Thursday, December 29, 2005

The search for intelligent life in the Universe on the road to Passaic, New Jersey

In trying to decide whether life has any meaning at all and if humankind is a vile and noisome parasite uselessly and absurdly struggling to survive and perpetuate its kind without any good reason for what it's up to, so pointless is its existence that mass suicide or a huge asteroid striking the planet could only be considered a favor to the universe, one should not look at natural disasters that cruelly and remorsely wipe out thousands of lives in the blink of an eye with no apparent detriment to the continuation of either the species or the earth, nor should one look at man-made disasters like wars, famines, accidents at nuclear power plants, and smaller-scale mayhem like car accidents and drive-by shootings which, though leaving behind lower body counts, are just as evil and senseless to the individuals involved.

No, all natural disasters prove is that Nature has different reasons and different ends in going about its business than do human beings. That Nature wants a volcano where human beings wanted a city doesn't mean that it was pointless for human beings to want the city, only that Nature was more insistent. Anyway, on the whole, in confrontations between human beings and Nature, human beings win most of the arguments, thanks to things like sun block, central heating, GORE-TEX, and bulldozers.

And man-made disasters---whether large scale, like wars, famine, economic catastrophies bankrupting whole nations; or small scale like murder, dinner at fast food restaurants, and a bad day at the track---are in fact the cause of the Question, and the thing that causes the question cannot, rhetorically, be its own answer.

We can't ask: Because there are wars, famines, economic catastrophes, etc., does that mean that life is pointless and human kind doomed to a meaningless and absurd existence? And then reply, yes, life is pointless and human kind is doomed to a meaningless etc. because of wars, famines, economic catastrophes etc.

Rhetoriticians have technical terms to describe such an argument.

Rhetoriticians have entirely too much time on their hands.

On top of this, man-made disasters don't prove that man, or woman, is doomed to a pointless and meaningless existence; all they in fact prove is that man, and woman, make mistakes. We aren't perfect. We are weak, subject to temptation, often our attention wanders, and on a regular basis thoroughly rotten human beings come along to exploit our weaknesses and take advantage of our wandering attention. Because we screw up or get screwed doesn't mean that life has no reason and humankind is an absurdity; it just means we need to try harder.

Which we can do.

The question then arises, why bother?

So I think that if one is going to ask the question---not the Why bother? question, but the first one, the What is the point, if there is even a point? question---one should look at things human beings have done deliberately that they are proud of.

Things that we put our minds and our talent and our skills to, intending to build or create an improvement. Things we think have made life better.

Things like the New Jersey Turnpike.

I think I've answered the question. Life has no meaning and humankind is absurd.

At least, that's how I felt driving north toward Passaic this afternoon in the rain.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cool memes, cool beans

Ezra Klein wants to know where all the cool memes have gone.

Yes, once giants walked the earth, men and women went naked and were not ashamed, the lion lay down with the lamb, and cool memes bounced hither and yon across the vastness of cyberspace, touching hearts, challenging the best minds, and inspiring millions, to the relief of many a burned out, blocked, or harried blogger traveling over the holidays who needs something quick and easy to write about because he is trying to post from his mother-in-law's kitchen while she is bustling about cleaning up after breakfast and biting her tongue to keep from asking when she can use her own phone.

Ezra's question about the missing cool memes was brought on by his being tagged with the Meme of Four during a temporary lull in the holiday festivities when he was bored enough to actually tackle the Meme of Four.

The Meme of Four is a simple "Tell the class a little bit about yourself" meme arranged in lists of four.

Four places you've lived.

Four jobs you've worked.

Four albums you can't live without.

Etc. etc. etc. etc.

And as befits a Meme of Four, the memed is then asked to meme four fellow bloggers.

Ezra has tagged me.

This shows that even brilliant young men like Ezra Klein have their lapses when their minds wander. Perhaps a pretty girl walked by, perhaps he was watching a football game and his team scored a touchdown. Whatever he was doing, he wasn't thinking. If he wants more cool meme-ing, he should tag only the certifiably cool and I am the uncoolest guy on the left side of bandwidth.

Even Kevin Drum is cooler. Kevin gets points just from living in California and from never ever bothering to even try to act cool. I routinely prove my utter lack of cool by trying to pass.

Once, back in college, there was a moment when I was cool by association---this really cool girl thought I was cool, but the arrrival of the police and Interpol nipped that romance in the bud.

Answering the questions honestly would just prove how uncool a life I lead and send me into a George Bailey on the bridge existential funk.

To avoid that, I’ve decided to make some changes in the questions. Won’t make me any cooler, but the answers will be more fun to type. Anything is better than having to type Muncie, Indiana as anything other than a punchline.

Four jobs they couldn’t pay you enough to do: Hospital orderly, steeplejack, game show host, Sean Hannity’s barber.

Four movies you used to love and watched over and over to the point that now you have them memorized and the prospect of watching them again causes your eyeballs to bleed: The Philadelphia Story, MASH, It’s A Wonderful Life, Barefoot in the Park.

Alternatively, four movies you loved when you saw them in the theater but don’t dare watch again for fear they won’t hold up: Shakespeare in Love, Lost in Translation (Hello, Roxanne!), Big Night, and Election.

Four places in the United States you've always thanked God you don't live even when you were living in Muncie, IN: Dallas, Texas; Burlington, Iowa; Youngstown, Ohio; Waycross, Georgia.

Four places you would like to visit on an extended vacation: Paris; Edinburgh; Melbourne, Australia; Juneau, Alaska, no kidding.

Four TV shows you are strangely tempted to watch but have so far resisted: Lost; Charmed; Beauty and the Geek; The Iron Chef.

Four Websites that aren’t on your blogroll that you visit daily: Like hell I’m going to tell you! The blonde reads this.

Four foods you don’t really like and can’t understand why you eat them but you eat them anyway and feel bad about it afterwards: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; chocolate iced donuts; lentil soup; onion rings.

Four albums you never listen to anymore but can’t bring yourself to trade in at Tower Records: Baseball’s Greatest Hits; Wagner’s Parsifal; Grover Washington's Next Exit; the original Broadway cast recording of Man of La Mancha

Four places you’d rather be but sadly won’t be any time soon: Upstairs at Christians in Chatham; in the audience at any of the theaters at the Stratford Festival; Carson’s Ribs; a table by the fireplace in a cozy back room in some great bar with all of you on New Year’s eve.

Four people who are now tagged: Claire Helene, Bill Nothstine, Pepper, and Kevin Wolf.

Feel free to answer the original questions, my variations, or any variations of your own. And of course all of you reading are tagged and requested to answer any and/or all of the questions in the comments.

Word of warning: The Countess, Trish Wilson, has also tagged me with a similar meme. Ezra tagged me first, but I'll get to Trish's later in the week---and hers is a meme of seven!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Stave II: "I wish to be left alone!"

(Click on the link for Stave I.)

'A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'

'Nothing!' Scrooge replied.

'You wish to be anonymous?'

'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge.

The Gospel According to Scrooge is a sermon dressed up as a play and it's sold to church groups to use as such. The day's lesson is decidedly evangelical though, not taken from Luke, as would be appropriate for Christmas, nor from Paul, but from that old exclusionary stand-by familiar from banners held up for the cameras in the stands at the end zone at football games, John 3:16.

Peace on earth, good will toward men and women, and charity, especially charity, are not anywheres near as important themes in The Gospel According to Scrooge as they are in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

In fact, The Gospel According to Scrooge doesn't much concern itself with Scrooge's lack of generosity or his moneygrubbing, except to almost approve the latter and prescribe narrow, familial limits on the former. The script dispenses with Scrooge's nephew Fred and turns Bob Cratchitt into his nephew, so that at the end of the play, with his heart newly opened up to Jesus, Scrooge is expansive enough now to make his nephew Bob a full partner in his firm.

The Cratchitts are rewarded for their faith by being made rich and although I remember some offhand comments by Scrooge about maybe giving some more to charity the effect of the ending is to promise the audience that believing in Jesus leads to storing up treasures on earth up to the rafters.

In A Christmas Carol Marley and the other damned souls wandering through the night air on Christmas eve are tormented by their desire to do good for others now that they have lost the power to do so.

Their lack of charity is their sin.

The Gospel According to Scrooge ignores this, because the churches that put the play on reject the idea that good works are what get you into heaven.

I was raised Catholic and I've never been able to get my head around this; but if that's what they believe then that's what their sermons are going to preach. Their business.

But I don't like The Gospel According to Scrooge because of that. Dickens was a Christian, although not much of a church-goer, and he wrote the story as a Christmas story, which is to say as a story about the meaning and spirit of a holiday he regarded as Christian---but his message is universal, and Scrooge's redemption doesn't depend on him becoming a good churchman. He goes to church on Christmas morning and joins in on the carols but the point of that is that he joins in. He merges his voice with those of other people. He's not solitary anymore.

Scrooge's sin in Dickens's story is his wish to be left alone, his being content to make his way through life along the edges, his insistence on being as secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. And that's a temptation that we all feel sometimes.

In The Gospel According to Scrooge all that's the matter with Scrooge is that he hasn't accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, which is decidely not the matter with almost everybody in the church watching the play. The audience doesn't identify with Scrooge's sin, they get to shake their head sadly in self-congratulatory pity. At the end of the play they are allowed to bask in the glow of their own Chadbandian smugness and vanity and their applause is for their own good fortune in already being members of the club.

But with A Christmas Carol we are encouraged to identify with Scrooge---that's why Dickens made him a comedian. Scrooge gets all the best jokes.---and we are forced to see ourselves in him. Because we all are Scrooges, not just from time to time, but too often. We let ourselves get caught up in our worldy affairs to the exclusion of all else, especially a sympathy with our fellow passengers to the grave. We all are selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent. We all want to be left alone to get on with our own business, and we all succeed in pushing other people away. We chase the carolers from our doorstep, we ignore our responsibilities to the people dependent on us if not for their survival then for some good cheer, hope, love, encouragement. We are all often content to edge our way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance. Scrooge's miserly ways are a symbol of his hoarding of himself, of his keeping himself apart. We are all misers in that way, secret, self-contained, and solitary as oysters.

The reason for the season isn't Jesus, it's what Jesus came to remind us to do.

Which was one thing.

Love one another.

And so, in case I don't get another post in before tomorrow to wish you all a merry one, a happy holiday whichever holiday you are celebrating tomorrow, let this message from Scrooge's nephew Fred be my Merry Christmas to all of us:

'There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,' returned the nephew. 'Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Stave I: Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster

"But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call 'nuts' to Scrooge."

Idyllopus has a fun post up.---There's a tautology. Does she post any other kind?---Inspired by her niece's casting in a production of A Christmas Carol, she sings the praises of her favorite movie Scrooge, Albert Finney, who played a singing and dancing Scrooge in the musical Scrooge. She writes:

Some find Albert Finney’s gnarled Scrooge obnoxious and hate the fact it’s a musical, and I could do without some of the lispy singing of cute kids, but Finney does a pretty good job of making believable Scrooge’s reformation in one night. Alastair Sim, in the 1951 film, is too eager to be out of his box, too ready, and can leap too high. The dissolution of Finney’s misanthropy is slightly more complex and is less through his being challenged morally, than being reminded of how he can still feel, that the capacity for joy is still there, which he can only experience after wading the grief of the past. The film doesn’t do a good job with explaining how Scrooge goes from a dancing young man in love to an isolated miser (I read the book to H.o.p. a couple of years ago and can’t recollect how it fares on making this believable) but never mind. The Spirit of Christmas Present sits on Scrooge and tricks him into participating for a change and seems Scrooge is ready to be tricked. He is less inspired by fear than he is released from gray cynicism. And fear.

Idyllopus's post reminded me that back in September the Viscount LaCarte, inspired by nothing so warm and touching as a young relative's early foray into a life in the theatre, but by Dick Cheney's Scroogish performance during a visit to Katrina-devastated New Orleans, wrote about his favorite movie Scrooge, George C. Scott. Sez the Viscount:

Over the years, the Alistair Sim Scrooge has been celebrated as the standard by which all others are judged, but I do not share that opinion. I think Scott’s Scrooge is by far the best, because he is gleefully mean. He is his own audience, and he is greatly amused by his miserliness and his callous indifference to suffering.

The classic scene is when he is approached by businessmen for a contribution to charity. He welcomes this opportunity to express his disdain for the poor. He appears to live for moments such as these. When he first encounters them, they say something like, “Mr. Scrooge, I don’t believe you’ve made our acquaintance” and he mutters with a wry grin, “Nor do I wish to.” They then go on to explain to him about the suffering children, the whole exchange about “Are there no prisons? No work farms?” The defining moment though, is when they tell him that conditions are so bad that some would rather die, and he says, (paraphrased from memory) “Well, if they’d rather die then let them die. It will reduce the surplus (laughing!) population.” There is the difference. Alistair Sim delivers those lines in anger, but Scott delivers them with glee, reveling in the fact that he is so clever in his meanness. He is proud of being such a scoundrel. He loves being a miser.

Me, I love both Sims' and Scott's Scrooges, each has different virtues. I have a soft spot for Finney, but I think Mr Magoo's is the better musical version, and I'm not kidding.

So rather than write about my favorite Scrooge, I'm going to write about my least favorite. (No, not Cheney.) It's not a movie Scrooge, but a stage Scrooge, and actually the actor playing the part wasn't at all bad. It was the play, which was called The Gospel According to Scrooge.

You're already dreading what's to come, I'll bet, quaking like Scrooge in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, terrified to follow but knowing you must for your own reclamation.

The Gospel According to Scrooge was performed at an Evangelical mega-church in Syracuse and don't ask how I wound up in the audience. The production values were professional. The church was rich and could afford to pull out all the stops. The acting was decent---good community theater level talent. What made the show awful was the script. It stuck to the main outlines of Dickens' story but the playwright Christianized it.

Over the years, it's been regularly remarked by critics, literature profs, and civilian lovers of Dickens that A Christmas Carol for all its Christmas spirit is not a particulary religious tale. There are very few references to the Reason for the Season.

True, but Dickens was writing for an almost totally Christian audience, most of whom would have been regular church-goers. He could assume that his readers knew the background. Besides, he was writing fiction. If his readers wanted a sermon, they knew where to go to hear one.

But the few Christian and religious references Dickens does put in are pointed and explicit. (See Tiny Tim's reason for hoping the people in church were looking at his crippled legs.) A Christmas Carol isn't a Christian allegory, like the Narnia books; its message is universal and not dependent on any religion, but it was written by a believer, who didn't particularly try to leave his faith out of any his writing, and so the story does have a Christian spirit, enough anyway that you wouldn't think Christians would have a reason to make changes.

My mistake. I keep thinking of Christianity as including everybody who believes that Jesus of Nazereth was the son of God and the Messiah.

I forget that the Fundies have a different, and much more exclusive idea, of who counts as a Christian, and Dickens doesn't.

To give you an idea of what changes the playwright made, I'll quote from a letter I wrote to my old friend Bill the night I saw The Gospel According to Scrooge:

As theology, it made my skin crawl. What is it about Evangelicalism that makes me feel like a devout atheist? Besides the fact that by the lights of Evangelicals I am a devout atheist.

It stuck pretty close to the story. Big difference is that in Dickens' world whenever somebody talks about Jesus and being saved as much as the characters tonight did it's a sure sign that person's a raging hypocrite. Here everybody's a pharisee at the front of the temple and yet that's considered a good thing.

Scrooge isn't visted by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He's visited by angels. Who behave like Dickens' ghosts, so why the change?

Tiny Tim doesn't die when Scrooge dies, by the way. I want to think the playwright spared him as a matter of dramatic expediency---by the time the Angel of Christmas Yet to Come shows, we're two hours into the show. But at the Cratchitt family Christmas they say a prayer, a long, specific prayer that Tiny Tim gets well, and so I'm suspecting that Tiny Tim lives so that the audience doesn't ask why God didn't answer their

Also it turns Scrooge's fiancee Belle into a prig. She doesn't break it off because Scrooge loves money more than her or anything. She accepts Scrooge's declaration that he does love her. She just won't marry a guy who doesn't love her particular version of God.

There's a non-Dickensian moment in Scrooge's past when young Scrooge loses his faith. You'd think that would have been a good moment for an angel to show up. But, nope. We're told God would have sent one, but Scrooge rejected Him, so tough luck Ebenezer. Scrooge is nine years old at the time! God gets miffed at third graders and leaves them to damn themselves?

"Well, Lance, the Lord works in mysterious ways. His ways aren't our ways and we shouldn't expect him to think like we do." I buy that, actually, but everybody who says this then goes on to explain what God's up to in fairly specific terms.

Get the picture?

In The Gospel According to Scrooge, Scrooge's sin is not miserliness and it's not misanthropy---it's that he's rejected Jay-sus!

(End of Stave One. I have to go do some last minute Christmas shopping. Stave Two later this afternoon. In the meantime, while you are thinking about which is your favorite Scrooge you can also go over to Rox Populi and vote for your favorite movie Jesus.

Update: Stave II is done.)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

An apologia for Republicans, seriously---well, almost

As Exiled in NJ noted in a comment here the other day, President Bush's recent upswing in the polls is due mainly to Republicans who've apparently gotten over Hurricane Katrina and Mike "Heckuva Job" Brownie and decided that as long as Bush isn't currently letting another major American city drown he's doing ok by them.

Be interesting to see how much of a fall off the President's declaration that he is king and the king gets to spy on any of his subjects whenever he gets a whim to do so causes and how long it takes dismayed and disgusted Republicans to forgive and forget this one---although I suspect that Republicans who are dismayed and disgusted by this are more likely to be thoughtful people of real principle who will find it hard to think of Bush as anything but what he's shown himself to be, a petty tyrannt who feels unrestrained by law, tradition, principle, common decency, or even a healty fear of getting caught.

As for the first type of Republicans, well, I'm more concerned about and more concerned by the many Democrats and Independents who still think Bush is doing ok by them.

For Pete's sake, how much more damage does the man have to do?

Now, as Ezra points out, there are many millions of Americans who just want to like their President, no matter who he is or what party he belongs to. They are not Red State Americans or Blue State Americans. They are Red, White, and True Blue Americans and they believe in supporting the man in the White House come hell or high water because he represents the United States to the world. These people liked Clinton, and now they like Bush; they will like whoever comes next; and whenever they are asked by a pollster they will answer that they "approve" of the job the President is doing, partly because they believe it is their duty to approve, the way it is their duty to fly the flag on National Holidays and stand for the Star Spangled Banner and teach their kids to love their country, and partly because their own patriotism, innate decency, and what they remember of American history convinces them that whoever holds the office must be a decent man trying his hardest to do a difficult job in a way that best serves the entire nation.

They know in their heads that not every President is an Abe Lincoln or a George Washington, but in their hearts they believe that every President is doing his best to live up to the examples set by Abe Lincoln and George Washington.

So they may think things aren't going well for the President, they may even decide he's not doing a good enough job for them to vote for him next time out or for them to be sad when he leaves office when his term's up, but they still "approve" of the job he's doing.

Bush is the worst President ever, but it's a cumulative effect, and if you were to judge the last 5 years only by the two big things Americans care most about, how the economy is doing and whether or not we are at peace, then Bush doesn't look as bad as he is. (Another good point to stop and go see Ezra.) The economy is not great, but it's not as dismal as it turned under his father or even as bad as it got a couple of times during Reagan's tenure. And, although we are obviously not at peace, we aren't at war in a way most people have to notice.

In fact, a lot of people think we are at peace because we are at war.

They believe in the flypaper theory, they believe that getting rid of Saddam has helped make us safer, they believe that waging the war and staying the course has made would-be enemies think twice about taking us on, and they believe that we are busy knocking off terrorists by the score in Afghanistan and Iraq and pretty soon there'll be none left to knock off.

An awful lot of people do not think it's just a coincidence that in the four plus years since 9/11 we haven't suffered another major terrorist attack, and they thank their lucky stars for whatever it is George Bush has been doing, even if it hasn't been much, to protect us so well.

The rest of us can think they're foolish or naive or sadly, sadly misinformed, but every night when they turn on the TV and there's no video of a giant hole in the ground where some big American building used to be and every week when they cash their paycheck they aren't all that bothered that George Bush is President.

But to get back to those 80 per cent plus Republicans...

Not all of them, not the ones who belong to the group I described above, Americans who support Bush because he is the President and they always support whoever is President.

The rest of them, the more loyal Republicans.

I get the urge, too, to take them by their collective shirt fronts and shake them until their back teeth rattle, while demanding to know, "How much more damage does the guy have to do before you admit he's a total fuck-up?"

"What do you mean 'damage,' Lance, and please take your hands off me, you're wrinkling the material."

"What damage? The guy's lost his private little war, for crying out loud!"

"He hasn't lost it. We're winning. See your own flypaper theory above. Plus, as long as we're killing more little brown people than little brown people are killing of us, we're ahead. Plus, we're bringing democracy to the Middle East, which you'd know, if you could see into the future like we can where our dreams really do come true. We're optimists. We choose to believe in our dreams, unlike you cynical pessimists and defeatists who insist on counting flag-draped coffins and dead Iraqi babies, as if a few flag-draped coffins and dead Iraqi babies matter in the long run."

"He let New Orleans drown! He's letting it rot in its own waste!"

"Good riddence. Those people shouldn't have lived there anyway. And how come none of you Liberals ever worry about the people of Mississippi? NOLA, NOLA, NOLA! That's all you care about."

"Mississippi's a mess too! The Gulf Coast was devastated and Bush isn't doing anything to help them rebuild either!"

"They're mostly black and poor down there too, aren't they? Well, I'm sorry for them, and I'm not a racist, but they need to learn how to stand on their own two feet and break free from the cycle of dependency you racist Liberals have addicted them to with your big government programs, plus we just can't keep throwing good money after bad. We can't afford it"

"We can't afford it because Bush is bankrupting the treasury!"

"Yes, he is. Giggle giggle. Beautiful, isn't it?"

And now we get to it.

Whatever else George Bush has been, he's been a very successful Republican President.

Exhibit A. Yesterday's Senate vote on the budget.

Good Republicans support George Bush because he is the figurative head of their Party. If he fails, the Party fails, a fact a lot of worried Republican Congressmen are beginning to take note of. They know next fall's election will likely be a referendum on George W. Bush and they can't decide what their best course is for getting themselves re-elected, push the guy as far away from their districts as they can or fold their arms around him in a great big John McCain-esque hug. I suspect that unless Bush's poll numbers drop drastically among Republicans, for the most part the nervous Congressmen will stand by their man.

During the Impeachment Crisis, I of course, like every sensible person, thought that the charges against Clinton were ridiculous and that the Republicans were simply trying to pretend they weren't attempting a coup. But it wasn't just that I didn't think he deserved Impeachment or even censure. I didn't want him to be Impeached or be forced to resign because it would have been a defeat for the entire Democratic Party. (Paging Joe Lieberman, paging Joe Liberman. Your tailor called. He says he's turned your coat for you and it came out beautifully.) There were some pundits who said Bill should resign for the good of the Party. They said that that way Al Gore could run as the incumbent in 2000. But he would have run as the man who took over for the disgraced and defeated Bill Clinton. (As you know I think he ran as if he saw himself that way, anyway.) It's arguable that the Impeachment Crisis did do half the job the Republicans wanted it to do, wounding Gore and the rest of the Democrats at the polls, but I think what resulted is as nothing compared to what would have happened had they succeeded in driving Bill from the White House.

That's the loyal Democrat in me talking.

It would have taken a whole lot of really high crimes and misdemeanors to have convinced me Bill needed to go.

Loyal Republicans don't want to see their President defeated because they know it will translate into a defeat for them across the board. They won't admit, at least not in public, but maybe not even to themselves, that Bush is a failure, because it would feel like an admission that the Republican Party has failed.

Party loyalty should not trump loyalty to one's country. But Party loyalty is often mostly a matter of being loyal to one's own ego and interests, and vanity and self-interest usually trump every sort of principle in most every sort of human being, Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative.

People stink and they are stupid.

But besides that, as I said, George Bush has been a successful Republican President.

Nevermind the influence of the Religious Right, nevermind the neo-con warmongers and imperialists. You don't even have to consider the many disguised Dixiecrats.

The Republican Party is still, first and foremost, the party of Corporate America. That is, it is the party of rich white folk and the people who dream of nothing else but becoming rich white folk.

Since the Gilded Age, the Republican Party has stood for two things above all else. That the Government's job is to protect, serve, and help increase the wealth, status, and privileges of rich white folk and that, therefore, the Government should do nothing that gets in the way of rich white folk increaing their wealth, status, and privileges.

In short, low taxes, a minimum of regulation, and a big strong police force to keep the riff raff in line and out of their neighborhoods.

(Remember that third item when you think about the cheerleading for domestic spying by the blogging orcs.)

Spin this any way you like, my Republican friends. Rephrase it in as many high-minded words as you can muster, talk about rising tides lifting all boats and free enterprise and self-reliance, what have you. It still comes down to just three things.

Low taxes, a minimum of regulation, and a big strong police force.

And on those three things George Bush has delivered.

The country's engaged in an expensive war with no end in sight?

The treasury's empty?

New Orleans is dying and large chunks of Mississippi are just gone?

What do you do?

Raise taxes?


Cut spending on the poor, the sick, and the young struggling to get through college.

George W. Bush, Republican.

Related: See Paul the Spud on yesterday's Senate vote on the budget and Shakespeare's Sister on Nancy Pelosi's plans to get the House's vote reversed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Speaking of spies

The blonde and I have been working our way through the television adaptation of John le Carre's Smiley's People starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, thank you Netflix.

It's been a very long time since I read the original trilogy of Smiley novels---Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People---so I can't remember what I thought Smiley was like before Alec Guinness turned him into Alec Guinness. I might have imagined him as a little bit younger, a little less of an old granny, with a bit more of the adventurer left in him. My idea of spies back then was still based on James Bond, Allistair MacLean novels, and whatever I'd read about Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS during World War II. Le Carre wiped all that out of my head, but it took all three books to do it, I think, so I probably started reading them with a more heroic and virile Smiley in my mind's eye. I do remember thinking of his wife Ann's affair as a sexual betrayal, which means that I saw Smiley as being sexually capable and that I didn't understand that his was the initial betrayal. I didn't understand how thoroughly Smiley had been warped by the spy game, that it had caused him to commit Scrooge's sin---he had withdrawn his soul from all contact and sympathy with other people. He had left Ann long before she left his bed.

A few years later, watching Guinness in the TV adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People for the first time, I suddenly did understand. Guinness forced me to understand.

The question that I'll never be able to answer for myself now is whether or not he did this by illuminating the character of George Smiley or stealing him from le Carre and rewriting his subtext forever. Anyone out there who has read the books but not seen the TV movies?

With his rolled umbrella, orange suede shoes, and too careful walk---practically the totter of an old woman overloaded with packages making her way home along icy sidewalks---Guinness painted the portrait of a man who has grown too self-protective, despite having very little sympathy for himself, a man determined to keep himself alive and well for no other reason than he needs to be alive and well if he's ever going to catch his nemesis, the Russian spy master, Karla.

And those thick-lensed oversized glasses empahsizing his wide, astonished eyes made it plain that Smiley had become all eyes, which is a way of saying that his only way of dealing with life has become through looking at it, that is, by spying on it.

(The glasses were Guinness's own; he had very bad eyes at that time. One of the more interesting parts of his books of memoirs is his description of the results of the operation that fixed the problem. I think it's in My Name Escapes Me but he might have written about it in A Positively Final Appearance, as well.)

The other point Guinness made by making Smiley such an old auntie was that Smiley was never heroic.

Guinness had a strange career when you think about it. He was a leading man who almost never, ever played a hero. In fact I can think of only one time. Star Wars. Obi-wan Kenobi was an old man, worn down by a life of hard adventuring followed by disappointment and defeat, but as Guinness played him the hero was still in him, ready to break out and go to work. Guinness, of course, never saw the young Obi-wan except in his imagination, but after watching Ewan McGregor's swashbuckling you can put on the original Star Wars and see that younger adventurer in Guinness's old wizard. In fact, I think that McGregor's portrayal of Obi-wan was an act of quiet, unassuming, and underappreciated genius, in that he was able to figure out exactly what kind of young man Alec Guinness imagined Obi-wan to have been and show not just that young man but the beginnings of that young man evolving into the old man exactly as Alec Guinness had played him.

All this is just to say that although Guinness didn't have much experience playing it handsome, dashing, and heroic, at least in the movies, he could play it handsome, dashing, and heroic, and what's more he could show in an old man the young hero he used to be---and he decidely did not do that with George Smiley.

His George Smiley has no traces left of the young man he used to be; whether or not that young man was heroic or not doesn't matter to the George Smiley of the present, who is another man entirely.

Not that Guinness leaves out any shadow of youthful goodness in the old man. Apparently the only thing he remembers about his former self is that he used to be more idealistic. He believed in right and wrong and he believed he was on the side of the angels. Now he is relfexively inclined to say that there are no angels in the spy trade, no complete ones, at any rate, and no one who is wholly a devil.

He remembers being idealistic, but he's like a priest who has lost his faith. He goes through the motions in hopes that the old, familiar devotions will revive the old, familiar feelings. He's loyal to the memory of his ideals more than he is idealistic himself.

In Smiley's People, Smiley is even more of a solitaire than he was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The plot makes him have to be. He is out there on his own. And this is what is making me ambivalent about the mini-series.

Because the focus is so much on Smiley, the focus is on Alec Guinness playing George Smiley to the point that the series seems to be more about Guinness's portrayal of Smiley than about anything else.

I'm not sure I would be enjoying it at all if somebody else---Ralph Richardson or John Mills or Leo McKern---had been cast in the part. (Well, maybe I would if it had been McKern.) I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again a couple years ago, and while Guinness was terrific and definitely the star, I think the series would have stood on its own with another Smiley.

Now I'm trying to remember if the books were like that. Did Smiley slowly grow too big for his own story so that by the time le Carre wrote Smiley's People he was writing a pure character study instead of a spy story?

I think a bad thing is about to happen.

I'm going to start re-reading the books.

The Worst Romeo

The worst Romeo ever to disgrace our boards was given by none other than me, moi-meme. It was to be seen, a bird of ill-omen, in Perth during the summer of 1939. I wore a reddish wig (I can't think why), a droopy mustache (a big mistake), and Larry Olivier's cast-offs from the Gielgud production of four years earlier. Pamela Stanley, who had recently made a success in the West End as Queen Victoria, played Juliet and brought to the part of sorts of pretty little Victorian manners; in fact everything except a German accent.

The first night was memorable. I lept the garden wall for the balcony scene---'He jests at scars that never felt a wound'---whereupon the wall fell flat. With professional sang-froid I ignored the whole thing and struck a romantic pose of extreme yearning.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East and Juliet is the sun.

At which moment the balcony fell off, to reveal, gasping with astonishment, Miss Stanley in her nightie. Another foot forward and she would have tumbled to her eternal rest. The curtain was lowered. After ten minutes of hammering, we started again, to tumultuous applause. The audience was thoroughly enjoying the mishaps, as they always do, but they also wanted, I think, to show their admiration for Miss Stanley not succumbing to the vapours. A few nights later we got successfully as far as 'It is the East and Juliet is the sun' when---No, not so, there was no Juliet. Distant cries for help were heard; she was locked in the lavatory. The curtain was lowered once more while the stage carpenter was sent to release her. It should never have risen again but we persevered. On the last night my ginger mustache got stuck to the phial of poison and after much spluttering with Romeo's last line, "Thus with a kiss I die,' it managed to tansfer itself to Miss Stanley's lips. She was not amused.

---from A Postively Final Appearance by Alec Guiness.

Coming in from the cold

I hope Tom Watson is right and President Bush's little spy game and the l'etat c'est moi act with which he's been defending himself with constitute "the cerebral embolism that will drain the Administration of its last twitches of legitimacy."

Susie Madrak has found at least one more conservative who's given up his faith in the bloody fraud, constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein who writes in the Washington Times---in the Washington Times!:

President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law. He cannot be trusted to conduct the war against global terrorism with a decent respect for civil liberties and checks against executive abuses. Congress should swiftly enact a code that would require Mr. Bush to obtain legislative consent for every counterterrorism measure that would materially impair individual freedoms.

Susie has posted most of Fein's op-ed piece. I like Fein's conclusion:

But if secrecy were pivotal to the NSA’s surveillance, why is the president continuing the eavesdropping? And why is he so carefree about risking the liberties of both the living and those yet to be born by flouting the Constitution’s separation of powers and conflating constructive criticism with treason?

Faith in a bloody fraud

This is from Adam Kirsch's review of a new biography of William Wordworth by Juliet Barker in the December 5 issue of the New Yorker:

Wordsworth’s turn away from politics was responsible for the extraordinary flourishing of his poetry after 1797. What animates his best work is his struggle to transcend the radicalism of his youth, to rescue its benevolent impulses while escaping its shallowness and intolerance. In a sense, Wordsworth’s intellectual trajectory is similar to that of the American Trotskyists of the nineteen-thirties, who became the liberal anti-Communists of the nineteen-fifties. Like them, Wordsworth found his revolutionary hopes betrayed by history—the Terror of Robespierre and the rise of Bonaparte. His eloquent hatred of Napoleon, like a later generation’s hatred of Stalin, came from his realization that he had wagered his highest hopes on a bloody fraud. Returning to France in 1802, after ten years of terror and war, he saw only the corpse of a revolution:

When faith was pledged to new-born Liberty:

A homeless sound of joy was in the sky:

From hour to hour the antiquated Earth

Beat like the heart of Man: songs, garlands, mirth,

Banners, and happy faces, far and nigh!

And now, sole register that these things were,

Two solitary greetings have I heard,

"Good morrow, Citizen!" a hollow word,

As if a dead man spake it!

My Republican-Texan-Bush Voting brother-in-law has been dropping hints he's not much happy with his guy in the White House. Lately he's been telling my father that he's looking forward to Hillary being elected so he won't have to play defense all the time anymore.

My brother-in-law is an extremely bright, articulate, and tenacious guy, and no shrinking violet either, as umpires working Texas Ranger home games can tell you. Watch the Rangers play in Arlington sometime next season and keep your ears open---although you really won't have to listen that hard---you'll hear him. That's his voice carrying out across the stadium, "GET YOUR EYES CHECKED, BLUE!"

In short, my brother-in-law is not the kind who backs down easily from an argument. So I have to figure that if he's tired of defending Bush, it's got to be because he's decided there's nothing there to defend.

He's probably not going to switch to being a Democrat, and I don't think he'll wind up voting for Hillary just to give himself the fun of hating her afterwards. But who knows?

Depends on whether he makes the leap from realizing that Bush and his gang of thieves and thugs have betrayed everything that traditional Republicans and conservatives used to hold dear to realizing that most Republicans in Washington haven't held those things dear for well over a generation now.

When too clever for their own good Right Wing intellectual types, pundits, and their echoes, the blog orcs, trying to make the case that the Republican Party is the party of ideas, accuse Democrats of belonging to what is now the conservative party they aren't aware of the truth of which they speak or of the irony.

But I suspect that at the moment many smart, honest, decent-minded, and humbled, conservatives and Republicans are making that leap...or they are turning the fall they are taking after the Bush Leaguers gave them the push into a Olympic-quality dive.

After reading that passage from Kirsch's essay this afternoon, I wondered hopefully if any important Republican politicians or conservative thinkers and writers might be making the leap soon.

Of course, it isn't necessary that they do. What's necessary is that they realize and realize it quickly that when it comes to the Bush Leaguers it's not just a case of there being nothing there to defend, or even nothing there that was ever worth defending---the time has come when common decency requires all honest men and women to rise up appalled and demand that the bloody fraud be overthrown.

And, serendipitously, after I read Kirsch's review and then came online to blog about it---yes, I was reading the analog version. How quaint.---I made a stop at Berube's page first and found that he's just heard from a conservative-libertarian blogger who has risen up appalled.

The blogger, Mark Earnerst, pointed Berube to a post of his (Earnest's) in which he's written:

I almost feel I don’t know these people anymore. It seems now they feel government cannot have nearly enough power. Secret courts, secret warrants, secret prisons, suspect torture, massive data gathering on all aspects of US citizens including medical records, library records, and financial records are all wonderful things. . . .

I truly and honestly do not understand. People who once proudly quoted Franklin’s “Those who give up essential liberty for a little safety deserve neither” now cheerlead the executive branch on in removing any judicial oversight, congressional oversight, and in fact ANY oversight (as most of these laws are secret) from the land. Far from the transparent government the founders imagined, we are now entering a system where laws are kept secret, prosecutions are kept secret, and national security is a password to removing any and all liberty that stands in the way of anything government wishes to do.

Berube is appreciative of Earnest's declaration of righteous outrage, but he goes on to make clear that the Bush Leaguers and their cheerleaders haven't merely wandered off the good conservative path. They were never on it:

People who support a clandestine program of warrantless domestic spying are not “conservatives” or “libertarians.” Neither are people who support the creation of a worldwide archipelago of secret torture sites. Neither are people who support the usurpation of the functions of government by the executive branch; who espouse the theory that the executive branch is the final arbiter of the legality of the actions of the executive branch; and who call for the investigation or prosecution of a free press that dares to report on the executive branch’s secret programs of domestic spying and outsourced torture.

Those people, my friends, are called the radical right.

I don't know how many more will have a Wordsworthian change of heart. Enough, though, I hope to see the corpse of the revolution and hear the words victory, Iraq, 9/11, and terra "as if a dead man spake it."

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We're living in Futurama, ruled by the head of Richard Nixon carried around in a bell jar by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

Sort least that's what I've decided after reading Digby, seconded by Sifu Tweety at the Poor Man's place.

First, let me make one thing perfectly clear...

If President Bush wanted to use the NSA to spy on American citizens here on American soil, he could easily have asked for permission and almost certainly would have received it from the court with the power to give it. As Josh Marshall reports, that court is not in the habit of saying no.

And it was the not asking that was Bush's crime---yes, crime. Break the law, you've committed a crime. Bush committed a crime. Ezra Klein explains, his patience fraying a bit with each reiteration, the law, the procedure Bush should have followed, and why what Bush did was wrong, here, here, and here.

So the question is, why didn't Bush obey the law? It wasn't even as though he was acting in the heat of the moment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and even if it had been the court and the process were designed for speed. All that was needed was a little bit of paperwork that could have been handled by a junior lawyer in the Attorney General's office who probably would have had to do nothing more than fill out a form and walk it over to the right judge's clerk.

Ezra thinks Bush's speech the other day in which defended his crime was Bush's great Fuck You moment.

Since telling anyone who disagrees with him, criticizes him, or advises him even with the most obsequious deference to do what he doesn't want to do or not do what he does want to do to fuck off has been Bush's first and often single reflex, it's plausible to read back from the speech to the order itself and hear Bush, as he sets loose the spooks, saying "Fuck you" to any aide who suggested that he ask the judges for permission first.

But Digby and Sifu Tweety hear the first fuck you, the primal fuck you as being said not by Bush himself, or even by Dick Cheney, who we know is good at saying it. The first fuck you was uttered with a shifty look out from under hooded brows and with a tremendous shake of shadowed jowls by Tricky Dick himself, only it sounded like this:

"When the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

W's Presidency is Dick Nixon's Revenge.

Nixon lives on in the Bush White House, his head preserved by former minions and henchman and current acolytes, chief among them Dick Cheney, who tells Bush all he needs to know about the law.


[L]ike Nixon, [Bush] believes that the president has only one "accountability moment" while he is president. His re-election. Beyond that, he has been given a blank check. And that includes breaking the law since if the president does it, it's not illegal, the president being the executive branch which is not subject to any other branch of govenrment.

Sifu Tweety:

The way they see it [they being the Nixon loyalists, Cheney, Rove, "essentially the whole fat lot of them who were alive at the time"], everything in American political history, from that unjustified prosecution [of Watergate] right up until 9/11, was a species of mistake. And in the days after the attacks, as a new reality settled around us, they realized that this was their grand political reset button. The political winds, to their minds, finally shifted back to their natural course.

So this NSA scandal, this return to the domestic spying of the Nixon years, is part and parcel of their recreation - amplification - of those halcyon days. They don’t fight for the right to torture because they have a hard-on for torture. They fight for torture because the right is, in our Attorney General’s immortal words, “inherent in the office of the President.” They don’t eschew negotiation, cross-aisle communication, or compromise because they are shrewd political operatives angling to hype up the base. To them, any concession to Congressional prerogatives is showing weakness to an equal, a rival. This is why they hold open votes, threaten nuclear options. What do they care for the traditions and precedents of the Congress? They are The Presidency. They don’t fight “activist judges” because of some kind of constructionist ideology, or even, for that matter, because they crave specific rulings. They fight for ready-to-knuckle-under simps like Scalito because, to them, the three branches of government no more act in concert than do three squabbling candidates in the heat of primary season, or three College Republicans fighting for the same assistant treasurership. They have their horse in this campaign, the presidency, and to win, in this case, means to win absolutely, to take the reins of power singly. Sharing the work of governing is abdication, defeat. You can see this attitude in WPE’s dismissive public comments. In winning the election his office became our nominee for the next phase of the campaign. We backed his horse. Now we need to shut up, stay outside the sausage factory, and let them do what they do best.

Some day, when they are all dead and presenting themselves at the gates of heaven, the current crop of the Washington Media Elite will stand before a tribunal of judges including the shades of I.F. Stone, Edward R. Murrow, and Jack Anderson. The judges will look down from their thirty foot high bench built out of the leather bound transcripts of the Nixon tapes, the Iran-Contra hearings, and Ken Starr's final report on Monica, and they will ask David Broder, speaking for the rest of his clubmates, "Tell us, please, explain to us, we beg you, how when George W. Bush first declared for President in 1999, you all looked at the collection of former Nixon henchmen and bagmen, Iran-Contra traitors and thugs rallying to his side, a gang brought together by everything that was vile in American politics going back 30 years, and you turned to the rest of the country and said, 'Fear not this seeming moron, George W. Bush, because he is a man of the people, a regular guy, who just wants to bring honor and dignity back to the White House, and if you doubt our word, why, behold, look at this troop of distinguished statesmen lined up to advise him and help him steer our battered ship of state to safe harbor!'"

And Dean Broder will plead for mercy, saying, "But they gave us access! He bestowed upon us nicknames!"

The judges will put their heads together for three seconds and then speak us one.

"You go to hell!"

Sifu Tweety also links to this fine post by hilzoy of Obsidian Wings.

Pepper is compiling a playlist of songs to be spied upon by. She's looking for suggestions.

And the post below this is by my friend Steve Kuusisto, poet, essayist, and sometime commentator on All Things Considered.

The Nixon Hand

My grandmother once shook Richard Nixon’s hand as she stood outside a leather tannery in Peabody, Massachusetts. The next thing we knew she stopped using the hand, refused to wash it, carried it about on an invisible pillow. In effect, her hand became what philosophers call “an independent object” like a flame in dry flowers.

“We’re all Greeks,” my friend Gary says. Like Wallace Stevens, Gary is both a poet and a lawyer--he sees the adventitious relations between instinct and natural facts; walks between thunder claps; discovers the perfectly irreversible flowers of intuition. “We’re Greeks,” he says, “I mean we’re like Plato. For us, in the end, essence and the contemplation of essence are the same.”

My grandmother was a Finnish minister’s wife. But once her hand had become The Nixon Hand she could no longer stand in the doorway of the church. She took to her room and sat among the prismatic dust motes. She waggled the fingers of the hand.

Let us, in the manner of Plato, put the matter before our eyes:


“I see purposes and intentions in everything. Magical thinking. The lucky rabbit’s foot…”

The Nixon Hand:

“I believe in crises, conspiracies; I abjure the childish anthropomorphism that puts God inside a cloud or coming luck in the eyes of dogs.”


“Oh, oh, oh! Dogs are filthy! I don’t care what anyone says, they don’t have souls!”

The Nixon Hand:

“But you would agree that there are lucky dogs?”


“Dogs can’t go to heaven!:”

The Nixon Hand:

“Look, excuse me, I don’t know how to say this, you look like a nice lady, but we have real enemies!”


“Don’t you tell me about enemies: when the Russians drop spoons in the snow they can hear it in Helsinki which means they hear it in Duluth!”

The Hand:

“Jesus! I should have known Kruschev didn’t have any spoons! What else do they say in Duluth!?”


“They don’t say anything. Quiet people; Finns and Norwegians. It’s dryly cold. You can hear the hinges on the mailboxes.”

The Hand:

“Don’t give me that! Everyone’s got funny little debts! Everyone flaps against the hedges. Or goes alone to the county fair and looks up at the rising lights of the Ferris wheel and says something aloud, something jaundiced tossed out at children or strangers…


“God provides. All you need to do is step gingerly over the fallen trees.”

Richard Nixon’s hand, the literal one, “the gripper” as he called it, was white and damp as a fat, Georgia onion. He waved it before the crowd as if it had its own life. Dick Nixon, the boy from Yorba Linda was the keeper of that hand, the huntsman with his hawk. The hand-hawk was sly. It flew straight for the old Finnish woman, the woman with the medical stockings. She shook that hand and went straight home. She lay down in the parlor at the front of the parsonage, a room ordinarily off-limits—a place for christenings and funerals.

Sometimes, without warning, resignation steals over the most spiritual women. She lay in a broad sunbeam and saw in the spinning motes tiny figures of faith and distrust. Nixon’s witch hunts thrilled the religious Finnish Americans, at last someone was speaking their language. And after all those years of listening to Roosevelt my grandmother was more than a little wild to see creeping socialism spaded over in Whittaker Chamber’s pumpkin patch.

Seasons of devotion pass. I once knew a man who made his living repairing television sets. He made house calls in the country, visiting farmhouses. He drove a station wagon that featured on its roof a tall, illuminated plastic Jesus. You could see his glowing yellow savior across the far fields. One day his Jesus was gone. He didn’t replace it with anything. There was a cover of duct tape across the spot where Jesus once stood. When asked he said he’d given the figure to a school for retarded children.

My grandmother was a reader of the Finnish language press and the Missouri Synod church calendar. She didn’t own a television and so didn’t hear of Nixon’s TV address to the nation concerning his slush fund and his little dog “Checkers”.

She was washing dishes with one hand when Mrs. Lehtinen arrived at the parsonage with a basket of cardamom bread. They spoke of the births and deaths; the drinking of certain men; the lurid story of a local teacher. When Mrs. Lehtinen ventured to Nixon’s speech and his emotional plea to the nation with reference to his little dog—well, Nixon’s hand fell from brainchild into essence. My grandmother saw Mr. Nixon fondling a dog in all its prime reality, saw the Nixon Hand stroking thousands, maybe millions of dogs, dogs across the nation from Maine to California.

Mrs. Lehtinen could see a magpie through the kitchen window, a peculiar bird, rare in Peabody. It was dancing sideways on a telephone wire. When she looked back she beheld a woman who was shivering though her hands were deep in steaming suds and the noon sun was flooding the room.

---Stephen Kuusisto

The blonde won't let me watch The West Wing---still!

John Spencer, Leo McGarry of The West Wing, died of a heart attack yesterday. I hope he wouldn't mind my reposting this criticism of The West Wing from last year by way of a tribute. He was one of the best of a terrific ensemble. No matter what I thought had gone wrong with the show, I never ceased to admire Spencer's performance. I still remember how stunned I was by the intense reality of the character he played in Presumed Innocent and towards the end of LA Law's run he was that show's last saving grace.

Bartlet_1The blonde is in the family room, watching The West Wing. I'm not allowed in there. She doesn't want me ruining the show for her. I've promised to keep my opinions to myself, but she knows me too well. She can sense when I'm annoyed by something we're watching. I don't understand how she does it. She must be psychic.

I used to enjoy The West Wing. It took me a little while to warm up to it. I had a hard time swallowing the premise that the whole country was being run by six white yuppies and that this was a good thing. But I liked Martin Sheen's President Bartlet right away and eventually I got to like the other characters and I learned not to mind the constant liberal (but not all that liberal) moralizing.

Every now and then they did something that infuriated me. Like the time when they had the President publically humiliate a Dr Laura character at some White House function. Besides the fact that it was out of character for Bartlet to do something so ungentlemanly, the real Dr Laura didn't deserve the kind of hatred she obviously inspired in the show's writers. Rush Limbaugh now, he's a target. But the show hasn't taken on him or any of the Right Wing hate-mongers. A silly woman who scolds bored housewives and makes dumb statements about homosexuality is a public enemy. But those men who spend their days whipping up a nationwide lynch mob? Never heard of them.

Impeaching Bartlet for lying about his MS was a just plain stupid idea. I guess Aaron Sorkin thought he had something to say about what the Republicans tried to do to Clinton, but besides the fact that after all we've learned about FDR's polio, Eisenhower's heart disease, and JFK's thirty-eight different medical problems nobody would care that Bartlet had MS, Clinton's impeachment didn't come out of nowhere. The Republicans didn't just pounce opportunistically on the Monica Lewinsky lie. They spent every year of Clinton's presidency up until 1999 investigating every aspect of his life, trying desperately to gin up a scandal they could use to destroy him. West Wing's impeachment plot trivialized the Impeachment and even helped give post hoc credence to the Republicans' claim that they hadn't had it in for Clinton, Slick Willy brought the whole thing on himself and they were forced by circumstances to take action.

Sorkin realized the plot was fizzling and cut it short, having his Republicans take out their rage on Mrs Bartlet, which was truer to the real Republicans, who if they had had their choice back in '98 might have let Bill alone if they could have had Hillary flogged in Lafeyette Park.

And I hated it when they killed Bartlet's secretary for no good reason at all except to give Martin Sheen a chance to play mournful.

Mostly, though, it was a very smart, witty, and cleverly plotted show, and I liked it.

But then Rob Lowe left and all of a sudden I didn't like it so much anymore.

Westwing05Sam Seaborn was my favorite character. I think because his mind always seemed to be elsewhere. All the other characters were hyper-focused on the great business of running America. Meanwhile you could see that Sam was thinking about baseball, what he was going to have for lunch, the woman he went to bed with the night before. Sam was also the only character who ever got laid. CJ was apparently hot stuff at one time but I guess once she went to work for Bartlett she became a secular nun. Sam was the only one who seemed to be having a normal life. He was also the only one who enjoyed his job. Josh supposedly lives for what he does, but that isn't really the same thing as liking it. Sam came to work cheerful and left that way. When he left the show grew a whole lot less likeable.

And then they didn't seem to be able to go two episodes without doing something not just annoying but weird.

Having the Vice President resign to avoid a sex scandal, that came out of nowhere, and booted an important character off the show. Plus, I like Tim Matheson and I got a kick out of thinking of Otter from Animal House as the Vice President. (Meeting with Senator Blutarsky from time to time, of course.) Matheson's character was also the way the show could continue past the end of the Bartlett presidency, as the producers seem to have figured out.

Hiring Lily Tomlin and then giving her nothing to do and even forgetting she existed for episode after episode made no sense.

Westwing01 And the whole terrorists kidnap the President's daughter, President steps aside because he's too distraught to lead while her life is in danger even though he knows that evil House Speaker John Goodman will take his place plot was an absurdity that went nowhere and not only wasted John Goodman but destroyed my belief in President Bartlet as a realistic character.

Any President who would give up his job to sit home and wring his hands when the country's in danger, even if his daughter's the first casualty, doesn't deserve to get it back.

Plus I was really hoping for a season long Constitutional crisis plot in which the Republicans attempt a coup. After all, imagine if one of President Al Gore's daughters had been kidnapped after Vice President Lieberman had resigned to go work on a kibbutz, do you think Denny Hastert would have let Gore back into the Oval Office? If he even thought about obeying the law, Tom DeLay would have had his head on a platter.

So, by last season I had become an erstwhile fan and watched the show only sporadically. And this season I haven't seen a single episode.

Mainly because the blonde won't let me.

I guess she thinks that because my reactions to the promos have included boos, catcalls, snorts of disgust and derision, and standing on my chair screaming at the TV in rage and disbelief at how stupid the show appears to have become, that I won't be able to sit quietly beside her and let her enjoy her favorite show, the only peep out of me coming at the commercial breaks when I'd ask her in dulcet tones, "May I run to the kitchen and fix you some hot chocolate, dear?"

Go figure.

But maybe she's right. I am appalled by this season's plot twists so far. For one thing, if they were going to give Leo a great death scene, they should have actually had him die.

Besides, the scene of him infarcting all alone in the woods was stolen from Dick Davenport's death in Doonesbury, which was one of the most moving deaths in pop art, right beside Farley's in For Better, For Worse and Henry Blake's in MASH.

And the CJ becomes chief of staff move drives me insane.

Westwing04 CJ has always had far more involvement with policy making than any press secretary in history, except for maybe Hamilton Jordan, and didn't that do Jimmy Carter a lot of good. In that way she was enacting DeeDee Meyers' dream of the way it should have been with her and Bill Clinton. But the show usually made a point of showing Josh and Leo keeping her out of the loop from time to time so that she would not be put in the position of having to lie to the press.

It's inconceivable that someone so out of touch with key policy making decisions, who has as far as we know very little experience in crafting legislation and absolutely no background in foreign policy, and whose job has kept her away from the day to day workings of the executive wing would be dropped all at once into the position of the President's grand vizier.

One of the show's weaknesses has always been that the cast is too small. With a larger cast there are more possible outcomes in games of musical chairs. Possibly when he first conceived The West Wing Sorkin imagined an ensemble as large as St Elsewhere's or Hill Street Blues'. (We know he had planned that we would never actually see the President himself and that would have left a big structural hole that could only have been filled by at least three more characters.) But it didn't pan out that way. He put that handful of white yuppies in charge of running the country, but interestingly in a supposedly liberal administration gave the weakest part---in terms of how much power her character wielded---to the lone woman.

Presumably, female fans as well as writers, producers, cast members and network executives pointed this out from time to time, but Sorkin ignored them. When he left and an opportunity arose to fill the second most powerful role on the show with a woman, it's no surprise that the show's new executive producers jumped at it.

But why didn't they just introduce a new character? Or, since they've had her around doing a surprising and wonderfully understated job as the National Security Advisor, why didn't they promote Anna Deveare Smith? It would have made more sense, especially since the President and Leo seemed to actually like and respect her. One of the more realistic touches in the show has been the undercurrent of contempt with which the other characters have treated CJ, which has seemed accurate, not just because she's the only girl in the boys' club, but because we know that the press secretary is looked down upon by the kids with the real power in every administration.

Making Smith the chief of staff would have had the extra benefit of putting a person of non pale yuppieness in a position of authority. What does it say that Charlie, the only black face on the show, is essentially the President's valet?

But it appears that the motivation behind promoting CJ wasn't to give power to a woman character. It was to showcase Allison Janney.

I'd noticed, standing in too many supermarket checkout lines over the last couple of years, that Janney was turning up on the covers of a lot of women's magazines. The PR machine seemed to have decided all at once that Janey's face could sell things. Which meant that some focus group or survey had shown that Janey was the reason a key demographic watched West Wing.

Thirty and forty something yuppie women.

She's their ideal them. Smart, sassy, successful, sexy, and unencumbered by husband, lover, or children---that is, absolutely independent of men. Except for her brilliant but ailing daddy.

I have a whole theory worked out about how Janney represents the virgin goddess Diana and how as women move into middle age they stop worshipping Venus and become priestesses at the shrine of etc. etc. etc. I'm not going to get into it. I'm already banned from the family room during West Wing. I don't want to get banned from any other rooms.

Anyway, by putting Janey front and center, I think the producers are telling me that my viewership is no longer desired. I'm too old, and too not female.

But what about the soon to be a regular Jimmy Smits, you might ask? Isn't he there for you aging baby boomer guys to identify with?

No, he's there to attract women still too young to want to withdraw into the Temple of Diana with Janney.

Maybe I'll start watching again when Alan Alda shows up.



Friday, December 16, 2005

Danny at the bar, a very short novel

A long time ago, when Uncle Merlin was just getting his embroidery business up and running, he tended bar weekends at a restaurant in Somerville, just north of Boston. The restaurant was in a neighborhood that was gentrifying, it was part of the gentrification, having been until recently not a restaurant but just a bar for the neighborhood working stiffs. Some of the bar's regulars kept coming around after the new ownership took over and nudged it up the scale. One of those regulars was Danny, a minor villain who made his living sticking up liquor stores---well, actually, his real occupation was prisoner, because he wasn't any good at sticking up liquor stores. Sixteen years ago tonight I got a phone call from Merlin who told me that Danny, temporarily out of jail, had been in for a drink.

Danny, the Rudy’s regular and minor villain is back in trouble with the law, Merlin says.

I've seen Danny only once. In August of ‘85. I was visiting Boston and stopped in to see Merlin at R---'s. Danny and his wife were back early from their honeymoon on Cape Cod. They had drunk their wedding gift money. But they were still celebrating. They sat on the same side of their booth, arms around each other, kissing and giggling, a happy pair except that neither set of their parents was supposed to know they were back. The money was meant to pay a week’s hotel bill. Now they are broken up. A messy divorce involving jealous violence. Danny is on trial for robbery and he’s scared he will be convicted.

The prosecutor’s a terrible bitch, he tells Merlin.

Merlin nods non-committally.

The prosecutor is another regular.

A year in the life of William Shakespeare

Since I sometimes dedicate my scrapbook posts, a friend asked me if the sonnet I posted last night was meant for anybody special.

It was meant for me.

I was feeling sorry for myself because I'd come to the end of a book I'd been reading, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599, by James Shapiro.

I haven't been that sad to finish a book in a long time. The last time I remember was W. Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson. Bate had made me feel that I'd really come to know Johnson and walked about in his world with him and when I read of his death I cried as if I'd just received news that an old friend had died.

The only other book that affected me that much was David Copperfield, the first two times I read it.

Shakespeare is alive and well at the end of Shapiro's book, so the sadness I felt when I closed the covers wasn't akin to grief. It was like the sadness you feel when a great party comes to an end. So I posted the sonnet and then started in reading again from the beginning.

How about you? Have you ever felt that way about book?

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought..."

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

---Wm. Shakespeare

But did the artist use a live model or work from memory?

Police in a nearby town knocked down somebody's snow sculpture the other day.

Cops claimed they thought it was some kids' idea of a joke and they were doing the residents of the house on whose front lawn the sculpture stood a favor.

Turned out the residents sculpted it.

I don't think I can do this one justice. You'd better read the whole story, which I'm sure you'll want to after reading this quote from the police chief:

"Now we're going to get snow penises popping up all over town."

Here's the link: Was it art or was it snow porn? If you have to register, do it. You won't be sorry.

Sore Loserman, an aside

Sore Loserman, an aside

The main point of my second Sore Loserman post wasn't simply to pick on Al Gore or even blame him for losing in 2000, although obviously I did both.

The point was to remember that Joe Lieberman entered upon the national stage in the role of quisling. It appears to be a part he was born to play. At any rate, he's embraced it enthusiastically and acts the stuffing out of it, and he seems determined to go on playing it well past the point of embarrassment, like those old Shakespearean hams who continued to star as Hamlet or Romeo into their 60s.

My other point was that choosing a Vice-Presidential candidate is a crucial decision for a Presidential nominee.

I think the conventional wisdom these days is that the VP candidate himself has a negligible effect at the polls. Maybe so. But I think the choice of a running mate is very important. It dominates the news cycle for a week, after all. The choice tells voters---and the Media---something significant about the Presidential candidate. Painful as it is to remember, Bush's choice of Cheney was played up by his campaign and played back by the Media as a sign that Bush was aware of his shortcomings as a potential President and was savvy enough, and courageous enough, to choose a Veep who was smarter and more experienced than he was to make up for what he lacked.

The message was that George Bush may not be a Clinton-esque intellectual and policy wonk, but he was smart enough to surround himself with smart aides and advisors like Cheney. This somehow got woven into the overall campaign narrative that George Bush was a regular guy.

Bush would leave all the pointy-headed stuff to his flunkys while he'd make the big decisions relying on his gut, his heart, his common sense, and Jesus.

In a comment, Jim Madden raised the objection that in judging Gore I underestimated the effect of a hostile Media on his campaign. Jim's right, of course.

I didn't mean to downplay it to the point of its not mattering, which is why I linked to that old post of mine, It's always been about Whitewater. There's no question that a large, powerful, and determined claque of Media Insiders set out to beat up on Al. They started in on him during the primaries when Bill Bradley was their darling, and they continued right up until the Scalia and company ripped up the Constitution.

(If George Bush really does think the Constitution is just a god-damned piece of paper, it's not an idea he came up with all on his own.)

But I think that the candidate and his campaign managers should try their hardest to direct the Media's attention and focus. At the time it appeared that Gore's people allowed their own focus and attention to be directed by the Media, leaping like startled rabbits at every criticism and then rushing off to change things to please the critics.

Whether or not that's true or that's a perception I picked up from the Media finding yet another way to attack Gore for something he didn't do, choosing Lieberman was a blunder because it fit right in with the story the Media were beginning to tell about Gore, that he was a smug Liberal elitist and Washington insider, out of touch with Real America---in contrast to that man of the people, George W. Bush.

Water under the bridge, except that John Kerry went on to make the same mistake.

I was glad when Kerry picked John Edwards for his running mate and at the time the choice earned Kerry a lot of positive press coverage.

But Edwards quickly sank into irrelevancy. And this wasn't because Vice-Presidential candidates don't matter. And it wasn't Edwards' fault. The fact was that out on the campaign trail Edwards turned out to be John Kerry's mini-me.

Edwards was another Liberal. Another Senator. Another lawyer. Another pointy-headed intellectual type. Edwards is able to do the man of the people part on his own, but put next to Kerry that aspect of his character was overshadowed by all his similarities to Kerry.

Even his authentic Southernness seemed to melt away.

What this means is the next time out the Democrats have to do a much better job of casting their VP.

Which brings up another question. Suppose Hillary is the nominee.

Among those in the know this isn't so much a supposition as it's a given. I don't see how it will happen since so many Democrats everywhere seem either terrified of the prospect or determinedly hostile, but here's Craig Crawford of working from the thesis that Hillary's the front runner who it'll be hard to beat. (Link via Political Wire via Shakespeare's Sister.) So let's say it is Hillary.

Who on God's green earth could she possibly choose as her running mate?

Who could she get to complement her strengths and counterbalance her shortcomings?

Presumably, her choice would be a man, just because she would probably be choosing from her main rivals for the nomination (although this has always struck me as being of doubtful wisdom. Why put on your ticket someone whose main claim to fame at the moment is being a loser?). But even if she were to go for someone who hadn't had a hat in the ring, choosing another woman would probably be too risky in her mind and in the minds of party movers and shakers. A candidate already despised and feared as a castrating shrew battleax fishwife and closeted lesbian---and don't think we won't hear those rumors a lot come 2008---wouldn't dare put another castratrating shrew battleax fishwife on her ticket---and don't think that any woman who ran with her wouldn't be seen as one.

But what man could she pick? We know how just about any man who runs with her will be perceived.

No, not as being secure in his masculinity and having a strong, healthy ego.

Yeah, I know, we live in a dumb, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic country.

We're not going to change it by losing elections.

An aside to the aside: Gore's choice of Lieberman and Kerry's of Edwards were self-defeating in another way. A President Gore or a President Kerry would have faced the prospect of dealing with a Republican majority in the Senate. Taking away a Democratic Senator was not the most foresightful move either man could have made then, especially since it was probable both would have been replaced by Republicans.

Lieberman's successor would have been appointed by a Republican governor. (Remember this guy?) In fact, an early sign of Lieberman's essential quisling nature was that, knowing this, he held onto his seat anyway, running for re-election to the Senate instead of stepping aside to let another Democrat have a shot. I don't know why Gore didn't make that a condition of his being the VP candidate. By running for two jobs at once, Lieberman was either admitting that he didn't think Gore would win or that he didn't care if a Republican took over for him in the Senate.

Edwards did give up his seat, and a Republican won it handily, although the results were close enough, 52 per cent to 47 per cent, that it's probable that Edwards running as the incumbant would have been re-elected.

Think of it. If Gore had made Lieberman give up his seat and Kerry had found a governor to run with him, Connecticut would be probably be represented by a real Democrat and John Edwards would still be in the Senate.


"For all sad words of tongue or pen,/the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"