Saturday, April 28, 2007

Let's Finally Put Harvard To Good Use

Against all odds, I found myself liking this column by New York Times writer Michael Winerip about the college admissions rat race. "Against all odds" because, as someone who did not go to Harvard, I regard columns by people who make a point of telling you that they did go to Harvard with a fair amount of suspicion. And Winerip doesn't help matters by devoting most of his column to the fairly hackneyed point that many of today's high school seniors (whom he interviews as a Harvard alum) have far more impressive credentials than he did at their age.

But then Winerip concludes with a worthwhile point. His own kids, he says, are neither qualified for Harvard (by today's standards) nor interested in going there. And Winerip has figured out that that's perfectly all right:
I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see.

My four have been raised in an upper-middle-class world. They look around and see lots of avenues to success. My wife's two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence.
Winerip's observation about the difference between being blue-collar (and having few paths to prosperity) and being well-to-do (and having many options) leads to me make this modest suggestion: Why shouldn't every seat at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia be reserved for a working-class kid?

After all, as Winerip suggests, blue-collar students are the candidates who need the leg up and will probably benefit from it the most. Let the rich "settle" for schools like Purdue and Rutgers and Boston College and SUNY Binghamton. Thanks to the networking connections, social skills, and extra-curricular experiences they've derived from their families, they'll do fine anyway. And I bet that, in a generation or so, the rising tide of income inequality in this country will have been solidly reversed.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Bush's Dreams of Glory

A fascinating article by Sidney Blumenthal over at Slate, examining how George Bush's personal and political values are reflected in the kitschy western art he has put on display in the Oval Office. In particular, Blumenthal analyzes the symbolism of a cowboy painting by the German-American magazine artist W.H.D. Koerner, depicting three riders evidently in pursuit of some enemy, titled "A Charge To Keep." Two key paragraphs:

The idea of Bush as a Christian cowboy, dashing upward and onward to fulfill the Lord's commandments, inspired him to title his campaign autobiography (written by his then communications advisor, Karen Hughes) "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House." Sample: "I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans." . . .

Bush understands his war in Iraq through his Western artifacts--a West, by the way, without any manifestation of Native Americans. The more resistant the reality in Iraq, the tighter he clings to the symbolism of the West. And so do those who support him. "America has a vital interest in preventing the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists," Sen. John McCain declared on April 11. But there is a dark side to the Wild West show of the conservative mind (just as there was to the Wild West). "We have to work the dark side," said Vice President Dick Cheney a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It's interesting to note that another wartime leader with a profound sense of his own greatness, a divinely-ordained mission, and a positive duty to disregard opposing voices, was also deeply influenced by the mythology of the American West. Here are some excerpts from an article about a little-known (in America) but highly influential German novelist--"Karl May, The Zane Grey of Germany":
The Karl May novels have been read by generations of German youth. In fact, he is the second most-published author in German history; only Martin Luther's Bible has been published more often. May's Winnetou is today still the most popular adventure novel in Germany, and it, together with Old Surehand and Old Shatterhand, is the foundation upon which Germans base their rather good understanding of the American West. . .

. . . one of the most prominent writers in the country, May became a popular guest and speaker. He always talked about morality and manliness, about Christianity and courage, and he never failed to have a new story from his many adventures. Politicians and intellectuals alike applauded him--or rather applauded Old Shatterhand, the model of uprightness and clean living that lead infallibly to straight shooting, a knock-out punch, and the ability to outwit any villain. . . .

May's influence was not always good. Like Tarzan and other turn-of-the-century heroes, the Karl May creations were Supermen, and doubtless fed the Superman myth that already existed in the Germany of Kaiser Bill. Hitler thought so highly of his heroes that when the generals in Stalingrad were surrounded by their overwhelming foe, Hitler radioed them to read Karl May to see how real fighters would conduct the battle!

No wonder that the East German government discouraged the Karl May cult. But that is surprising in another sense: the communists were true moral puritans, who deplored western books and movies, believing that they glorified cruelty and depravity; they considered movies of the American West even worse.

But for most critics, the question is not whether Karl May stories are suitable, but whether any dime novel is good for youth to read. Not that adults and old people even do not read him, but for many years there was a particular age when one read Karl May--between 12 and 15. For a long time German psychologists called this the "Karl May phase," a period in which youngsters read literature that allows them to identify with powerful, superhuman heroes.
The connections between Hitler's love of Karl May and his ideology are not just superficial:

Hitler drew another example of mass murder from American history. Since his youth he had been obsessed with the Wild West stories of Karl May. He viewed the fighting between cowboys and Indians in racial terms. In many of his speeches he referred with admiration to the victory of the white race in settling the American continent and driving out the inferior peoples, the Indians. With great fascination he listened to stories, which some of his associates who had been in America told him about the massacres of the Indians by the U.S. Calvary. . . .

Always contemptuous of the Russians, Hitler said: 'For them the word 'liberty' means the right to wash only on feast-days. If we arrive bringing soft soap, we'll obtain no sympathy...There's only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.' Having been a devoted reader of Karl May's books on the American West as a youth, Hitler frequently referred to the Russians as 'Redskins'. He saw a parallel between his effort to conquer and colonize land in Russia with the conquest of the American West by the white man and the subjugation of the Indians or 'Redskins'. 'I don't see why', he said, 'a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat from Canada, we don't think about the despoiled Indians."

There's even a theory that Hitler discovered the swastika symbol while reading May's stories (it was used, in a slightly different form, by some Indian tribes).

Now of course it would be absurd to say that reading Karl May turned Hitler into a murderous racist. (Among other problems with that theory is the fact that the list of Karl May's readers is as long as your arm and includes the humanist Albert Einstein as well as my own father, a committed socialist and a gentle soul if ever there was one.) And by the same token, it would be absurd to blame Bush's crazy and destructive policies on the western artists he favors.

But I definitely think it's a bad sign when a grown-up man who is in charge of a great nation draws inspiration and guidance from the kind of art most people stop admiring when they get to be fifteen years old--especially the kind of art whose emotional charge derives mainly from its ability to nurture adolescent fantasies of invulnerability, super-virility, and power. It has always been disturbing that President John F. Kennedy was a big fan of the James Bond novels and even met with their creator in 1960 to discuss covert methods of ousting Fidel Castro. (Yes, Ian Fleming may be partly to blame for the Bay of Pigs.)

Back in the 1940s, The New Yorker published a series of cartoons by William Steig labeled "Dreams of Glory," depicting kids' fantasies. One showed a nine-year-old in full cowboy regalia (ten-gallon hat, chaps, spurs), using his trusty six-gun to get the drop on a flabbergasted Adolf Hitler in his ornate Berlin office. Pretty ironic, considering Hitler would have thought of himself as the heroic cowboy. But in any case, we expect our presidents to have outgrown that sort of childhood daydream.

So, okay, maybe it is a little middlebrow and cliched for Barack Obama to declare that one of his favorite writers is Reinhold Niebuhr. At least he didn't name someone downright scary.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

The U.S. Is Not Crawling With Terrorists

On Monday, one of Andrew Sullivan's readers asked him the following question inspired by the horrific events at Virginia Tech:
I had a thought; if anyone can get a gun, and shoot people, even teenagers, and obviously psychotic people, then why haven't any Islamist terrorists done so?

I mean, wouldn't they? If a jihadist can go into Walmart, buy a gun and ammo, go back to his car, load the gun, and go back into the Walmart and shoot everyone in sight, then why haven't any of them done this?

. . . Could the threat be exagerated? This question is not intended to be rhetorical; I would really like to know.
I was not impressed by Andrew's response:

There are several possibilities:

> Our excessive homeland security is actually doing a good job of screening out terrorists
> The terrorists that are here can't buy guns legally, because they are illegal aliens
> The terrorists don't want to shoot people.

I assume that all three are true, but I'd bet that number three has the largest effect. . . . They [the terrorists] want to kill people in ways that are spectacular, fear-inducing, and hard to defend against. . . Attacks like today's aren't actually that hard to defend against, not if they are common. Arm the teachers; arm the students; put armed security guards in every building. We don't defend against them because they are rare, not because we couldn't.

Bombs, on the other hand, are very hard to defend against, which is why Israel has had such a difficult time doing so.

As sometimes happens with Andrew Sullivan, I feel that he is trying hard to think clearly here but not succeeding especially well.

First of all, I can't see how Sullivan, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, could write that a gun attack is not sufficiently "spectacular" and "fear-inducing" to satisfy a terrorist. We haven't had such an intense mass media response to a tragedy since 9/11. If the gunman had proven to be an Islamist extremist from a terror cell, can there be any doubt that the country would be in a near-catatonic state of hysteria?

Second, on what basis does Sullivan assert that guns are easier to defend against than bombs? Isn't the average handgun smaller and easier to smuggle than the average bomb? And there are plenty of public places in the United States where a concealed gun is legal and no security measures are in place to exclude them--whereas a bomb would always be out of the ordinary and hard to hide.

It is true that a well-designed and well-placed bomb can kill more people than a lone gunman is likely to do--Oklahoma City demonstrated that. But (gruesome as it is to say), a determined and well-trained gunman with the right weapons can certainly kill enough people to produce terror.

I think Andrew's thinking here is distorted by his instinctive desire to resist the conclusion that the terrorist threat has, in fact, been exaggerated. I think it clearly has been exaggerated. If there were in fact a significant number of terrorists in the United States seriously determined to kill lots of people and willing to die in the process, there'd be practically no way to stop them--and we would surely have experienced many more attacks than we have.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In The Vonnegut Vein

My multi-talented buddy Arthur Maisel sent me a miniature science-fiction story the other day.

* * * * *

Sooner or later, it finally happened that some real bugs learned how to use computers--actual viruses, I mean, some really horrific tropical disease that finishes you off like that (or at least takes just long enough for you to be in such agony that you wish you were dead). We can only guess how they did it, not being able to talk to these bugs, even if we wanted to. Maybe one of them on a chip somewhere noticed that electrons could be nudged into new positions and wanted to show that his girlfriend was the ideal of beauty and made a copy of her electron by electron. (I know they don't have girlfriends--I realize that they're not like us at all.) But once this perfect digital copy was in the memory, it got itself incorporated into a document of an application called Microsoft Word, through which people communicated with each other. Once it arrived in another computer, some local bug must have decided to revise itself to match this model of perfection. (Obviously, there's a lot about this we don't understand, okay?) With the bugs able to propagate themselves at the speed of light, it wasn't very long before all of humanity--and its pets--were dying in agony. Which of course meant that the bugs themselves were doomed as well: They had survived for millennia by jumping back and forth between two African villages, but with all the people gone there was nowhere to jump to. These bugs were smart enough to learn how to use computers but not smart enough to realize that it's not a good idea to kill your host. Imagine that.

4/17/07--in memoriam KV

* * * * *

I asked Arthur if the link to the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was generic or specific. He replied:
I liked a Vonnegut I read in high school--he seemed to be a much less self-serious Heinlein at that point, which was all to the good. Like you I hadn't read him recently, but he was always very cogent in his public comments as he became an elder statesman, modeling himself, I think, on Mark Twain. The piece was just an idea I had waiting for the bus, nothing to do with him. But it seemed once it was done to be a kind of unintended tribute. The irony of "they're not at all like us" and the "Imagine that" at the end seemed Vonnegut-like, I flattered myself.
Thanks, Arthur. Seems like the kind of tribute Vonnegut himself might have gotten a chuckle out of.

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Imus On the Cross

So it turns out that numerous media personalities, from Pat Buchanan to the Times's Frank Rich, are referring to the firing of Don Imus as a "lynching." The meme is apparently spreading like wildfire: Google "Imus lynching" and you get over 186,000 hits, most of them evidently right-wing rants about the injustice Imus is enduring. (The words "Al Sharpton" also appear prominently on most of the relevant websites, close to such words as "farce" and "hypocritical.")

I know that these guys are using the word "lynching" metaphorically, not literally. I am an old English major so I understand about metaphors. But my understanding of metaphor is that it is supposed to be used by writers to illuminate profound truths by revealing the unexpected similarity between two things that, on the surface, appear to be very different. I don't think that is how Imus's buddies in the media are using it.

Just to be clear, this is what someone who has been lynched looks like:

By way of contrast, this is what Don Imus can look forward to:

Imus's "lynching" consists of his being forced to retire--at least temporarily--to the Imus Ranch in New Mexico, which is described this way:
The ranch is a magnificent facility. Nearly 4,000 open acres surround an old western town that rivals any movie set in Hollywood. . . . The ranch also features a state of the art greenhouse and two acre garden, gigantic old-time barns, an indoor riding arena, an outdoor professional rodeo arena, a gorgeous, magnificently designed swimming pool, miles of trails and thousands of trees. There are two ponds for watering cattle that also contain hundreds of fish; trout in one, bass in the other.
If Imus gets bored in New Mexico, he may have to fall back on his home in New York:

The Imuses purchased the home in Westport, spread over roughly five acres on Long Island Sound, for about $4.5 million in the late 1990s. They promptly tore the main house down and built the new one from scratch. Deirdre decided to decorate it in the neoclassical, Swedish Gustavian style, named after King Gustav III and known for its clean lines and sense of restraint. . . . There is a spectacular view of Long Island Sound. The [great] room is impeccably decorated, with a custom-built Indian-redwood Steinway & Sons piano and an 18th-century Gustavian-style daybed. Various books cover the tables: the complete photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, the views and plans of the Petit Trianon chateau, at Versailles, as well as a bound volume of the July 2003 Architectural Digest, which featured the Westport house.
Oh, the suffering! Oh, the humanity!

Journalists and politicians get appropriately chastised when they misuse Holocaust analogies. (Tom Delay recently compared his own prosecution to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which sets some kind of a record for grandiosity, to say nothing of bad taste.) It's about time that the same standard got applied to lynching analogies.

It would be even better if the rich and powerful could try to develop a bit of perspective about the misfortunes experienced by them and their rich and powerful friends. But I'm too old and cynical to expect that to happen.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Not "Irreverent," Just Mean

If you can bear it, just a few more brief comments about the Don Imus controversy:

1. The word "irreverent," which many of the post-mortems use to characterize Imus's style of humor, actually reveals a lot of what made his "nappy-headed hos" comment so offensive. The point and value of being "irreverent" lies in pulling people and institutions down from their pedestals--treating presidents and popes and CEOs as ordinary, fallible people so that their actions can be judged more realistically, without the air of awe and deference that too often surrounds them and insulates them from criticism.

(To this day I remember a great caricature of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Grossman that appeared in Ramparts magazine at the height of the Vietnam War, depicting him in the bony yet flabby-fleshed nude except for a giant cowboy hat. The cartoon's caption was the Bob Dylan line, "Even the president of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked." That to me is the spirit of irreverence.)

When Imus made fun of the powerful and rich (as he often did), he was being "irreverent." But not when he mocked a bunch of college athletes for their gender and color. Picking on those who have less power and wealth than you isn't irreverent--it's just plain mean. There's a big difference.

2. Another comment one has been hearing that actually sheds real light on the story is the criticism that some comedians have been making--namely, that Imus's crack about the Rutgers players "just wasn't funny." That is indeed a big problem. Not just because it suggests that the 70-year-old Imus may be losing his knack for comedy (in itself potential ground for his dismissal). But also because, when someone spouts racial "humor" that is witless and unfunny, it leads hearers to wonder, Why the heck did he say that? And the only obvious answer is, He gets a kick out of saying it just because it's nasty.

In other words, if you can't find wit and humor in a particular evocation of bigotry (as one can for example in a really great routine by Chris Rock or, according to admirers, in a good episode of South Park), then all that remains is the bigotry itself. And the only people who think that bigotry has value in itself are--well, bigots. Which means that Imus's routine left the inevitable impression that he is in fact a bigot whose show is designed (at least at moments like that) for the delectation of other bigots.

3. Last and least, can people please stop using the phrase "racial insensitivity" to describe what Imus did? The words set my teeth on edge. They make it sound as thought the Rutgers players (and anyone else offended by Imus's slurs) are delicate flowers who insist that everyone else be "sensitive" to their ultra-refined feelings--a ridiculous distortion of the case.

When someone sneaks up on you from behind and whacks you over the head with a stick they are not treating you with "insensitivity." They are committing assault. That's what Imus did.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

World Is Ending, Film at Eleven

I am on an email list maintained by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Periodically I receive an email newsletter with items related to sustainability issues--climate change, air and water pollution, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and so on. (If by chance you are interested in receiving this kind of news, you can sign up for the newsletter here.)

Each newsletter begins with a list of that issue's headlines. Here are the ten headlines from the latest edition:
--MBA Toolkit For CSR: Corporate Communications
--ConocoPhillips to push for mandatory emission curbs
--Roads 'good for the environment', says study
--Singapore summit seeks solutions for world's thirst
--Sustainability commitments and supply chains
--EPA Guides Top Industries on Energy-Saving Strategies
--Deforestation's effect on climate differs in North, South: study
--Global warming to slam world's poor, may unleash major species extinction
--Nestle reports on sustainable water use
--Honda and Toyota world's cleanest automakers
Seems to me this list is a striking illustration of the kind of amazing time we are living in. It's an era when relatively mundane news items like the first one (many business schools are now teaching courses on corporate communications) and the ninth one (Nestle is working to save water at their factories) can be sandwiched around an item like the eighth one--which describes a UN report predicting that, in the coming century, "billions of people will face water scarcity and hundreds of millions will likely go hungry, mainly in the poorest regions least to blame for spewing the fossil fuel pollution that is responsible for driving up temperatures" and that up to thirty percent of the world's species may also face extinction.

Am I crazy, or does a story like this maybe deserve a little more prominent placement in any reasonable news summary? Or have we become so inured to horrendous news that it doesn't even ring alarm bells any longer?

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart

The latest edition of Carnival of the Liberals is available at Truth in Politics, and it has a Bruce Springsteen theme. There's always good stuff on tap at COTL, so check it out . . .

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

I'm getting tired of waiting...

Well, maybe there's not much point in rehashing this....but I just have to share that I am glad Don Imus has been fired by CBS.

It seems like the most common defenses of his actions that I've seen have been "He's been doing this [i.e., making racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. comments] for years. Why have the rules been changed on him all of a sudden?" and "You hear far worse in rap lyrics. Where's the outrage over that?"

I don't care what he "always" does or what has been the status quo for 30 years. All sort of things had been the status quo until people decided they were no longer acceptable. It's called progress. It sounds to me like either he's a racist, sexist, homophobic guy, or he plays one on the radio. Either way, that kind of stuff isn't helping anyone and is certainly damaging to a whole lot of people. Times change, acceptable behavior changes, and this is at least one example in a sea of examples of racism and misogyny when someone (CBS, under pressure) is making a public statement that that stuff isn't ok.

As for the rap argument, since when is "Well, he did it too!" an acceptable defense past the age of five? Are we not allowed to call for censure of one wrong doer unless we censure all wrong doers simultaneously? Let's start here, and let's keep going. Let's make it so that everyone finally gets that racism is ugly and hurtful and doesn't even make rational sense and won't be tolerated in the public sphere. The same goes for the sexist aspect of Imus' comments. Something that has disturbed me about this whole episode is that few seem to really care that he called these young women whores because....why? Because they're basketball players? Because they're athletes who are tough instead of sweet? Because some of them are black? Because some of them have tattoos? I have NO IDEA.

I think that racism is a more divisive problem than sexism, and the worst of the negative effects of racism are, in general, more damaging than the worst of the negative effects of sexism (in the U.S. at this point in time). I do not want to appear unaware of or unsympathetic to the huge damage done by racism in this country. That said, it seems like sexism is implicitly tolerated at all levels of society more than racism is. I'm not begrudging the strides that have been made in rendering racism unacceptable (and obviously we're not all the way there yet). I believe that these victories aren't just victories for members of discriminated-against racial or ethnic groups, but for all of the disenfranchised. But at some point we're going to have to be able to get the Imus's of the world fired just for calling innocent women whores, and we're not at that point yet. And I'm getting a little tired of waiting.
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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The New Sparta

Here's a weird new item from an urban legend but a true story that has been circulating via email and was verified by the Snopes people. It's a disturbing example of creeping militarism and the slightly crazy attitudes it fosters.

Follow the link if you want the whole story, but basically it describes an unusual attention-getting technique used by Martha Cothren, who teaches military history at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. (And by the way, isn't it a little odd that military history should now be a high school subject?)

On the first day of class in 2005, the kids walked in to find no desks in the room. Ms. Cothren refused to explain why. Word spread around the school and curiosity grew until, toward the end of the day, a local TV crew actually turned up to cover the story.

Finally, during the last class period, the teacher addressed her students, who were sitting on the floor around the edges of the classroom:
"Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily. Now I'm going to tell you."

She went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing the desks, those kids for the first time I think in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

The teacher said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly, to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."
Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes explains that this is in fact a true story (unlike a lot of the right-wing emails that circulate on the Internet) and that the email was probably inspired by former governor Mike Huckabee's use of the anecdote when he addressed this year's CPAC convention in Washington--the same event at which Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "faggot."

I have nothing against our men and women in uniform. In the kind of world we live in, the U.S. needs soldiers, and it takes courage and discipline for them to serve as they do. But I really don't understand the message that Ms. Cothren has so elaborately orchestrated for her students. In what sense do American soldiers "earn" the desks that are used by kids in schools?

Do kids in other countries with less impressive armies not go to school?

What about kids in countries that don't enjoy the democratic freedoms for which our military is often said to fight--do those kids not go to school, or do they not have desks?

If the US were to lose a war--in Iraq, say--would our kids' schools be shut down?

If the US had never fought for and won its freedom from Great Britain--if we were still a colony--would our kids not attend classes?

In fact, even if the US were somehow to be conquered by some foreign nation, wouldn't schools still be in operation? (I mean, even under the Communists and the Nazis, kids still went to school.)

I'm not just trying to be sarcastic here. I really don't understand the connection between our military might and the availability of schooling for our teenagers.

I suppose that, since the armed forces plays an integral role in the broader society, one could argue that the soldiers do their part to make it possible for the rest of us--including school kids--to live our lives. But so do lots of other people. If the soldiers "earned the desks" for the students by helping to make our way of life possible, what about the farmers who grow our food? The truckers who deliver it? The air traffic controllers who keep planes from crashing? The doctors and nurses and pharmacists who help us stay healthy? The fire fighters who protect us from fires? etc. etc. etc. All are vital to the American way of life.

But in the USA in 2007, it is only the military to whom we are supposed to kowtow in awestruck gratitude. This quasi-mystical reverence for armed might is not healthy, and it is certainly a far cry from what the Founders had in mind.

America was not intended to be some kind of new Sparta, and it's disturbing to watch it slowly morphing into one.

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"Don Imus Is a Good Man"

One of the more unbearable aspects of the Imus "nappy headed hos" controversy is the outpouring of smarmy defenses for the I-Man from his buddies in the mainstream media. Many are taking the form of assertions that "Don Imus is a good man who said a bad thing." I heard Mike Barnicle use this line on MSNBC yesterday afternoon, I just heard some friend of Imus say the same thing on Imus's show ("You're a good man, Don, and people need to understand that"), and Imus himself used this formulation during his on-air apology yesterday.

As far as I'm concerned, this is an amazingly inane thing to say. What is this abstract quality of "goodness" that has no relationship to a person's behavior? If you are "good" but repeatedly say and do vicious things that hurt people, what the hell does your "goodness" amount to?

This "he is a good man" nonsense is also a standard part of the Bush administration's defense of any friend who gets into trouble. Alberto Gonzalez may be a liar, a law-breaker, a political hack, a torture-enabler, and an incompetent buffoon to boot--but somehow his inherent "goodness" never changes, no matter how many revelations of his evil-doing come to light.

Interestingly enough, considering how quick these right-wing hypocrites are to claim the mantle of "Christian," Jesus himself specifically disavowed their use of the word "goodness":
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" [Mark 10:17-19]
You see the point. Jesus brusquely rejects the idea that "goodness" inheres in a person's character. Instead, it's all about behavior: "You know the commandments."

So please, pious phonies, spare us the homilies about how "good" you and your best friends are. Instead, devote your time and energy to actually doing the right thing--and let others decide whether or not your behavior merits the word "good." That's what Jesus did.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Civility Is All About Power

We owe a word of thanks to Howard Fineman, Newsweek's Chief Political Correspondent and a self-proclaimed member of Don Imus's "gang," for making it clear during his appearance on the Imus show this morning, that civility--the value which every true Beltway insider claims to cherish above all others--is, in the end, a function of raw power. It has nothing to do with who is a "good person" or who has "earned the respect" of the Beltway crowd or who shows "integrity" or "honor" or even "knows how to play the game."

As Fineman explained, those who are treated with a modicum of decency in today's political arena are those with the power to demand it and to punish those who insult them. Period.

Here's the transcript, care of Media Matters, that lays it all bare. And here is an excerpt that contains the nub of Fineman's point. Fineman is, of course, discussing with Imus the "nappy headed hoes" comment about the Rutgers women's basketball that has ignited a long-overdue furor about Imus's racism. Here is Fineman's perspective:
FINEMAN: You know, the form of humor that you do here is risky, and sometimes it runs off the rails. Most of the people who listen to this show get the joke most of the time, and sometimes, you know, as David Carr said in The New York Times this morning, sometimes you go over the line so far you can't even see the line. And that's what happened in this case. And I think of all the stuff you've done and do do, and, you know, you make your mistakes--we all make our mistakes. We all make mistakes. This was a big one. And I thought that the way you handled it just now [in offering an on-air apology]--and I'm not blowing smoke here--I believe it, you know, was very heartfelt. And I know you well enough to know that that's the case and you're going to do everything you can to set it right.

You know, I don't know what'll happen. I think--you know, it's a different time, Imus. You know, it's different than it was even a few years ago, politically. I mean, we may, you know--and the environment, politically, has changed. And some of the stuff that you used to do, you probably can't do anymore.

IMUS: No, you can't. I mean--

FINEMAN: You just can't. Because the times have changed. I mean, just looking specifically at the African-American situation. I mean, hello, Barack Obama's got twice the number of contributors as anybody else in the race.

IMUS: Amen.

FINEMAN: I mean, you know, things have changed. And the kind of--some of the kind of humor that you used to do you can't do anymore. And that's just the way it is.
One's first reaction to Fineman's comment is just plain outrage. As the intimitable Digby puts it, "A rich white man derisively calling black women 'nappy headed hoes' has never been acceptable among decent people--never."

But on second thought, I'm inclined to thank Fineman for revealing plainly what only a few extreme cynics have previously asserted: that at the highest level of American society, power and power alone receives respect. Not education. Not achievement. Not service. Not generosity. Not talent. Not dignity. Not hard work. Only power.

After all, how else can we interpret Fineman's on-air assertion--with which Don Imus completely agreed--that rich white men can no longer utter viciously racist remarks about innocent Black women and expect to be lauded publicly for doing so because "the environment, politically, has changed"?--Specifically, because Barack Obama has so much political support that there is a real possibility he may be the next president of the United States.

In other words, the only reason that Newsweek's Chief Political Correspondent can imagine for behaving with a modicum of human decency is because one might be punished for doing otherwise--perhaps by some future Obama administration.

To the extent that Fineman speaks for the Washington media establishment on this one--and I'll be watching to see whether the rest of the "gang" takes a different position--they are completely abandoning any claim to speak on behalf of humane values ever again.

I never want to hear anyone from this "gang" daring to lecture the liberal blogosphere for its rude language, or criticizing a liberal politician for being "shrill" or "extreme," or insisting that liberals prove their "seriousness" by passing ideological tests of "centrism" and "bipartisanship" that their conservative opponents devise. Fineman has exposed forever the phoniness of all these quasi-moralistic demands.

To the members of our establishment, "civility" is not a moral virtue but simply the tribute they pay to the powerful . . . which the powerful (like Don Imus) are under no obligation to return.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

A (Disturbing) Thought For Easter

"When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

* * * * *

Interested in glimpsing more bizarre juxtapositions of the soppily sentimental and the coldly nihilistic? Visit The Nietzsche Family Circus, where Bil Keane meets his inner Ubermensch.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Conservative Admires Ahmadinejad's Gentlemanly Side

Here is WaPo's latest version of the "Britain Was Humiliated" meme. This one, interestingly enough, is based on a variation of the Dinish D'Souza theme, "The Islamists Are Murderous Thugs Who Hate Our Freedom And I Agree With Them Completely."

In this case, the argument comes from conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who (just to show you what a deep and serious thinker she is) recently devoted an entire column to the proposition that a video showing John Edwards combing his hair before a speech demonstrates his unfitness to be president. (Click on the link if you don't believe me--I wouldn't have believed it either.)

Anyway, in her current column, Parker asserts that the wisdom of the Islamic fundamentalists, and the corruption of the West, is demonstrated by the presence among the 15 British sailors of (gasp!) a woman. What's worse, she is a mother. Here is the nub of Parker's argument:

On any given day, one isn't likely to find common cause with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's a dangerous, lying, Holocaust-denying, Jew-hating cutthroat thug--not to put too fine a point on it.

But he was dead-on when he wondered why a once-great power such as Britain sends mothers of toddlers to fight its battles.

Ahmadinejad characterized as a gift to Britain the release of 15 British sailors and marines, including one woman, seized at sea last month. In reality, the hostages were the West's gift to Ahmadinejad.

When a pretender to sanity such as Ahmadinejad gets to lecture the West about how it treats its women, we've effectively handed him a free pass to the end zone and made the world his cheerleaders.

Not only does the Iranian president get to look magnanimous in releasing the hostages, but he gets to look wise. And we in the West get to look humiliated, foolish and weak.

Just because we may not "feel" humiliated doesn't mean we're not. In the eyes of Iran and other Muslim nations, we're wimps. While the West puts mothers in boats with rough men, Muslim men "rescue" women and drape them in floral hijabs.

Well, I guess that, if you agree with Ahmadinejad's philosophy about how women ought to be treated, you might well believe that this episode makes him look "wise." (I'm very curious as to how far Parker herself actually goes with this. If she thinks the Islamist rules for women are "wise," does she cover herself from head to toe before venturing out of her home? Does she travel only in the company of a male relative? I assume that she would never think of driving a car. Or does she, perhaps, only accept religious rules that forbid women from doing things that she herself would never want to do, like serving in the military?)

The rest of us, who think women should be allowed to serve if they want (and who assume that women who can survive basic training are probably able to survive the frightening ordeal of being "in boats with rough men"), think that Ahmadinejad looks like a benighted patriarch--yet another good reason why I prefer living in America to living in Iran.

It's interesting, too, how selective conservatives are in their concern for world opinion. They love to mock Democrats, liberals, Europeans, and other bleeding-hearts for worrying about what Muslims or people in the developing world think about us. (If we feel like printing cartoons that mock Muhammad, hell, we'll do it! And if those ragheads resent it, we'll bomb 'em! Yeah, that's the ticket!) But when it comes to standing up for certain Western values that the conservatives don't actually believe in--like equality--suddenly Parker is very worried about how we'll look "In the eyes of Iran and other Muslim nations."

But just when I was beginning to think that Parker's column was nothing but a silly screed in defense of mindless prejudices, I found that she actually has serious arguments to offer as to why women shouldn't serve in the military. Like this one:
Rape, though not a likely risk in this case, is a consistent argument against putting women in or near combat. While advocates for women in combat argue that men are also raped, there is an important difference. Women are raped by men, which, given the inherent power differential between the sexes, raises women's rape to another level of terror.

What kind of man, one shudders to wonder, is willing to allow his country's women to be raped and tortured by men of enemy nations? None that I know, but our military is gradually weaning men of their intuitive inclination to protect women--which, by extrapolation, means ignoring the screams of women being assaulted.
Hmm, this is an interesting argument. It is a fact that rape occurs in combat. (Some other unpleasant events are also rumored to occur in combat, such as shooting, stabbing, bombing, gouging, beheading, and eviscerating.) Therefore, according to Parker, letting women be soldiers is tantamount to wanting them to be raped--after all, she claims, we are "willing to allow [them] to be raped and tortured by men of enemy nations." I guess, by the same token, we are "willing to allow" our male soldiers to be shot, stabbed, bombed, gouged, beheaded, and eviscerated--since all those things do in fact happen in war. One might well "shudder to wonder."

Look. War is horrific, probably the single worst invention ever conjured up by human sinfulness and depravity. It wipes out families, destroys societies, despoils environments, squanders the people's hard-earned wealth, and causes untold death and misery for countless innocent civilians of all ages. In fact, one can scarcely begin to catalog all the evils that are encompassed in warfare, especially modern mechanized warfare, which multiplies the destructive power of our armies by thousands of times.

But to read the likes of Katheleen Parker, one would think that the worst thing about modern warfare is the way it is weakening traditional gender roles.

Yes, women get raped in war. This has happened throughout history, with the victims overwhelmingly being helpless civilians. Once you allow women in the military, the difference is that now some of the women will have guns. I know this is not very dainty and ladylike, but I don't see how it increases the opportunity for rape.

I'm sorry if this offends your conservative sensibilities, Ms. Parker. But I guess you can always move to Iran.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

"Britain's Humiliation"

That's the headline on this post by Andrew Sullivan, speaking on behalf of the very worst of Andrew's multiple personalities. Andrew's beef with the British (and that of several other armchair warriors of the right, including WaPo's Krauthammer): They got their sailors freed without starting a war and killing thousands of other people! Heck, where's the fun in that?

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Another Right-Wing Lie Is Born

As you may have heard, today's absurd right-wing brouhaha focuses on the fact that Nancy Pelosi wore a head scarf when she visited Syria. The implication being tossed around on the conservative blogs is that Pelosi is some kind of traitor for "kowtowing" to the Islamists in this way--never mind the fact that photos of everyone from Laura Bush to Condoleezza Rice wearing head scarfs are being gleefully posted on the left-wing blogs in response.

When the Rethugs promote attacks on liberals that seem comically transparent like this one, I think that what we are witnessing may be the conscious and deliberate creation of an urban legend, to be nurtured and transmitted via email and website among the least-informed, most gullible, and most ideologically blinkered among us.

I've written before about the wonderful website, which is devoted to tracking and investigating urban legends, especially those that fly around the Internet. If you visit the site regularly, you quickly discover that one of the most popular categories of viral emails is right-wing propaganda, often with little or no basis in fact. Once in a great while this stuff makes it into the mainstream media; the phony picture of John Kerry at an antiwar rally with Jane Fonda that was circulated in 2004 was an example. But most of it remains under the radar, titillating the true believers, reinforcing their world-view, and probably sucking in quite a few of the innocent and unwary.

Here's a current example that is typical--a supposedly amusing essay about American attitudes, falsely attributed to Jay Leno, that morphs midway through into a rant in defense of George Bush. And here's another--a collection of vicious quotations, mostly phony, attributed to Hillary Clinton (or "the HildaBeast," as the email charmingly calls her).

What the good folks who run don't write about--and would probably be very difficult to determine with any certainty--is the possibility that political operatives are deliberately and knowingly creating and circulating lies (or gross factual distortions) in the form of "funny" or "colorful" or "amazing" email messages that people send to their friends and encourage them to pass along.

Because this stuff is considered part of "folk culture" rather than a product of the media, and because the political messages are mixed in with all kinds of miscellaneous wacky non-political stuff, from weird rumors about products to funny stories about celebrities, it gets no attention from pundits, reporters, or others who might try to debunk politically-motivated lies in television campaign ads or candidates' speeches.

A propaganda campaign built around "grass-roots" right-wing email seems like just the kind of insidious sneak attack that Karl Rove or one of his acolytes might dream up.

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Now This Is Just Silly

I thought I might have been stretching things a bit when, in my previous post, I connected today's Republican cult of nastiness with party history stretching back to Nixon and even perhaps Joe McCarthy. But now an actual historian (Eric Rauchway at UC Davis) is claiming in this New Republic article that the GOP has been characterized by vicious demonization of its political opponents since its founding. Which means that, in this reading of history, even Lincoln was pretty much on a par with Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay. The heart of the argument:

The Republican Party began as a crusade against the enemy within, and it has never strayed far from its origins. The early Republicans deserve full marks for identifying and waging a war to expunge a real domestic threat to the United States--the institution of chattel slavery. Slaveholders really did constitute a mortal threat, not only to the United States, but to the cause of liberty generally, and Abraham Lincoln rightly identified the establishment of a racial caste of bonded labor as "one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove."

We less often remember that those mid-nineteenth-century Republicans found slavery only about as threatening as the possibility that marriage might occur among people other than just a man and a woman. The first Republican Party platform considered it the "imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism--Polygamy, and Slavery."

This generous definition of enemies within became a staple of Republican rhetoric.
The rest of the article consists mainly of quotations from people like Garfield, Coolidge, and James G. Blaine (presidential candidate in 1884) that show the Republicans meanly dissing Democrats.

This strikes me as a mighty weak argument, not strengthened any by the fact that at one point the author actually resorts to quoting the words of a fictitious senator from Henry Adams's novel Democracy as evidence of Republican attitudes.

I really haven't thought a lot about my position on polygamy. But I do know that, in opposing slavery, Lincoln was not in any way behaving like a precursor of Joe McCarthy or Grover Norquist. And as for his rhetoric, where Rauchway claims to see a pattern going back to the very first Republicans of treating every political opponent not as "an American with legitimate if differing interests, but rather an enemy to be shunned," Lincoln actually addressed his opponents in the South this way:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
"Demonization of enemies"? No, if anything, "angelization."

It must be tough to be an American historian trying to come up with some new angle from which to view the much-pawed-over events and personalities of our national saga. But depicting Tom Delay as a lineal descendant of Lincoln? Please.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The G.O.P. Likes 'Em Mean

Glenn Greenwald has been performing a tremendous public service by detailing the descent of the Republican party from some semblance of principaled conservativism into sheer authoritarianism. Currently he is highlighting the astonishing statements in which 2008 GOP front-runner Rudoph Giuliani pre-emptively claims bizarre dictatorial powers for the president far exceeding not only what the Constitution provides but even what the Bush administration claims in its moments of greatest hubris.

In an update to his latest post, Greenwald writes this:

It is glaringly clear that the most important priority for the Republican base--by far--is that the new Leader be filled with contempt for his enemies and refuse to accept limits on his own power. Anyone who doubts that should consider the fact that conservative pundits like Kate O'Beirne and Rich Lowry have both said that Giuliani's horrendous and publicly humiliating treatment of his second wife, as he was divorcing her, is actually a great asset among some Republican base voters. As Lowry put it:

Have been talking to some smart people today about Giuliani. Two of them said independently that the appeal of Giuliani is he'd be "a tough SOB--for you," and that he'd be "a d*head--for you." Another said . . . that a Giuliani supporter he knows considers the nasty divorce a kind of asset because it speaks to his toughness. . . .
Not only do I think this is correct but I think it is simply the logical 2007-era extension of a tendency in the Republican party that dates back at least to Nixon and perhaps to Joe McCarthy.

I vividly remember back in 1968 (when I was fifteen years old) discussing the impending presidential election with some liberal friends, parents of a high-school classmate. These smart, well-meaning people expressed the hope that enough Americans would recognize how mean and dishonest Nixon was before November and thereby prevent him from becoming president. I replied, "Actually, I'm afraid that there are plenty of people who will vote for Nixon precisely because they believe he is mean and dishonest."

I didn't articulate my point well at the time--my friends were shocked at what I said and pooh-poohed it--but America in 1968 was a country riven by tremendous fear, anger, and paranoia. There were, I sensed, millions of people who wanted (consciously and explicitly or not) a president who would "control" the forces they felt threatened by, including the commies, the hippies, the Blacks, the criminals, the drug dealers, the uppity women, the Jews, etc. etc. (In many minds, these groups were all in cahoots if not actually demographically merged.)

Nixon and Agnew were elected twice because they appealed to these emotions. They appeared like men who would put down the forces of chaos using any means necessary, regardless of constitutional niceties, legality, or even honesty. The portion of the electorate that handed the Republicans these victories was dubbed at the time "the silent majority." It was caricatured on television in the form of Archie Bunker. But don't let the caricature fool you--it was a real and powerful social and political movement that drove the success of the Republican party throughout the final third of the twentieth century.

Today, of course, we live in the post-9/11 world, in which the fears of the late 60s and early 70s have been revived in a form that is at least as intense. Now the threatening forces no longer include commies or hippies (and maybe not even Jews). But the current list has been expanded by the inclusion of Muslims, terrorists, illegal immigrants, people who won't speak English, members of the ACLU, trial lawyers, "radical" environmentalists, atheists, gays, "radical" feminists, animal-rights activists, child molesters, labor union supporters, and liberals.

Many commentators have remarked on the policy discontinuities among the various groups that make up the Republican base. And indeed it is hard to discern a logical ideological thread that unites Christian fundamentalists, tax-cutters, libertarians, defenders of big business, nativists, NRA members, and advocates of executive privilege. The only thing they all share is their fear and hatred of the threatening forces I listed above, and their desperate wish to invest power in someone who will hold those forces at bay.

In such a world, are there people who find Giuliani's vicious streak appealing? I don't doubt it.

Are there enough of them to make him our next president? I pray not.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The ET$ Meritocracy

"New SAT Section Tests Ability to Pay Tuition"--that's the headline on a pretty funny article currently online at The Onion. It would be even funnier if the actual SAT weren't already testing exactly that ability:
There is a direct correlation between income level and SAT scores nationally--results that matched locally with the new U.S. census findings, according to newly released data released from the College Board. . . .

Typically, each $10,000 income increase corresponded to a 10- to 12-point gain in the mean score of each test section. The only significant variation was between students from families earning between $80,000 and $100,000 and those earning more than $100,000. In those categories, mean scores jumped 26, 30 and 29 points, respectively, in critical reading, math and writing.
Further evidence of how difficult it must be nowadays to generate fake news stories that are more outrageous--or depressing--than the real news.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

It's Not Enough For a Woman To Write Brilliantly--She Has To Look Good Doing It

Today's Week in Review section of the New York Times contains not one but two articles about what Jane Austen looked like--specifically, about the impulse to imagine that a favorite author beloved for her shrewd and sprightly wit was prettier than she probably was. A British publisher has reissued Austen's books with an air-brushed image that adds hair extensions and blush to the only known drawing of the author, and Christies is preparing to auction off a flattering period portrait that the Austen family claims depicts their famous ancestor Jane, although historians and scholars have their doubts.

Jane Austen isn't the only female author to get this treatment. When I wrote my Masters thesis on Emily Dickinson lo these many years ago I was amused to learn about how the great poet's image has been manipulated by her acolytes. Here is the only confirmed portrait of Dickinson, a daggeurotype probably created around 1848, when she would have been eighteen:

Not so bad, although her dress and hairstyle would certainly strike us today as being on the severe side. But this look wasn't acceptable by the late Victorian period, when Dickinson's poetry was being discovered and given its first posthumous publication. Here is how the 1848 portrait was gussied up for publication in the 1890s:
A pretty drastic makeover, wouldn't you say? If you can get past the ruffly collar, check out the lipstick, eyeliner, and nicely-shaped eyebrows someone has given her forty-five years after the fact, along with a cute bobbed hairdo that softens the outline of her face. The gimlet-eyed, unconventional poet has been transformed into a silly-looking debutante.

(Of course, far worse was the way Dickinson's first editors--Thomas W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd--butchered the poems themselves, changing her punctuation and word choice to suit Victorian conventions of style and tone. Accurate versions didn't appear until the 1950s.)

Poor Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. They didn't have the benefit of working with PR specialists to promote themselves and their work. If they had, maybe they'd have orchestrated their own glamour shots, saving their posthumous publishers a lot of trouble. Nobody a century from now will have to retouch this picture of novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, for example:

It would be interesting to read what a contemporary Austen or Dickinson might say about today's People-magazine style treatment of authors. Seems like a suitable topic for evisceration by their sarcastic wit.

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