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.