cause me to watch more TV) and saw Bill Maher for a minute. That reminded me what it means for someone to be truly annoying.

So, off to bed having achieved a temporary peace with Mr. Olbermann.

Countdown to R.E.M.

To promote their forthcoming album, R.E.M. has created a site that plays a new short video every day between now and April 1, when Accelerate is released. Some of the videos are lame. Others are pretty cool. Like this one, which was taken during one of five shows the band played in Dublin last year to try out new material:

Audiovisual Aids for the Endorsement Below

I just got done watching Ted Kennedy enthusiastically dismantle every one of Hillary Clinton's talking points. Now, Evan Bayh, a Democratic senator who's supporting Clinton, is on MSNBC talking about how his candidate still has the superior strength to get things done. What I'm struck by as this campaign progresses is not just my increased disdain for the Clintons, but how strange their emphasis is. Obama doesn't have to get your vote, but does anyone really look at him and think he's weak? This isn't Dukakis we're talking about. Is Hillary's best shot really to say she's stronger than he is?

Anyway, I didn't mean to get off track. I want to share two video clips. Combined, they run for an hour and 10 minutes, so you'll have to decide how to rearrange your schedule to accommodate them. The first is Obama talking to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper that just endorsed him. It's fascinating because it's not a typical televised event, and I think you see a side of him you might otherwise miss. This is the calm, convincing side of him:

But I don't think it's the worst thing if a president can also summon his rock star side, and we know he can do that, too. This is his victory speech from South Carolina:

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Case for Obama

A few years ago, I was speaking to an acquaintance who had recently moved to Austin, Texas. I asked her how she was liking it. She explained that Austin is tolerable because it’s “blue,” while everywhere outside of it in Texas is “totally red.” While I suppose there’s some kernel of truth in this description, it also struck me as one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard an otherwise intelligent person say. For a long time, I had found many of the divisions in this country to be exaggerated in their substance, overheated in their tone, and counterproductive in their results. But in that moment, I realized just how deeply nonsensical they are. Having lived in Texas for 12 years (entirely in those “red” areas), I had met many people who were politically conservative in ways I found distasteful. I also met many liberals, and several people who leaned conservative and remain among the smartest people I know. To hear them (not to mention some of the largest cities in the country) dismissed as “totally red” was offensive politically, personally, and intellectually.

I consider Barack Obama to have many strengths, but perhaps chief among them in 2008 is the fact that he seems temperamentally allergic to specious reductions. I’m not sure I can think of a more important baseline qualification for someone who will be governing 300 million people. And I don’t mean to imply that no other candidate has some amount of this quality, but it strikes me that Obama possesses it to the bone in a way that no one else does.

Some people claim that this quality -- along with his superlative rhetorical style and preternatural poise -- isn’t enough to be a deciding factor when his substantive policy ideas are not so different from his fellow Democrats, and especially Hillary Clinton. I disagree completely. William James wrote that, “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.” I believe that the difference in the way Obama carries himself, and in the way he approaches his opponents, would lead to tremendous concrete differences. Yes, on one level these differences would be in tone -- an elevation of the country’s political discourse from the ad hominem pit in which it currently resides to some plateau of logical, grown-up engagement -- but there may also be progress on a tangible level that has been stymied by the lack of a levelheaded, widely respected president who can talk to those who disagree in ways that they find palatable.

As for Obama's other qualifications, I find it truly baffling that media coverage has taken a turn toward portraying him, in the words of the New York Times, as “incandescent if still undefined.” Here’s some definition: He went to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He took that prestigious degree and went to work in poverty-stricken areas of south Chicago. He taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He served in the Illinois senate, where he gained a reputation for working well (and productively) with Republicans. He’s the fifth African-American in history to be a U.S. Senator. He’s written a book (Dreams from My Father) that one of my smartest friends called not just a good book by politicians’ standards but “a great memoir.”

I’d give anything to be that undefined.

He also delivered (and wrote), at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, maybe the most inspiring political speech of my lifetime. In that speech, he rousingly and convincingly argued:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
I think this country deserves -- and needs -- a president who thinks like that. The fact that Barack Obama thinks like that would be enough to get me excited about him. The fact that he possesses so many other admirable qualities besides earns him my unwavering support.

If this post didn't focus a lot on policy, it's for two reasons: 1. Obama doesn't seem to hope for any policies that I think are deal-breakers. This isn't to say I agree with him on everything. 2. In the absence of deal-breakers (like Huckabee's desire to rewrite the Constitution as a sequel to The Bible), what I want in a president is someone who seems reasonable and trustworthy. A president is not going to enter the White House and micromanage every detail of American life. That's not how the office works (thankfully). He or she is going to have to set a course and rally colleagues on the details. He or she, as well as the country itself, is also going to suffer inevitable trials and setbacks, and during those times it would be ideal if the president had political courage, believed in the transparency of American government, and addressed the people as adults. I trust Obama to do those things. I'm eager -- no, desperate -- for him to do them.

A Random Psychological Note

I have yet to find the mood that can't be lifted by listening to "Beast of Burden" by the Rolling Stones.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gallery 10

"010" by Lewis McVey

Lewis is a friend of mine who has a terrific photo blog called Foster Park. This is one of the best pictures I've seen in a while. (Click to enlarge for a better look at the cop on the left's priceless expression.) Lewis' description of the shot is pretty great, too:
Officers of the law. New York’s finest. Less than amused. This is the only time I’ve ever tried this. I got the shot, kind of knew I got it, then a rush of adrenaline like oh shit these guys are gonna kill me. Sometimes, and only sometimes, this is a good time to smile. I smiled. They smiled like I can’t believe you just did that. Then they ignored me. Soon they were yukking it up about something the little guy did at the station house. The big guy kept poking at him, like he was trying to tickle him through the Kevlar. Funny.


You Like Obama. Hillary Has Won the Nomination. If You'd Like to Support Hillary, Turn to Page 47. If You'd Like to Support McCain, Turn to Page 60.

I've made a promise to myself (likely the only person who cares) to have my post about why I support Obama up by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. And when it appears, it will not mention Hillary Clinton. I'll have plenty to say about her below and in the days and weeks to come, but I'd like at least one post to focus solely on the positive reasons to want a President Obama, since I wanted that long before Hillary managed to make me like her even less.

Yesterday, Megan McArdle wrote that "Obama's supporters probably won't vote for McCain if Hillary is the nominee, but they might well stay home if they think that she slimed her way into the nomination." A string of commenters -- including yours truly -- responded thus:
Um, I'm an Obama backer and will likely vote for McCain if Hillary is the nominee. Don't know how many like me there are, but I'm right here.
Posted by dave.s.

Hmm. As a data point, I'm an Obama supporter who might well vote for McCain if Clinton is the nominee. Among other things, I dislike her divisive, pessimistic, Rovian style.
Posted by Creamy Goodness

I chuckle at folks who think they know what Obama supporters will do if he loses. ... The one thing I do know about Obama voters is they will not vote for HRC. She (they) epitomizes all they hate about politics which is what draws them to Obama to begin with.
Posted by G Davis

I'm an Obama supporter and Hillary's behavior has absolutely guaranteed that I won't vote for her in the general. In fact, if it is Hillary vs. McCain I will vote against her with great satisfaction.
Posted by Patrick

I'm an Obama supporter, and I would absolutely vote for McCain if Hillary is the nominee.
Posted by JMW
Yes, one of those commenters was named "Creamy Goodness." Let's move on.

The eye-catching thing to me, as an independent (the only viable candidates whose presidencies I would fear are Giuliani and Huckabee), is how remarkably resilient the Democrats are in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This whole thing's far from over, and Hillary may very well win the White House, but can anyone envision a scenario in which her election isn't a squeaker? She seems built to win -- at best -- 50.1% of any given vote. Meanwhile, the Republicans, in disarray and on the ropes, without a thoroughly appealing horse in the stable, still seem on the verge of making the right decision for their party's chances. As Andrew Sullivan wrote today:
McCain makes all the right people on the right angry. McCain represents a chance to remake the GOP on reformist lines, just as Obama represents a chance for the Democrats to escape the sleaze and cynicism of the Clintons. Maybe the Republicans, unlike, it appears, the Democrats, have the courage to choose the future over the past, to break a dynasty rather than entrench one. I sure hope they do.

Spiritual Solitude in Manhattan

New York magazine devoted its issue last week to finding "peace and quiet" in the city. I've found that the way to do that is to leave. Nothing says peace and quiet like "200 miles outside New York City." Of course, the other answer is to have a ton of money. I'm reminded, as I sit here typing to the dulcet sounds of a construction crew on the floor immediately below me and a scrappy dog immediately above, that better real estate in New York, among other things, often means quieter real estate.

But I'm not writing to complain about noise. I'm writing because the issue included a piece that I found fascinating and rewarding, about a woman named Martha Ainsworth who is trying to become -- while living in the most populous city in the country -- a "solitary" in the Episcopal Church, which is...
...a designation in the church’s canon laws that recognizes a life of solitude and silent prayer. If the bishop accepts her petition, Martha will embark on a years-long process to discern her fitness for religious life. She’ll undergo a background check and assemble a board of advisers to oversee her practice. She’ll take annually renewed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, like any other monastic novice, in the hope of making them permanent.
I enjoyed the article partly because Ainsworth is a compelling character -- being me, I especially enjoyed learning that she's a thoroughbred racing fan and occasionally visits Belmont Park (though she doesn't bet, of course). But mostly, it was the investigation of prayer and solitude, and what they mean, that kept my attention:
Most of us think of prayer as asking God for something: Let the surgery go okay, keep the kids safe, let Matsui get on for Posada. We’re praying for peace of mind; it’s a means to an end. But what if we prayed until we couldn’t think of anything else to ask for—and then prayed some more? Contemplatives attempt to reverse the direction of prayer’s flow, to listen instead of ask. If you approach prayer this way (and pray enough), Martha explains, it leaves the dimension of words altogether, and the distractions—even the unceasing stimuli of New York City—drop away. “If prayer is quietly having a conversation with the divine, then it’s impossible to pray on the subway,” says Brother Horton.

Instead, the practice of a contemplative is to enter a sort of suspended time in which he feels alone in the presence of God. “You could say the Centering Prayer in Grand Central station at 2 p.m.,” says Brother Horton. “I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner, but I’ve done it. It’s like breathing.”
I was most taken aback -- and not for the first time by a statement like this -- when Ainsworth discussed her moment of religious transformation:
At age 16, standing alone in her family’s Episcopal church in Visalia, California, Martha had a “moment of clarity,” an intense sense of God’s presence. It was a somewhat vague experience until Martha asked what God wanted her to do. “Did you ever have a moment when it seems like someone took a highlighter and marked the answer for you?” she asks, lifting a hand and swiping the air in front of her.
My answer to that question is a most definitive "No." I'm clinically indecisive, which is mostly a bad thing. I've been irreligious during my adult life, but if I ever did have a "highlighter" moment, all bets might be off, because I'd know that no such clarity would be coming from me.

Of course, following that moment of clarity, for the most rigorously spiritual, doesn't necessarily lead to waves of more clarity:
“For a lot of people,” says Martha, “the object of spirituality is to feel good, a cause and effect between spiritual practice and mental health. At worst, they think it’s some kind of magic trick that relieves stress. I don’t do it because it feels good. I do it because it’s how God calls me to fit into the world. In fact, the interior work can be very challenging at times, and not always peaceful.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This Week's Song

Today's song is dedicated to a friend. It's Natalie Merchant singing "The Gulf of Araby." I posted the lyrics to this song last year, at which time I don't think there was such a good version up on YouTube. Stick around for the chorus about three minutes in. Enjoy:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Archive of the Day

In June 2002, Harper's published an essay by Rich Cohen called "The Boys of Winter: In praise of the aging athlete." The piece was what its subtitle promised. It argued that there's something right about great athletes hanging on as long as they can, not going out on top, though there's often pressure to do so from fans and media who don't want reminders of mortality from their sporting icons. I generally agree with Cohen. Even when someone sticks around to the point of embarrassment -- Rickey Henderson, I'm looking at you -- I tend to find it endearing, a sign that the person really loves what they do.

Cohen makes clear that he's talking about only the best of the best:
No one much cares how the end comes to the mediocre or the merely good. Such athletes are allowed to wander away when no one is watching, to elicit, at most, a paragraph in the local paper. They are a friend of a friend leaving the party: you look up and he is gone and you cannot remember whether he has been gone for an hour or five minutes. Bob Dernier, Reggie Theus, Jeff Bukeboom: who remembers their last game? Their last hit? ... But a superstar sucks the energy out after him, and so he is denied the easy getaway.
The piece ends with Cohen reflecting on a trip to a New York Rangers game toward the end of Mark Messier's career:
Messier no longer plays on the top line, so he usually makes his first appearance while you are looking elsewhere. Suddenly there he is, cutting in front of the net, his chin leading him into and out of confrontations. When he first came into the league, Messier was the biggest center in the game, the prototype of a new kind of forward. He has since been surpassed, overwhelmed by the tide of bigness he once portended. Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik, and Keith Primeau all dwarf Messier. Even on his more effective shifts, he therefore stands as a kind of relic, a reminder of an older standard. Like the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, he is a monument to a future that came and went, a cutting edge that passed into antiquity.

As the game slogged on, things got rough and then chippy, with sticks and pucks drawing blood up and down the boards. At one point, a young player took a run at Messier. Whenever a young player goes at an old star, there is the stink of regicide. For a moment, the Garden got quiet, the kind of quiet only a crowd can make. Messier turned slowly, his face set in that familiar hard and icy stare. It was the kind of stare it takes an entire career to perfect. The fact that it was mostly bluff made it only more courageous. That stare, that intensity, that stubbornness -- it is all that remains of Messier's old game. On most nights it is enough.

Damn. Almost.

I was pulling for a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl -- perhaps not as passionately as I'm rooting for an Obama-McCain matchup, but still. My rooting interest was partly informed by the fact that I just don't like the Giants. But a much bigger factor was Brett Favre. If the Patriots hadn't gone 276-0 this year and fixed the national health care system, Favre would have been the sports story of the year.

His list of accomplishments is just silly: He hasn't missed a start since 1992. (And with respect to Cal Ripken, this is more impressive to me; Ripken didn't have 300-pound men throwing him into the ground every time he took the field.) He holds the NFL career record for most passing touchdowns, most passing yards, and most completions. He's won the MVP award three times. His middle name is Lorenzo. Need I go on?

Putting aside his stats -- and his dazzling ability to throw a football like Nolan Ryan threw a baseball -- Favre is fun to watch because he plays with joy. You know those sullen or bored athletes who look like they're being paid six dollars an hour to work crowd control at a Yanni concert? He's the opposite of them. He most often looks like -- well, like you're paying him millions of dollars to run around the street and try to beat the other kids before mom calls him home for dinner. (I just found this compilation, which is pretty entertaining and helps to illustrate the point.)

But over the previous two seasons, Favre, who's now 38, had seemingly lost a good deal of his formidable skill. Especially lame was 2005, when he threw 29 interceptions. (For those of you unfamiliar with football, that's a ton. For those of you really unfamiliar with football, interceptions are bad.) In 2006, he played just well enough to erase some of the shame, but it, too, was clearly among his worst seasons. A la Roger Clemens, Favre has often played the will-I-retire-or-will-I-not game with the media, and it seemed reasonable, given his decline, that he really would exit soon.

Instead, this year Favre put together maybe his best season: the highest completion percentage of his career, the third most passing yards, and 28 touchdowns to 15 interceptions (a very good ratio by his standards). What's more, the Packers went 13-3 and fell one win short of a game I would have loved to see. To me, Favre at 38 taking on the undefeated Patriots and the awesomely talented but hard-to-love Tom Brady would have been the best game (on paper) in ages. Favre is arguably one of the three or four best quarterbacks of all time, and if he'd managed to cap his resurrection by spoiling New England's perfect season, or even giving them a scare ... let's just say I dislike the Giants even more today. How dare they keep that from me. From us! I say we form a mob and storm the team's training facility -- at which point we'll all be dismembered by the gargantuan players, but can say we left this world for a cause.


If you can read this article and not weep, you're made of tougher stuff than I am:
Of last year's 10 best-selling novels (in Japan), five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. ... Rin said ordinary novels left members of her generation cold. "They don't read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them," she said.
About ten years ago, I toyed with the beginnings of a novel, set in the not-too-distant future, that involved the nearly complete deterioration of language -- not in terms of its quality; in terms of it as a concept. I abandoned it for several reasons, but maybe it's time to revisit the terrain.

Doctor Zhivago

Pajiba is staging another Classics Week, and I've written about Doctor Zhivago. The first commenter says the review is "all over the place." Fair enough.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that now."

I'll use today's only post to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. These are the last moments of his final speech, given the day before he was killed.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gallery 9

Chet Baker (Piano), Hollywood, 1954 by William Claxton


Friday, January 18, 2008

Thought for Saturday

"Artistic form, correctly understood, does not shape already prepared and found content, but rather permits content to be found and seen for the first time." --Mikhail Bakhtin

A Note on "Notes"

I just finished reading Notes From Underground for the first time, and as if the world needs my backup on this: It's brilliant. I also think its famous and prolific translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, are geniuses. I read their translation of The Gambler not long ago, and like Underground, I found that book surprisingly funny. Either his shorter work is where Dostoevsky exercises his comedic chops, or I need to reread the longer stuff with a different eye. (The Brothers Karamazov is actually the only of those that I tackled, and a long time ago. I need to go on a spree, I think.)

Here's a bit from Underground:
Oh, if I were doing nothing only out of laziness. Lord, how I'd respect myself then. Respect myself precisely because I'd at least be capable of having laziness in me; there would be in me at least one, as it were, positive quality, which I myself could be sure of. Question: who is he? Answer: a lazybones. Now, it would be most agreeable to hear that about myself. It means I'm positively defined; it means there's something to say about me. "Lazybones!"--now, that is a title and a mission, it's a career, sirs. No joking, it really is. By rights I'm then a member of the foremost club, and my sole occupation is ceaselessly respecting myself. I knew a gentleman who prided himself all his life on being a fine judge of Lafite. He regarded it as his positive merit and never doubted himself. He died not merely with a serene but with a triumphant conscience, and he was perfectly right.

A Critic's Hat Trick

Manohla Dargis continues her fine work for the New York Times with three sharp reviews today.

On Cloverfield:
Smart as Tater Tots and just as differentiated, Rob and his ragtag crew behave like people who have never watched a monster movie or the genre-savvy "Scream" flicks or even an episode of "Lost" (Hello, Mr. Abrams!), much less experienced the real horrors of Sept. 11.
And on Cassandra's Dream (which she praises, overall):
Mr. Allen sets this scene during a rainstorm, which echoes the similarly climactic moment in "Match Point," when the secret lovers kiss and set destiny on its brutal path. Like all filmmakers, Mr. Allen steals from himself like a magpie, which wouldn't be grounds for criticism if he were a more dedicated and careful thief.
And lastly, on Still Life, which I'm eager to see:
Antonioni's influence on Mr. Jia is pronounced, evident in the younger filmmaker's manipulation of real time and the ways he expresses his ideas with images rather than through dialogue and narrative. The drifting, rootless men and women in many of his movies, and the wide-open, nominally empty landscapes through which they on occasion wander, further underscore the resemblances between the filmmakers.

Well, Maybe a Little More Black

Nigel Tufnel once famously declared that his band's album cover could not be more black:

Turns out, he was wrong. Time for a reissue?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Allen's Take on the Sexes

Last week, I shared a piece from The American Scholar about treatment of captured insurgent fighters. Turns out the new issue has several other goodies, most about lighter subjects. For instance, this essay by Mark Edmundson about his experience watching the films of Robert Altman and Woody Allen in 1970s New York. It's packed with smart, funny lines, including this observation buried in the midst of things, which isn't a bad 20-word summation of humanity: "People are small and want petty things, but because of that they’re very tender and easily hurt, and fascinating, too."

His extended analysis of things is equally worth your time, like this take on Woody:
Allen seems to feel that human identity, male identity in particular, achieved its essence in about 1956. Men want what they want. They perpetually need to have sex, and usually no one’s willing. But occasionally, through sheer luck of the draw, a volunteer steps forward. What happens then? The guy doesn’t want her. (Allen’s rejection of the beautiful Allison Portchnick in Annie Hall is as plangent a scene as he ever played.) No, it’s the girl across the street or down the block or the one embedded in his fantasies that he has to have. She’ll truly make him happy; she’ll get him to stop wanting. (What is a Romantic, Nietzsche asked. It is a person who always wants to be elsewhere.) Allen is a wind-up toy powered by need (desire is too refined a term), but he’s a self-aware wind-up. He’s hip to the comedy of his (and maybe our) endless and absurd wants. Not being able to get any satisfaction isn’t tragic, or even something that ought to inspire rock ’n’ roll choral grandeur, juiced by power chords from Keith Richards. It’s simply the male’s lot in life.

As to women’s lot, who knows what that is? Women are what Freud, Allen’s Viennese foster father, called the Dark Continent. Only one thing about them is certain: they add more frustration to an already frustrating game. Allen wants respect, power, money, a better apartment, more money. But all these wants collapse into and are shaped by the one great want, the sex want. Women only make this commodity available when a man doesn’t care to have it; then they insist, insist, insist, and finally grow enraged. After that, of course, comes male guilt—dump-truck loads of it. When Allen visits the future in Sleeper, he learns that science has discovered beyond doubt that men and women are entirely incompatible, erotically and in every other way, too. Everyone finally knows as much and acts accordingly. Want sex? Climb into the Orgasmatron. Alone.

Words Solemnly Spoken by a Reporter on the Local News Last Night

"...he performed the rectal exam out of spite."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Brothers Crumb

Here’s a question that's 12 or 13 years late: Have you seen the movie Crumb? If you're interested in art, genetics, or human psychology, then director Terry Zwigoff's documentary about controversial cartoonist Robert ("R.") Crumb is a must. By the end, the movie is more a dysfunctional family portrait than the story of one artist.

Zwigoff, with the help of critic Robert Hughes, makes a strong case for Crumb's talent. Even though his drawings can be grotesque and blatantly misogynistic, by focusing on so many of them in detail, the camera shows the skill and consistent vision with which they're created.

Crumb comes across as having all the violent potential of a Kleenex, much more likely to be stomped by his muscular wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, than to do any damage himself. Whatever forceful feelings spur his outsize and provocative images of women, they couldn't be less evident in 3D life. Given the manner in which he moves through the world, he's barely even 3D. He makes Alvy Singer look like Ike Turner. He does admit to having psychological issues with women, which would be pretty foolish to deny. In one touching scene, pressed by a young female journalist to discuss his work's potential effects on people's treatment of the opposite sex, he suggests that perhaps he shouldn't be allowed to do what he does. All he knows is that this is what comes out of him. In a separate scene, in his role as talking head, Hughes mounts a spirited defense on Crumb's behalf:
Quite a number of people these days would like this sort of nice, milky vision of culture in which it's all rather improving and leads us all toward this... moral heaven where nobody's nasty to anybody else. But the only thing is that literature, culture, art isn't put there in order to have that pleasant, normative effect. Conservatives like to think that great works of art lead us towards democracy. Bull. There are speeches in Shakespeare that are so full of hatred for the mob, they're passionately elitist, passionately anti-democratic. What do you do with somebody like Celine, who was a Nazi sympathizer, but at the same time a great novelist? What do you do with ... well, what do you with practically anybody who's got a vision of the world that doesn't accord with the present standards of Berkeley?

What seems miraculous, after meeting Crumb's brothers, Charles and Maxon, is how relatively normal Robert is. The two brothers both share his artistic ability, but have more profound emotional disturbances. Charles is deeply asocial and depressive, grimly humorous around Robert but certainly approaching full-fledged anhedonia, if in an asymptotic way. In one funny scene, Robert describes the perverse manner in which Charles filled out an application for art lessons when they were kids. Maxon shows the clearest outward signs of imbalance and admits to having grabbed and otherwise harassed women in public. The movie briefly showcases his artistic gifts and disturbing images. (I won't soon forget his depiction of Van Gogh shooting himself in a corn field.) And journalistic pieces like this one have kept the world informed of his life's progress. Throughout, Robert appears aware of his brothers' more extreme forms of trouble, but not so aware of what allowed him to build a (somewhat) more traditional life. It's a bit like the brothers were born with, collectively, about one half of what one person would need to feel comfortable in this world, and Robert got 95% of even that meager allotment.

Zwigoff received some criticism for turning the movie into a voyeuristic leer at deeply troubled men, but it becomes clear that that is the story of Crumb, at least as much as his art. The movie even made its subject see himself differently, which speaks to both his complexity and his lack of a protective, established sense of himself. It's been reported that Crumb wrote the following to Zwigoff, a friend, after he saw the finished product for the first time:
After I saw it I had to go for a walk in the woods, just to clear my head. I took my favorite hat off, this hat that I’ve had for 25 years, and I threw it off a cliff. I don’t want to be R. Crumb anymore.

Michigan Recap

One blogger parses the GOP results from last night:
Also in the loser bin was Mike "We need to amend the constitution so it is in accordance with God" Huckabee. Despite his best musical efforts, voters just weren't swayed by his Mid-Western arena-rock shredding, and decided they'd rather have things like, you know, jobs.
On the Democrats' side, Michigan had angered the Democrats by moving its primary ahead in the season. The donkey party responded by giving Michigan a time out and taking away its delegates. Clinton was the only major candidate who even left her name on the ballot, and the same blogger as above makes the point lots of us keep trying to hammer home about the New York senator, which is that nearly half of her own party is motivated to vote against her:
...although the former first lady won handily, she still only mustered 55% of the vote in a contest where she was running essentially unopposed. Think about that. Not only did barely over half of voters check her box in a one-candidate election, but over 40% of Democratic voters took time out of their day to drive to their polling place and write in "uncommitted." Mrs. Clinton is already running attack ads in South Carolina painting uncommitted as weak and inexperienced.

My Favorite Exchange From a Recent Interview with David Mamet

You also directed a Ford commercial. Why?
I did it for the money. Why do you think I did it?

And you needed the money that badly?
Well, it’s nice to have, because you can buy things with it.

(Full interview here.)

Try to be sad while listening to this. Just try.

We'll start today with this week's song. It's Brazilian superstar Elis Regina singing "Waters of March." (Via my friend NT.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I promised a longer post about my support for Obama soon, and I know you can't wait for it. Hold tight. All I can say is that I've been watching the Democrats' debate for the past two hours -- I'm a glutton -- and good lord, what a snoozefest. (The only thing it's really made me want is to be in Las Vegas, where it's being held. It's been too long.) Obama made me laugh two or three times, Hillary is certainly smart (more on that in the longer post), and Edwards still strikes me as a one-issue candidate who could do a lot more good outside of the White House. Dropping out and endorsing Obama would be a good start.

AP Headline of the Day

Austria Court: Chimp Is Not a Person

Some Songs in a Certain Order

More substantive posts soon, but for now...I've been meaning to share a playlist with you. I had my songs on shuffle near New Year's, and these songs played in consecutive order. They worked together. They also seemed to have a calendar-changing tone to them, collectively, so maybe they wouldn't have the same effect today. But I suggest listening to them this way:

Heaven Help Us All -- Stevie Wonder
Ball and Chain -- Social Distortion
Who's the One -- Wheat
Fast Asleep -- Voxtrot
What's the World Got in Store -- Wilco
Your Cheating Heart -- Ray Charles
I've Got a Message to You -- Bee Gees
You Got Lucky -- Tom Petty
Strange Currencies -- REM
Golden Slumbers -- The Beatles
Another Year -- Hotel Lights
Crueler -- Buffalo Tom


Norm Geras has a new poll up for readers; he's asking for your 10 favorite English-language novelists. Go get 'em. . . . April 1, the same day R.E.M. is scheduled to release Accelerate, Sun Kil Moon will give us the appropriately named April. You can listen to the song "Moorestown" here (bottom of the page). . . . Pajiba's second annual (Sh)It List is up, and among other gems of rage is this from Dan, addressing those who talk in movie theaters: "You are sharing this space with me, and I am younger and smarter and quicker and I could kill you with my mind, so just shut up."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hitch Aims at Familiar Target

It's hard to bring up Christopher Hitchens these days without having to launch into either an overheated attack or defense of him. So I'll sidestep that, not so skillfully, and just point you to his latest for Slate:
What do you have to forget or overlook in order to desire that this dysfunctional clan once more occupies the White House and is again in a position to rent the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign donors and to employ the Oval Office as a massage parlor? You have to be able to forget, first, what happened to those who complained, or who told the truth, last time. It's often said, by people trying to show how grown-up and unshocked they are, that all Clinton did to get himself impeached was lie about sex. That's not really true. What he actually lied about, in the perjury that also got him disbarred, was the women. And what this involved was a steady campaign of defamation, backed up by private dicks (you should excuse the expression) and salaried government employees, against women who I believe were telling the truth. ... Yet one constantly reads that both Clintons, including the female who helped intensify the slanders against her mistreated sisters, are excellent on women's "issues."

There Goes the Bloggerhood

My good friend Jason, who once kept a blog called Bad Movie Club, is back from a long online sabbatical with a new site called Violently Arousing. His first post for it takes up an annual tradition. Every January, Jason lists and grades all the movies he saw for the first time the previous year (in the theater, on DVD, on cable). In 2007, he saw 339 movies for the first time. That's not a typo. Jason has two children. He spent several months traveling in the Middle East for his job. And he saw 339 movies. Jason, as you may have guessed by now, is an insomniac.

He's also a stern grader, only doling out one A+ and four A's to last year's class (all very well deserved, in my opinion). Conversely, there are 22 F's and one F-. This is partly due to the fact that he sees every mainstream movie -- Failure to Launch, Lions for Lambs, etc. But he also subjects himself to things like Death Tunnel, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, and Glass House: The Good Mother (tagline: She makes Mommie Dearest look like an angel).

The new blog is decorated with vintage art from women-in-prison flicks, but the title is less salacious than you might think -- it comes from this classic exchange in Kicking and Screaming, when Chet and Otis discuss All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. It's supposed to be a two-man book group, but only Chet has come prepared:
Chet: You know what I noticed, near the end of the book, when Grady goes to the prison, that the violence, which has up to then had a ferocious energy about it, departed from the emotional violence and became terrifyingly brutal and real. And particularly after he left the prison and he went to find that horse, I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing. What are your thoughts?

Otis: Um, yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. You are, you're right on, I think. You really, you've pinned down the, uh...what it is about the book. Definitely with the prison, when, um, when Grady is does he's...there's violence, there's a lot of violence, and it's like night and day. And when Grady...he saw those, those horses, I think you were saying, and it was arousing. It was...violently arousing.

Moore on the Moment for Boys

I don't agree with every word of it, but since I'm on the campaign trail these days, figured I would point you to Lorrie Moore's editorial in the New York Times. It's a different angle on the Obama-Clinton battle:
The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by. The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys — especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls. ... Boys are faring worse — and the time for symbols and leaders they can connect with beneficially should be now and should be theirs.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Yesterday would have been William James' 166th birthday. This site is not always an accurate emotional meter of its author, but it's a roughly useful guide to things I've been thinking about, reading, seeing, hearing. So it's pretty astonishing that I haven't spent more time on the ways in which reading William James (and about William James) has enriched me over the past several months. Partly this is because I'm working on a more traditional essay about the experience. It's also because I have a lot more to read before I feel caught up on his work and thought. I had planned on devoting this week on the blog to him, in honor of his birthday, but that ended up too ambitious relative to the rate of my reading. So, that spotlight will follow later in the new year.

For now, to mark the big 166, an excerpt from his book The Pluralistic Universe, the text of a series of lectures he gave in Oxford in 1908 and 1909. There are thousands of A+ James excerpts to choose from (a month or even a year on the blog would be more appropriate, but I'll keep my head). This one is about religion, and it speaks to his remarkable ability to eloquently and gently argue for multiple perspectives. After all, this is someone who was considered an apologist for traditional religion to many. In fact, right after this excerpt, he insists on leaving "cynical materialism" out of his talk in order to investigate different species of spiritualism. But here, I'll let you read:
God as intimate soul and reason of the universe has always seemed to some people a more worthy conception than God as external creator. So conceived, he appeared to unify the world more perfectly, he made it less finite and mechanical, and in comparison with such a God an external creator seemed more like the product of a childish fancy. I have been told by Hindoos that the great obstacle to the spread of Christianity in their country is the puerility of our dogma of creation. It has not sweep and infinity enough to meet the requirements of even the illiterate natives of India.

Assuredly most members of this audience are ready to side with Hinduism in this matter. Those of us who are sexagenarians have witnessed in our own persons one of those gradual mutations of intellectual climate, due to innumerable influences, that makes the thought of a past generation seem as foreign to its successor as if it were the expression of a different race of men. The theological machinery that spoke so livingly to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of nothing, its juridical morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an 'intelligent and moral governor,' sounds as odd to most of us as if it were some outlandish savage religion.

The vaster vistas which scientific evolutionism has opened, and the rising tide of social democratic ideals, have changed the type of our imagination, and the older monarchical theism is obsolete or obsolescent. The place of the divine in the world must be more organic and intimate. An external creator and his institutions may still be verbally confessed at Church in formulas that linger by their mere inertia, but the life is out of them, we avoid dwelling on them, the sincere heart of us is elsewhere.

Fair Question

A longtime commenter asked me to explain why I prefer Obama to Clinton, and what I think he could do as president. A fair question, and one I've been meaning to address. I'll try to have something more substantive up early next week.

Mascots Violently Against Public Displays of Man Parts

Among my many strengths as a blogger is this: I don't resort to frontal male nudity very often. In fact, this is a first, but I think you'll agree it's worth it. This is a streaker at a soccer match getting tackled -- but good -- by a bee mascot. (Now you see why I had to do this.) The security guards give pathetic chase, but the bee, well, he really pile drives this guy. Then, in a fit of excited pride, he gets his mascot-ry mixed up and starts doing the worm. There are a million reasons to love our mascot friends. Here's one:

(via Deadspin)

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Classy Clintons, cont.

You have to love this. A comment from a reader of the Guardian:
I thought Obama was the Great Uniter not the Great Hater. His message seems to be a bit lost on his supporters - they all hate Hillary. They don't just disagree with her policies, they hate her. Compare that to Hillary's supporters - they just prefer her over Obama. They don't get into the nastiness.
Now, a quote from a Clinton adviser in the very Guardian column that attracted the comment above:
If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool.
People aren't learning. It's not Obama supporters who hate Hillary. It's about 51% of the American public. Does that number ring troublesome to anyone?

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Eugene on the Trail

My friend Eugene Mirman sent around this clip of his time covering the New Hampshire primary. It's funny -- increasingly so, as it progresses -- and it involves appearances by John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Chuck Norris, and many others. There's a very small bit of crude language, if that kind of thing scares you off, which I don't imagine it does:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I'm Not Paying Much Attention to the Days of the Week, Anyway

I'll try to get the songs back on their regular Wednesday schedule, but since it's been a few weeks since we've had one (a song, not a Wednesday; that would be weird), here goes.

The other day, I asked a friend -- a ridiculously knowledgeable jazz fan and very talented musician -- if "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which I enjoy, is "Jazz for Idiots." He responded: "I hate Brubeck, myself, but it's not because I know more than you; it's just because I hate Brubeck."

I think this is his polite way of saying it's Jazz for Idiots.

It turns out that my friend respects Paul Desmond, the sax player who wrote "Take Five," but not for entirely (or even mostly) musical reasons. Evidently, Desmond was an ex-English major who had a way with words. I was especially impressed with his take on fashion models:
Sometimes they go around with guys who are scuffling -- for a while. But usually they end up marrying some cat with a factory. This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker.
Unbelievable. And here he is with the rest of the group, doing "Take Five":

Lieber's Code

David Bosco has a terrific piece in the newest issue of The American Scholar about the first American attempt to codify the proper treatment of captured insurgents. It occurred in 1863, during the Civil War, and it was written by Francis Lieber, a Prussian immigrant, military veteran, and college professor. The whole thing is worth reading, but what I find most admirable about it is its acknowledgment of modern complications. On the torture issue, I agree with those like Andrew Sullivan who argue forcefully that it's necessary for the U.S. to return to the high ground, from which Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush have sent us scurrying. But, whereas Sullivan once tempered his passionate dissent by arguing for the unique nature of current conflicts, he's mostly given that up. (And I can understand that.) Bosco grants the subject more complexity, though he reaches similar conclusions. Lieber was a fevered supporter of the Union, but this didn't cause him to lose "his critical eye":
"I am indeed against all dainty treatment of the prisoners in our hands," (Lieber) wrote Sumner, "but for the love of our country and the great destiny of our people, do not sink, even in single cases, to the level of our unhappy, shameful enemy."
But Lieber drew a line at those who adopted guerilla tactics:
Those Southerners who engaged in hit-and-run attacks on Union forces and then blended back into civilian life could be treated like "highway robbers or pirates," he wrote. They deserved none of the benefits of prisoners of war, and they could be summarily executed.
Lieber's thoughts, if sometimes vague (though you wouldn't know it from summarily executed), were taken seriously:
Lieber's Code had immediate credibility with politicians and warriors, in no small part because it was written by a man who knew war, understood its occasional necessity, and believed deeply in the justness of his cause. Today, by contrast, the task of monitoring and developing the law of war has often fallen to—or been taken up by—a host of nongovernmental organizations. Many of these activists believe that the use of force has little place in world affairs and hope to legislate it out of existence. As the legal scholar Kenneth Anderson has argued, "The pendulum shift toward [nongovernmental organizations] has gone further than is useful, and the ownership of the laws of war needs to give much greater weight to the state practices of leading countries."
To point out the growing chasm between those who are draw up military policy and those who draw up the rules for military policy is the first step in Bosco's complex view. The second is the simple -- and, I think, far too often overlooked -- question of what it means to lose mutuality in the rules of war (italics mine):
Not only has enthusiasm for the regulation of warfare passed into new and nonofficial hands, but the realities of today's conflict have further reduced official incentives to engage in the task Lieber embraced. The brigands, thieves, and insurgents whose status Lieber struggled to define were at least operating on the edge of a classic war between organized armies. America's struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan offer no such order. Insurgents are now the heart of the matter, not a nettlesome complication. The disappearance of organized opponents undercuts reciprocity, the law of war's most valuable ally. American troops are now rarely taken captive, and when they are, there is little expectation that they will be treated humanely. The moral calculus that led regular armies toward mutual moderation, at least in how they treated prisoners, has been upset. "The legal framework for regulating war," contends Syracuse University professor William Banks, "does not contemplate asymmetric warfare waged by non-state actors and thus fails to regulate perhaps the dominant form of warfare for the 21st century."
None of this -- none -- is an apology for the Bush administration. As Bosco writes in the end:
The prospect today of amending the international rules governing warfare via negotiations with dozens of countries—some of them hostile—is daunting. ... Bush officials have sometimes grumbled about the inadequacy of the existing framework but have proffered little to take its place. ... Lieber and Lincoln proudly published their code, flawed and ambiguous though it was. The nation's current leadership has preferred secret memoranda and strained interpretations. Too often now, the noble effort to expand and codify the international law that Lieber gloried in no longer appeals to the world's most powerful state. For the good of international law and of the United States, that must change.

The Year in Movies Redux

The second (and final) part of the Pajiba roundtable is up, in which Dan wonders about 2008, I give some unexpected praise to the art of mainstream-movie making, and Dustin defends the attention given to Judd Apatow.

More tonight. For now, off to a busy day...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Deep Breath

That post below may have been overheated. It was a way to vent about the negative aspects of last night. On the positive side, I think Obama's chances remain strong. The fact is, coming that close to Hillary in NH still represents a bounce from Iowa. And I do think that the large contingent of independents felt, thanks partly to media overhype, that McCain needed their help more than Obama did (that's the downside of a "wave"...'other people are voting for him, so he doesn't need me.')

And I want to make it clear. My argument against the media (in this particular case) is not that it's biased toward anyone or anything. It's just that it's aggressively dumb.

I Promise Not to Drown You With Politics


I didn't have the blog in 2004 (it's hard to remember America without it, I know), so apologies if presidential politics isn't your thing. I'll be returning to the subject from time to time, but if it hogs the spotlight here for a few days, that's only because the last week seems strongly indicative of several trends. Here are three:

1. The media is absolutely, purely, objectively Evil. I do not like Hillary Clinton. Aside from John McCain, I do not particularly like any of the leading Republican candidates. But I watched several hours of election coverage last night, and whatever my cynicism about many of the candidates, that was dwarfed by what became, by bedtime, a stomach-churning disgust for the media.

This isn't new for me. We all know how bad it can be. But something's happened. It's gone from Bad to Irretrievable. The entire night was the story of the shallow media analyzing its own shallow analyses: A week ago, we thought Obama had little chance! Three days ago, we thought he was a human tsunami! Tonight, Hillary Clinton is pulling off the greatest political victory in the history of civilization! All of those arguments could have been proven wrong, at the time they were being made, by anyone with even a modicum of brain power and just a minute or two for quiet reflection.

I've been thinking a lot about the emphasis given to Iowa and New Hampshire. Complaints about the disproportion between their trendsetting power and their population are common. Increasingly so. And for many years, I've felt those complaints were valid. Now, at the very least, I'm on the fence. Iowa and New Hampshire may be small and homogenous (I've thought of the Onion's headline for last night, if they want it: "White People to Other White People: 'Not So Fast'."), but that first adjective is appealing to me. It's often said that local politics are what matter most, and in these two states, at least presidential hopefuls can approximate knowing people on a local level -- and, more importantly, vice versa. Larger states may have a claim for greater influence, but in those states almost everything is transacted through the media. After watching the media's performance last night -- mostly on CNN and MSNBC -- I'd like to keep as much as humanly possible out of its hands.

2. The Democrats don't want the White House. The clearest lesson of the past week, to me, is this: Even with a substantial early lead, barrels of resources, and a widely loved ex-president as her husband, Hillary Clinton requires a life-and-death struggle just to barely win over her own party. Given the current animus for President Bush across party lines, it's become impossible to say with certainty that Hillary is unelectable. But I've never been one to stand around waiting for certainty before I bellow an opinion, so here goes: Hillary is unelectable. Parsing why so many people have an instinctive dislike of her is useless. Maybe that instinct is completely unfair, unfounded. It can still keep her from winning the presidency, even if she runs against Huckabee or Romney. If she runs against McCain, she gets creamed -- and deservedly so. As one of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote:
As a lifelong Democrat, come February 6th, I am rerolling (as the kids with their fancy computer games like to say) Independent. This party would rather brawl with, and lose to, the Republicans out in the schoolyard than try to come together and achieve anything loftier than keeping Roe v. Wade as good law. Someone get me a McCain '08 sticker ... These current Dems would have nominated Adlai Stevenson over Kennedy in 1960.
3. The Clintons are loathsome. Some reporters last night were trying to determine why the NH vote swung toward Hillary so late in the day. (By the way, I'm not shocked she won. If you are, seek help.) The possible reasons included "Hillary's show of emotion" and "Bill's anger." In short, whatever momentum the Clintons gained back came because they orchestrated their usual soap-operatic grotesqueness. From Bill's biting his lip and feeling our pain in the '90s, to Hillary's choked-up (and ludicrous) denial that her quest for power is "personal," to Bill's purposeful misreading over the past few days of Obama's statements about the war...the parade marches on.

It's funny. Most people I know who really love the Clintons are more liberal than I am. The thing I always figure liberals would dislike about them -- the solidly centrist agenda that Bill hewed to while in office -- is the very thing I like about them. But what I hate about them -- the smarmy, see-through act of them -- seems to resonate with many people. To make a last-ditch effort at turning this post into something tidy, even palindromic:


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Boy Glues Hand to Bed to Avoid School


Unless Dad would like to correct me, I believe the first Major League Baseball game I attended was between the Yankees and the White Sox, in the Bronx, sometime in the early '80s. I remember walking through the tunnel to our seats, which were in the upper deck. And it would be hard to think of better seats for a little kid's first game. The initial view of the sprawling field from up there was breathtaking. (Still is, to this baseball sap.)

Anyway, I'm also fairly certain that the game was closed by the Yankees' intimidating relief pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage. In addition to having an all-time great nickname, Gossage had himself a heck of a career. Now, after nine years of waiting, he's been rightfully elected to the Hall of Fame.

Talkin' Movies

Over at Pajiba, Dan, Dustin, and I conduct a roundtable about 2007 at the cinema. A very small taste from each of us:

Dan: "No Country for Old Men is the kind of stirring, gut-wrenching drama that first put the Coen brothers on the map, and watching them revisit their old stomping grounds of Texas and murder was pure joy."

Me: "I had a lot of fun at Knocked Up, I just fail to see the depth in Apatow that others in our generation seem eager to find. His movies are pretty funny. I enjoy them. They’re also way too long and have too many painfully improvised moments for my taste."

Dustin: "...2007 was the year of the accidental conception (two were fueled by alcohol, and the other by boredom). Those three films probably resonated a little more with me this year because I saw two of them while my own wife was pregnant (planned), and speaking from that perspective, I’d have to disagree with John’s assessment that Apatow lacks depth. Underneath all the pot and porn jokes, he captured a lot of the nuanced feelings one experiences during pregnancy..."

You can read the rest here.

The Primary

I have a friend who's in New Hampshire helping the Obama campaign. He drove up there from Brooklyn two days after the Iowa caucus. His words on the phone today were, "I can pretty much tell you that Hillary is going to get slaughtered." It seems likely that New Hampshire will have a record turnout, which is not surprising: The most clear aspect to the Obama momentum is that people want to vote for him. I'm not really old enough to remember a time when -- even for a few days, but hopefully longer -- there was a palpable sense that people weren't just choosing "the lesser of two/three/four/five evils" in a presidential race. It's too early to say this, but I will anyway, and I'll back it up with a longer analysis if and when Obama secures the nomination...Apathy is not just an organic phenomenon. It's often a response to the options presented.

While we wait to see the results tonight, please see Gloria Steinem spewing nonsense in the New York Times today. The headline of her op-ed ("Women Are Never Front-Runners") is patently false. Hillary was a substantial front-runner entering primary season. The reason she's not anymore is not due to her gender; it's due to her own weaknesses as a candidate and her opponent's strengths. I would parse her column at greater length -- there's literally a counterpoint to be made to every paragraph -- but I'm too busy.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Good Day

Much more soon, but as an Obama supporter, last night was sweet. I heard a clip of Hillary Clinton on NPR this morning saying that voters must ask themselves who can do the best job in the White House from day one, and who can repel the "Republican attack machine" in order to get there in the first place. And I just thought, what is she talking about? I think her campaign is on the verge of total incoherence, and Obama victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina might finally make Democrats realize that they have someone electable on their hands.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Little(ish) Movies That Could

Over at Pajiba, Dan, Dustin and I consider 12 of the best movies you might not have seen in 2007. Or that we might not have seen. (We each wrote about four, and of Dan and Dustin's combined eight, I didn't see six of them. Of those I did, I wholeheartedly agree with Diggers. I wasn't blown away by Once, but I don't hold anything against it, either.)

The Origin and Uses of David Simon's Anger

My buddy and fellow Wire addict Tim directs us to a piece in The Atlantic about David Simon, the show's creator. In it, noted journalist Mark Bowden, who loves the series, argues that Simon's personal anger at how he was treated earlier in his career by the Baltimore Sun has driven him to create "his own Baltimore." It's a piece worth reading, but I think it ultimately fails. Bowden writes about Simon's grudge against William Marimow and John Carroll, two newspaper guys who he felt gutted the Sun's reportorial talent. Bowden says:
Declining circulation means declining advertising, which means declining revenues, so corporate managers face a tougher and tougher challenge maintaining the high profit margins that attracted investors 30 years ago. These are just facts, and different people and organizations have handled them with different measures of grace and understanding.

But to Simon, this complex process became personal, boiling down to corporate greed and the "soullessness" of Marimow and Carroll. It's an honest opinion, but arguably unfair, flavored by personal bitterness and animosity.
I get that. I'm all for complexity, and for changing business environments that then change facts on the ground. But Bowden says it's "arguably unfair," and he never really makes the convincing argument. Surely, as Bowden would be the first to admit, the five seasons of The Wire represent a hell of a lot more than a personal grudge against a couple of bad guys at work. And what Simon's angry about might be the result of perfectly understandable forces, but that doesn't mean it's not worth getting angry about. Understanding something doesn't always mean making peace with it. But Simon's better equipped to discuss this. He actually stopped by another Atlantic blog, run by Matthew Yglesias, and left a comment. Here's the bulk of it:
The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won't agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now -- and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire (we reported each season fresh, we did not write solely from memory) -- well, perhaps they're playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames.

Does that mean The Wire is without humanist affection for its characters? Or that it doesn't admire characters who act in a selfless or benign fashion? Camus rightly argues that to commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd. He further argues that not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity. And dignity matters.

All that said, I am the product of a C-average GPA and a general studies degree from a state university and thirteen years of careful reporting about one rustbelt city. Hell do I know. Maybe my head is up my ass.

If The Wire is too pessimistic about the future of the American empire -- and I've read my Toynbee and Chomsky, so I actually think a darker vision could be credibly argued -- no one will be more pleased than me as I am, well, American.

The Boys

Soy Pics

Over at 2 Blowhards, they've thrown down the gauntlet very early for the 2008 Blog Post With Most Photos of a Soy Milk Bottle. At 11:59 next New Year's Eve, I might swoop in to grab the award, like a last-second bid on ebay, by posting a hundred photos of a soy milk bottle.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

First Recommendation for 2008: Something From 1944

If you're a fan of film noir and haven't seen Laura, get your hands on a copy. Released in 1944, it stars the gorgeous Gene Tierney as the title character, whose murder draws the attention of a detective played by Dana Andrews. It also stars Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, and a 33-year-old Vincent Price. (If, like me, you grew up thinking that Price was born a 70-year-old cackling in a dungeon, you're in for a surprise/treat. Turns out, he wasn't! Prior to this, the only thing I thought I'd seen him "young" in was The Fly. He was almost 50 in that.)

Laura's an easy movie to like, not least because of dialogue like this:
"Have you ever been in love?"

"A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me."
Kind of makes you lose sympathy for the striking screenwriters. They were giving us lines like those in the '40s; now, they're making Speed Racer.

A Mobil Guy

Mark Greif, an editor at n+1, published an essay that I greatly enjoyed on the back page of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. It concerns the art of marketing, as filtered through Greif's teenage reading of The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, which is now out in a 50th anniversary edition.

A taste of the essay:
Packard had lived on the cusp of two eras, and what fascinated me as a teenage reader was how close in time he had been to the invention of brands that seemed as solid and permanent to me as trees and stones. Marlboro, the essence of macho, had first been a women’s cigarette, "lipstick red and ivory tipped." Advertisers managed to push it into a male market while holding on to its previous customers through ad campaigns of "rugged, virile-looking men" (like the famous cowboy) whom, studies proved, women liked too. Packard traced how products like gasoline and detergent, so standardized and reliable in the 1950s, needed to develop "personalities" to survive. I, for one, knew I was a Mobil guy long before I ever got my learner’s permit, though I had no idea why.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Seems like a respectable number of you have been coming by during the holidays. Not sure why, but I thank you for it. Posting for 2008 will begin in earnest tomorrow, but for now, the last notable headline from 2007:
Men Shoot Themselves in Tattoo Attempt

CHAPARRAL, N.M. (AP) -- ...Two men trying to trace a loaded .357-caliber Magnum as a pattern for a tattoo accidentally shot themselves, the Otero County Sheriff's Department said Monday.

Robert Glasser and Joey Acosta, both 22, were treated at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, after the shooting Thursday evening in nearby Chaparral. Authorities said Glasser was struck in the hand when the gun accidentally went off, and Acosta was hit in the left arm. Their injuries were not life-threatening, authorities said.
The article doesn't make the point that, while the injuries were not life-threatening, being Robert Glasser and Joey Acosta cleary is.