31 August 2008
It's hard for me to get my footing with the Coens, especially since they constantly riff on genre. Are they saying something or having a laugh about they way that other movies try to say something? For example, nearly every character in The Big Lebowski is a recognizable political type from the nineties, and the film opens with a reference to the first Gulf War. Part of me really wants to see it as a morality tale about how the good intentions of the sixties radicals devolved into a vague desire to do good, with no idea of how to do it, and hardly any way to avoid being a pawn in the games of other, larger forces. But are the Coens trying to make this point? Or did they just think it would be fun to replace the stereotypical characters of classic noir with figures from the nineties political scene? It's frustrating that they refuse to tell us; it's even more frustrating that the movie seems designed for ambiguity on this point.
If anyone knows of any good papers or articles on the Coen Brothers' use of political subtexts in their work, please let me know.
29 August 2008
“So we are free, freer than any people have ever been in the history of humanity. The old bonds of commitment hang loosely about us. How this came about would require telling the complex history of modern western culture, but the current consequences are not hard to identify. A free soul is a slave of desires for success, desires for social acceptance, desires for all the goodies that our wealthy economy so efficiently provides, to say nothing of our primitive passions. Increasingly uncommitted—free from the limits of marriage, children, faith, devotion, and loyalty—we are more purely and more entirely defined by our social roles as productive workers and eager consumers, and by our passing desires for satisfaction and pleasure. Again, I ask myself, is it surprising that in an age with so few binding commitments postmodern men and women seek symbols of permanence etched into their bodies?”
If someone were to ask me for advice on getting a tattoo, and if I spoke more forthrightly than I generally do, I might say something like this:
“For what it's worth, I want to tentatively suggest that, instead of getting a tattoo, you could learn the particularities of your own geographic place, the doctrines of your denomination, the hopes and dreams of your ancestors. Don't just have a religion, but become a part of a church (or other religious community). In other words, don't just get an arbitrary marker of a self-constructed or desired identity. Get an actual, you know, identity.”
Which is not to say that I've never seen an awesome tattoo.
The best two:
For nostalgic readers of Russell Kirk, who keep their bound volumes of the old NR like a framed photo of Kaiser Franz Josef on the wall of a Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna:
“Burkeans ‘Do It’ Reluctantly and Incrementally.”
For tenured Straussians teaching at Christian colleges:
“God Bless America.” (then, in Attic Greek:) “Except that He Doesn’t Exist.”)
“At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.”
Read the statement carefully. This is not something a Christian should be able to say. The hope that we confess is not “the American promise,” although we can take that promise as a gift. The hope that we confess is Jesus. I expect much better from a man who reads Reinhold Neihbur. I mean, I know that conflating the United States and the Church is as traditional as baseball and apple pie, but that doesn't make it right.
28 August 2008
“That blasted Pole makes me green with envy because he writes literature when he's trying to write journalism, and I write journalism when I'm trying to write literature.”
-Quoted in Gavin Kealks, “Graham Greene.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. (466)
25 August 2008
The downside of reading the list is that I realize that my blog is nothing but unfocused obsession. Tighten it up a bit, eh, William?
22 August 2008
“But Putin is not Hitler or Stalin; he is not even Leonid Brezhnev. He is what he is, and that is bad enough. In the 2008 election, he made a joke of democratic procedure and, in effect, engineered for himself an anti-constitutional third term. The press, the parliament, the judiciary, the business élite are all in his pocket—and there is no opposition. But Putin also knows that Russia cannot bear the cost of reconstituting empire or the gulag. It depends on the West as a market. One lesson of the Soviet experience is that isolation ends in poverty. Putin’s is a new and subtler game: he is the autocrat who calls on the widow of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. To deal with him will require statecraft of a kind that has proved well beyond the capacities of our current practitioners.”
Statecraft, not merely resolve. Frederick Kagan and Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard puts forward a convincing case that, from February to the eve of the invasion, Putin was turning up the pressure, waiting for Saakashvili to give him some pretext to invade. And when Saakashvili made a move, Putin struck back with force and with the international press: accusations of genocide against Georgian forces and quick explanations put everything up in the air for a few days. What I know is that if we want to play this game, we'll need an absolutely brilliant Secretary of State.
What I don't know is whether the game is worth playing. We're already running two occupations and struggling against rising energy prices as it is. And Georgia is not exactly Cuba; this isn't exactly missiles ninety miles off the coast of Florida. What I don't know, what I need time to learn is something about the Georgia behind the press releases. It would be great if the issue of territorial sovereignty were perfectly clear, but there were two “breakaway republics” in the mix. Russia is clearly an aggressor, but the precise nature of their crimes should be spelled out. Would it have been all right for Russia to have occupied only South Ossetia? Why exactly, in terms of international law, is South Ossetia different from Kosovo? Will Putin's control over Europe's energy supply keep Europe from taking a lead? These are the sorts of questions that are crucial for a real response. Answers are out there, but I don't have them.
But, to repeat: statecraft, not merely resolve. If we can assume that Putin will hold on to power for, say, another decade, he can play a long game. Even if we have a dominating strategy available, do any of our leaders have the skill to play it out? What would the cost be if we lost such a dangerous game?
Post your response essays in the comments box.
20 August 2008
Mice are fiendishly intelligent creatures, easily able to outwit the run-of-the-mill human intelligences ordinarily pitted against them. The only creature able to outwit a mouse, and that only occasionally, is a cat; but, as cats also employ their intelligence for wicked ends, it is scarcely necessary to point out that introducing a cat to a mouse-infested house is tantamount to enslaving oneself to the forces of darkness.
Mice subsist primarily on whatever you were planning on eating the next day. They believe that the entire world was created for their benefit, and that they have a perfect right senselessly to destroy what they cannot use. In this they resemble certain other species that infest our planet, but Dr. Boli does not wish to give offense unnecessarily.
Allegorically, mice represent Industry, which in a capitalist society is ordinarily left in the hands of individuals who share the ethical philosophy of the mouse.
18 August 2008
“No other period of American history has ever witnessed such a dramatic rise in religious adherence as took place from 1800 to 1860. In no other period did main religious habits break so directly with what had gone before. In no other period has there been such a radical upsetting of the main assumptions about how to organize and practice religious faith.
“Expectations in the early years of national history, and from some of the wisest Americans of the founding period, highlight how different the new American religion was. During the early days of the Continental Congress, the Baptist leader Isaac Backus came to Philadelphia to complain about the hypocrisy of Massachusetts in protesting against “enslavement” by Parliament when Massachusetts itself was persecuting Baptists and other Protestant dissenters. In response, John Adams told him that the Massachusetts establishment of religion was, in fact, very light; moreover, in Adams’ view, it was more likely that the sun would not rise than it was for Massachusetts ever to give up the establishment of religion. Only a little later, such notable Founding Fathers as John Jay, Patrick Henry, and John Witherspoon all campaigned for a dispersed establishment whereby tax money would be collected by state governments and then distributed to all the churches that petitioned for a share.
“Other expectations of what religion would look like in the new republic included the prediction welcomed by Thomas Jefferson, but decried as a catastrophe by Jefferson’s religious opponents, that the United States would come to favor the rational, enlightened, and ameliorative faith of Unitarianism. As late as 1820, Jefferson wrote a young friend that he expected some form of Unitarianism to be the dominant religion in the United States. That prospect, which so encouraged Jefferson, was anathema to his foes, but many of them thought it just might happen, as testified by the religious militancy of their fierce opposition to Jefferson in the presidential campaign of 1800.
“For their part, many leaders of the Congregational and Presbyterian denominations expressed the confidence that some form of established or quasi-established Calvinist faith would exert preeminent religious influence over the new republic. They were not entirely wrong, especially since American higher education continued to be conducted as primarily a Presbyterian or Congregational enterprise until well past the mid-nineteenth century. But the idea that the nation as a whole would be docilely led by the Presbyterian Princeton of John Witherspoon and Samuel Stanhope Smith, the Congregationalist Yale of Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, or the pastor-leaders of Union College and the many other colleges founded more or less as Reformed Protestant academies—that idea was a fantasy.”
17 August 2008
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we don't live within our means. I mean, the nation doesn't, and increasingly, individual Americans don't. Our saving - the individual savings rate in this country is below zero. The personal debt, national debt, however you want to measure it, as individuals and as a government, and as a nation we assume an endless line of credit.
As individuals, the line of credit is not endless, that's one of the reasons why we're having this current problem with the housing crisis, and so on. And my view would be that the nation's assumption, that its line of credit is endless, is also going to be shown to be false. And when that day occurs it's going to be a black day, indeed.
BILL MOYERS: You call us an "empire of consumption."
ANDREW BACEVICH: I didn't create that phrase. It's a phrase drawn from a book by a wonderful historian at Harvard University, Charles Maier, and the point he makes in his very important book is that, if we think of the United States at the apex of American power, which I would say would be the immediate post World War Two period, through the Eisenhower years, into the Kennedy years. We made what the world wanted. They wanted our cars. We exported our television sets, our refrigerators - we were the world's manufacturing base. He called it an "empire of production."
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers.Michael Sandel argued, in Democracy's Discontent, that we as a nation basically exchanged our ability to discuss the meaning of our freedom for a society in which the government leaves us with our rights while carefully managing an ever-growing economy. At this point, it is clear that the “American way of life” is largely about negative freedoms: freedoms to acquire, to accumulate, to be left alone with our stuff. Is this really what we want? Or do we want control over our political lives?
Mr. Roosevelt, as a public personality, was a spontaneous, optimistic, pleasure-loving ruler who dismayed his assistants by the gay and apparently heedless abandon with which he seemed to delight in pursuing two or more totally incompatible policies, and astonished them even more by the swiftness and ease with which he managed to throw off the cares of office during the darkest and most dangerous moments. Mr. Churchill too loves pleasure, and he too lacks neither gaiety nor a capacity for exuberant self-expression, together with the habit of blithely cutting Gordian knots in a manner which often upset his experts; but he is not a frivolous man. His nature possesses a dimension of depth—and a corresponding sense of tragic possibilities, which Mr. Roosevelt's lighthearted genius instinctively passed by.
Mr. Roosevelt played the game of politics with virtuosity, and both his successes and his failures were carried off in splendid style; his performance seemed to flow with effortless skill. Mr. Churchill is acquainted with darkness as well as light. Like all inhabitants and even transient visitors of inner worlds, he gives evidence of seasons of agonized brooding and slow recovery. Mr. Roosevelt might have spoken of sweat and blood, but when Mr. Churchill offered his people tears, he spoke a word which might have been uttered by Lincoln or Mazzini or Cromwell but not Mr. Roosevelt, greathearted, generous, and perceptive as he was.
The whole article is worth reading, even though David Bentley Hart has called Berlin, if memory serves, “that most fraudulent of twentieth-century intellectuals.” I think Hart's gripe has mainly to do with Berlin's book on Johann Hamann.
15 August 2008
“So yes, there are more Democrats who vote for partial-birth abortion bans, for the born-alive laws, and for limits on government funding of abortion than there are Republicans who vote against the pro-life cause on these issues. But saying that the Democrats are a big-tent party on abortion because they tolerate members who vote against partial-birth abortion is like saying that the Republicans are a big-tent party on the environment because they tolerate members who would vote against, say, dumping radioactive waste in drinking water: It implicitly accepts a very pro-choice reading of what counts as the middle on abortion, and what counts as the extremes.”
“If you're like me, and think that any middle-ground, "compromise" position on abortion would have to entail returning control over abortion policy to the legislative branch, and implementing, at the very least, more European-style restrictions on second and third-trimester abortions, then the GOP looks like a bigger-tent party than the Democrats. But if you're a pro-choicer who believes that the Roe-Casey settlement is already a middle-ground take on abortion - a sensible-centrist alternative to the anti-abortion extremists who would have the government ban the practice and the pro-abortion extremists who would have the government actively promote it - then I suppose that yes, Democrats are going to look like the bigger-tent party.”
A. A sentence in the abstract that Joseph Bottum discussed over at First Things. Also, there are UFOs involved. Check it out, for laffs.
14 August 2008
13 August 2008
-David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 2003. (292)
First, that a candidate changes his position on substantive issues during an election season reflects the political necessity of compromise. A candidate must find ways to represent different groups of people, and has a positive duty to adjust his positions accordingly.
Second, policy changes may come about as responses to new information. Asserting that one's own candidate is better than the other because the other has “flip-flopped” on some issue or another is asking me to believe that dogmatic inflexibility is a political virtue. If the reason for the change is a bad one, then we have something to talk about, but the fact of a change is not in and of itself a bad thing.
Third, as a matter of realism, we have to understand that a candidate who didn't deliberately move toward the center after the primaries would have no chance of being elected. Everyone does it. The most repugnant thing about Republican attempts to label Obama a waffler is that McCain has clearly changed his mind about any number of things, and he seems to get a pass.
All right, Jonathan Chait, take it away:
“And, so, whatever two or three issues the Democratic nominee has changed his emphasis on are inevitably blown up into a devastating character indictment. The Charles Krauthammers and Sean Hannitys of the world can be counted on to whip themselves into a moralistic frenzy against the feckless Democrat. And news reporters will stroke their chins and ponder, because the question is being asked: Just who is Obama (Kerry/Gore/Clinton), anyway? Yes, he may have a detailed platform on domestic and foreign policy, but do we really know anything about this man?
“If one needs any final proof of the ridiculousness of this quadrennial exercise, it is the fact that John McCain has embraced the flip-flopper attack. John McCain! I've said this before, I'll say it again: This is a man who, in his quest to make himself an acceptable GOP nominee, reversed his political philosophy (crusading anti-business progressive in the Teddy Roosevelt mode); his political orientation (frequently siding with, and nearly joining, Senate Democrats); and almost every particular undergirding it (taxes, the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, his own immigration bill, etc.). But if you actually think that flip-flopping is a sign of flawed character, and not just a handy partisan cudgel, then, sure, Obama might be slightly cynical, but McCain must be a dangerous sociopath.”As my father would say, you test an idea by taking it to its logical conclusion. The “flip-flop” attack does not hold up. Please, please, let it go away sometime soon.
12 August 2008
“The Process of Government” is a hedgehog of a book. Its point—relentlessly hammered home—can be stated quite simply: All politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure.
The standard objections are that pluralism gives too little weight to the power of ideas and of social and economic forces, and that it leaves no room for morality. (Pluralism’s equivalent in foreign relations is realism, which strikes people who don’t like it as having the same flaws.) What if there actually is such a thing as a policy that’s right on the merits? Shouldn’t we find a way to make sure that it’s enacted, instead of having to trust in the messy workings of the political marketplace?
When the reputation of Bentley’s masterpiece was at its peak, it was not just because he had fashioned a useful tool, of course; it was because many people saw pluralism as being not only accurate but attractive. To regain that perspective today requires an even greater undoing of deeply ingrained habits of thought. Pluralism, in the tradition of Bentley, requires that one see one’s own political passions, and those of such unimpeachable actors as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and members of the Concord Coalition, as representing something other than the promptings of pure justice. That does not come naturally. One has to see that sincere talk of the public interest and the general good can be dangerous tools in the hands of people one disagrees with, if not in one’s own. (If you’re a liberal, reread President Bush’s second inaugural address, a grandiose exercise in public-interest rhetoric meant to lay the groundwork for waging the war on terror and privatizing Social Security.) One has to get over the habit of assuming that “interests,” and, worse, lobbying and corruption, are the province only of one’s political opponents, and not one’s allies. Pluralism means dialling down the moral stature that we attach to universalist arguments, and dialling up the moral stature of particularism.
-Nicholas Lemann. “Conflict of Interests.” The New Yorker, August 11 & 18, 2008. (86-92)
Bentley's thesis does sounds almost right. I'll have to read the book, of course, but what occurs to me after reading the article is that interests don't simply appear out of nowhere. A person's formative years might be the only stage where universal ideas can be inculcated to the point that they will later influence interests. If there is a place for transcendence in modern politics, it must be in education. All the more reason, then, to do what we can to lower the stakes, to make education more accountable to the region than to the nation. For, as John Taylor Gatto has predicted, if instruments of mass social control exist, we can be sure that they will fall into the wrong hands at some point.
11 August 2008
“But on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.
“On that date, media displaced culture. As commenters on The American Scene blog have pointed out, the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and as the marker of social status.
“Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it. (In this era, MySpace is the new leisure suit and an AOL e-mail address is a scarlet letter of techno-shame.)
“Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel. The brain overshadows the mind. Design overshadows art.
“This transition has produced some new status rules. In the first place, prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.”I'm sure everyone has already said this, but I wish some young editor had caught him before they printed “Pitchfork.” We can easily document the backlash against Pitchfork at least as early May of 2007, when David Bazan released the song “Selling Advertising.” Who does the fact-checking these days, anyway? I bet these guys would have caught it.
2. Buy tickets to Superchunk/Rosebuds show.
3. Learn to tell the difference between mainstream liberals and the more radical Left; apparently,
they aren't the same thing.
4. Try to remember that partial deregulation is probably worse than the status quo (health care!).
5. Pick up milk at the grocery store.
6. Consider a compromise in which I agree with liberals on the scope of the legitimately political, while asking them to consider more localism, less state action.
7. Stop blaming liberals, especially in light of the fact that the USA, on the whole, has been conservative for almost thirty years now, i.e., take responsibility.
8. Go jogging.
08 August 2008
(Yeah, I guess John C. Reilly would be a better choice, since he's a serious actor too.)
06 August 2008
05 August 2008
“Most researchers agree that the value of the U.S. marijuana crop has increased sharply since the mid-nineties, as California and twelve other states have passed medical-marijuana laws. A 2005 State Department report put the country's marijuana crop at more than twenty-two million pounds. A drug-policy analyst and activist named Jon Gettman recently published a report, based on federal-government statistics, estimating that between 1981 and 2006 domestic marijuana production increased tenfold, making pot the leading cash crop in America, displacing corn. Gettman calculated that in 2006 Californians grew more than twenty million pot plants, and that the street value of that crop alone might be as high as fourteen billion dollars. . . According to Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies for medical marijuana, there are now more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users in California.”
Twenty-two million pounds? A bigger cash crop than corn? Two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot-users? Wow. And all this while the federal government is still trying to shut things down. I'm not making any policy statements here; I'm just kind of impressed.
Of course, we all know that it's only a matter of time before those two thousand users slip through the gateway and become hardcore cheeseball (“that's cocaine, and cheese”) junkies, or something worse.