Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lincoln The Vulcan?

I haven't yet read Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason. But David Brooks has, and--surprise--he doesn't like it.

Not that Brooks would stoop to engaging Gore's argument. No, Brooks just explains that he doesn't feel able to cozy up to Al Gore:
But Gore's imperviousness to reality is not the most striking feature of the book. It's the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact. He sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium--as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life. He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions.

This, in turn, grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the "higher" and "lower" parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the "rational" mind and the "visceral" body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore's simplistic pseudoscience.
How absurd and contemptible Gore's vision of public life is! The very idea--that citizens should consider facts logically and dispassionately and make decisions on that basis! Obviously no one with such a naive view of human nature could ever be a successful politician--to say nothing of an effective national leader.

Yet by coincidence, a recent issue of The New Yorker happens to contain an article by Adam Gopnik reviewing recent literature about an earlier American politician who seems to have entertained some of the same foolish notions as Al Gore:
But Lincoln believed in legalism. One of his first public speeches, the Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum, in Springfield in 1837, declared a radical insistence on "reason" to be the only acceptable form of public discourse; the cure for the prevalence and epidemic of violence in American life would be "hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason": "Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason--cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason--must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence." Lincoln tempered but never really abandoned that conviction. His rhetorical genius lay in making closely reasoned argument ring with the sound of religious necessity.

There is, in consequence, often a subtle disjunction between Lincoln's content and his codas, as James Oakes puts it in his fine new account of Lincoln's friendship with Frederick Douglass, "The Radical and the Republican." The first two-thirds of the speech that Lincoln delivered at Cooper Union, in New York, in February of 1860, and that is generally thought to have made him President--it turned him from a local to a national figure--is devoted to a maniacally detailed inspection of how twenty-three of the "thirty-nine," the signers of the Constitution of 1789, voted during their careers on the issue of federal regulation of slavery. Lincoln had tabulated the results with all the dramatic flair of an insurance adjuster: his point is that the framers and signers, when in the Senate and the House, voted regularly to extend and prohibit slavery, thereby giving at least a passive endorsement to the view that the Constitution allowed the federal government to legislate about it in all its parts.

Yet the argument is carried on in numbing and what might seem to be irrelevant detail: after all, slavery wouldn't suddenly become noble if the framers had reserved its governance for the states. Yet by making it plain that this is an argument, an appeal not to sentiment but to constitutional law, Lincoln places his own unqualified anti-slavery sentiment on the same dryly legal and procedural grounds that he had recommended at the Lyceum. The result is the same, as he knew perfectly well. That's why the final cry of the Cooper Union speech is so suddenly uncompromising and even frankly warlike: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Perhaps Lincoln could get away with his appeals to "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason"--and even be twice elected to the presidency--because he didn't have to deal with sniping from talk radio, CNN, Fox News, and Matt Drudge . . . to say nothing of junior-high-school-level sarcasm from the likes of David Brooks and Maureen Dowd. (Judging by the Matthew Brady photos, they wouldn't have devoted weeks to dissecting the cost of Lincoln's haircuts; more likely they would have made snide remarks about their infrequency.)

It's certainly true, as Lincoln understood, that reason alone doesn't usually win political arguments. Hence the impassioned "codas" that cap Lincoln's best speeches and lift the emotions of the audience, after the consent of their intellects has already been won.

Is Al Gore, the "Vulcan," incapable of making such an emotional connection with an audience? I'd hesitate to compare any politician to Lincoln. But the millions of people who saw An Inconvenient Truth didn't seem to find it uninvolving. (A movie that lacks emotional power doesn't get 898 member reviews on Amazon.com, over two-thirds of them bearing the highest, five-star rating.)

In today's world of sound-bites, corporate media, and partisan spinnery, it may be that Al Gore's ambition to restore reason to the heart of our political discourse is a bit naive. But it's just plain sad that one of the New York Times's most prominent columnists should devote his efforts to mocking that ambition. It certainly says a lot more about what's wrong with David Brooks than it does about Al Gore.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

"Authenticity" Is A Phony Issue

Updated below

Over at TNR's Open University blog, historian Michael Kazin is wondering whether it is possible for a presidential candidate to be "authentic":
If recent media reports are credible, several of the leading candidates for president are conniving, unpleasant frauds. John Edwards feels uncomfortable around gay people and made millions working for a hedge fund while supposedly dedicating himself to fighting poverty; Hillary Clinton didn't bother reading the intelligence report on Iraq before voting to authorize the war and has stuck to her marriage only because it might help her get elected; and Mitt Romney reverses his positions on key social issues and explains it as a maturing process. I assume we'll hear analogous tales about the other contenders before the year is out.

Such news--as predictable as the rising cost of campaigning--raises a troubling question: Is it possible for a serious candidate for the White House to be an authentic personality? Or does the pervasive, unending scrutiny of contemporary politics insure that there will always be a large gap between public image and private reality? . . .

To be honest, I really can't make up my mind.
Elsewhere in the post, Kazin remarks that his befuddlement might strike some people as "naive," and that's just about my position. But not for the reason Kazin assumes--that "Of course, all politicians are phonies." Actually I consider Kazin naive because he is in a tizzy over a question that is more or less meaningless.

Running for president has become an increasingly bizarre activity almost totally divorced from normal human behavior. It's not just the fish bowl of continual publicity and the ever-present entourage of Secret Service agents, advisors, pollsters, PR handlers, well-wishers, and undercover agents employed by rival candidates. It's also the knowledge that everything you say and do is likely to be recorded, either in writing or on audio or video tape, to be chopped up into sound bites, re-contextualized, and used against you by people who profit enormously from making you appear to be craven, idiotic, or depraved.

Under these circumstances, being "authentic" must surely mean--if it means anything at all--artfully constructing a public persona that accurately captures something "real" about one's private, off-stage personality. It is like being an opera singer, laboring on stage under the hot lights, weighed down by many pounds of costume and layers of makeup, and having to express oneself not in speech but in singing that somehow both reaches the uppermost seats in the balcony and also simulates spontaneous human emotion. Except that the presidential candidate must also play the role of the composer, not only performing the aria convincingly but also writing his or her own score (albeit with the help of speechwriters, advisors, and so on).

In such a world, how "authentic" a candidate appears "on the stump" (quaint metaphor that!) has almost nothing to do with the qualities of "genuineness" or "honesty" or "authenticity" as we recognize them in ordinary life. It's a matter of how talented they are at devising and then projecting a consistent and convincing image. This is an important talent for a contemporary politician, but it doesn't carry the moral freight Kazin wants to give it.

We need to examine the behavior of candidates, both on-stage and off, not in search of some mystical quality of "authenticity" but to figure out what kind of presidents they would make. In advising the hedge fund, did John Edwards support behavior that arguably exploited the poor or skirted the line of illegality? If Hillary in fact didn't bother to read the pre-war intelligence on Iraq, is she either too lazy or too gullible to be a good president? Is Romney shifting from foolish policy positions toward wiser ones, or the reverse--and whose advice is he following in making these shifts?

The answers to questions like these won't produce a score on some kind of "authenticity scale." But they will help us judge how the candidates might behave in the Oval Office. That's the question that matters.


Over at Media Matters, a fine article about Carl Bernstein's new Hillary bio that makes much the same point as my post. Key graf:
The problem with the Bernstein-style focus on personal biography and "authenticity" is not that "authenticity" is a bad thing, of course. The problem is that it's a catch-all for whether or not journalists like the candidates; it's that it is a completely subjective attribute, being measured by a group of people who have been spectacularly wrong in assessing it in recent years. Meanwhile, if reporters would just fact-check the verifiable claims candidates make -- such as Bush's claim about his tax cuts -- we'd have a far better understanding of which candidate is truthful than we do after reading endless columns about who wears brown pants and what that tells us about their relationship with their father.
It's all worth reading.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Critic On A Very High Horse

Wow, talk about condescension. In response to the recent closing or downsizing of various newspaper book review sections--and to refute the notion that commentary about books in the blogosphere could help fill the gap--Richard Schickel offers this haughty rebuke to those of us who would dare to express opinions about literature from our living-room sofas:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism--and its humble cousin, reviewing--is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities. . . .

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, there was a fascinating panel featuring writers whose books were written in what time they could spare from their day jobs. Inevitably, blogging was presented as an attractive alternative--it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

Maybe most reviewing, whatever its venue, fails that ideal. But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.
Of course, Schickel knows enough to admit that not every newspaper or magazine book critic writes the sort of elevated, elegant prose dripping with insight that Schickel apparently believes he himself writes. That's all right. To prove his point about the nobility of the traditional book critic--and the unworthiness of us yammering, finger-painting bloggers--he devotes the rest of his column to adulating the criticism of Sainte-Beuve ("a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant"), Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell.

Funny, I don't remember seeing any reviews by Sainte-Beuve in the New York Times lately. But it is certainly very fair and thoughtful to comdemn the blogosphere by comparing the typical blogger to Sainte-Beuve, Wilson, and Orwell. In much the same way, I can prove that the contemporary artists whose work is for sale in galleries all over America today should throw out their paints and brushes--because after all they are not as accomplished as Velazquez, Monet, and Matisse. How dare they debase the notion of "painting" with their pitiful daubings!

But more seriously, Schickel's elitist attitude is exactly the opposite of what a healthy literary scene needs. Those of us who love books and writing ought to want millions of people across the country to be reading books, thinking about them, writing about them, and arguing about them. These millions of amateurs will generate not only book sales but also intellectual ferment, a sense of connection between art and the real world, and a restoration of the feeling that literature actually matters.

What's more, by trying their own hand at writing, all these passionate amateurs will also gain a deeper sense of how difficult writing is, as well as a more intense appreciation for the achievements of the few really great writers among us--just as the amateur tenor in the church choir or the weekend softball player understands the incredible abilities of the professional singer or major league player far better than the person who has never even tried to perform. The bloggers Schickel sneers at may not be tomorrow's Sainte-Beuves or Edmund Wilsons, but they constitute an engaged, caring audience for literature, something our culture needs at least as much as it needs high-toned critics armed with graduate-school credentials.

And, of course, it's also true that a handful of those amateurs--including some with unlikely, unimpressive backgrounds--will actually turn out to be gifted observers and writers, worthy--dare I say it?--of a broader audience. Even without the prior approval of Richard Schickel from Mount Olympus.

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A Stealth Attack On Author's Rights

If Mark Helprin is really concerned about the rights and incomes of writers, here is a much more serious issue for him to grapple with than his goofy proposal for perpetual copyright (see below). As the Author's Guild has been reporting to its members, Simon & Schuster--one of the world's biggest and most powerful book publishers--has quietly made a unilateral change in its standard author contracts which would dramatically extend the company's control over the literary works it publishes.

The details are slightly arcane, but here is the gist: Traditionally, when printed copies of a book are no longer available in a publisher's warehouse, the book is considered "out of print." This means the author can request "reversion of rights" to the book. That request forces the publisher to decide whether to print more copies of the book (thereby returning to "in print" status) or to formally cede control of copyright back to the author.

In the latter case, when rights do revert, the author has the opportunity to sell the book again, either by reprinting it himself or by making a fresh deal with a different publisher. It's not uncommon for a book deemed a lost cause by its original publisher to find a new life and a bigger audience when reborn in this fashion.

Now Simon & Schuster, with no fanfare, is trying to change this traditional system. Their new contract specifies that S&S will retain the rights to books that are not "in print" in the traditional sense but that are available via the new "print on demand" technology. Theoretically, any book, no matter how moribund, could be considered "available" in this sense, so long as the publisher has the text files in its database. The book might be in no stores or warehouses, listed in no catalogs, never mentioned by the publishers' salespeople, never marketed, advertised, or promoted in any way--yet S&S would still claim exclusive control over the book and thereby prevent the author from making any money from its sale elsewhere.

Embarrassed by the bad publicity it is receiving over this backhanded ploy (thanks, again, to the Author's Guild), S&S is now backing down a bit. Whereas it had reportedly told some agents that the new clause was non-negotiable, it now says it will discuss the issue on a case-by-case basis. Which of course discriminates against authors with less-aggressive or less-attentive agents as well as those (relatively few) authors who aren't represented by agents at all.

There's a widespread assumption that the digital revolution is shifting the power of the media from the hands of large corporations into those of individuals and small groups. There's some truth to this--as exemplified, of course, by the blogging movement. But it would be foolish to assume that Big Media is going to accept such a devolution without a fight. This story is an example of the many little-recognized battlegrounds where the war for future control of intellectual property is being waged.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Mr. Helprin, The Lawyers For The Shakespeare Estate Are On The Line

I am having a hard time understanding why the novelist and conservative political pundit Mark Helprin wrote this almost comically illogical op-ed piece in the Sunday Times advocating eternal--yes, literally eternal--copyright protection for written works.

Rather than offer a point-by-point refutation of Helprin, since his article actually only makes feints in the direction of a coherent argument, I'll just note a few of the lowlights:

*Helprin compares the eventual end of copyright protection for a work of literature to government confiscation of a business, or "the seizure of Bill Gates's bankbook." Maybe this analogy would hold some water if it were true that out-of-copyright works become the property of the government which then controls their publication and derives profits from them. Since nothing like this happens, in what sense is the government "confiscating" anything?

*Helprin suggests that the current limitation on copyright is based primarily on envy of successful writers:
To the claim that this provision strikes malefactors of great wealth, one might ask, first, where the heirs of Sylvia Plath berth their 200-foot yachts. . . . Furthermore, one should not envy the perpetrators of sensationalist trash, but rather admire them, in the hope that someday, somehow, without prostituting, debasing and degrading oneself while recklessly destroying what is left of the literary culture, one might enjoy a fraction of their wealth. They represent, however, only a small fraction of writers, and their good fortune is a poor excuse for seizing either their property or that of their leaner colleagues.
This is the first time I've ever heard anyone suggest that the traditional expiration of copyright is based on a desire to prevent writers from growing wealthy. It's a classic straw man argument: Helprin conjures up an idiotic position that no one takes in order to dispatch it in lordly fashion and declare his case won.

*Helprin uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand to make it sound as though the perpetual copyright he advocates will benefit hand-working creative types:
Would it not be just and fair for those who try to extract a living from the uncertain arts of writing and composing to be freed from a form of confiscation not visited upon anyone else? The answer is obvious, and transcends even justice. No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property, because no good case can exist for treating with special disfavor the work of the spirit and the mind.
As the crocodile tears fall, one might almost lose sight of the fact that, under current law, copyright protection expires seventy years after the death of the author. Think about what this means. I am a writer and I make a living from the value of the copyrighted works I create. But the eventual expiration of copyright doesn't take a penny out of my pocket. Nor out of the pockets of my children. And probably not even out of the pockets of my grandchildren. If I die in, let's say, the year 2030 (when I will be 77 years old), all copyrights in my name will expire in 2100, when my grandson Jakob will be 101. If anyone will be affected by the resultant loss of income, it might be Jakob's kids, but more likely his grandchildren.

Frankly, I haven't lost a lot of sleep worrying about the financial security of my great-great-grandchildren. Nor do I spend a lot of time trying to devise some strategy whereby my great-great grandchildren will have to work less because they can count on paychecks derived from writing I did 115 years earlier. And somehow the idea that the income from my books will stop in 2100 doesn't make me feel like a victim of injustice, nor does it remove my incentives to keep writing. I find it very hard to imagine a writer who would actually feel that way.

*Finally, Helprin implies that the only people who benefit from the eventual end of copyright are booksellers who profit from the publication of public-domain works:
"Freeing" a literary work into the public domain is less a public benefit than a transfer of wealth from the families of American writers to the executives and stockholders of various businesses who will continue to profit from, for example, "The Garden Party," while the descendants of Katherine Mansfield will not.
Oh, the injustice! But actually the public benefit from the public-domain concept is obvious and inarguable. Do a search for Pride and Prejudice on Amazon and you get 8,739 results, including literally dozens of editions in every conceivable format, from affordable paperback versions to lavish illustrated hardcovers; many audio versions and several movies in various styles; and a host of literary adaptations, from sequels and parodies to (of all things) a sonnet sequence based on the novel.

Each of these 8,739 effusions represents a fresh choice for consumers and a creative act that would be impossible if Pride and Prejudice were still under copyright. (Or, to be precise, that would be possible only if Jane Austen's heirs could be convinced to authorize it, as the heirs of Margaret Mitchell have grudgingly agreed to authorize a select few of the derivative works that later artists have tried to create based on Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.)

Does Helprin really believe the world would be a better place if generations of writers, artists, composers, playwrights, and filmmakers had been forbidden to experiment with variations on the works of Shakespeare, from Verdi's Otello to movies like Forbidden Planet and Clueless to plays like West Side Story? (You might think that the author of a novel titled Winter's Tale would see the logic of this argument, but never mind . . .)

Helprin's whole case is so absurd that I'm driven back to the question of motivation: Why would he write something so ridiculous? I can only think of two possibilies: (1) He is the helpless captive of an ideological bias in favor of property rights so strong that it blinds him to the practical realities even of the very industry in which he himself has worked. (2) He has chosen to carry water on behalf of the great media companies like Disney, Viacom, and News Corp that would be the main beneficiaries of perpetual copyright lockup.

Unlike actual creative people--writers, artists, musicians, and so on--the people who rule such companies dream of a world in which culture is under tight corporate control backed by the enforcing arm of government: "chartered" (as William Blake would say) and thereby both financially harnessed and spiritually neutered.

How nice for the lawyers at Disney to have a tame novelist like Helprin advocating for them.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Great Minds Really Do Think Alike

In the op-ed section of today's Times, there's an amusing selection of hitherto unpublished letters by Charles Darwin. I was especially pleased to read the following:
[American botanist Asa] Gray supported Darwin on evolution but believed also in a guiding design. Darwin would have none of it, and suggested in an 1861 letter that his own large nose, of which he was not fond, was something no designer could have created:

Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, & I was convinced, from others seeing him, that I was not mad, I shd. believe in design.--If I could be convinced thoroughily that life & mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable forces, I shd. be convinced. --If man was made of brass or iron & no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I shd perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing.--

I have lately been corresponding with Lyell, who, I think, adopts your idea of the stream of variation having been led or designed. I have asked him (& he says he will herafter reflect & answer me) whether he believes that the shape of my nose was designed. If he does, I have nothing more to say.
This is precisely the argument against intelligent design that I have been using--discovered quite independently, I might add--only using my teeth rather than Darwin's nose as the pivotal example. You're free to use the argument yourself, substituting your own least-favorite body part. I suspect that even David Beckham and Charlize Theron have one.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Sam Goldwyn Logic

This week's Economist contains an article on Hillary Clinton that overall is reasonably balanced but which lapses into one of the more annoyingly unfair anti-Hillary memes. After listing some of her strengths as a candidate, the article turns to her defects, and notes:
Nor is she particularly well equipped to bring reconciliation at home. Her biggest weakness is that she means more of the same when it comes to the vicious partisanship that so mars American politics. Her arrival in the White House would force America to live through a continuation of a bad-tempered soap opera that began in 1992.
Now wait a minute. I agree that Hillary's candidacy is likely to mean a season of "vicious partisanship." In fact, I am very worried about her status as the leading Dem candidate largely for that very reason. But to describe this as "Her biggest weakness" seems very wrong. The "vicious partisanship" I am dreading will take the form of mouth-frothing attacks and sub-rosa innuendos directed against Hillary by the Republicans whom she evidently drives crazy and who have already accused her of everything from lesbianism to murder. Calling this "her weakness" is blaming the victim, no?

There's an old story (probably apocryphal) about the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn. He supposedly had somebody on his payroll (a producer or director) who repeatedly warned him not to invest in a particular picture. Goldwyn got so annoyed that he fired the guy and then proceeded to invest a ton in the picture--which ended up as a massive flop. Years later, whenever somebody would suggest that Goldwyn swallow his pride and re-hire the guy he'd fired, he would always refuse, saying, "Never! That man was involved in my biggest failure!"

Seems to me that when the Economist faults Hillary for being "involved" in the vicious partisanship of the 1990s, they're using Sam Goldwyn logic.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Driving Out The Gays In The Spirit of Multiculturalism

As you may have heard, a couple of weeks ago, the arch-conservative African archbishop Peter Akinola visited the US to install a renegade American priest as a bishop to head up an anti-gay-rights branch of the Episcopal church. In case you were wondering about this unprecedented breach of Anglican tradition, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is on hand in today's WaPo to explain that it's not about suppressing an unacceptable form of sexuality--it's a joyous celebration of multiculturalism:

For years, a dispute has boiled between the American Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion it belongs to, with many in the global south convinced that Episcopalians are following their liberalism into heresy. This month, Archbishop Peter Akinola, shepherd of 18 million fervent Nigerian Anglicans, reached the end of his patience and installed a missionary bishop to America. The installation ceremony included boisterous hymns and Africans dressed in bright robes dancing before the altar--an Anglican worship style more common in Kampala, Uganda, than in Woodbridge.

The American presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, condemned this poaching of souls on her turf as a violation of the "ancient customs of the church." To which the archbishop replied, in essence: Since when have you American liberals given a fig about the ancient customs of the church?
If one were inclined to respond to Gerson in the same spirit of sarcasm, one might ask: Since when have you American conservatives given a fig about "the global south" and "Africans dressed in bright robes dancing before the altar"? But Gerson is just getting started:

The intense, irrepressible Christianity of the global south is becoming--along with Coca-Cola, radical Islam and Shakira--one of the most potent forms of globalization. . . .

But the largest adjustments are coming on the religious left. For decades it has preached multiculturalism, but now, on further acquaintance, it doesn't seem to like other cultures very much. Episcopal leaders complain of the threat of "foreign prelates," echoing anti-Catholic rhetoric of the 19th century. An activist at one Episcopal meeting urged the African bishops to "go back to the jungle where you came from." Not since Victorians hunted tigers on elephants has the condescension been this raw.
That line about the jungle is pretty shocking, isn't it? It's amazing that even an angry liberal activist would say such a thing to an African bishop. Except that, when you check the facts, you find that there were no bishops anywhere nearby when this ill-tempered and stupid remark was uttered . . . at a gay-rights meeting in New York, five years ago.

Hey, nice job of oppo research, Gerson! With a little luck you can probably milk that one nasty line for at least another five years! By which time you can probably dig up another stupid remark by a single unknown and unimportant person of the left and use that as a stick with which to beat millions of other liberals for another decade or so.

But the idea that mainstream Episcopalians are disturbed over the conservative-driven schism in their church because they deplore Africans or multiculturalism is of course ridiculous. It's about on a par with the notion (still occasionally floated by Bush die-hards) that liberals who deplore the behavior of political hack Alberto Gonzalez are prejudiced against Latinos.

Multiculturalism is about mutual tolerance and acceptance. It means that we don't impose our mores on people from Africa, Asia, Latin America, or anywhere else . . . and vice versa. Whereas spinmeister Gerson would somehow have us believe that multiculturalism means welcoming an African bishop who is promoting a schism in the US church based on the idea that we mainstream Episcopalians are--yes--too tolerant and too accepting!

Wrap your mind around that one if you can.

Now that Gerson is no longer working to twist and mangle facts as a federally-paid propagandist, I guess he's doing it on his own time as a kind of hobby.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

A Christian Salute To The Village Atheist

Certainly quite a spate of atheist tracts being published lately, of which Christopher Hitchens's book is just the latest. I've only read excerpts and reviews of these books so far, none of which make the books sound particularly compelling, innovative, or insightful. Pointing out the hypocrisies of most religious people, the political, social, and ethical failings of the world's great religions, and the tendrils of superstition and tribalism that still cling to religious dogma and practice is very easy and doesn't really engage the serious adult case to be made for faith.

I was very impressed by the traditional arguments for atheism when I was fourteen years old but since then I have developed what I consider a more complex and nuanced view of human existence.

Despite this--and despite the fact that I am a committed and (badly) practicing Christian--I must say I am delighted by the existence and popularity of these books. I think they serve our society and the cultural discourse admirably in several ways:

* They happily violate the unspoken assumption--especially in politics--that atheism is somehow beyond the pale, and that all serious people must accept faith or else be marginalized or demonized. It's certainly unhealthy for our society to seek to extirpate any significant body of thought, and it's good for religious people to be forced to defend their beliefs rather than skate by with the support of mindless social pressure.

* They restore a bit of balance to the public debate in the US, creating an aggressive "anti-God" party to offset the arrogant theocrats of the far right. If this creates the impression that people like me--religious moderates who believe in God while standing for individual freedom and a secular state--represent the "sensible middle," then so much the better, since I believe that, in this case, it just so happens that the middle does contain quite a bit of wisdom. (Which of course is not to say that I endorse the lazy and often inaccurate assumption. commonly made in the mainstream media, that the middle is always the sensible place to be.)

* Finally, if our newly-assertive atheists (and their perhaps more numerous kissin' cousins, the agnostics) can help reestablish the important doctrine of separation of church and state, there's a chance that one day the Christian faith can return to the place it ought to occupy in our society--as a challenger of mainstream values and a defender of the poor and the oppressed rather than the tame, pampered lapdog of the political and economic powers-that-be.

So have at it, Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and all the rest! I'm cheering your efforts to knock the church off its pedestal--because that's not where Jesus lives, anyway.

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Flattery That Insults

One of the most annoying assumptions built into most advertising today (though obviously there is a very long list to choose from) is the belief that Americans are so brainlessly vain that they can only be reached through the most transparently ridiculous levels of flattery. The idea seems to be that we are so conceited that we will not only believe absurd expressions of praise but will lap them up happily and reward those who proffer them.

This kind of flattery is of course ubiquitous in political advertising, where every candidate of either party is virtually required to make ritual obeisances to "the American people, the most generous, courageous, freedom-loving [etc. etc.] people on earth or indeed in the entire history of the universe." This silly buttering-up of the electorate is also a regular feature of political speeches and candidate appearances, one of the more laughable recent examples being Mitt Romney's response during the first Republican debate to the question, "What do you dislike about America?": "Gosh, I love America! I think I'm going to be at a loss for words here."

(To be fair, this is a bipartisan vice. My man Jimmy Carter, though admirably honest in many ways, was a fairly egregious practitioner of this revolting art, for example in his memorable 1976 campaign slogan, "This country deserves a government as decent, compassionate, and responsible as the American people themselves.")

Just once I would enjoy hearing a candidate say, "Let's face it, we Americans have been screwing thing up royally! What the hell have we been thinking? Thank God our heads are screwed on, otherwise we'd forget them somewhere." Deep down, don't we know it's true?

In consumer advertising, of course, one of the common forms of this sucking-up to the customer is the formulation "You deserve it!" to describe everything from hair care products to a fast-food lunch to a luxury car. But a radio ad I've been hearing lately carries this to a new extreme of absurdity. It's a commercial for some kind of low-rent get-rich-quick Internet business scheme. The ad begins with the usual appeal to greed followed by the obligatory flattery: "Tired of struggling to make ends meet? Now make the kind of income you deserve!" It then goes on to describe the get-rich-quick scheme as implausibly easy: "No experience, education, or skill required! You'll have no inventory! Work a few hours a week from your home! No selling, no hard work!" etc. etc.

Taken as a whole, the message of the ad is: "You are a lazy talentless bum--and so you deserve to be rich!" Just how stupid are we in the radio audience supposed to be? (Of course, I admit I hear these ads while listening to Mike and the Mad Dog discuss sports on WFAN, so maybe I have no real reason to complain about being considered stupid . . . )

And of course ads like this wouldn't be so widely used if they didn't work--which is the really depressing fact about the state of our culture. Sigh.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

We're Not All Middle Class After All

Prompted by my recent post about Democratic economic policies, Mary-Jo and I were talking over dinner about Americans' class identification. I confidently asserted that the vast majority of people in this country describe themselves as middle class, regardless of their actual income or other indicators of status. I may even have bandied about the phrase "ninety percent."

Well, as sometimes happens when I confidently assert things, it turns out that I wasn't quite right.

A bit of web-based research reveals that lots of people believe that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class. For example, in this NPR story, Washington bureau chief Jon Dimsdale asserts, "By a vast majority, Americans claim to be middle class. Eighty percent in most polls."

Yet when I searched for polls supporting Dimsdale's statement, I couldn't find them. Instead, I found this poll from CBS News:
When asked to describe their social class, 42% of Americans call themselves middle class.


Lower class 7%
Working class 36
Middle class 42
Upper middle class 13
Upper class 2
I find it surprising and fascinating that so many Americans describe themselves as "working class." It seems to me that I haven't run into many people who do--at least, not since I was a kid in Brooklyn in the sixties. (I remember asking my dad, who was a letter carrier, what class we were, and him responding, "Working class, I guess.") To me, the term has a distinctly down-market feel--as though a person might feel slightly insulted if I were to apply it to him or her. It certainly isn't the term of choice used by politicians to describe their constituents or the voters they are wooing--that's "middle class," by a landslide. But obviously not everyone considers "working class" to be pejorative; I can't imagine 36 percent of people describing themselves by a term they found insulting.

This is an interesting and probably important nuance that Democrats should be thinking about in framing their discussion of economic issues. The fact that a sizeable chunk of Americans are happy to identify themselves as "working class" perhaps suggests that the constituency for a John Edwards-style populist appeal based on class solidarity may be greater than an affluent suburbanite like me might assume.

However, I don't think it invalidates the general point I made in my earliest post. There aren't very many people (and even fewer voters) who identify themselves as "poor," which suggests to me that a policy presentation that leans too heavily on the notion of alleviating poverty would probably face an uphill battle among the electorate.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Yunus Plucks His Hat From The Ring

Latest from Bangladesh: As you may have heard, Muhammad Yunus (the Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of microcredit) has decided to indefinitely postpone his plan to launch a new political party in his home country. The situation there is very volatile, and with political activities officially forbidden by the interim government for at least the next year, Yunus has said he feels the time is not right for him to enter politics.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Bangladesh is a very troubled country that desperately needs the kind of principled, far-sighted political leadership Yunus might have brought it. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that Yunus would succeed in reforming the horribly corrupt system that prevails there--and even to try could well put his own personal safety at risk. (And from my selfish perspective, his withdrawal from politics means he will be able to devote more time to working on and promoting the book I am helping him with.)

What is weird, however, is how disparate the published accounts of Yunus's decision are. The brief item in today's New York Times simply stated:
Mr. Yunus issued his statement [of withdrawal] after he met Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the army-backed interim government. Mr. Yunus said he felt that the interim government, which had restored relative calm in the country after deadly political violence last year, would be able to steer Bangladesh to progress.
(This is worded so as to be a little inaccurate. The clause, "after he met Fakhruddin Ahmed" seems to imply that this was Yunus's first introduction to Dr. Ahmed. Actually they are old friends. The Times should have written, "after he met with Fakhruddin Ahmed.")

By contrast, the Daily Star (Bangladesh's largest English-language paper) explained Yunus's decision this way:
In the open letter [explaining his withdrawal], Yunus said he had been in regular contact with people who he thought would strengthen his party. "These communications have gradually made it clear that those who encouraged me will not join politics themselves and will not publicly support me because they have their own problems," Yunus said.

He said in light of the absence of his supporters, "I opposed the creation of a weak team." It would be better to wait for others to build a strong team and succeed in creating a new stream of politics, he added.
Unlike the Times, the Star makes it sound as though Yunus's decision is based far less on his sense of confidence in the interim government than in the melting away of the high-level political support he'd originally expected to receive.

On the face of it, the Star's explanation sounds far more pragmatic and plausible than the Times's. (I haven't pressed Yunus personally for an explanation.) The whole small episode is, for me, an interesting reminder about how little we Americans actually know or understand about what is happening in the rest of the world, reliant as we are on news reports that are generally sketchy, partial, ill-informed, dated, or just plain inaccurate.

Yet despite our ignorance, we bear the ultimate responsibility for U.S. government policies that often have crucial and sometimes devastating effects on the world's far-flung peoples. It's a wonder we don't do even more damage than we do.

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A Little Sliver of Self-Promotion

Perhaps you've heard about the Public Radio Talent Quest competition, an "American Idol"-style contest to identify possible candidates to host an NPR radio program. Well, I have hubristically jumped into the competition. If you are so inclined, you can follow this link to listen to my two-minute audition tape and even give it a rating if you like. Ten entries will be chosen to participate in the second round of the contest--nine by a panel of judges, one based on the public ratings. If I make it to round two (and beyond?), I will keep you posted about the experience.

Do I have a chance? Who knows? I'm sure that stranger things have happened. Although I can't actually think of any.
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Poverty? Who, Me?

A propos of this discussion by Mark Schmitt over at The American Prospect concerning how Democrats ought to frame their economic policy prescrptions--whether in terms of "reducing poverty" or "promoting inclusion"--I strongly favor something closer to the latter, although the word "inclusion" is in itself too jargony to be useful. "Rebuilding the middle class," another alternative mentioned by Schmitt, might be a better way of saying much the same thing.

The unfortunate reason: The vast majority of Americans, and especially of voters, don't associate themselves with "poverty." Therefore they think of poverty-reduction as something that gives money to "those other people," who are probably of a different race, ethnic, or cultural background from themselves and therefore quite possibly undeserving.

Given this fact, it's actually remarkable and heartening that a sizeable portion of Americans nonetheless support poverty-reduction programs (as the survey cited here indicates). But I suspect that such support will generally be shallow and inconsistent, not a solid foundation on which to build an electoral majority.

It wasn't always this way in America. When I was growing up, during what we can now recognize as the heyday of liberalism (the 1950s and 60s), most Americans strongly favored anti-poverty programs. They certainly voted that way. (Starting in 1954, Democrats, mainly liberals, controlled the House of Representatives for forty solid years.) One huge reason is that many middle-class people vividly remembered the Great Depression. As a result, they understood in their bones that, while they and their families might not be poor today (and perhaps hadn't even been poor in the 1930s), poverty was a real threat that could strike anyone without warning and regardless of personal virtue or merit.

The great conservative takeover in the 1980s coincided with the gradual fading of those Depression-era memories and the rise to power of a new generation (the baby boomers) many of whom, somewhat naively, believed that widespread economic failure was a thing of the past. They were ripe targets for demogogues who proceeded to inculcate in them the notion that poverty was an affliction that ailed "them," never "us," and that therefore we (the "decent, hard-working people") could safely neglect the poor without fearing the consequences.

We boomers have now lived long enough and faced enough economic dislocations that we are having second thoughts about those complacent assumptions. But we still haven't suffered the kind of traumatic economic catastrophe our parents lived through (knock wood) and therefore haven't yet gotten over our ingrained sense that the word "poverty" will never be associated with "our kind of people."

So from a purely political point of view--as a matter of salesmanship--I think we Democrats still need to describe our programs in terms of middle-class support rather than poverty-alleviation: not to mislead anyone, but to avoid misleading them. Because when we say "reduce poverty," people hear, "a program for the few," whereas when we say, "help the middle class," they hear, "a program for the many"--and in fact it is the many we are trying to protect.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Comic Stooge Who Got The Girl

I guess I don't follow pop culture news quite as closely as I should, but I must admit I was startled to learn, when reading Tom Poston's obituary in today's New York Times, that Poston, who played the bumbling, witless sidekick to the leading man in one of Bob Newhart's sitcoms, had been married since 2001 to Suzanne Pleshette, who played the glamorous, sexy wife of the leading man in one of Bob Newhart's other sitcoms. What's more, they had an affair beginning in 1959 ("though they later married others," as the paper of record duly notes). What's the next disturbing revelation? Will I open the newspaper tomorrow to discover that Mary Tyler Moore bore the love children of Morey Amsterdam?

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Joint Venture

Here's an interesting article on Slate about Street Talk, a dictionary of urban slang written by amateur lexicographer Randy Kearse during eight years in federal prison on drug-dealing charges. Published by Barricade Books, the dictionary includes some 10,000 words and phrases and attempts to trace etymologies (notoriously tricky) as well as offering definitions. One interesting graf from the article:
Over the years, the word joint has proven to be one the most flexible words in urban slang. In Dan Burley's time [Burley was a dictionary-writer in the 1930s], it usually meant "a club," as in "the joint is jumping." By 1961, Robert S. Gold, author of A Jazz Lexicon, added that joint could also mean "penis" or "marijuana cigarette." Kearse says joint has further proliferated and includes several new definitions in Street Talk. "Say for instance you say, 'Yo, go get my joint,' " Kearse said. "If you knew that trouble's brewing, you'd go get a gun. Now, joint could also mean your girlfriend, but it's pronounced joan. 'Yo, that's my little joan right there.' " In addition to marijuana, Kearse says joint now also refers to a kilo of cocaine. It could also indicate a favorite song ("That's my joint playing"), an automobile ("Is that your new joint?"), or a year in prison ("He got 13 and a half joints").
(Of course, joint can also mean "prison," or at least it used to back in the days when Jimmy Cagney used to spend time "in the joint" in his pictures.)

Since I don't hang out with the same kind of crowd as Randy Kearse, I haven't got much personal experience with these permutations of joint. But I wonder where Spike Lee's use of the word since the mid-1980s to designate his movies ("A Spike Lee Joint") fits in. Was Lee responding to the proliferating meanings of joint as he'd encountered them on the street, or is it possible that Lee's usage has actually played a role in encouraging that proliferation?

Either way, the fact that joint has so many meanings adds several kinds of piquancy to Lee's metaphor. One can think of a Spike Lee picture not just as something to get high on but also as an object of love and devotion (a girlfriend), a vehicle in which you can travel, at least psychologically (a car), and even as a weapon for confronting enemies (a gun)--this last meaning reminiscent of the label Woody Guthrie put on his guitar, "This machine kills fascists." I like it.

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