Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The College Widow: Not a Woman Who Married a College that Died

Of course this fellow Canby — Yale class of 1899 — would end his description of the "college widow" with a cigarette:
For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old -- but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.

Tobacco Then and Now

Via Division of Labour, this from the New York Times in 1909:
BERLIN - The Committee on Appropriations unanimously voiced today to report to the Reichstag a resolution appropriating $500,000 for the relief of tobacco workers who have been thrown out of work as a consequence of the reduced consumption of cigars and cigarettes under the operation of the new tax measures.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Would you transport this woman across state lines for immoral purposes?

I do love the Mann Act. It's such a beautiful and ridiculous expression of moral panic -- like a Time cover-story, but, instead of an article, a federal law. It jumped the shark a little bit in 1986 when "immoral purposes" was redefined as "any sexual activity for which any person can [already] be charged with a criminal offense [which defeats the purpose a bit, doesn't it?]," but back when consensual sex could be considered white slavery, the Mann Act was really something else.

However, despite my love for the law that nailed him, I'm sad that Jack Johnson is not going to get a posthumous pardon recommendation from the Justice Department.

In Justice's defense, Johnson didn't just sleep with Belle Schreiber; he gave her several thousand dollars to start her own brothel in Chicago after she got fired by her Pittsburgh madam for robbing a customer. The feds may have been wrong to target Johnson, but they kinda had him cold.

Pass Huey!

Peter Richardson's history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, taught me something I didn't know:
Like Pat Brown before him, Huey Newton was taking classes at San Francisco Law School; one of his instructors was Edwin Meese III, who would later serve as President Reagan's attorney general.
An unrelated anecdote from the same book, in retrospect, seems prescient:
While serving as assistant managing editor, Sol Stern ejected staff writer Jann Wenner from the building for smoking pot.
My third and final note from A Bomb in Every Issue is the most important, because this Ramparts-coined term is witty, timeless, and forgotten: The love-geometry that inevitably develops in any left-wing club is properly referred to as "armed snuggle."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hoving Happened

Let's all pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Hoving, the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who died today. I knew of him mostly as John Lindsay's first Parks Commissioner (from 1965-66), a job he evidently thought was a little like being a grand-scale cruise director. His "Hoving Happenings" included a Gay Nineties-themed party, a "Central Park a Go-Go" dance, meteor-watching, and kite-flying -- all of which was quite a change from the reign of his predecessor Robert Moses, who "enforced rules against wearing bathing suits or even halter tops and shorts shorter than midthigh."

Yes, he was one of those upper-crust types who romanticized sixties counterculture, and yes, he worked for John Lindsay, which is if anything more lame. Still, I can't help but like a man who responded to a subordinate's critical memo by writing "Crap!" at the top. He shot from the hip, but he was always ready to admit when one of his off-the-cuff statements was, upon reflection, "monumentally stupid" — sin boldly, repent boldly! As Michael Gross puts it in his obituary, "Even his enemies can agree that Hoving was never, ever boring." God rest his soul.

UPDATE: The NYT obituary is up.

Thanatos tastes good like a cigarette should!

Hat-tip Dara:
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Cigarette pack warnings that remind smokers of the fatal consequences of their habit may actually make them smoke more as a way to cope with the inevitability of death, according to researchers.

Hoover wasn't Mr. Intervention, he was Mr. Best Practices. There's a difference.

Megan McArdle says we all need to chill out about administrative costs. She may well be right, but, since she raised the subject, I'll throw out my favorite statistics from Eugene Lyons' Herbert Hoover: A Biography:
The overhead for relief administration under Hoover rarely exceeded 3 percent. After his departure it came to consume 25 and in some places as high as 50 percent of the relief funds. Despite the launching of many new agencies, there were ten thousand fewer federal employees at the end of Hoover's term than at its start.
"Rarely exceeded 3 percent"—that's remarkable. (One trick he used was hiring independently wealthy do-gooders at $1-a-year salaries.) Please remember these statistics the next time a libertarian disavows Hoover, which tops my personal list of most annoying counterintuitive claims of the decade.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Battle for Williamsburg: Are the Hipsters Losing?

One of my hopes for this blog is that it will become a clearinghouse for all Hasid-on-hipster violence coming out of Williamsburg, eventually building to a coherent narrative about the undesirability of having hipster neighbors.

The best skirmish in this ongoing war came over the summer when a Greenpoint hipster alleged police brutality against Joel Witriol, New York's first Hasidic cop, who gave her a ticket for carrying her pet pug on the L train. Pets are only allowed on the subway if they are caged -- the rule isn't enforced with much zeal, but, in this case, the dog was making a special nuisance of itself by vomiting into the woman's totebag. A scuffle ensued when Witriol allegedly said "If you're going to act like a woman, I'm going to treat you like a woman" as he restrained and cuffed the girl for protesting the ticket, prompting a third-wave tirade from our pixie-coiffed protagonist. I remember reading at the time some linguist's speculation that Witriol was trying to say something more like, "If you act like a lady, I'll treat you like a lady," which ups the story's culture-clash quotient.

Alas, that incident did not provoke a highly choreographed street-rumble as I had hoped, but here's hoping this week's culture clash will. The city removed a fourteen-block bike lane in Williamsburg on Dec. 1, and three days later a band of hipsters repainted it at 3am with paint rollers and homemade stencils, only to be caught in the act by Hasidic vigilantes who turned them in to the police. Tell me that story doesn't have the makings!

Gothamist has the details, and, as is always the case with them, the jewels are in the comments:
"I'm pretty fed up with laws that support people's religious beliefs, whether it's abortion, gay marriage or bike lanes. Religion has got to get out of public policy."

"i'm confused about who we hate more in this story? hipsters, cops or religious fanatics? religious hipsters? religious cops? someone should track down a hipster cop, then i would know where to direct my hatred."
Maintaining a neighborhood's character is a serious thing, of course, and I hope the two sides can come to some understanding, but damn if I'm not glad to see a New York culture clash in which neither side is all that villainous.

I seen my misattributions and I corrected 'em.

Dan Lynch writes of the recent Bruno conviction: "The real problem isn't Joe Bruno, who — in the immortal words of Boss Tweed — merely 'seen my opportunities and took 'em.'"

For the record, it was George Washington Plunkitt, he of Tammany Hall, who said that.

While we're at it, let me record for the public internets that it was Martin Lomasney, "the Mahatma" of Boston's Ward 8, who said, "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bookblogging: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Molasses is fundamentally surreal. You've got the expression "It's like pushing molasses up a sandy hill." You've got the Molasses Hat Gang described in Luc Sante's Low Life, which had the signature gambit of "walking into grocery stores, asking the keeper to fill a derby hat with molasses 'on a bet,' clapping the hat over the proprietor's head, and emptying the till." It won't freeze, it will ferment, and you still can't remember what molasses tastes like even though you've had this whole paragraph to think about it.

And then there's the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, in which twenty-one people were drowned by a fifteen-foot-high, 35 mph wave of molasses unleashed when a two million gallon vat busted. Much of that molasses was destined for use in munitions for World War I, so there was some speculation that bomb-throwing Italian anarchists were behind the busted tank -- they'd done that sort of thing before -- but it turned out to be a problem of engineering, not terrorism. Still, it's a funny story that isn't actually very funny. Unless you think about it. If the phrase "Great Molasses Flood" rings your bell, go for Puleo's odd little book.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bookbag: Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor by Arch Puddington

The scene: a meeting between Murray Weidenbaum, budget advisor to Reagan, and several labor leaders, including Frank Fitzsimmons of the Teamsters:
Then Weidenbaum twitted the trade unionists by asking if there were items in the budget that they would propose for spending reductions. Kirkland and Fraser had nothing special to offer, but the usually inarticulate Fitzsimmons had an immediate animated response. As Fraser recalled it, Fitzsimmons, his voice rising with genuine anger, blurted out, "I'll tell you one reduction you can make. You can get rid of the witness protection program. You're wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to support these stool pigeons and their families." Fraser later asked Kirkland what he was doing during the Teamster's diatribe. "I was looking at the floor," Kirkland said. To which Fraser replied, "I was looking at the ceiling."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Origen and God-as-Samuel-L.-Jackson

Thomas J. Bridges of theology blog An und für sich has turned up some interesting bits of Origen in a post called "The Word of God Was Messing With Us":
“This was to conceal the doctrine relating to the before-mentioned subjects in words forming a narrative that contained a record dealing with the visible creation” (PA [Peri Archon] IV.2.8).

“Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language…or else by never moving away from the letter to fail to learn anything of the more divine element” (PA IV.2.9).

“…whenever the Word found that things which had happened in history could be harmonised with these mystical events he used them, concealing from the multitude their deeper meaning…[T]he scripture wove into the story something which did not happen, occasionally something which could not happen, and occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not” (PA IV.2.9).
These immediately reminded me of a post by Adam Kotsko from earlier this year that I saved it to my hard-drive, so much did I admire it. An excerpt, all bolding mine:
He didn’t submit to the cross because that would really fuck with our preconceptions. Right? God isn’t just willfully trying to screw with us because he would be mad if our expectations were too accurate, right? Seriously. It’s perverse, the way so many Christians fetishize Christ’s suffering as though it’s the key to everything. [...]

Look at things from the perspective of the oppressed. To them, is “the power of Emperors, legistlators, or Priests” a self-evidently desirable and good thing? Sure, it’s better to be powerless than not if you’re in the current system, but once you see an alternative to that entire structure in Christ, those power positions don’t seem very appealling. No one is going to follow Christ if he’s saying, “Just suffer for its own sake, because I’m God and I’m here to mess with your shit!” No — they follow Christ because of the joyfulness of his life, because of the unexpected abundance he brings along with him.
If the question is why God sometimes misleads us and lies to us, the answer very well might be "Because I'm God and I'm here to mess with your shit!" That's why Bridges's Origen excerpts are interesting—they make the case that sometimes God is being provocative for provocation's sake.

But, then again, I might be twisting the text to fit my favorite idea, that "Is this statement true or false?" is one of the least helpful questions a person can ask, certainly less helpful than whether the statement is interesting, or whether it's motivated by love.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Apostasy Done Right: The case of David Bazan

I was pretty rough on apostates earlier, but I wouldn't want to give the impression that I think everyone who switches ideological sides needs to grow a beard, get false papers, and move to another country under an assumed identity. I put a lot of stock in team loyalty, but I also think it's possible to desert your former team with everyone's honor intact. And I think David Bazan has done it.

Bazan made it pretty big in the Christian rock world performing as the one-man band Pedro the Lion — he was the only Christian act I ever came across in my secular adolescence. The Pitchfork crowd liked him okay; the evangelical kids adored him. And he recently announced that he probably doesn't believe in God anymore. Moreover, he has serious concerns about where the evangelical movement has ended up: "The last 30 years of it have been hijacked; the boomer evangelicals, they were seduced in the most embarrassing and scandalous way into a social, political, and economical posture that is the antithesis of Jesus's teaching."

He admits that his latest album, Curse Your Branches, is about his loss of faith — a break-up album to God. The opening images from "Lost My Shape" aren't as obvious as some on the other tracks, but I think they're his most interesting lyrics on the subject:
You used to feel like a smoker
Shivering in the cold
Waiting outside the bar
Till the opener's over,

But now you feel like a drinker
Twenty days off the sauce
Down at the liquor store
Trying to call your sponsor.
And yet, as this magazine piece lovingly describes, nobody has disavowed anybody. He still performs at the Cornerstone festival, he still admits to caring about what happens to American evangelicalism, and his fans keep praying for him. The piece describes one touching scene from a recent show:
After Bazan plays a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," reinstating the sacrilegious verses left out of the best-known versions, someone shouts, "How's your soul?" Bazan looks up from tuning his guitar and says, "My soul? Oh, it's fine." This elicits an "Amen, brother!" from the back of the tent.
The author of the magazine article asked Bazan outright how he threads the needle of being a doubter among the faithful without offending his former flock-mates:
[When talking to fans] Bazan doesn't usually get into the subtle barometric fluctuations in his relationship with Jesus, but that still leaves room for plenty of postshow theological talk. "This process feels necessary and natural for these people," he says. "They're in a precarious situation—maybe I am too. To maintain their particular posture, they have to figure out: Do they need to get distance from me, or is it just safe enough to listen to? I empathize as people are trying to gauge, 'Is this guy an atheist? Because I heard he was.'"
It's a "precarious situation," like he says, but it matters that both sides are trying. It also matters that Bazan couldn't run away from evangelicalism even if he tried, something I wish more apostates realized. If you were ever really part of something, it shaped you. If you were ever drawn to something, then at some level you always will be.

A Kass-bashing amuse-bouche

I'll weigh in on the newly reincarnated President's Council on Bioethics sometime soon, but, basically, I'm for it. The old PCBE fell into a pattern of just spinning its wheels after the big stem-cell victory, and the White House's new mission statement points in the right direction.

Since a lot of the blame for what bothered me about the old Council rests with Leon Kass, here's a paragraph of him sounding insufferable in a Wunderkammer interview:
I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life but I haven’t done any of them because they were forbidden. I’ve made a mistake about what I thought was good, but I never did anything save for thinking that it was good. I don’t know where this comes from. I’ve never really had contempt for the uneducated or for people who make a living by the sweat of their brow. It always seemed to me that a kind of goodness could be found there. I’ve always been suspicious of people who would cynically deny that they too would like to be good. The real question, I suppose, is what’s the standing of the cultivation of the intellect in relation to that kind of native goodness, and can you in fact indulge in study and grow intellectually without losing your moral bearings. I have to say I’ve tried.
I hope that has prepared you for the Kass-bashing post to come.

Labor is like a tweed jacket, and environmentalism is like a feather boa

This article by Ann Friedman has been getting some play, but I can't quite figure its key paragraph:
After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us. There is already some recognition of this. At the AFL-CIO convention this fall, several speakers referenced the rights of LGBT workers. NAACP Chair Julian Bond gave a keynote address at the National Equality March for gay rights. This doesn't mean everyone must be an advocate for every single progressive issue. Each of us has a different metric for separating the political negotiables from the nonnegotiables. But I do expect the liberal coalition to understand that these issues are interconnected.
Not to be a snark, but isn't that exactly wrong? How about this instead: "Labor rights conflict with immigrants' rights conflict with gay rights conflict with women's rights, but the point of a political party is that it's okay for that to happen." You're supposed to be able to put together a team without pausing to check everyone's ideology for bugs.

I'm not saying there's no coherence to the left, just that it's less like a single premise variegatedly unpacked and more like a well-assembled outfit — when you say that a certain shirt-and-tie combo "goes together," you don't necessarily mean that they have colors in common.

Ann Friedman has said something that's obviously false if you take a moment to think about it; nevertheless, I assume she wanted to accomplish something by saying it. But what?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Shapur never killed a shrew

Normblog's Writer's Choice book this week is Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, a topic about which I know nothing. However, I know a very little something about sexual politics in pre-modern Iran, a casual familiarity I picked up during my Zoroastrian phase.

Purity rituals aside, the ladies did all right under the Sasanians. (And even the purity rituals were all right, as constricting as they were, since there ain't no party like a menstrual hut party, etc.) Consider this bit from the Herbedestan:
5.1) Which of the two shall go forth to pursue religious studies, the woman or the householder?

5.2) If both take care of the possessions
[i.e. if they can take care of the property single-handed], either one may go forth.

5.3) If the lord of the house (takes care of) the possessions, let the woman go forth.
No link; this passage (including the brackets, which are not mine) comes from an old college course packet. Also, apologies for the hyper-obscure pun in the title.

Apostasy Pieces: Don't be that guy

So Little Green Footballs has disavowed the right. The best take is Matt Frost's—"I'm saddened and concerned by the debased state of concern trolling"—but I have a submission for second-best take. (No shame in losing to Mr. Frost.)

Ten words: If you write an apostasy piece, you have no honor. Exhibit A, Marty Beckerman:
Every day I wake up with the same thought: "I used to be such a goddamned idiot."

I am a former Republican. And I wasn't merely the libertarian, live-and-let-live, fun-at-parties kind of conservative whose primary concern is balancing the budget; I was a spiteful, narrow-minded, fire-breathing paranoid lunatic who questioned the patriotism and morality of my liberal fellow citizens. Recognizing the error of my ways has done wonders for my mental health but left me with constant, unremitting remorse; I really want to go back in time and kick my own ass.
Apostasy pieces are never about delivering your former comrades from the grip of dreadful error. They're about showing off how much more enlightened you are, using your misspent youth as a prop for credibility. I've read apostate tell-alls that I thought were true, but I've never read one that made me think I'd like, or trust, the author if I met him.

Sometimes it's hard to tell what loyalty demands of you. Whether to turn your klepto brother into the police, whether to make a play for your best friend's girl after they break up—these are tough questions. But if your old ideological compatriots ever did you a favor, ever took you into their circles or into their confidence, ever gave you a damn cake on your birthday, then you owe it to them not to write the hit piece. You owe them. That's a no-brainer.

UPDATE: If you're visiting from the American Scene and want background on this loyalty fight, check out these two posts, All Politics is Tribal and Loyalty Reconsidered. Nerds can check out I Love Justice, But I Love My Mother More.

"I should avoid transporters and replicators even if by doing so I inconvenience myself."

Or so says Will over at PomoCon.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Everything is about shame, including the Amazon Kindle

Katherine Eastland has pointed out a very good article on the Amazon Kindle by Stephen Marche, which reminds me that I wrote a little something on the subject for The American Conservative last month when this blog was still on hiatus. Enjoy it now, if you like:
There is no shame in owning a Kindle. Literally. Ink-and-paper books can be embarrassing. No one wants to be caught red-handed with The Debutante Divorcée. To get away with reading Gadamer in public would require dressing up like a college professor. And no one, not even a college professor, has enough credibility to read Finnegan’s Wake in broad daylight.

For $259, readers can finally have a little privacy. Books are delivered wirelessly, eliminating clerks from the equation—the Kindle Store will not roll its eyes at you for buying a lowbrow bestseller. And Kindle’s unchanging exterior won’t betray your reading material to the rest of the coffee shop. No wonder Harlequin romances are big sellers.

Kindle is the same size as a book, pages are the same gray as paper, and, for the limited number of titles available in digital format, a Kindle book is cheaper than a paperback. These are welcome developments. But when the old-fashioned codex goes, venerable reading traditions will go with it. What will be lost if readers make the switch to e-books?
Read on—Storm Thorgerson gets an out-of-left-field name-check!

A poem called "Short People" by one Jennifer L. Knox

When Emperor Hirohito told the Japanese people it was time to surrender, he never used the word surrender. Instead, he talked about how everyone had done their best, tried so hard, etc. His speech was broadcast over loudspeakers hung outside on electrical poles. People had never heard Hirohito’s voice before—they thought the Emperor was God. He spoke in the highest level of formality—using words so antiquated, ordinary people couldn’t understand a thing he was saying. So imagine: suddenly, one day, a disembodied voice we think is God’s starts talking to people in the streets in booming Shakespeare-speak. “What the heck’s God saying?” the people ask. A man wearing big glasses translates: “He’s saying we all did a really great job…” he pauses, furrows his brow, “but I think He wants us to give up.” This is what most of Randy Newman’s songs are about.
Via the Awl.

"Sad Panda is actually pretty sad."

The New York street act known as Sad Panda—a guy in a panda suit who earns tips from tourists for standing around glumly on Wall Street—is actually a 62-year-old Chinese man with a hard-luck story. He quit his restaurant job to go to China in order to make his mother's funeral arrangements, found he was too old to get hired anywhere when he got back to New York, and so became Sad Panda. His wife works seven days a week as a private nurse to make ends meet.

Gothamist has video, and don't skip the comments: "Thank God there's a real sad person behind those ears, and not some ironic hipster."

One commenter posted pictures of Sad Panda's alter-ego Spongebob (same sexagenarian, different suit) getting knocked over by hoodlums, then helped up by good Samaritans who "heard quiet sobbing from within the costume."

(This post is to honor Bulgaria's annual Bear's Day.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tip O'Neill was such a girl

I don't mean it, of course, but you just try resisting the thought as you read the last line of this snippet from James A. Farrell's biography:
. . . He had even taken fifty pounds off his corpulent frame by attending Weight Watchers classes at Catholic University. He was the only man in the class, and most of the women didn't know he was a congressman. "Good for Thomas!" they said, when he had registered the loss of a few more pounds.


"Thank you very much for your letter of February 12," O'Neill wrote to one colleague. "I went off the Weight Watcher diet between Thanksgiving and Christmas and gained 18 pounds in two months. I have gone back on the diet this week and am attending my first Weight Watchers meeting tonight. I still have kept off 27 out of the 55 pounds I originally lost, but still feel disgusted with myself."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Golden Age of Right-Wing Novelty Songs (is Obviously Over)

Of embarrassing right-wing rap videos there will be no end, and the latest one is simply awful. But this was not always so. To prove that there was a time when novelty songs could be conservative and non-terrible, here are five favorites.
1. "Tea Partay" [video]
Oh, the summer of 2006, when men were men and a "tea party" was something friendly! The WASP establishment was already dead, but no one told these guys. And everybody loves a shout out to the Main Line.
2. "Don't Mess with the Mayor" [video]
The Medflies pay tribute to Mayor Eastwood. "Now when I want to see a movie, something hard and fast, / I just go down to Carmel and watch Clint kick some ass."
3. "Let Them Eat Rock" [video]
Wikipedia's description of the Upper Crust gets to the heart of the matter: "The members adopt the personas of 18th century aristocratic fops and sing songs from that perspective. They use titles of nobility, wear powdered wigs and period costumes, and maintain a snobbish attitude while performing live and on their albums."
4. "Ukelele Blues" [video]
Martin Mull sings about his life experience. From the spoken intro: "I was brought up on the deltas of Lake Erie in Cleveland, so you obviously have a whole delta blues there, although it was, I'd have to say, a little more middle class than down in the South, where I understand a lot of blues came from." From the lyrics: Woke up this afternoon, saw both cars were gone / And I felt so low down deep inside / I threw my drink across the lawn.
5. "Magical Misery Tour" [video]
In picking something from National Lampoon, I could have gone with "The Middle-Class Liberal Well-Intentioned Blues," or that unmentionable Joan Baez parody at the end of Radio Dinner, or even "Papa was a Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie," which is a Motown version of the Communist Manifesto. But I love that "Magical Misery Tour" skewers John Lennon's narcissism using, mostly, direct quotes from his interviews.

Friday, November 27, 2009

No Mercy!

Nick catches an embarrassing slip-up:
OVERLY TECHNICAL CORRECTION OF THE DAY: The Chicago Tribune, writing about the soundtrack for An Education, praised its new songs "in the Mercy Beat" style. Which is great, except I have no idea what "Mercy Beat" is. Merseybeat is the style of music named after the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, whence most of the first wave of British invasion bands came.
The offending piece is here.

Bookblogging: The Headless Republic

Of all the blogs I've ever liked, not one has ever posted any poetry. But these are special circumstances. First of all, I read Jesse Goldhammer's The Headless Republic: Sacrificial Violence in Modern French Thought, and I liked it. Moreover, I want Mr. Goldhammer, when he Googles his name, to know that I liked it, since I see from the back flap that he is currently employed at "one of the world's leading scenario-planning consulting firms." I'm sure he enjoys his work, but consulting is miles away from writing your PhD thesis on sacrificial violence in modern French thought. He may miss it.

I wish I could register my satisfaction with this 180-page labor of love by picking a fight with it, since that's how I usually show my respect, but Goldhammer didn't say anything that bothered me. Nor did he summarize his thesis in a single pull-able paragraph that might benefit the public internets. He could have, maybe with a sentence like this: Violence achieves real revolutionary results exactly to the extent that it can plausibly claim to fit some traditional narrative or ritual of violence. (Or maybe he did, with Michael Walzer's line that a monarchy "can survive a thousand assassinations but not one execution," which means the same thing.)

Without either a complaint or a pull-quote to fill a post with, I can only share a poem written by Robespierre a few months before his execution, which is the one passage in The Headless Republic that I marked:
The sole torment of the just, at his last hour,
And the only one that will tear me apart,
It is to see, while dying, the pale and somber desire
To distill shame and infamy on my brow,
To die for the people and yet be abhorred for it.
I'd add a comment, but of course I don't need to tell Mr. Goldhammer about martyrdom. He's the one wasting a PhD on consulting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A woman is a woman, but a good Speaker of the House is a smoker

From John A. Farrell's Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century:
When Whip Thomas Foley's wife and chief of staff, Heather, asked O'Neill to put out his cigar at a leadership meeting, O'Neill leveled her. "You know, we only tolerate you in these meetings," he said.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reduce the minimum wage. Wait, why are you laughing?

Sean, who ReadsTheNews, draws a holiday lesson from this Forbes article about programmers who give away their software for free because they're in it for sheer love of the pixels. Sean:
The result is an off-beat story about interesting people doing important work. I love stories that show there is no one right way to live your life. As we get ready for Thanksgiving it's important to give thanks for an economy that both produces and supports people's infinitely varied creative urges, even in this case when that support is non-traditional.
Which reminds me, somewhat tangentially, of this paragraph from Edward Banfield's "The Zoning of Enterprise." The essay explains why putting a state-of-the-art IBM factory in the middle of 1960s Bed-Stuy ended up doing very little to help the residents of that distressed area, the reason being that IBM didn't offer the kind of workplace they wanted. What kind did they want? Banfield explains:
The kind of firm that could succeed in a place like Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is in almost all respects the opposite of IBM. Such a firm pays low wages (below the minimum when possible), offers no job security (like the workers it employs, it is here today and gone tomorrow), its rest rooms are dirty, its foremen are rough, it does not trouble itself about the health and safety of its workers (they can take their chances or get out), and it does not ask them to learn skills, take responsibility, or contribute to factory morale (its investment is a short-term one). This is the only kind of firm that can profitably hire the lower-class worker. It is also the only kind of firm that the typical unemployed male will work for. If he comes to work one day and not the next, nobody cares. If he comes late and half-drunk, nobody cares (although he may be told to stay away until he is sober). Firms of this sort were once common in the cities. They were driven out by laws and ordinances intended to improve working conditions (or, if one prefers, to eliminate "unfair" competition with firms operation more nearly in the IBM manner).
Let's leave aside for the moment whether Banfield's picture of the Bed-Stuy work ethic is fair or not. It doesn't matter that much anyway. His description may not have applied to everyone in that troubled neighborhood, but it certainly applied to the ones IBM was trying to help: the chronically unemployed, the ones whose joblessness created all the social problems that kept the Ford Foundation up at night.

So what's wrong with Banfield's picture of old-fashioned factory life? It had its dangers, but weren't they just the price of working for an employer who didn't care if his workers showed up drunk once in a while? We've all called in "sick" when we just didn't feel like going to work, and our employers (who, let's not kid ourselves, always knew) held it against us not so much because our labor that day would have made any vital difference but because that's not the kind of attitude they want to encourage in their employees. But what if our employers didn't give a damn, so long as we showed up nine times out of ten?

In other words, what is being able to drink on the job worth to you?

Everyone accepts that work isn't the most important thing in life, but a culture that took that platitude seriously would allow for the kind of firm Banfield describes. No one knows which trade-offs between long-term career advancement and short-term happiness are worth it; best to let everyone do the math for himself.

Or, as Graydon Carter said to Eric "Drinky Crow" Kaplan when Kaplan told him he could make more money as a typist than SPY was offering him as a staff writer: "Yes, and you can make $15 an hour digging graves." You better believe SPY writers drank on the clock.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Self-Promotion: "Average Janes: To save feminism, get rid of the lady-blogs"

I've got an article about women's blogs like XX Factor and Broadsheet in the current issue of Doublethink:
It’s possible to write interestingly about body image, sperm donation, or your foibles as a mother. Caitlin Flanagan and Virginia Postrel have done it, and one of these days Sandra Tsing-Loh might. The chance to offer a fresh take on these topics is probably what an author has in mind when she joins a women’s blog in the first place. After all, men have written great prose about fast cars. They have turned boxing, which is pretty dumb, into a metaphor for the human condition. It’s a stretch to take baseball as seriously as some writers do, and yet Bart Giamatti pulled it off beautifully. Why shouldn’t we give the same credit to women’s more mindless pursuits—even fashion and celebrity gossip?

No reason at all, yet women’s blogs never seem to pull it off.
I've already gotten some push-back on the piece:
I sort of agree with you that they aren't so good, but I'm just dubious that there's much more to it beyond "general interest group-blogs are lame," period.
There's some truth to that.

The Plight of the Condorf

It's pretty obvious what Conor Friedersdorf wants to do. He wants to be every pundit's conscience. In his perfect world, he'd be the guy who purged the propagandists from journalism's noble ranks in a grand final battle, maybe with a broadsword. Love it or hate it, that's his schtick.

I happen to be one of those who hate it. I think it's bloodless. I think he comes across as a self-satisfied scold. And I think that the commentary-on-commentary beat is the laziest niche in the blogosphere. "Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel competent to talk about" — how much more so meta-punditry!

But never mind my questions about the merits of Condorf's personal mission. It's not my business to trash his vocation unless I have something helpful to say. Well, today I do: Based on what he says in this Bloggingheads with Peter Suderman, I think Condorf should keep writing, if that's what he wants to do, just not about politics. From the transcript:
CONOR: You don't see a lot of journalists making money, but you do see that there's an easy way to sell out as a journalist. If you really want to maximize your dollars in the easiest way possible, the thing to do is to figure out who has a lot of money and who will pay for you to write a particular thing, and then you write that thing. There are ways to do that that are consistent with your beliefs, and I think that's fine, but I also think there are people who go back and forth between journalism and being PR people for political campaigns, or who get into a think tank that they don't actually agree with but sort of tow a line . . . I just think there are a lot of ways to sell out in this town, and a lot of the most successful people here have done that. I don't like the career trajectory ahead of a lot of people who stay here.

PETER: I mean, it sounds to me like you're just frustrated in a general way with the conjunction of money and influence and personal beliefs and personal ambitions -- but, like, that is politics. That's just what politics is. You either like it . . . I wonder how you can be so against that sort of thing, and so frustrated by it, and yet also be someone who's deeply interested in politics. Because that's all that politics is. How these interests and influences and personal ambitions and personal beliefs work together to create policy, and debates. It just sounds to me like you're frustrated with something that is essential and basic to the business of governance and politics.


CONOR: . . . I would be perfectly happy writing about any number of things other than politics for 90 percent of my time. There's a 10 percent itch of stuff about politics that I like to write about. I write about politics more than 10 percent of the time mostly because people who are buying writing right now are buying writing about politics. You see in the stuff that I write for free at the American Scene that I'm more interested in public discourse than I am about politics per se.
Let me put it this way: I think pacifism is wrong, but I wouldn't ever try to talk someone out of it; I'm glad that there are pacifists in the world, and I admire the commitment of the real pacifists I've met. But I wouldn't send one to cover World War Two. I wouldn't send a society matron to cover the NCAA playoffs. And I wouldn't assign a punctiliously honest, "enlightened discourse" loving, goo-goo throwback like Conor to cover politics.

No one has railed against mercenary journalism as fervently as Condorf. He always insists that you should never write something you don't believe simply because you can get paid to write it. But if sending Conor to cover politics is like sending Dorothy Day to cover the Battle of Normandy, then it's strange to hear him admit that money is the only reason he writes about politics so much. Remember, it's not just that Conor doesn't like writing about politics, or that it doesn't interest him. It's that his deep and powerful aversions to things like money, naked ambition, and team loyalty make him constitutionally ill-suited to political journalism. No crime there, but it does make his career seem masochistic.

What's My Name, Fool? Hint: Not "Mister T."

Dave Zirin proves that hippies hate sports:
I did a book talk for my first book, What’s My Name, Fool!, which has this big picture of Muhammad Ali on the cover, and I did it at a very left-wing anarchist bookstore with tons of antiwar stuff everywhere. I go into the bookstore to do the talk, and the manager of the store comes up to me and asks, "Can I help you?" and I say, "Yeah, I’m Dave Zirin." And they say, "What? But you’re white." And I say, "Yeah, I’m white, last I checked." And they say, "But your picture on the cover of the book . . ."

And I say, "No, that’s not me. That’s Muhammad Ali."


Later, at that same event, someone asked me—remember, the book is called What’s My Name, Fool!—why I decided to write about Mr. T.

I raise this not to take a potshot at some well-meaning lefties, but at this bookstore there’s antiwar stuff everywhere, they’re selling Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky—and they don’t know the history of Muhammad Ali. This to me is an act of political masochism. We’re amputating one of the most dynamic parts of our own history as activists.
A piece of advice for Zirin's interviewer: Your next question should have been, "That may be so, Dave, but when was the last time you wrote about hacky-sack?"

After all, it's not like politics and hacky-sack don't intersect: "Tina Aeberli is the best footbagger in the world in her category, freestyling. She's also a candidate for next year's city council elections in Zurich." Click through — there's video!

Future Senator Seeks Blogger; Must Be Willing to Time-Travel

Advertising for Love is the blog of a Rutgers PhD student who posts nineteenth-century personals, matrimonial ads, and missed connections. Some of the authors are reactionary teenage girls ("No abolitionists need apply"). Some are Republican Party operatives, maybe. Some are jolly young sea captains.

But this is a return-to-blogging post, if you haven't noticed, which suggests that my self-confidence is running high enough to start blogging again, so I will spotlight the old-timey ad that makes me, personally, feel most loved:
A young, able politician, capable of going to the United States Senate, desires a matrimonial alliance with a young, wealthy lady; a political writer preferred. Address Preston Firman, Boston, Mass.
It's nice to think that a young man on the path of success would want to saddle himself with an ink-stained wretch. On the other hand, there never was a Senator Preston Firman of Massachusetts.

Back in the present day, I have my own personal ad: "Penitent blog-neglecter seeks readers, antagonists; must love boxing, machine politics. Non-smokers need not apply."

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Ghost Rider doesn't smoke." "He's made of fire."

Via Eli's Coffer, who is carrying on the Yale Mafia's good name, this dialogue from Confessions of a Superhero, "a 2007 documentary about costumed panhandlers outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre":
"Superman" and "Ghost Rider" are walking down the Walk of Fame.

Superman: Ya gotta remember there's a lotta dos and don'ts, ah, as a superhero... but if you abide by 'em, you do okay.


Superman: Well, just remember, superheroes don't smoke. [pause] It's an image.

Ghost Rider: Except Ghost Rider.

Superman: No. Ghost Rider doesn't smoke.

Ghost Rider: He's made of fire.

Superman: But, still, he doesn't smoke cigarettes. [pause] You can't make exceptions for something that doesn't exist. You'll never see Ghost Rider smokin' a cigarette walkin' down the street. It's just not proper.
While we're passing along laughs-of-the-day, here's an unrelated Jazz Age one from Geoffrey Wolff's The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara:
I found in the 1934 O'Hara files of the New Yorker archive at the New York Public Library a press clipping that somebody at the magazine decided belonged in their former colleague's folder. It was a Walter Winchell item, titled "the Squelch Swelegant," lampooning "a brandy-foolish author of a recent bestseller" who had been "doing a table-thumping 'I am' solo in Tony's. 'Dorothy Parker,' he thundered, 'called me a genius.' 'Oh well,' deprecated I, 'you know every funny thing that's said here is credited to Dorothy.'"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Big Shoulders, Manly Words, Womanly Deeds?

If you buy a hardback copy of One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko, as I almost did, you'll see that the inside flap blurb begins:
With the incisive pen of a newspaperman and the compassionate soul of a poet, Mike Royko was a Chicago institution . . .
Am I wrong, or is that exactly the wrong configuration? Wouldn't you want him to have the soul of a newspaperman and the pen of a poet? Especially in Chicago?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bookbag: "She had registered as a Democrat, figuring he would never be the wiser."

From Frances Costikyan's "The Captain in the Election District," published in her husband's Behind Closed Doors: Politics in the Public Interest:
We have often unwittingly betrayed husbands and wives politically to each other. I remember one young bride who had married a very proper, Brooks-Brothers-suited advertising man who hoped to rise in his Republican-oriented agency. She had wanted to retain a little of her past, so had registered as a Democrat, figuring he would never be the wiser. Of course, I had no idea of this situation when I rang the bell and asked for her. (My records told me the husband was a Republican, but many families are split politically, and we cannot stay away from all of them.) Her secret was soon out, and there was hell to pay.
The story takes place in the early 1960's, so anyone not already imagining the husband as a Mad Men character is welcome to do so.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Scando-Asian Calvinism is no way to run a city.

Is it important for politics to be entertaining? If you live in "Scando-Asian Calvinist" Seattle, according to Knute Berger, the answer is no:
Big-city bosses make great story characters, and political wards and machines are fodder for entertaining narratives. It’s civic soap opera, and you want your daily fix. But here, we tend to look down on politics. It’s too showy, too ego driven, too money obsessed. Larger-than-life personalities are suspect, pols who stand out seem pushy. Our inner Scando-Asian Calvinism sees political posturing as a sin of pride. Politics is supposed to be about bland, colorless public service, not showboating. Too, we value consensus and process, which can produce a potluck where vegans and the lactose intolerant can find something to eat, but it won’t be a gourmet civic feast. The best we can do is complain about slow-motion gridlock or argue about whether to tax grocery bags or legalize miniature goats.

One result is that our scandals are rare and usually penny ante. Did the mayor jump to the head of the line in getting his West Seattle street snowplowed? In some cities, the real scandal would be if a mayor was so weak he couldn’t get dug out first.
Berger goes on to relate the dullness of Seattle politics to the fact that serving as mayor of Seattle tends to be a career-killer. That's not exactly fair of him, since being mayor of any city — including New York and Boston — is a political dead end, unless your dream is to be ambassador to the Vatican.

But the bigger point that it matters whether your city's politics is any fun is true. A city's score on the soap opera scale has material effects on the quality of its government.

One reason is that larger-than-life characters make corruption less likely. Newspapers like to cover that kind of corruption — it's grand, colorful, outrageous stuff. Civil servants are corrupt, too, but their offenses are nickel-and-dime and they're too boring to be good villains, so no one puts in the effort to expose them. If some amount of corruption is bound to happen, better that it be sexy — not just because it's more fun to read about, but because it's more likely to be uncovered.

And the more fun politicians have, the less their government costs. Everyone in politics is looking for some kind of compensation — the satisfaction of public service, the thrill of power, or maybe just cash. Deny a politician the emotional compensation of being a "big man" in his neighborhood and he'll start looking for other compensations from the job, usually monetary. Remember what the deputy mayor said to the sanitation union under Giuliani in 1994: "If you don't work with me, you'll deal with guys who left a million a year law practices for the fun, as prosecutors, of putting guys in jail." Better to be in it for the fun than for the money.

The self-satisfaction of doing the right thing is free, too, but it's not a patch on fun as a motivator. Imagine the kind of person who would go into politics out of duty: he's insufferably sanctimonious, has too much money, and is probably better suited to philanthropy than politics.

Speaking of the rich, they're the only ones who seem to get excited by managerial politics. Fun politics, on the other other hand, is a cross-class crowd-pleaser. From Edward Banfield (as usual):
The tendency of the new style [managerial rather than political] is to produce cynicism and boredom — cynicism because its procedural principles can never be fully lived up to and boredom because, when self-interest is excluded and the public interest is understood in procedural rather than substantive terms, nothing of much importance remains. Politics was more exciting as a "game" than it is as a "service" to the community.

. . . Another effect of denying to the lower class the opportunity to play the only kind of politics that it knows how to play, or wants to play, will be to slow down the rate at which it acquires political interests and skills. The ascendancy of the middle-class ideal will have an effect on what kinds of people enter local politics and rise through it.
It may be true that I like colorful politicians because they make for better theater, but there are other, better reasons why "To Hell with Reform!" is still a good campaign slogan.

"Maginot Joe" Puts that MFA to Good Use

Joe Pernice would like to explain something about the song "Black Smoke (No Pope)" and his new novel It Feels So Good When I Stop:
The story behind this tune is something akin to an Escher print. The Young Accuser is a band I made up for my book. That fictitious band gets a scathing rejection letter from the very real Sub Pop Records. The real Jon Poneman of the real Sub Pop wrote a real blurb for my real book, then suggested that the fictitious Young Accuser record a real single for his real label. (Exhale.) So, a few real Canadians and I recorded a 1990s lo-fi period piece. I, the real Joe Pernice, went on to record a Pernicean, mellow cover of, er, my own tune. Really.
The nerdy story behind the nickname "Maginot Joe" available here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It doesn't sum it up to say he's singing the blues. Well, maybe.

Some things hurt much more than cars and girls, and Prefab Sprout's silence was one of them, at least until word got out that they plan to release a new album in September. The title is Let's Change the World with Music. I only hope that the title's intention comes true.

I suppose it must, if only trivially. When the revolution comes, there will be one more Prefab Sprout album than there was before.

Here is a preview track.

UPDATE: I see that a Swedish group called Blind Terry has a song called "When Prefab Sprout Wrecked My Mind," available here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In 1896, the author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" was the matter with Kansas.

I am willing to admit that, as much as I love machine-style politics, it may not be always and everywhere the right way to run things. If the time and place is 1950s California and one fourth of the people in your state did not live at their present addresses one year ago, then maybe there isn't enough stability for a party organization to flourish.

Or if you're a resident of small-town Kansas — say Emporia — in the early twentieth century.

To be more specific, say you're editor of the Emporia Gazette, your name is William Allen White, and your paper is transitioning from an organ of the Republican Party to a business that can turn a profit without Boss Leland's help — a business that can afford the luxury of political independence. From Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette by Sally Foreman Griffith:
The rhetorical opposition between a "party paper" and one that addresses the entire "public" was a longstanding tradition in journalism, as newcomers struggled to characterize their predecessors as the "kept organs" of special interest and themselves as the agents of the people. Seen in this context, White was contrasting the Gazette with a party paper — by implication, the Republican. The juxtaposition suggested that the Republican was not a true business, making its living by meeting the real needs of the populace, but was a party hack. In years to come, White would frequently contrast business and politics, invariably posing the former as virtuous, the latter as corrupt.
Considered in the abstract, this sounds like an excellent time to make an exception to politics-as-tribalism. In practice, the further away from the Kansas Republican machine White got, the worse his opinions became. Closer to advertisers than voters — advertisers that, more and more, came from outside Emporia — White's decisions about which kinds of investment to encourage or discourage weren't always very good. (His enthusiasm for the town college puzzled those who would have preferred a factory or two. According to an employee of White's, "He called this the Athens of Kansas and they [working-class Emporians] disliked him for it.") He called for dry laws to be enforced more strictly than most citizens wanted; most of the time there were no joints in Emporia to raid, so he prompted police to raid the Eagles lodge and take their beer. In this and other ways, he was more puritanical than a real politician could have afforded to be.

Either the lesson here is that my personal preference for party loyalty corresponds to the Good, Beautiful, and True, or the lesson is that small-town newspapers should cover politics like they cover astrology: For entertainment purposes only.

Bookbag: "Stop Gushing" Postscript

From Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 by John Lukacs, this snippet from the society column "Deborah Debbie":
After church this morning we all went over to Uncle Robert's and Aunt Helen's for lunch. The conversation centered on their forthcoming trip to Palm Beach. Aunt Helen was busy debating over the clothes she would take while Uncle Robert and Daddy sorted fishing gear. They plan to stay until March, so perhaps I may go down for a while. 'T would be divine!

. . . Sorted out my last year's summer clothes this morning to see what was still wearable. Tonight Steve and I went to see Battleground which was one of the best movies I've ever seen.
Lukacs says that "Deborah Debbie" was "the most insipid" of Philly's Sunday social columns, "composed for the younger set."

Another strike against the gushers: Who today has seen Battleground, besides people like me whose grandmothers loved Van Johnson?

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Most likely they are."

Via Conor Friedersdorf, I see that Paul Graham hates meetings. He has his own solution; I prefer the Chicago method. From a 1950s news story quoted in City Politics:
Alderman Keane (31st) arrived eleven minutes late for a meeting Tuesday morning of the council committee on traffic and public safety, of which he is chairman. The committee had a sizeable agenda, 286 items in all to consider. Alderman Keane took up the first item. For the record, he dictated to the committee secretary that Alderman A moved and Alderman B seconded its approval, and then, without calling for a vote, he declared the motion passed. Neither mover nor seconder had opened his mouth. He followed the same procedure on six more proposals, again without a word from the aldermen whose names appeared in the record. Then he put 107 items into one bundle for passage, and 172 more into another for rejection, again without a voice other than his own having been heard. Having disposed of this mountain of details in exactly ten minutes, Alderman Keane walked out. The aldermen he had quoted so freely without either their concurrence or their protest, sat around looking stupid. Most likely they are.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Stop Gushing: A "Stop Snitching" for the Hipster Set

I wasn't on Twitter for very long, and one of the reasons I jumped off that apparently sinking ship was the tendency of Twitterers to gush. Bloggers do it, too — everything is "the best [X] in the history of human endeavor," and everyone is "brilliant," "inimitable," or "freakishly smart." I'm tempermentally grouchy enough that there are lots of New Media tics that bother me, but gushing is the only one I think is actually problematic. (By contrast, I don't really care that Matt Yglesias is a machine for the production of typos.)

It's important to notice that gushing isn't part of a more general tendency to exaggerate. If bloggers threw around "worst ever" and "complete moron" as freely as "best ever" and "genius," I might be okay with it. Bombast is a kind of style. But only praise gets inflated, at least in the TAS-Atlantic-Ordinary Gentlemen corner of the blogosphere. It's not the imprecision that bothers me, it's the hugginess.

The blogosphere still has the spectre of Livejournal to worry about, and when we run around like teenyboppers with signs that say "OMG MARC AMBINDER MARRY ME," it's adolescent. I'm all for the intellectual infatuations of youth; when a seventeen-year-old says that Middlesex is "the best thing anyone has ever written," it means that literary genius is a thing he cares about, which makes him an exceptional seventeen-year-old. But when a grown man talks like that about an essay he read this morning — or a YouTube clip — it only proves that he's too dumb to know better. Adults don't talk that way, the same way adults don't hug people they've just met, play beer-pong, or cuddle on couches at parties with people they aren't dating.

Julian Sanchez once wrote that some people are "just good enough to suck":
Just anecdotally, genuinely smart and competent people tend not to be enormously impressed with their own intelligence or competence, not because they’re intrinsically humble, but because they end up surrounded by other equally (or, at any rate, variously and complementarily) smart, competent people, who provide the relevant yardstick. As Robert Nozick once put it, very few of us think: “Yeah, I’m pretty good for a primate; I can use tools and have mastered a natural language.”

Folks at the high end of mediocrity—the big fish in the shallow pond—look around and conclude they’re incredibly special. Probably the same obtains down the scale. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you think you’re the smartest person you know (and not a Nobel Laureate), you’re probably just not quite sharp enough to have brighter friends. In other words: just short of good-enough-to-suck.
I'm inclined to think that the convention of calling everything "genius" says something about the way these bloggers think, that it isn't just an accident of history or a concession to the 140-character limit. Maybe it means that they live their intellectual lives moment by moment without stopping to think how excited they'll still be about that interesting idea tomorrow. Maybe it's a solidarity thing — the feminists at Yale could never bear to say mean things to each other, either. Maybe they really believe that a nurturing atmosphere yields better debate than a combative one. Or maybe they're just not quite good enough to suck.

On a less cranky note, escaping the style of "Oh my God, this will change the way you breathe!" is good discipline. At the end of the day, it's better to tell why you liked something than just that you liked it. The latter is lazy.

"My misandry is just a subset of my misanthropy."

Feministing has drawn attention to a new study:
Despite the popular belief that feminists dislike men, few studies have actually examined the empirical accuracy of this stereotype. The present study examined self-identified feminists' and nonfeminists' attitudes toward men. An ethnically diverse sample (N = 488) of college students responded to statements from the Ambivalence toward Men Inventory (AMI; Glick & Fiske, 1999). Contrary to popular beliefs, feminists reported lower levels of hostility toward men than did nonfeminists.
This shouldn't be any more surprising than a study that proves Christians experience greater "redemption anxiety" than utilitarians. An awareness of responsibility always entails more resentment than free-wheeling indifference. I would also expect ambitious people to feel disappointed more often than bums do. The real question is whether gender differences are real; if they are, being right is worth a little misandry.

Are You Conservative, Yet Attracted by the Idea of Class War?

Your opportunity may have arrived! North Carolina passed an indoor smoking ban in May with the following exceptions:
The new law permits cigar bars and private clubs to continue operating. However, Bliss said it would not be possible to change his business to fit under either of these categories.

A cigar bar is defined to make more than 25 percent of its profits from cigars, which Bliss does not serve. A private club is defined as a country club or organization linked with a nonprofit organization which does not provide food or lodging to a person who is not a member or member’s guest.

“This bill has basically protected the playground of the rich and elite,” he said, noting his confusion about why an amendment would be passed for a cigar bar but not a hookah bar. “They are allowing the exact same types of businesses to operate.”
The NC legislature is trying to pass an exception for hookah bars in the state — all twenty of them. The problem, in the words of one newsman:
Apparently, state legislators don't spend much time in hookah bars.
Nor in smoky roadside crank-the-Hank-and-crack-the-Jack honky-tonks, but that's sort of the point, isn't it?

(h/t Jacob Grier)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bookbag: William F. Buckley on the Republican Party in New York State

It wasn't ego that made William F. Buckley run for mayor in 1965. He just wanted to put a dent in John Lindsay's career, which he worried would drag the Republican Party to the left. With that in mind, here is his description of the New York 17th (in Manhattan), the unlikeliest Republican stronghold in America:
Lindsay's home district is probably the most fabled in the United States. It shelters not only just about all the resident financial, social, and artistic elite of New York but also probably the densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters; plus, also, a sprinkling of quite normal people. It is, as I have noted, preponderantly Democratic, although it has a perverse tradition of going "Republican" indeed has done so uninterruptedly ever since 1937.

In that year Bruce Barton (of Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn; author of The Man Nobody Knows) was elected Congressman, and although he was a firebrand tory, utterly opposed to the New Deal, he was uproariously popular, even while pledging to devote himself to the repeal of one obsolete law each week, and firmly opposing entry into the Second World War. He was, indeed, the Barton of Roosevelt's "Martin, Barton, and Fish," the big political anti-doxology of the late thirties. Barton stepped out of the Seventeenth and ran for the Senate in 1940, lost, and was succeeded by Republican Joseph Clark Baldwin, every bit as liberal as his predecessor had been conservative
so much so that in 1944 Republican Boss Tim Curran flatly refused to endorse him for re-election.

Baldwin was enraged. "They said that I did not represent the Republicans in the district. My opinion is to the contrary. They want me on the line on reactionary measures, and I won't do it. You can't be elected by reactionaries in my district. There are only 29,000 Republican. I was elected [n 1944] with 73,000 votes, which means that some 50,000 independents voted for me." He finished his lament with a wonderful sentence: "For years you had to be a reactionary to get nominated in the Republican Party and a liberal to get elected."

Not quite accurate, considering that his predecessor was Barton, and his successor would be Frederic Coudert, who, in the characterization of the historian of the Seventeenth Congressional District, Caspar Citron, "will remain in history as the prototype of the arch-conservative on both the economic and foreign fronts." Baldwin contested Coudert in a primary and was drastically (five to one) beaten.

Coudert lasted six terms, winning his last one by the slimmest of margins. He withdrew partly as a matter of general fatigue, partly because Lindsay had more or less made it plain that he would, if necessary, challenge him in a primary contest; and Coudert, already resentful over the frequency of Congressional elections, did not want yet another political contest on his agenda.
However, when Norman Mailer ran for mayor in 1969, that was ego.

Bonus question for the better-informed: Presumably Frederic Coudert Jr., Baldwin's successor in Congress, is related to Frederic Coudert Sr. and, by extension, Condé Nast's first wife. What is the exact connection, though? Coudert the elder was 66 when the younger was born, but I suppose that doesn't prove they weren't father and son.

Bookbag: Machine Politicians vs. Yippies

From Bill & Lori Granger's Lords of the Last Machine, this paragraph about the '68 Chicago convention:
What the hard-ball players in City Hall did not understand, or did not wish to understand, was that the rhetoric of confrontation that people like [Abbie] Hoffman delighted in was only talk. Daley and his advisors, not used to this strange, theatrical brand of politics, took the Hoffmans of the world at their word. When the demonstrators announced that they would shut down the city, City Hall scurried to protect itself. And the Daley forces thought the unrelated incidents of the West Side black riots and the peace demonstration were part of some larger plan. The actors in this political drama did not speak the same language — the Yippies did not understand the importance of precinct captains and garbage can lids, and the Machine did not understand that "up against the wall, m[*******]s" could be just a way of talking.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lovers Laughing in Their Amateur Hour, Holding Hands in the Corridors of Power

The American Conservative has a nice article up about "Samantha Power and the weaponization of human rights." Since Samantha Power has been at the NSC, there's already been one human rights crisis that, ideally, could have served as an indication of how we could expect her ideas to look in practice — Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, no one could write the "Where is Samantha Power?" editorial, because the answer was "Having a damn baby!" Maybe next time.

The Only Way I Could Like This Clip More Would Be If Tuesday Weld Put On Dobie's Boxing Gloves

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis has not yet been released on DVD, but someone has just put up several episodes on YouTube, including this one, "The Fist Fighter," about a boxing match between Dobie Gillis and Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty, looking about fifteen). Old-timey television, Maynard G. Krebs, and boxing — you can imagine my enthusiasm.

For those who don't know, Tuesday Weld was of the Boston Welds, third cousin once removed to William Weld. And, apparently, the money-hungry character Thalia Menninger, who only wanted to marry rich "for her family," was a little close to the bone for her:
My father’s family came from Tuxedo Park, and they offered to take us kids and pay for our education [when he died], on the condition that Mama never see us again. Mama was an orphan who had come here from London, but so far as my father’s family was concerned, she was strictly from the gutter. I have to give Mama credit — she refused to give us up.

So I became the supporter of the family, and I had to take my father’s place in many, many ways. I was expected to make up for everything that had ever gone wrong in Mama’s life. She became obsessed with me, pouring out her pent-up love — her alleged love — on me, and it’s been heavy on my shoulders ever since. To this day, Mama thinks I owe everything to her.

Letter to a Fanzine, circa 1841

From A History of American Labor by Joseph Rayback, this description of two oddly zine-like publications:
In 1841 there had appeared in Massachusetts the Lowell Offering, a magazine dedicated to the principle that the lot of the factory girl was a veritable heaven on earth. Recognizing the palpable falseness of the publication, groups of girls at Lowell and Exeter established their own periodicals, the Factory Girl and the Factory Girl's Album. These publications, crudely produced as they were, soon demolished the myth concerning the bucolic beauty of factory life.
Hey, female textile workers, that was pretty punk rock.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Up is Down, Black is White: Media History Edition

Freedom is slavery, says Tim Crouse in Boys on the Bus:
"Freedom" scared a reporter out of his mind, because it wasn't really freedom at all. "Freedom" simply meant that nobody had clearly marked all the pitfalls and booby traps, so the reporter became cautious as a blind man on a battlefield... To say that TV reporting was an "individual thing" was to say that if a reporter fumbled a story, the shit-hammer came down squarely on his head. There were no middle-men to blame.
Failure is success, says George Kalogerakis in Spy: The Funny Years:
Spy's first issue had 26 pages of paid advertising; the second had 13.


This NYT correction from July 1969, made necessary by Apollo 11, has been getting some play recently:

But I would offer this other, far spacier version from the comicsphere:

Hat tip Malice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Truth is Bad and There Should Be Less of It: A Continuing Series

First installment here.

From Charles Walton's Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech:
[François] Dareau understood the risks to individual honor in the courtroom, which is why he downplayed the importance of discovering the truth of alleged calumnies in his treatise on injurious speech. "In addition to the fact that the effort to prove the truth of the claims asserted through calumny leads to more injures being aired . . . if truth can serve as an excuse, it will open the way everyday new injures to be made, which it is always prudent to avoid." Dareau encouraged magistrates to focus on, first, determining the fact of the statement (was it made and was it made by the defendant?) and, second, the relative status of the parties involved. Social hierarchy, not truth, was the animating principle of Old Regime jurisprudence on injurious speech.
He continues:
Dareau and [Daniel] Jousse said that in cases involving close-knit power relationships, the dependent party had fewer or no rights. Thus, a bailiff could not seek redress for the verbal offenses made by a judge, a son by his father, a wife by her husband, or a domestic or artisan by his or her master. "Otherwise," Dareau explained, "it would not be possible to teach anyone a lesson."
I'm not sure this principle should cover all "close-knit power relationships," but, to someone who considers semi-ritualized abuse to be an important pedagogical tool, the basic idea sounds right.

If you're curious about the rest of Walton's book, this is one of its Big Ideas:
. . . historian François Furet saw in de Staël's observations a source of the Revolution's radicalization. Better known for attributing the Terror to Enlightenment egalitarianism, he briefly speculated in his essay "The Terror" that the legacy of Old Regime privilege may have also contributed to the Revolution's tragic course. "Aristocratic society, composed of castes created by the monarchy and fiercely jealous of their privileges, left the embers of its violence to the Revolution, which fanned them into conflagration."

The chapters ahead explore this conflagration. They show how the transition from aristocratic privilege to civil inequality unleashed the systemic violence of the Old Regime. The problem, I argue, was not the principle of civic equality; rather, it was the abruptness of the transition. The sudden democratization of honor unleashed a sudden democratization of vengeance.

"I fear that if I went before the Holy Father with a blossoming rod it would turn at once into an umbrella."

The Daily Mail and the Times are both surprised that L'Osservatore Romano would say nice things about Oscar Wilde. The Times explains its surprise:
Wilde, who was married and had two children, was arrested and tried in 1895 over his relationship with Lord Douglas (known as Bosie), son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused Wilde of sodomy. The writer sued Queensberry but lost, and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour and imprisoned in Reading Gaol.

He displayed a long fascination with Catholicism, once remarking: “I am not a Catholic — I am simply a violent Papist.” He was born in Dublin to a Protestant family but fell under the spell of Catholicism at Oxford. He even made a journey for an audience with the Pope but declared: “To go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods: money and ambition.”
To say that Wilde "fell under the spell of Catholicism at Oxford" makes him sound like that young freshman who read Brideshead Revisited too many times and developed an affected, unserious interest in smells and bells. The strange prevalence of Catholics among the Decadents has been attributed to that sort of adolescent attraction (exactly the theory my senior thesis tried to refute), but it's not quite fair of the Times to cast Wilde that way. The best one-sentence take on Wilde's Catholicism that I've found was an off-handed one from an actor, Kyrle Bellew: "I am a Catholic – you would have been one too had you been spared Greece." After Wilde picked Greece over Rome, he took Greece seriously, which suggests that the young Wilde was looking for a philosophy, not an accessory.

(Also, for what it's worth, I think Wilde's commitment to Platonic paganism was the biggest obstacle to his conversion, not his attraction to men — the two are obviously related, but I think Plato mattered more than Bosie.)

Both articles project the Catholic Church's reputation as homosexuality's ultimate enemy back onto Wilde's time, which isn't fair, either. Here's how Charles Kingsley talked about Catholics and Tractarians in 1851:
. . . there is an element of foppery—even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement; and I confess myself unable to cope with it, so alluring is it to the minds of an effeminate and luxurious aristocracy.
Where else would queer-leaning Victorians have ended up? (More here.)

In any case, Catholic rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde is not new, and the more of it, the better.

"I've never taken boxing promoter Don King too seriously as a self-proclaimed Republican."

But the new concert documentary Soul Power made J.R. Taylor of RightWingTrash change his mind:
There are still two fine political moments. One has King and fellow Republican James Brown discussing the importance of capitalism in liberating a minority—in this case, black men named Don King and James Brown. The longer scene starts with Ali saying hello to Stokely Carmichael, and admonishing him not to burn down anything in Zaire. (Carmichael’s wife, Miriam Makeba, performs in the concert.) Ali then gets going on a rant about how he’s never been a free man in white America.

A black gentleman sitting next to King disagrees. He declares that Muhammad Ali is a free man, Sammy Davis, Jr. is a free man, and then he declares himself to be a free man. King is nodding approvingly. Ali seems to concede the point. He jokes that he’s being contradicted by a dishwasher. Actually, I’m pretty sure Ali is being contradicted by his longtime aide Drew Bundini Brown. Say what you will about Ali, but he obviously didn’t surround himself with yes-men.
I never knew James Brown was a Republican, but I'm not surprised — he was pretty icy to Kevin White in The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

Speaking of which, The Night James Brown Saved Boston is available on Youtube in full. Keep in mind as you watch it that although James Brown's televised concert the night after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination did prevent violence from breaking out, he didn't actually save Boston from race riots. He just postponed them until the seventies, when they were really embarrassing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby: A Meet-Cute Case Study

I saw Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby at the Black Cat last week, and they told a very sweet story about the first time they met. Eric had gone to see Amy play at some bar in Britain, where he was dismayed to discover that, for her cover of "Whole Wide World," she changed the key.

"There are only two chords in this song, and both of yours are wrong." They are now happily married.

Here they are performing the song at a venue close to my heart, New Haven's Cafe Nine.

An Affirmative Action/Corruption/Patronage Intermezzo

This from the blog of Yale professor Chris Blattman, in the context of Obama's Africa speech (h/t Dara):
The puritanical quest to fight corruption is not a terrible one. It is merely insufficient. I hate corruption. It makes my blood boil. I want to punch someone if the nose if they ask me for a bribe. And that is why we should mistrust our instincts to make corruption the #1 fight; it is an emotional crusade, not a rational policy.

And anyone who thinks corruption blocks development should study their 19th century US history. Politics in New York, Washington, and Chicago make the Nigerians look like June Cleaver.

Bookbag: "...he should, at the end of his indoctrination, become Irish."

From Thomas R. Brooks's Commentary article "New York's Finest" (August 1965):
Richard Dougherty, who spent some time as the Deputy Commissioner in charge of public relations for the Department, explains in his perceptive novel, The Commissioner, that "it was a phenomenon of the strange process which constituted the making of a New York police officer that, no matter what his origins, he should, at the end of his indoctrination, become Irish."

Monday, July 20, 2009

In Defense of Corruption

This from Vincent Cannato's The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York:
Wagner made a point to have union officials over to Gracie Mansion for drinks, invite them and their wives to formal diners and parties, and do favors for their families. This way, when it came time for negotiations, the mayor and the union leaders spoke as friends rather than antagonists. Depending on one's point of view, Wagner used the relationship to convince union leaders to take less money or the union leaders used their coziness with the mayor to win fat settlements.
If only John Lindsay had been so "corrupt."