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."

Rick Perlstein's Secret Plan for GOP Resurgence

I saw Rick Perlstein speak at this year's America's Future Now! conference (formerly Take Back America), and he began with three stories from 2008 that proved to him that the "conservative machine" has lost its discipline. The most important was the time McCain disavowed radio host Bill Cunningham, the significant part of that story being that Cunningham gave as good as he got ("I've had it with McCain; I'm going to throw my support to Hillary Rodham Clinton"). Back in the day, Perlstein said, Cunningham would have fallen on his sword for the sake of Mother Movement. If the Right can't command enough loyalty to keep one of its footsoldiers quiet during a controversy, then it's a movement facing decadence.

Great, I thought, Perlstein's saying that the Right should become more machine-like. Maybe it's true what the man said, that in time you can turn these obsessions into careers! But even if Perlstein declension narrative is right and what the Republican Party has is a loyalty problem*, that's a diagnosis and not a cure. There are two kinds of political loyalty, and picking one means rejecting the other. The first kind of political loyalty is ideological — it's the Goldwaterite enthusiasm for the GOP as the agent of conservatism, which extends as far as the party's ideological purity and no further. The other is party loyalty plain and simple, the kind of obedience a political boss might require from his subordinates.

In 1964, the GOP had more of the former than the latter, which was distinctly un-machine-like, as James Q. Wilson points out in The Amateur Democrat:
The leaders of the Goldwater campaign saw themselves as responsible to a set of ideas, to a man, and to a cause — not to an organization, a coalition, a heterogeneous party. The result, of course, was disaster.
Indeed it was. Contrast that with the role ideology played in Carmine DeSapio's Tammany regime, which was none at all. As Pat Moynihan put it:
The extent of his ideological commitment may be measured by his pronouncement to the Holy Name Society Communion Breakfast of the Sanitation Department that "there is no Mother's Day behind the Iron Curtain."
Tammany-style loyalty would be my preference, but if Goldwaterism's fixation on ideological loyalty is in conservatism's DNA, then machine loyalty might be difficult for the GOP to achieve.

But maybe there is hope. After all, what could be more fusionist than "There is no Mother's Day behind the Iron Curtain?"
*Perlstein also noted that, based on what he saw at the '08 national convention, the GOP has become politically tone deaf and can no longer tell which parts of its message resonate and which alienate. I picked up on the loyalty problem rather than tone deafness only because it's more interesting to me. However, "Don't be tone deaf" is good advice.

Bookbag: Edward Banfield's Here the People Rule

Banfield defends corruption in this footnote from "Corruption as a Feature of Governmental Organization":
The construction industry provides a case in point. New York City has a 843-page building code; a builder is required to get at least 40-50 permits and licenses — for a very large project as many as 130 — from a maze of city departments. "Each stage," John Darnton writes in the New York Times (13 July 1975, p. 5 sec. 4, col. 3), "is an invitation to a payoff. By withholding approval, or concentrating on a minor infraction, or simply not showing up at all, an inspector can cost a builder dearly or delay his recouping a multi-million-dollar investment."

In practice, the Knapp Commission found, "most builders don't bother to get all the permits required by law. Instead, they apply for a handful of the more important ones (often making payoff to personnel at the appropriate agency to insure prompt issuance of their permit). Payments to the police and inspectors from other departments ensure that builders won't be hounded for not having other permits" (New York City, Knapp Commission, p. 125).

Recently two-thirds of the construction inspectors in Manhattan were suspended without pay on bribery charges. None of the charges seems to have resulted from a builder's effort to get around the requirements of the building code. What was being bought and sold, an official said, was time.
Maybe conservatives do believe in victimless crimes?

Corpulent Dane Proves Power of Etiquette

To qualify as hard-nosed, a person has to believe that social problems aren't caused by cultural decadence, family breakdown, and solo bowling, but are mostly, if not exclusively, a function of economics and other quantifiables. A hard-nosed pragmatist wouldn't suggest, say, bringing back the stigma against single motherhood; he'd talk about the availability of contraceptives.

There must be a pun in that somewhere, because Tycho Brahe was more hard-nosed than anyone has ever been and it was a fuzzy unquantifiable — shame — that killed him. Johannes Kepler's account:
Holding his urine longer than was his habit, Tycho remained seated. Although he drank a little overgenerously and experienced pressure on his bladder, he felt less concern for the state of his health than for etiquette. By the time he returned home he could not urinate any more.
The very modest point I want to make is that, while it's easy to score pragmatism points by scoffing at emotional motivations, it's foolish to think they don't matter. If a sane person might be willing to undergo serious deprivation for the sake of avoiding the shame of charity, for instance, that's something worth talking about.

All of this was brought to mind by the Chad Mitchell Trio Song "Fall River Hoedown (The Lizzie Borden Song)":
You can't chop your poppa up in Massachusetts
And then get dressed and go out for a walk,
No, you can't chop your poppa up in Massachusetts—
Massachusetts is a far cry from New York.
There's a series of cute rhyming couplets at the end of the live version I've got, and everyone in the audience laughs at this one:
Jump like a fish, jump like a porpoise,
All join hands and habeas corpus!
And no one laughs at "Such a snob, I've heard it said, / She met her Pa and cut him dead!" Can it be that the reference was too old-timey? Alas if so.