Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Disney Lion-Tamers Take on Aslan

I had, at best, mixed feelings when I read in the Times a week ago about Disney’s plans to release a movie version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe later this year. I usually like Disney. But I’ve always been dismayed by Disney’s versions of classic English kids’ books.

The originals of Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and even Winnie-the-Pooh have a certain tart, satiric, occasionally surreal quality that suggests slightly scary depths underlying the charm and humor. That edge is missing from the Disney movies and their multifarious spinoffs (theme park attractions, picture-book adaptations, cartoons for TV, etc. etc.).

As everyone knows, English kids’ authors tend to be a little weird. Lewis Carroll, though no pedophile (that’s a scurrilous rumor most scholars consider baseless), was obsessed with puzzles, games, and wordplay, worked on math problems late at night to fend off “impure thoughts,” and took brilliantly atmospheric photos of his friends’ prepubescent daughters dressed as peasant maidens or fairy-tale heroines.

I don’t know as much about P. L. Travers, but I gather that she was a follower of the mystic Gurdjieff (and dropped subtle references to his teachings into the Poppins books). As for A. A. Milne, I’ve heard interviews with his unhappy son Christopher, the real-life model for Christopher Robin, who apparently spent a lifetime trying to live down his storybook incarnation.

Walt Disney of course had his weird side too (perhaps anyone who devotes his life to entertaining children must be a little eccentric). But the Disney studio unfortunately tends to eliminate the strangeness from the classic English stories. They Americanize the language and attitudes (which eliminates much of their distinctive appeal) and substitute sugar wherever the original recipe calls for salt or vinegar.

Interestingly enough, C.S. Lewis himself offered an opinion about Disney’s moviemaking style. It appears in (of all places) Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, an explanation (and justification) for modern readers of the style, form, and content of Milton’s epic poem. Lewis makes the point that a work of art based on mythic themes or stories “ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients.” He continues:

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.

(I interrupt to point out the reference to “true dwarfs.” Lewis isn’t talking about real people with glandular problems. He was so steeped in old books that, for him, they were reality. He’s referring to the dwarfs of ancient Germanic myth, the ones adapted by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien in his Middle Earth books. Anyway, Lewis continues:)

But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

This passage from Lewis, which is interesting in its own right, evokes my worries about what Disney will do with The Chronicles of Narnia. For me, the best moments in the Narnia books are the most mythic—things like the meadow at the edge of the world in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the travelers (and the reader) are greeted by a lamb who turns out to be another incarnation of the lion-god Aslan. Will the Disney screenwriters and animators have the taste and talent to somehow capture these haunting but practically-indescribable scenes in visual form—or will they follow the path of least resistance and revert to their more usual “vulgarity”? Will Aslan, as lion or lamb, end up being cute rather than awe-inspiring? (As Lewis always insists, he's supposed to be a wild lion, not a tame one.)

I think the Disney folk are trying to bring a degree of seriousness and authenticity to the Narnia stories. The Times reported that they are conscious of the esteem that millions of Christians have for Lewis and are eager not to alienate a large and politically powerful constituency. In artistic terms, they have the benefit of walking in the footsteps of Peter Jackson, who did a better job with Tolkien than I dreamed was possible.

But having seen how Disney flattened the other writers I’ve mentioned (decades ago, admittedly)—and knowing that the “imagineers” are already muddying the waters with plans for a “theme park presence” based on the Narnia books—I’m not optimistic.
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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

UFO Mania Was Nuts the First Time Around--Why Revive It?

It's depressing to see the massive promotional blitz ABC TV is mounting for the upcoming Peter Jennings "investigation" into UFOs. With all the truly important neglected stories that TV news could be covering, from Guantanamo to the depradations of the proposed Bush budget, it's appalling that ABC is devoting time to this crazy stuff. In combination with the growing repressiveness of the popular media, multiplying outbreaks of religious hysteria, and steady political drift toward rightwing extremism, the idea of Peter Jennings giving people's apocalyptic fears another irrational boost makes it seem as though we're reviving many of the worst features of 1950s.

If this is just a bad dream, someone please wake me up.
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Saturday, February 19, 2005

"No One Doubts Bush's Sincerity"? Why the Hell Not?

In his column in today's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne writes about his friend David Kuo, the former deputy director of the Bush administration's office of faith-based initiatives. Kuo has been criticizing his former boss, specifically with reference to the harsh cuts for social programs in the new budget. Kuo's conclusion is that Bush's "compassionate conservativism" is ultimately superficial: "From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. . . . It never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "

So far, my reaction is "Duh." But then Kuo (along with Dionne, quoting him) strikes an attitude that drives me just a little nuts. Dionne writes: "To this day, Kuo speaks warmly of the president he served. 'No one who knows him even a tiny bit doubts the sincerity and compassion of his heart' . . . "

Well, why the hell don't they? Since when is the "sincerity and compassion" of a person--in particular, of a public official--judged on the basis of the things they say and the facial expressions they wear in private conversations . . . as opposed to the decisions they make, the policies they pursue, and the priorities they establish? If I knew someone who talked a lot about caring for the poor, but then used his enormous power primarily to help the wealthy at the expense of the poor, I think I might harbor some doubts about "the sincerity and compassion of his heart."

Michael Kinsley, my favorite commentator in the MSM, long ago demolished the kind of sloppy, personalized thinking we see in Kuo and Dionne. Back in 1990, writing in Time magazine about the current president's father, Kinsley commented:

[L]et's . . . stipulate that George Bush is a pleasant person and, more than that, genuinely decent in his personal dealings. There is a difference between that kind of niceness and decency on the public stage. Bush has perfected the art of substituting the one for the other. . . .

Bush's facile ability and his willingness to switch off his niceness when convenient makes you wonder how genuine it is. . . Bush's repeated cool response to distant suffering and struggles gives the impression that at some level he just doesn't get it. He may give his coat to a beggar on the street--noblesse oblige--but his sleep is not disturbed by things he can't see. . . .

In sum, Bush is basically a decent man whose decency, unfortunately, is about an eighth of an inch thick; a man whose personal decency masks, rather than enhances, his public role; a good person, if there's no reason not to be, but a sucker for a Faustian bargain. He can be had cheap--political convenience will certainly suffice. And that's not nice at all.

In this respect, the acorn didn't fall far from the tree.

I don't see Bush fils as identical in character to Bush pere. W strikes me as having been embittered by his father's political setbacks, which apparently led him to conclude that success in the Washington arena calls for more cynical cunning than his father ever possessed. Thus, I think the younger Bush is more consciously manipulative and deceitful than his dad was.

This comparison is not intended to exonerate the father, not even a little: I believe that honest awareness of one's own motives, weaknesses, and failings is a moral responsibility, which makes the willfully blind morally culpable. I'm just suggesting that Bush 43 has taken the cynical phoniness of his father to new depths.

After nine years of this style of presidential leadership, I'm fed up with Washington insiders--including those who recognize and decry the meannesses of the Bush policies--waxing eloquent about the "niceness" and the "sincerity" of the private Bushes. This is one of those circumstances in which you get a clearer view of the subject by being further away rather than closer.
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Thursday, February 17, 2005

One of Nature's Little Practical Jokes

Forty minutes in the dentist's chair this morning getting my pathetic teeth--crooked, overlapping, multi-fillinged--and the adjacent gum surfaces scraped and honed with a variety of razor-sharp instruments. My teeth are an unanswerable argument against the theory of intelligent design. Surely no self-respecting deity would have designed my teeth. If there is a god who takes time to tinker with the blueprints for individual organisms, she must have sub-contracted out my mouth to a nervous trainee who'd never tackled anything higher on the evolutionary ladder than a sea anemone.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Weaker Family Ties? Yes, Thank God

Although many on the right mask their desire to destroy Social Security under claims that they want to "preserve" or "reform" it, conservative antipathy to the program dates back to its founding and has deep cultural roots. For example, many conservatives consider it immoral that Social Security has largely taken over the task of caring for the elderly--a task once performed by the family (if at all).

Don't believe me? When I Googled the words "social security morality," the second link yielded was to something called the Future of Freedom Foundation, where I read this article by Father Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Key quote:

Just as parents care for their young now, it was once well understood that the middle-aged have a moral responsibility to care for their aging parents. This establishes a social link between the generations, an interdependency which is essential for the continuity of values and habits of a mature people.

Social Security has gone a long way toward severing those ties, freeing people from the responsibility to care for their own parents. It also reduces the incentive to have children, since it is no longer understood that they will be their parents' safety net, should they be needed as the parents age.

I think that what Father Sirico says about Social Security is factually accurate: It does lessen the dependence of the elderly on their children, the burden of responsibility those children carry, and the economic incentives to have a large family. But where Father Sirico deplores these results, I applaud them.

To start with the latter issue: I suppose that, for a Roman Catholic priest, any weakening of the incentive to have children is inherently evil, since it incites people to practice birth control. In a world inhabited by seven billion people making growing demands on a fragile ecosystem, I can't agree. (In any case, would you feel especially loved to discover that your parents conceived you because they hoped you'd be a meal ticket in their old age?)

As for the first issue: Isn't it a positive good that Social Security largely frees the elderly from financial dependence on their children? As an adult with one surviving parent, I'm glad I don't have to worry about sending my mom money to help pay for her rent, food, and occasional trips to play the slots at the nearest Indian casino. It makes me happy to know that, between her own savings and the regular Social Security check, her basic needs are met, regardless of whether or not I feel flush this month.

It has nothing to do with avoiding the expense. I still help to support my mom's old age--but indirectly, through the Social Security taxes I pay. Letting a big, impersonal bureacracy handle the transaction on our behalf makes us both a lot more comfortable than if she had to wonder every month whether I could afford to help her . . . whether I disliked doing it . . . whether I'd mind if she asked for a little extra . . . and whether I expected anything in return.

And looking forward to my own old age, I would hate it if I had to rely on my kids to feed and house me. I strongly suspect that the dominant emotions on both sides would be embarrassment, guilt, awkwardness, resentment, and shame.

With a social safety net in place, relationships between adult children and their parents can be personal and emotional rather than economic. When I'm 70, I want to be able to phone my son or daughter just to chat about baseball or politics or movies . . . not to ask for a handout.

So, yes: Social Security weakens family ties--the kind of ties that most people would find especially chafing. Thank God it does.
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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Women and the Academy

Well, I've read a lot of articles reacting to Lawrence Summers's comments about women and science. For those who haven't been following this story, Summers, the president of Harvard, spoke at a conference about women in science, and offered three hypotheses for why women are underrepresented in that field: 1) that careers in science demand more time than women (i.e., mothers) are willing to give; 2) innate differences between the sexes may result in women not excelling as much as men do; 3) discrimination.

There was the predictable outcry. Then there was the backlash against the outcry. Those who complained were trying to restrict academic discourse; Summers is entitled to his freedom of speech; feminists are just a bunch of shirll complainers (okay, I made that up, but that is the subtext in a lot of cases, in my opinion).

I am way more pissed off by the backlash against the outcry than I am by Summers's original remarks. Many of the articles I have read condemning those who spoke out against Summers' remarks use similar language to the general backlash against feminism in our society today.

Here are my thoughts (because I haven't really seen some of them expressed elsewhere):

1) I believe that people who do not give the status of women in our society very much thought do not think that discrimination against us still exists. These people are just plain wrong. Women still make less money than men for performing the same job. Women are underrepresented at high levels in all sorts of fields: as lawmakers, on the faculty at colleges and universities in most disciplines, in high-level positions in the corporate world, and so on. Women, despite the fact that they have been in the workplace for a few generations, are still expected to be the primary care givers of children. When work and family responsibilities collide, that is a women's issue.

2) Given the fact that women do not have equality in our society, of course those of us who see it and don't like it are going to be upset when we're told that our continuing underrepresentation in a discipline is or may be the result of our biology. As long as discrimination exists, such talk only adds fuel to that fire. When a population is discriminated against, it is only natural that it will take any attempt to continue that discrimination seriously, and that it will protest loudly. We are in self-defense mode because we need to be. Anyone who thinks that the women's movement is irrelevant needs to open his/her eyes. Once our backs are no longer against the wall, then we can see the investigation of such scientific questions as an attempt to further knowledge, rather than another attempt to keep us down.

3) I am SICK AND TIRED of "woman" being equated with "mother." Why on earth is it a women's issue that being a real, committed parent and having a challenging career are incompatible? Where the hell are all of these childrens' fathers? Why do they not struggle with trying to hold down a job and raise their children? When this society realizes that raising children is not women's work, and when the husbands of these women who cannot have a career because they have to raise their children start making sacrifices of their own, then the workplace will be forced to change to accomodate parents.

I know that many men are wonderful husbands and fathers who do play an active role in their childrens' lives, but that has to be the norm. A women is not singled out and commended for being a wonderful wife when she chips in around the house or drives the kids to soccer. She's doing her job. Somehow, in our culture in general, the house is still the woman's domain. When this changes, when a husband and father is just considered to be doing his job when he is an equal partner in raising children and taking care of the house, then maybe the woman won't be the only one expected to "juggle" work and family. Then everyone will need to juggle, and then the workplace will change.

4) The other factors that Summers mentions are very real. I know young women in academia who are not willing to work the number of hours required to be tenured faculty--in any discipline--at institutions like Harvard. This is because these women want children, and they know that the number of hours required are nearly incompatible with raising children. This is not a problem of these women. This is a problem of the culture of these institutions. And our larger culture. The fact that men are not expected to mind making these sacrifices, while an unwillingness to make these sacrifices is expected of women, galls me. Why don't fathers agonize over not being there to raise their children!?!

This factor, Summers's first, is intimately connected to his third: discrimination. This exists. Since Summers, perhaps more than any one else in the United States, is positioned to do something about these two factors, why do we need to even speculate about a third, something that we don't have any proof of? Why not DO SOMETHING about these factors rather than make provocative speeches and otherwise maintain the status quo?

5) In disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, women are underrepresented in academia. Although a greater percentage of undergrads are women, and the numbers are roughly equal or relatively close to equal at other low levels (grad students, junior faculty, etc.) there are many, many fewer female tenured faculty across the board. Is this because women are innately less able to read, write, analyze texts, speech foreign languages, create logical arguments to express their points of view, etc., etc., than men? Is it because this innate disadvantage kicks in around the time when we are up for tenure?

Studies have shown that women are not taken as seriously as men, regardless of the quality of their work. We have few role models among the ranks of tenured faculty, women we can look at and see that someone has managed to do this juggling act that for some reason (I guess because Eve gave Adam the apple) is our special curse. And I'll say it, and I don't care if it's unfair: it's because our husbands (not mine!) still expect that we will bear the brunt of child-raising responsibilities. Even the most enlightened men I have met, without even realizing it, have been conditioned to believe that the home and family is the woman's domain.

Turning a blind eye to a problem and dismissing those who see it and refuse to shut up about it doesn't mean its not there. Summers would do well to be truly provocative and take the opportunity to really address discrimination against women at places like Harvard.
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Caste and Class--The Publishing Industry's Uncomfortable Secret

The current (January/February 2005) issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains a fine piece by reporter Ivan G. Goldman reviewing his own career (unfortunately, not available online). Titled “Caste and Class at The Washington Post,” it begins with an anecdote about the 28-year-old Goldman having lunch with Ben Bradlee, the famous Watergate-era editor of the Post (played by Jason Robards in flashy suspenders in All the President’s Men) and Katharine Graham, the paper’s even-more-famous publisher and longtime grand dame of the Washington social scene.

In the middle of the lunch, the pit from a hot apricot (which Goldman says he “had no idea” how to eat) falls into his lap. Acute embarrassment ensues:

After too many moments it finally occurred to me that I should pick the pit up with my fingers and place it in the saucer, which I did. But full recovery took many years. Each time I replayed the event in my mind it made me acutely aware that my father belonged to the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen union and I’d graduated from Southern Illinois University--one of those directional schools that had been shaped out of a state-run teachers college.

The rest of Goldman’s piece is about the social and psychological difficulties confronting someone from a working-class background struggling to make good in the highest echelons of the newspaper business.

Boy, do I identify. I experienced much of the same sense of embarrassment, awkwardness, and dislocation as Goldman when I was trying to succeed in the book publishing business. Not that my dad was a meat cutter from the midwest. He was a postal worker from Brooklyn, and his union was the National Association of Letter Carriers. My alma mater was Hunter College, housed in a drab gray office building on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan--also originally a teachers college, and far from the best college in the overwhelmingly working-class City University of New York system.

Over time, I did all right in publishing, even rising eventually into the ranks of middle management (though I’m a lot happier today running my own shop as a freelancer). But, like Goldman, I never escaped the feeling that I didn’t belong among my colleagues at companies like Random House.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, these colleagues weren’t snobbish or disdainful of me. But they were overwhelmingly upper-middle-class, expensively educated at private schools and Ivy league universities (or Ivy equivalents like Amherst, Vassar, or Stanford), and linked into networks of family and friends that included attorneys, doctors, executives, writers, artists, and professors. (The most impressive professional in my family was distant Cousin Michael, a successful air conditioning contractor in Hawaii.)

As kids, my publishing counterparts had summered in the Hamptons, toured Europe, and enjoyed prestigious high-school internships at fashion magazines or law firms. (In my family, we felt lucky when we could afford a week in the Catskills. I finally made it to Europe the year I turned 44.)

In a sense, I always felt as though I was one or two generations behind my publishing colleagues--as though I was recapitulating the social and economic ascent that their grandparents had experienced soon after immigrating to the US in the early years of the twentieth century. That has turned out to be more or less right. Today my kids have gone to the kinds of colleges most people in publishing attend, and they’ve all been to Europe, done fancy internships, and learned how to eat in nice restaurants without embarrassing themselves. (I suspect I still embarrass them sometimes.)

None of this matters much to anyone outside my family--except, perhaps, for what it says about the book publishing industry.

Isn’t it likely that the way we do business is affected by our industry’s strongly upper-middle-class social tilt? Isn’t it likely that our choices about which books we publish--which ideas we anoint as the next big things--and which authors we promote as important cultural figures--are all colored by class preferences in ways that may not serve and may even alienate the vast majority of our fellow citizens?

An obvious rejoinder is that, in contemporary America, most readers and especially most book buyers are themselves drawn from a relatively narrow slice of upper-middle-class society. As my friend and sometime publishing mentor Peter Osnos has remarked, the demographics of book readership are less like those of TV or movies than like those of the Broadway theatre--elitist, exclusive, fairly highbrow.

All true enough. But isn’t there at least a possibility that this has become a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating reality, reinforced by the fact that, for generations, publishing companies have been staffed almost exclusively by bright young things from “good” families in Manhattan, Boston, and the expensive suburbs, with the particular interests, tastes, and values such people inevitably share?

Mind you, I have nothing against people who live in expensive suburbs. (I’ve worked hard for decades to be able to join them.) And in some ways publishing has done a good job of being inclusive; it appears to me that gays and women are pretty well represented in the industry (though not often enough at the very top levels of organizations). But I worry about the economic and cultural gap that we’ve allowed to open up between book editors and publishers and the general public whose needs and interests our business ought to address.

Ivan Goldman’s article about the newspaper business ends with a largely inward focus:

Much later, after I left the Post, I gradually came to understand more about my experience. There’s something called the imposter syndrome. When people advance quickly, they can create a gap between how others see them and how they see themselves. They believe they’re protecting the secret of terrible inadequacies and are in constant fear they will be unmasked.

I’ve shared that experience, too. (Although I suspect that the harboring of secret fears of inadequacy is common enough among people of every background.) But at the moment I’m less interested in the psychological dilemmas of individual publishing professionals than in what Goldman’s experience reveals about the limitations and narrowness of our industry. Am I the only one to view this as a problem?

I plan to write more about this topic--about the “barriers to entry” that may limit access to publishing careers by class, about whether this phenomenon is really a problem, and, if so, what can be done about it. Your input and comments are invited and will help to shape upcoming posts.
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Monday, February 14, 2005

Youth Wants To Know

If it has been a while since you studied Leviticus (shame on you), don't miss this hilarious email from Pastor Dan's website (faithforward). One quibble: I would rather own Mexican slaves than Canadians, since I imagine that their cooking would be more interesting . . .

P.S. Yes, "Internets" (plural) is deliberate. If you don't get it, this link should help.
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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Message to Gary: Reason #312 To Still Love Baseball

While there are still a few hours in the day, happy birthday to Mookie Wilson!

And for my friend Gary who has soured on professional sports, consider this: The same sport (and even the same team) that brought us the desperate and ever-disappointing Darryl Strawberry also brought us such sources of unalloyed pleasure as Ed Charles, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, Ron Swoboda, Benny Agbayani, and Mookie Wilson.

If God was willing to forgive Sodom because it had a few righteous citizens, can't we do the same for baseball?
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"What I Heard About Iraq"

My buddy Arthur links us to this powerful piece by Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books--maybe the most damning indictment of the Iraq war yet, made up almost entirely of direct quotations from administration officials and straightforward recitations of the chilling facts. A great piece of writing that involves almost no "writing" at all . . .
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Monday, February 07, 2005

The Pleasure of Random Knowledge Derived from Unlikely Sources

At an antiques show years ago, I signed up for the mailing list of a rare book dealer named Phillip J. Pirages. I've never bought or even owned anything that deserves to be called a "rare book," but to this day I receive the thick, handsome Pirages catalog every few months, and I always set aside an hour or so to peruse it. Not that I plan on buying any rare books; that's the kind of thing I will buy only if by some bizarre twist of fate I someday find myself with so much money that I don't know what to do with it. But the catalog is a fascinating compendium of cultural information that I would surely never encounter anywhere else.

As you may have guessed by now, a few examples from the latest edition will follow.

My favorite section of the catalog is the last one: "Books Printed from 1800 to the Present." The very first item in this section is something titled Memoir on Acupuncturation, Embracing a Series of Cases, Drawn Up Under the Inspection of M. Julius Cloquet. The amazing date of publication is 1825. Turns out, according to the descriptive notes prepared by the Pirages staff, that acupuncture was known in Europe as far back as the seventeenth century; Dr. Cloquet was a French expert in the practice. I always believed acupuncture first made it out of China around 1968--a fine example of the common fallacy of assuming that something originated around the time I first became aware of it. (If you're interested, Pirages is pricing the Memoir on Acupuncturation at $1,900.)

Ever heard of fore-edge painting? Apparently popular in the nineteenth century, this was the custom of painting an image, usually a landscape, on the slightly fanned front edges of book pages. The catalog lists half a dozen books under the heading "Fore-Edge Painting" rather than by topic or author, which I guess means that such books are purchased mainly by collectors who value the paintings, not the books themselves.

Oddly enough, the paintings don't necessarily have anything to do with the contents of the books. For example, an 1811 edition of The Vision of Don Roderick, and Other Poems by Sir Walter Scott is adorned with what's described in the catalog (all in capital letters) as "A FINE AND UNUSUAL FORE-EDGE PAINTING OF AN INDUSTRIAL CITY." The book listing bears a headline that makes a pretty weak sales pitch; it reads, "Depressing Painting of a Gritty Industrial City." (If you're a collector who specializes in depressing paintings, the book is available for $1,800.)

Here's one more curiosity--a first edition of The Deseret Second Book, a theology primer notable for being one of only three books ever published in the Deseret alphabet, a set of "vaguely Cyrillic and semiphonetic characters" invented by the Mormons of Utah in an effort to keep their religious teachings secret from outsiders. According to the scholars at Pirages (an impressively learned bunch, you must agree), "the new system did not catch on and was discontinued after Brigham Young's death in 1877."

As with every book in the catalog, the condition of The Deseret Second Book is described in meticulous detail: "Back cover just a little soiled, very faint dampstain at tip of upper corner of text, but A FINE, BRIGHT COPY, ESPECIALLY FRESH INTERNALLY." (Nice word there, "dampstain," a coinage worthy of Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Sounds like a bargain at $375--and a great opportunity to brush up on your rusty knowledge of the Deseret alphabet.

I wonder how much longer I can manage to stay on the Pirages mailing list without buying anything? If someone from their staff happens to read this post, will they cross me off the list or award me a lifetime subscription? The latter, I hope.
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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Call Me Mister Yes-But

John Richards' blog links us to this article by Bill Moyers about the bizarre beliefs of some fundmentalist Christians ("The delusional is no longer marginal"). Their confidence in the imminence of the divinely-mandated end of the world and the "rapture" that will save believing Christians (while all others are consigned to eternal hellfire) means that they don't fear war in the Middle East, which is merely a sign of the end-times, to be welcomed rather than shunned. Nor do they worry about global warming, energy shortages, or any other possible environmental disaster. As Moyer reports:

[T]hese people believe that until Christ does return, the Lord will provide. One of their texts is a high school history book, "America's Providential History." You'll find there these words: "The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie . . . that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece." However, "[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth . . . while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."

For me as a Christian, this philosophy is insidious precisely because of the element of truth it contains. Yes, the Lord will provide ("consider the lilies of the field"). Yes, God wants humans to enjoy life and its abundance. And yes, the world contains resources sufficient to support its population in comfort. BUT to leap from these assurances to the conclusion that environmental protection, careful husbanding of resources, and sharing of wealth to meet the needs of the poor are "secular or socialist" errors betraying a lack of faith in God is absurd.

Genesis makes it clear that we humans were given stewardship over the earth. A steward has what we might today call a "fiduciary responsibility": He holds property in trust and is responsible for passing it on to its rightful owner, or to the next steward, in better shape than when he received it. This is what environmentalism is all about. To take the Bible's assurances that God will care for humans as license to waste and ruin his creation is as if a teenager were to say, "Hey, my dad loves me and always will--so let's take his Porsche out for a joyride with a couple of six-packs."

Have pity on us progressive Christians! Life would be so much simpler if we could simply join our secular friends in denouncing the superstitious idiocy of the fundamentalists. But although I think the fundamentalists' reading of the Bible is deeply misguided, I respect the fact that they actually take God seriously as a factor in human history (as opposed to ignoring him completely, as secularists do). Not only do I think the fundamentalists are right about this--that is, I agree with their premise that God exists and is actively engaged in the course of world events--but as a purely political matter, we progressives will needlessly alienate millions of well-meaning people if we behave as if the only alternative to fundamentalism is atheism.

So rather than mocking the fundamentalists, I find myself constantly wanting to respond to them with a more nuanced, "Yes, BUT." In a world with little patience for nuance, it's a tough position to occupy--but I don't see any honest alternative.
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Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Cynicism Behind the Presidential Smirk

One of the most striking aspects of the Bush administration is its profound cynicism. I'm not referring here to the cynicism with which the president and his team mislead the public (although that's appalling). I'm referring to the cynicism of the worldview that they openly profess and urge Americans to share.

One example is the way Bush talks about taxes. Whenever the possibility of rolling back one of his tax cuts for the wealthy is raised in a public forum, Bush responds by remarking, in effect, that tax increases only hurt the middle class. Why? Because, he says (with his trademark smirk), everyone knows that the rich don't pay taxes anyway--their lawyers and accountants see to that!

I know of course that many Americans share this belief about the rich. But I find it stunning to hear the president state it openly. This is the man who's in charge of the IRS and directs the nation's tax policies, announcing publicly that the tax system is blatantly unfair and that he is either powerless to do anything about it or utterly uninterested in trying!

(Obviously it's not true that the rich don't pay taxes. If they didn't, what would be the point of lowering their tax rates? Bush doesn't say this because he believes it; he says it because a cynical attitude toward taxation serves his ideological goal of crippling most domestic functions of government.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not surprised that a U.S. president would permit a tax system that favors the rich. I'm surprised that he would say so publicly, with a wink and a shrug. That's what I mean by cynicism.

Now Bush and the so-called conservatives are promoting an even more startling form of cynicism as part of their effort to undermine Social Security. When they denigrate the federal I.O.U.s that constitute the Social Security "trust fund" as meaningless pieces of paper that will never be honored, they are, in effect, announcing that the government intends to default on its debts. This is something that the U.S. somehow avoided doing through a Civil War, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Such a default would clearly ruin our international financial status if applied to (say) the "meaningless pieces of paper" held by our creditors in Japan, China, and Europe (which, oddly enough, no one seems to be proposing).

It's bad enough when people at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation peddle this negativity (which they do, again, for purely ideological reasons--to frighten people into abandoning Social Security). But for the president of the United States to openly declare that the government which he heads can't be trusted to pay off its debts--and to get away with it in the court of public opinion--simply shocks me.

I used to say that Nixon had done more than any other single person to debase American attitudes toward democracy. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new champion.

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