Friday, April 29, 2005

Digby on Storytelling

A great little essay by Digby on his blog Hullabaloo about the abortion debate. As he says, one reason for the general public rejection of Republican pandering in the Terry Schiavo case is because so many Americans have experienced painful choices surrounding the death of a loved one and are willing to share those stories over dinner tables, around water coolers, and during play groups. However, people tend to be much more reticent about their experiences with unwanted pregnancy because of the shame and stigma still associated with it. This means that the painful and morally ambiguous dilemmas that underlie most abortions don't get fully aired, making it much easier for those on the far right to get away with caricaturing women who terminate pregnancies as selfish, irresponsible, and evil. Being willing to think about and talk about real life is an essential first step to weaning ourselves from the juvenile narrowmindedness of black-and-white ideologies.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Women and the Lifestyle Wars

Well, here I go--writing a post that is likely to get me into hot water.

Conventional wisdom is that women talk about their lives and their feelings a lot more than men do. And whether or not that's true in everyday life (my limited experience suggests that it is), it's certainly true in the world of media. Lives and feelings are discussed on talk shows hosted by women (Oprah, The View) while talk shows hosted by men focus on politics, sports, or show biz. And women writers in magazines or on the Internet often write about their lives and feelings--motherhood, men, sex, marriage, careers, etc. etc.--while their male counterparts do so much more rarely.

Even popular fiction reflects the difference. "Chick lit" novels deal with the problems of everyday life (boyfriends who won't make a commitment, jobs that suck, the angst of urban singlehood), while "Guy lit" either doesn't exist or consists of escapist fare like the techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.

When I think about it, I generally assume that this distinction redounds to the credit of women. Women have the honesty, courage, humility, and realism to talk about real life, while men prefer fantasies about power, money, or violence (or better yet all three, as in NFL football). But there's a downside to the way women "share" about their lives (at least in print), which is the appallingly competitive, judgmental tone that tends to dominate such writing--as if women can't disagree in their lifestyle choices without going to war over them.

A classic example appeared recently in Salon, the best of the general-interest Internet magazines. It started with an article titled "Zen Mama" by Noelle Howey. Howey contrasts her own relatively laid-back, easy-going experience of motherhood with that of the anxious, driven moms who appear in books like Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, fretting over everything from the age at which their babies start to crawl to finding the most socially acceptable style of decoration for a birthday party.

In her article, Howey ponders whether there is something wrong with her for not sharing the frazzled nerves that are supposedly the common lot of upper-middle-class moms today. Ultimately, of course, she concludes that she likes her life the way it is . . . and then starts drawing broader social conclusions:

I think there are more of us out here than the culture acknowledges -- maybe because just getting along day to day isn't nearly as interesting as being a mess. And maybe because a lot of us don't have the disposable income that might allow us to obsess over whether we should call a parenting coach for tips on potty training. But for every friend who weeps over her inability to replicate Martha Stewart Kids projects at home, several others take their own human foibles and imperfect circumstances in stride. I know a set of parents who are having their second son, without benefit of a third bedroom, much less a full set of Pottery Barn Kids furniture. There are even recovering worriers: Gillian, 36, told me she'd been a huge stressball about her now 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, until she reached a certain point in which "I realized how stupid and unproductive that was. And so I just stopped."

When our own kids were little, Mary-Jo and I were a lot more like Howey than like the anxious over-achieving moms Judith Warner writes about. (Mainly because we didn't have either the time or money to dream about competing for prestigious nursery-school slots or the other accoutrements of "successful" parenthood.) So I identify with Howey to a degree. Nonetheless, her observations struck me as only mildly interesting and far from earth-shattering. I wasn't prepared for the vociferous, nearly violent reaction her piece elicited from another Salon reader--a mom (name withheld by request) who evidently regarded Howey's article as a personal assault on her character:

In my experience, truly Zen mamas do not feel the need to denigrate other mothers in national publications. Truly Zen mamas support other mothers, even if they don't understand them. They do not insult them, they do not marginalize their concerns and they do not talk haughtily about their own superior mothering.

Let me tell you what it's like to live with maternal anxiety, since Ms. Howey lacks the insight and compassion necessary to do so. . . .

The author goes on to describe her personal experience with what she calls postpartum anxiety (PPA) in excruciating terms, mentioning "bloody nightmares," dizzy spells, and joint pain that made her "hobble like a crone." It sounds truly awful. But the anonymous sufferer isn't just seeking our sympathy or understanding--she wants to use her experience to whack Howey over the head:

I don't expect Ms. Howey to know anything about PPA. Most people who haven't had the misfortune of experiencing it don't. But I do expect a basic level of humanity, of recognition that not all mothers parent exactly like her self-congratulatory self. Does she believe that I visited night terrors upon myself because maternal angst is fashionable? Does she really think her friend, the one she dismissively feigns concern for, is lying awake anxious because it's an upper-middle-class trend?

This reaction struck me as wildly over the top. As far as I could see, nothing in Howey's article referred to women like the author of this letter, who appears to be suffering from severe mental (and perhaps physical) illness. But the letter-writer is prepared to bat away that excuse:

Ah, but Ms. Howey will protest, I didn't mean you, with your nightmares and your aches and your dizziness. I just meant those rich mothers, those women who worry about play dates and schools.

News flash: It's two sides of the same coin. It's the same root, the same terror, the same issues at the core. . . .

All right, I see where we are. The anonymous mom is attacking Howey not in self-defense (as if Howey had attacked her), but out of her sense of solidarity with all anxious moms. Howey musn't make fun of the would-be Martha Stewarts because, at the root, they're somehow the same as the crippled, insomniac letter-writer. To criticize one is to criticize all! This means war!

It seems pathetic to me. But the angry defensive tone is all too familiar from the letters column of any magazine that publishes an article about women's lives and feelings. Almost invariably, any piece about one woman's experience of motherhood (or daughterhood or sex or marriage or career) attracts flocks of responses from women who seem to feel compelled to choose up sides. Half of the letters say, "your article described my life precisely" and offer effusive thanks "for finally publishing our side of the story," while the other half treat the article as a personal affront, demanding "how dare you denigrate women like me?" and angrily defending all the women whose lives are different from the one described in the article.

This phenomenon has always baffled me. If Ms. A chooses to remain childless and concentrate on her career, why do Ms. B and Ms. C, happy stay-at-home moms, find it necessary to announce how "devalued" and "degraded" they feel after reading Ms. A's column about it? If Ms. L writes an article about her pleasant experiences raising twins at home, why do Ms. M and Ms. N write angry letters protesting the implicit attack on them for having used day-care services instead?

Women get the short end of the stick in our society in many ways: lower pay, discrimination in schools, sexist condescension from men, domestic abuse, etc. etc. But middle-class and upper-middle-class women have one advantage over men. They have greater social freedom to choose their own lifestyles, provided they can afford it. Some middle-class women have ambitious full-time careers. Some stay home for a time to raise their children; later, some return to the work force, full-time or part-time, while others do not, in some cases devoting time and energy to civic or charitable work. As far as I can see, all of these choices are, broadly speaking, socially acceptable (again with the crucial caveat that only adequate income brings real freedom of choice).

In terms of social values, men don't have the same menu of options. It's true that a very rich man isn't always expected to work. (Although someone like Prince Charles gets a lot of criticism for his idleness--not that I'm defending Prince Charles.) But otherwise, every able-bodied man is supposed to work full-time. If he doesn't, he's more-or-less universally regarded as a "slacker" or (in the parlance of older generations) a "lazy bum."

Even in today's more tolerant climate, it takes quite a bit of nerve for a man to brave convention and spend even a few years as a "Mr. Mom," caring for kids at home while his spouse goes out to work. Abdicating the role of chief breadwinner just isn't manly. But "Ms. Mom" can go out to work or stay home with the kids--it's her choice.

Given the relatively greater lifestyle latitude that women enjoy, I can't quite fathom why women (at least the ones who express themselves in print) seem to feel such a powerful need to attack one another over the choices they make. Isn't it possible that the way of life that's best for one woman is entirely different from the way of life that's best for her next-door neighbor? And if that's the case, why should the difference require holy warfare between them?

Granted, this phenomenon is partly an artifact of our media culture. It's temptingly easy for any mom who notices that two of her friends have started making choices similar to her own to write it up as a "trend" and publish an article or book launching a new front in the lifestyle wars. In this way, small, essentially personal decisions are amplified into cultural markers. But the media dynamic doesn't explain why these musings strike such a responsive chord (Perfect Madness is a best-seller) or why men don't usually get caught up in the same kinds of arguments.

I suppose it ultimately goes back to the relatively broader set of choices open to middle-class women: More options means more uncertainty, more anxiety, and (in some cases) a greater psychological need to defend one's choices (and criticize the choices made by others). Because they basically lack such choices, men generally shut up and direct their frustrations and anxieties over life into symbolic channels (in my case, rooting for the Mets . . . which of course only increases both the frustration and the anxiety).

I wish it were easier for men to talk about their lives and feelings the way women do. And I would like to see more magazines and websites providing a forum for men to write about how their innermost conflicts, worries, dreams, and desires get played out in our everyday lives. But not if it means we have to launch wars with one another over the ways those lives differ.
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Monday, April 25, 2005


MLB has finally gotten on the blog bandwagon. I'm suprised it took them so long, since they have otherwise been pretty quick to leverage new forms of internet content on their site(s). I've been subscribing to their gameday audio since it became available a few years ago, as WFAN usually comes through better over the internet than it does over the air on my radio at home and at work. Check out the Mets' blog, authored by Matthew Cerrone (also of, here.
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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Bolton's Problem--Not the Bullying, But the Lies

Let's get something straight about John Bolton. Pace commentators like Henry Fountain ("You're a Mean One, Mr. Smith" in today's "Week in Review" section of the Times), the controversy over Bolton's nomination to be American ambassador to the UN does not center on whether he is "too tough" or "too mean" for a government job. And so stories like the ones Fountain tells about how "difficult" people like Howard Metzenbaum, Alexander Haig, and Jimmy Carter could be are completely irrelevant.

The problem with Bolton, as stories like this one and this one and many others have detailed, is that he repeatedly lied about US intelligence in an effort to support his extreme ideological views, then attemped to browbeat, threaten, or fire principled intelligence officers who refused to support his lies.

We've just spent two and a half years sifting the causes of the massive political failures that underlay the 9/11 attacks and the false allegations regarding WMD that led us into war with Iraq. Do we want a UN ambassador whose track record practically guarantees that he will continue and intensify the politicized distortion of intelligence that has already deeply damaged American credibility around the world? That's the real issue--not whether, as Fountain puts it, "the bar for behavior may be set too high" by critics seeking job candidates who "have never offended anybody."

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Core Democratic Value: Individual Freedom

In today's Times Magazine (registration required), reporter Matt Bai offers a critique from a supposedly friendly perspective of the Democratic position on social values--yet another spasm of hand-wringing over the party's failure to connect with heartland voters on an emotional level. I share the concern and agree that we need to do a much better job of expressing our views on moral issues clearly and powerfully. Unfortunately, Bai's arguments suggest that Bai has largely swallowed Republican framing of the debates and therefore has little of value to offer Democrats as they search for answers.

For example, Bai notes that the Republicans damaged themselves in the eyes of most Americans by their obvious over-reaching and posturing in the Terri Schiavo case--but then adds, "Even in defeat, Republicans emerged as 'the party of life.'" Which makes Democrats what? The "party of death," a phrase Bai attributes to "one leading Democratic operative." This is, of course, exactly the spin the Republicans have been trying to push, which the polls tell us the vast majority of people have rejected. But Bai apparently accepts it.

He then tries to analyze the roots of what he sees as the Democratic "hypocrisy" on social issues. According to Bai, its source is the conflict between the party's twin allegiances to the Civil Rights movement and the "antiwar counterculture" (Bai's phrase) of the 1960s. Bai says that whereas the civil rights movement centered on "legislating and codifying morality" (i.e. by urging federal action against racial segregation), the counterculture "was all about radical individualism." The result is that today's Democrats are caught in hopelessly contradictory positions:

Where their own communities are concerned, Democrats reflexively resist any notion of government as a moral umpire; they don't want some politician dressing up their kids in school uniforms or deciding which video game they should be allowed to play. . . . And yet when it comes to the more rural and religious communities where other voters live, Democrats tend to view government, conveniently, through the activist prism of civil rights. Legislation limiting gun ownership or legal decisions restricting school prayer seem eminently reasonable, because they reflect urban and secular values that, to most Democrats, constitute an obvious moral imperative.

All of this strikes me as remarkably wrong-headed. The Democratic positions Bai cites are self-contradictory only if you view them through the distorted prism of conservative spin. It's true that Democrats (like most traditional conservatives, libertarians, and the majority of Americans) recoil from the notion of government as "moral umpire." But support for gun control laws and opposition to school prayer are completely consistent with that.

Take school prayer first. Bai's rhetoric implies that "legal decisions restricting school prayer" somehow involve "government" restricting the moral choices of citizens. He obfuscates the fact that prayer in public schools--the only kind of school prayer ever affected by court decisions--is precisely an act of moral imposition on citizens by a government agency (i.e., the public school system itself). The whole point of separating church and state is to keep the state from imposing religious beliefs or practices on American citizens--in other words, to prevent government from becoming a "moral umpire." No inconsistency there.

Gun control laws are a slightly more subtle example. Yes, gun laws involve some degree of government control over individual action. But the mainstream Democratic position on gun control has never involved "moral umpiring." Liberals want laws that require registration of guns, limits on gun sales to convicted criminals, and restrictions on the ownership of dangerous weapons whose only purpose is to kill human beings (as opposed to sport, hunting, target practice and the like) not because we consider guns or gun-owners "bad" but for the same reason we regulate ownership of cars: because they are powerful machines that need to be handled with extreme care to save innocent lives.

For generations it has been against the law to own a car that's unregistered or uninsured, and people who are under age or blind or drunk are forbidden to get behind the wheel. Is this "moral umpiring" by government or just practical, pragmatic regulation?

The fact is that Democratic positions on these and other "moral values" issues, including abortion, gay rights, the right to die, draconian drug laws, etc. etc. have a consistent, connecting thread: the desire to expand the realm of individual freedom.

Democrats support civil rights because an individual should have the freedom to go to school or apply for a job or buy a house regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background. It's not a matter of "moral umpiring"--no law says you have to like people of different races or believe in "brotherhood." Be a bigot if you like, even express your bigotry in words. But you can't express it through actions that limit my freedom.

In the same way, Democrats support gay rights because individuals should have the freedom to love whomever they choose. They support reasonable gun control laws because individuals should have the freedom to drive down the street, visit a mall, or enter a public building without being assaulted by someone carrying a concealed weapon. They support separation of church and state because individuals should have the freedom to worship and believe in any way they like--or not at all--unconstrained by government.

Inconsistent? Self-contradictory? Only by the tortured logic of "conservatives" who define "moral values" as meaning "freedom for those who agree with me."
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An Update!

O.K., this space has gone without an update for way too long. We wouldn't want our regular readers (hi mom!) to think we've given up. Unfortunately I don't really have anything insightful to say, so here's something a bit different. Ever have an idea that seems so good, you wonder how it is that everyone isn't already doing it? Example: glow in the dark paint on automobiles. O.K., this may sound goofy, but why shouldn't cars glow in the dark? A subtle glow could make cars a lot more visible at night when driving on poorly lit roads. A quick google search proves that I'm not the first to think so. Maybe you can think of reasons why this idea stinks or maybe you've been puzzled by something similar in the past. Either way, have at it. We haven't had any comments in a long while either...
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Sunday, April 17, 2005

"The Affirmation Project"

. . . is under way at Pastor Dan's blog, faithforward. In response to the latest Republican attempts to define "Christianity" in far-right-wing terms (as exemplified by the "Justice Sunday" program, supported by Senator Bill Frist, which seeks to intimidate and ultimately destroy our independent judiciary in the name of "religion"), Pastor Dan is inviting faithful people with progressive political and social beliefs to publicly identify themselves and testify to the truth that the God we know is not a bigot, militarist, or ideologue.

You're strongly urged to visit Pastor Dan's website. The array of statements that have already been posted is a moving and eloquent demonstration of the diversity and genius of the true American spirit as expressed by Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, atheists and agnostics, and people of many other faiths. You may even feel moved to swell the chorus with a few words of your own.
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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Weekend Sports Report

The reason sports is the best thing on television is that it's unpredictable, unlike 99 percent of sitcoms, cop-lawyer-or-doctor dramas, or even (saddest of all) the network news. Case in point: my New York Mets. How weird is it that, after losing their first five games of the season, for their worst start since before the Beatles came to America, the Mets have now won six in a row to go above .500 and (very sweet) attain a better record for the young season than The Hated Yankees?

What's more, last night, the much-reviled Aaron Heilman (sporting a lifetime major league record of 3-11) not only outpitched Marlins' ace Josh Beckett (former World Series MVP) but tossed a complete-game one-hit shutout. (I love the fact that, prior to the game, Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN had held forth about what a "mismatch" it was--a gaffe that I imagine will vanish down the memory hole prior to their Monday afternoon show.) Like I said, unpredictable.

Totally predictable, however, were the calls from irate Yankee fans to sports talk shows defending Gary Sheffield over the Thursday incident involving a contretemps with a fan at Fenway Park. Never mind that, in the replayed highlight, it didn't even appear that the fan was looking in Sheffield's direction as he swiped his arm toward the field, and that Sheffield's barely-restrained confrontation of the fan was an obvious over-reaction by a man with a history of impulse-control problems. To hear the Yankee fans talk, Sheffield was a Boy Scout merely defending his safety against a violent assault by a drunken lout intent on mayhem. Callers used phrases like "these Boston animals" and "New England vermin" to describe not merely the denizens of Fenway's right field stands but Red Sox fans in general and maybe anyone who happens to live north or east of Greenwich, Connecticut.

Until now, most Yankee fans have managed to hold back their bitterness over last year's October collapse at the hands of the Red Sox and behave with at least a modicum of class. With this year's Yankees stumbling out of the gate, the strain of the effort is beginning to show. I shudder to think how the fans might react if the Yankees fail again to win the World Championship this year--the World Championship that is of course no more than their due and right. The Congressional Republicans baying for "the nuclear option" against the Democrats will appear pacifistic by comparison.
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Friday, April 15, 2005

Better Insist on a Second Opinion

. . . if you spot a "Physician of the Year" award on the wall of your doctor's office. According to this story from ABC News, hundreds of fancy-looking plaques proclaiming this "honor" are being given out by the Congressional Republicans--not in recognition of any professional credential but in return for $1,250 donations to the party's campaign funds.

The whole amazing story is well worth reading. (Give ABC News some credit for a rare display of investigative backbone.) It describes how one curious doctor arranged to accept the award (alongside hundreds of his right-leaning colleagues) at a two-day meeting in Washington that included "a tax-reform workshop as well as appearances by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and President Bush." (And, yes, doctors around the country are now listing these bogus awards on their resumes--and probably snagging a few extra patient referrals in the process.)

So we ask again the perennial question of the past several years: Where exactly is the limit to the Republican Party's shamelessness?
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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

If You Have a Life

. . . beyond surfing the blogosphere, you should consider subscribing to the RSS feeds for your favorite websites (including World Wide Webers).

An RSS feed provides you with automatic updates when a new item is posted on the blog. If you have a home page from Yahoo! or MSN, or if you use one of the popular news readers such as FeedDemon on NetNewsWire, you will be able to tell at a glance when a new post appear on one of your favorite blogs, without having to visit each blog manually.

And since the RSS feed includes the headline for each new post, you can decide at a glance which posts are worth reading--and then just click on the headline to visit the relevant blog. (Of course, every post of World Wide Webers is well worth reading; we can't vouch for the contents of other blogs.)

Our RSS feed is provided by FeedBurner. For more information, or to subscribe to the feed, just click on the FeedBurner box at the bottom of the right-hand column on our home page.
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Saturday, April 09, 2005

"We Are a Patients' Rights Pharmacy"

The latest front in the battle over reproductive rights is the controversy over so-called "conscience clauses" for pharmacists. As summarized by Ellen Goodman in today's WaPo, there are bills in twelve states that would establish the right of pharamacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives as well as, presumably, any other medication they object to on moral or religious grounds.

My sympathies in this debate are strongly against the aggrieved pharmacists (1,600 of whom supposedly have joined an organization called Pharmacists for Life). For one thing, there is no scriptural basis for banning or discouraging contraception. Churches that forbid birth control do so, it appears, from a combination of two motives: (1) their misguided, inconsistently-applied belief that "artificial interference" with natural processes is illegitimate and destructive, and (2) their desire to control women's sexuality and punish those who transgress their (extremely narrow) rules of sexual behavior. The latter motive is, I think, less fully conscious but probably more powerful.

There's no sound comparison between the "Pharmacists for Life" and the other kinds of conscientious objectors they like to claim as forebears. Thoreau, Gandhi, King, and the antiwar protestors of the Vietnam era were battling against governmental acts that oppressed or killed people--unjust wars, imperialist rule, Jim Crow. The phastidious, phinicky pharmacists want to prevent women from exercising a right that harms and oppresses no one.

Furthermore, classic "civil disobedience" as first practiced by Thoreau and later developed in theory and practice by Gandhi and King insists on the willingness of the practitioner to accept punishment (however unfair) at the hands of government authorities. Part of the strategy of civil disobedience is the idea that the public will eventually be repulsed by the spectacle of thousands of individuals submitting peacefully to punishment that is manifestly unjust, and will consequently demand changes in government policy. This strategy actually worked, to varying degrees, in Gandhi's India and King's Deep South, and it probably helped shift US opinion against the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By contrast, the pharmacists are demanding the right to follow their consciences without suffering any punishment--"conscience without consequence," as Goodman puts it. Not only is this attitude wimpy in comparison to that of the true apostles of civil disobedience, it hardly seems to fit the spirit of the New Testament, with its many willing (even eager) martyrs.

Having said all this, we're left with the question: How should progressives respond to this latest challenge?

I don't think that it makes sense for us to mount a counter-offensive on the legal front--for example, by pushing for laws that would force pharmacists to fill prescriptions they find offensive. This would create sympathetic victims for the anti-birth-control movement and lead to distracting made-for-TV spectacles (druggists in handcuffs, weeping supporters with placards, posturing Congressmen, etc. etc.).

Furthermore, since pharmacists are professionally and ethically required to screen prescriptions for errors and medical dangers, it would be very hard to craft a law that defines the pharmacist's responsibilities sufficiently narrowly and accurately. Medical professionals who are morally opposed to birth control would find it easy to claim that they are refusing to provide it on the grounds that it is "dangerous" to women's health. (Like most medications, birth control pills have side effects, which a zealot can readily exaggerate.) So a law requiring pharmacists to fill all legal prescriptions as written is probably not a good solution to the problem.

Instead, I think that pharmacists and drug stores that don't support the anti-birth-control movement (surely a large majority of the industry) ought to begin marketing themselves as customer-friendly, non-judgmental service providers. Perhaps they can band together and develop a shared description of their policies that could be posted in the window of every subscribing pharmacy--something like this:


Our pharmacists have pledged to fill every legal prescription presented by any customer, after screening it for medical errors and possible interactions with other medicines you may be taking. We repect the privacy of every customer and will NOT impose our personal moral, religious, or political views on you. Thank you for your patronage.

I suspect that millions of customers would find this message reassuring and attractive. Those who don't--those who want to have their personal choices vetted by the guy behind the drugstore counter--would be free to seek out their local busy-body pharmacist and bring him their business.
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Friday, April 08, 2005

Another Home-Grown Terrorist of the Right

Today's guilty plea by Eric Rudolph to charges of bombing the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub are another reminder that terrorism is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the right, not the left--especially here in the United States. (See this post for my previous take on the topic.) Remember this the next time Republicans try to imply, via sneers and innuendo, that "liberals" are somehow complicit in violent attacks against America.
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Praise for the Eternal Word

On the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC radio this morning, heard an interview with a couple of filmmakers who've been working on a restoration of Sam Peckinpah's 1965 movie Major Dundee. Describing the work involved in making the movie look good again, one of Leonard's guests commented that, "For a forty-year-old picture, it doesn't look too bad on the screen."

All of this made me think about the enormous advantages that literature has over other artforms when it comes to durability and accessibility.

A written text can be reproduced precisely and, in the digital age, at virtually no cost. There's no sense in which the Iliad has "deteriorated" during the millenia since it was first set down in writing, unlike classical Greek sculpture, painting, and architecture, all of which survive only in fragmentary form. (Not a single work of Phidias, supposedly the greatest of all Greek sculptors, is extant today.) As for ancient Greek music and dance, they are now merely rumors.

It's true that, through various mishaps, some ancient literary works have vanished. We only have brief quotations from the poetry of Sappho, for example. But proportionately, there's no comparison between the survival rates of literature and other artforms. And when you come down into more modern times, especially since the invention of printing, it's hard to imagine how any significant piece of writing could ever completely vanish, unless civilization as we know it was completely destroyed. For example, since hundreds of thousands of printed copies of David Copperfield must exist in libraries and homes around the world, Dickens's novel is basically indestructible.

It is also accessible, at very little cost, to almost anyone, anywhere. By contrast, a painting, sculpture, or building can really be experienced only in person; a photo or reproduction captures just a fraction of the qualities of the original. And any work of music, dance, or drama doesn't exist at all except through the talents of living artists who perform it. Films, CDs, and DVDs perform a valuable service in capturing a particular performance in fairly durable form, but their dependence on technology is treacherous, as the example of the deteriorating Major Dundee suggests. (And there are reportedly many movies, especially from the silent era, that have already vanished beyond recovery--this in an artform that is scarcely more than a century old.)

The only major disadvantage one can point to regarding the durability and accessibility of literature is the fact that languages are not universal in space and time. I can personally experience the Iliad only by way of a translation into modern English, and we all know that translation is imprecise at best. But translation is available, and so is the option of learning foreign languages, even dead ones like ancient Greek. In any case, an artform like the movies is also language-bound to the extent that it relies on dialogue. (One could even argue that non-verbal artforms are subject to similar restrictions, in that our full comprehension of painting, sculpture, and music is limited by "language barriers" relating to the symbolic and cultural meanings inherent in specific images, gestures, and musical forms. But that would probably be pushing the case too hard.)

It's ironic and wonderful, isn't it, that literature, the most disembodied of artforms--mere words, formed, as Yeats put it, "out of a mouthful of air"--is also the most permanent, the most far-reaching, the one with the greatest power to overcome barriers of space and time.
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Monday, April 04, 2005

Play Ball

After an awful spring here in the Northeast (wet, cold, gray), what a sense of hope it give me to welcome the new baseball season at last. Let's go, Mets.

I am of course no fan of George Will, but today's column in honor of opening day is pleasant and amusing. Reminds me of a favorite story that Jimmy Carter likes to tell. As you may know, Will violated the unwritten canon of journalistic impartiality (as well as, arguably, some election laws) when he helped candidate Ronald Reagan prepare for the 1980 presidential debates against Carter using a briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign.

Carter was understandably PO'd and nursed a grudge against Will for years afterward. However, this gnawed at Carter's conscience (he truly believes in Christian forgiveness and all that), so when Will published his book on baseball, Men at Work, in 1990, Carter, a baseball fan, decided that this was an opportunity for reconciliation. He got a copy of the book, read it, liked it, and sent it to Will with a nice note of appreciation and a request for an autograph. Will responded graciously, and the two men were at least on speaking terms thereafter.

However, the best part of the story is this detail: Carter made a point of buying a used copy of Men at Work, so that author Will wouldn't earn any royalties from the sale. Only someone like Carter, who has published many books and follows their sales figures closely, would think of that.

One other point about opening day: What a relief to have actual ball games to watch and talk about, which will perhaps reduce the amount of time we have to spend hearing about the overblown steroids controversy. (Of course, as a Mets fan I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that my team has not become embroiled in the steroids scandal. For years now it has been obvious that no one on the Mets is using anything to enhance their performance . . .)
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The Pope Dies But Life Goes On

Leaving aside for the moment the question of just how good a pope John Paul II actually was (his policies in regard to human rights and making the church a more humane, open institution ranged from spotty to downright horrible), am I the only person who is startled and appalled by the all-pope-all-the-time news coverage on the MSM? I don't want to go back to the bad old days of Protestant Catholic-bashing, but why are the TV networks behaving implicitly as if Karol Wojtyla was the pope of all of us and thereby deserving of universal homage?

I see that President Bush is planning to attend the pope's funeral, which I understand is unprecedented. And now I hear that Prince Charles is under pressure to postpone his wedding to Camilla so as not to conflict with the funeral. WTF? Charles is an Anglican, remember. Why does he have to defer his plans in honor to a churchman from another denomination? Would a US presidential inauguration (for example) be postponed if the Archbishop of Canterbury died? Or the Dalai Lama, for that matter?

The death of an 84-year-old man is not an unprecedented tragedy demanding that the world come to a standstill. Life goes on.
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