Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A dangerous profession

Last week, Shakespeare's Sister asked as one of her fun questions of the day:

Think of a person you knew only briefly—no more than one year—who nonetheless left a significant and lasting impact on your life. It could be a lover, teacher, friend, boss, whatever. What did you learn, gain, or lose?

I didn't leave an answer because I had the same trouble thinking of one as Mrs Shakes had herself:

I can’t think of anyone who I knew for so short a time. Even my teachers were people I saw often after having their classes, because my parents were teachers, and so it was typical for me to see teachers outside of school.

Same with me. As for friends, I've been lucky in that most of my best friends are still my friends and the good friends I've drifted away from or who have drifted away from me---a couple had the nerve to drift right out of this world, for which I'm still having a hard time forgiving them---were my friends for years. If Shakes had asked for memorable characters I could write for days about several bosses and co-workers. And if she'd asked only for a person outside of your family without setting a time limiting frame I'd have had trouble choosing just one. There have been a bunch, including Uncle Merlin's mom; Uncle Merlin himself; my fourth grade teacher, Mrs MacLane; Mrs K, our high school drama teacher; my old pal Rennie; my old pal Cindy; my old pal Steve Kuusisto; my old pal Nancy Nall.

(The answer Shakes came up with to her own question is very interesting, by the way.)

There is one person, however, who sort of fits Shakes' bill. (There's a pun there that is almost true, as you'll see.) The novelist Frederick Busch. I didn't know Fred for less than a year. Our acquaintance lasted for the better part of two decades, but I guess if you added up all the time we actually met up or spoke or corresponded, it would amount to much less than a week, maybe even a day. (If you throw in the time I've spent reading his books, however, and time spent reading a writer's work is time spent in his company, the total shoots way up.) But he still had a significant impact on my life.

Technically, Fred was never my teacher and I can't say we were friends, although he was always very friendly whenever we connected. But that didn't happen often. I met him at Iowa. He wasn't teaching there at the time, he came for a visit, and I interviewed him for the college paper. A few years later I interviewed him again for the newspaper in Syracuse and a few years after that I interviewed him again and one more time after that. In between we exchanged a few letters and emails and I visited him a couple of times at his office at Colgate University, where he taught.

But although I never took a class or a workshop from him I think of him as the best writing teacher I ever had. Fred was one of the hardest working writers I've ever met, and he thought more deeply and seriously about the craft than any of the men and women who came through the Writers' Workshop while I was a student there. A half hour's conversation with him was worth far more to a young writer's training than an entire semester with any of them.

Fred Busch died this past Friday.

I have been trying to work up a post about Fred and his work but I'm not sure I'll get it done in the next couple of days. I want to say something fitting about him now though and I think the best I can do for him is let him speak for himself---or at least give you a sense of what I got out of speaking with him. So what follows here is one of the articles I wrote about Fred. I interviewed him for the next to last time in the fall of 1998 when his collection of essays about writing, A Dangerous Profession, which may be his best book after his novel Rounds, was published.

“Put your fingers on your throat when you’re reading something,” the writer suggests, “And see if you don’t feel your larynx moving just a bit as you’re adjusting your air intake as if you were saying the words along with the writer.”

The writer is Frederick Busch. Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University. Novelist, short story writer, essayist. Thirteen novels, six collections of short stories, three books of non-fiction, including his latest book, A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. Two more books coming out next year, another novel and an anthology of advice to young writers that’s he’s edited.

He’s talking by phone from his home in Sherburne about A Dangerous Profession, and about the many dangers inherent in his profession that gave the book its title.

Writing, of course, can be dangerous in the strictest, most physical sense. Salman Rushdie lived for a decade under a death sentence. Vaclev Havel went to prison. So did Wole Soyinka.

And writers can be politically dangerous. Certainly, in the cases of Rushdie, Havel, and Soyinka says Busch, the ayatollahs in Iran, the communists who ruled the former Czechoslovakia, the military dictators of Nigeria thought and think of these writers as dangerous men.

But the dangers Busch is talking about, and most concerned about in the essays that make up A Dangerous Profession, are not the more public ones, but the private ones---the dangers writers pose to themselves and to their readers.

The relationship between readers and writers, Busch says, “is an emotional and physical entanglement.”

“We can’t all write. But most of us do wish to tell our stories. And sometimes the only way we can even approach that is to have somebody else tell his or her story. We share in that vicariously,” Busch says. “That’s why we enjoy certain writers. That’s why a non-writer who’s a good reader will say to you, God I worship (so and so), I’ll read anything she writes.”

“It strikes me that that’s not only because of her prose, or the adventures of her characters, but because the reader somehow thrills not only to what goes on in the book but to the very act of telling, which he witnesses and with which he ultimately emotionally cooperates.”

The cooperation is conditional, however. That condition is paradoxical. It is this: Readers want to hear the writer tell a story but they hope that it is not the story that the writer wants to tell.

This is bound to lead to mutual disappointment. A good writer, a serious writer, doesn’t tell readers what they want to hear. He tells them what he believes to be true. This truth is often hard. Disappointed readers move onto other books by other writers. Where do disappointed writers go?

Into government work, in one famous case, into obscurity, into near silence. Herman Melville, the subject of two essays in A Dangerous Profession, and Busch’s forthcoming novel, The Night Inspector, wrote two best-sellers to start his career. Neither one was Moby Dick. That book nearly finished his career. Critics harpooned it. Readers let it sink unsold and unread. Melville lamented:

“What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."

A Dangerous Profession has two parts. The ten essays in the second part are critical examinations of the lives and works of writers Busch likes and admires. The first six essays are personal, Busch relating the earliest stages of his own career.

One of those essays is called “The Writer’s Wife,” an apologetic, comic valentine to Busch’s wife of 35 years, Judy. Busch calls the essay, “My expiation.”

The first essay is about Busch’s father. It’s called “My Father’s War.” Benjamin Busch, Sr., a lawyer in civilian life, served as an Army scout in Italy during World War II. In the essay Busch describes his attempts to recreate for himself his father’s wartime experiences, which his father rarely discussed, using his father’s laconic, sometimes monosyllabic, soldier’s diary and maps from the college library at Colgate.

It’s a frustrating exercise, which leaves Busch shouting to his father in his head, “Where are you?”

At the end of the essay Busch suggests that his mapping of his father’s war is emblematic:

“When I write, then, when I place my characters in a geography I labor to make actual-feeling, in some way true, perhaps I am trying to earn my reader’s approval. Maybe I have to find him first. Maybe, when I write, I’m mapping him.”

The reader, of course, may not like the map or find it useful. His answer to the question “Where are you?” may be “Not where you think I am.” Or as Busch puts it in “Melville’s Letters,” a writer sends mail out into the world, his work, and then waits for the world to reply, which it very often does not.

Or if it does bother, the response probably isn’t all the writer hoped for, even when the reply comes from very someone very close by. Busch remembers how when he gave his mother a copy of his short story collection, Hardwater Country, she said, “Will I like this one?”

“Success is only delayed failure,” wrote Graham Greene, whom Busch quotes in an essay called “The Unscrupulous Purity of Graham Greene.” Even writers who never seem to have disappointed readers, whose careers were one success after another, and included fame, fortune, wealth and life-long adulation, may finally disappoint themselves. Busch writes of Charles Dickens as one example; Ernest Hemingway, as another.

Towards the end of his career, and his life, shortly before he committed suicide, in fact, Hemingway was in the Mayo Clinic, being treated for hypertension, diabetes, and depression. While there, Busch has been told, Hemingway taped a sign to his door. It said:

“Quiet Please. Former Writer Preparing Press Conference.”

“He was one of the writers made by media hoopla. He cooperated, he liked it. We all like that kind of attention, it’s very tempting. But he looked himself in the eye and with that sign he said two things. ‘I let myself become a creature of press conferences and publicity. And I can’t write anymore.’”

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Kelly's Heroes are my heroes

Kelly’s Heroes, the Clint Eastwood war movie we watched for family movie night this weekend, is a strange film—strange because it’s more intelligent and subtler than it needed to be.

In barebones outline it’s basically a caper movie that happens to be set in occupied France in World War II. Mastermind Clint Eastwood, as Kelly, hatches a plan to steal 16 million dollars worth of Nazi gold from a bank behind enemy lines. He enlists Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, and a gang of misfits to help him with the heist. For added fun, setting up the caper and assembling the gang allows the filmmakers to include elements of a typical service company. And pretty much this is what Kelly’s Heroes is—a Chinese menu of a genre movie with a little from Column A, a little from Column B, plus some Chef’s Specials. It’s a war movie/caper movie/service comedy. Well-made, diverting, funny in spots, exciting in others. Nothing special. Except…

Kelly’s Heroes came out in 1970, the same year as M*A*S*H and the two movies share thematic similarities, character types, and attitudes. M*A*S*H began life as just a service comedy, Sergeant Bilko with doctors and sexy nurses. Kelly’s Heroes has some of the same service comedy elements: Soldiers as wisecracking wheeler-dealers and con men pitted against brass that’s out of it, lost in their own pet projects, schemes, vanities, ambitions, or delusions of military grandeur. Kelly’s Heroes is missing the authoritarian types who are in love with rules for the rules, own sakes or for the opportunities rules provide them to boss others around. Carroll O’Connor is in there as a general who is a borderline crackpot, but his role isn’t to get in Kelly’s way; it’s to cheer him on, although without knowing what he’s really rooting for Kelly to do. So the movie doesn’t share M*A*S*H’s anti-authoritarian streak, exactly. Its view is that authority is an illusion. The brass—the ruling class, the bosses—only think they’re in charge.

What’s in charge is chaos and death in the form of War. And all that opposes it is the individual’s determination to survive and make enough order for himself as he can manage. The fight isn’t to end Nazism. Nazism is just another face of War. The fight is to get to Berlin alive so that the War will end and the good guys can get a good meal, a good bed, and a good lay. Telly Savalas, as Big Joe, the sergeant, is the hero, which surprised me. I didn’t remember that from when I first saw the movie as a kid or even from the second time when I was in college. When I was a kid I identified with Eastwood the Cowboy. When I was in college I identified with Donald Sutherland as the artist and professional survivor. Now that I’m a father I guess I’m finally smart enough not to take what Savalas is doing in the movie for granted.

Eastwood’s character is more ambiguous than I’d noticed. Kelly’s a loner, but unlike in Westerns, the loner here is admired only up to a point. Kelly’s in this thing for himself, this thing being the caper, but it may be the war too. Kelly sees all the other characters as his business partners. He’s fair to them, but he isn’t bound to them. He doesn’t love them, that’s for sure. Savalas loves them all, even Kelly and the Don Rickles character, whom Big Joe disapproves of, distrusts, and even disdains—but he’s still one of his. His responsibility. His son.

Big Joe is the only character in the movie who is not motivated by money or self-interest. (Except for Carroll O’Connor’s general whose motivations are a mixture of vanity, bloodlust, and patriotism, and as lunatic as he is.) Big Joe goes along with the plot to steal the gold in order to be there to take care of his men and see they get out alive.

Through Savalas’ character, Kelly’s Heroes becomes not a war movie or an anti-war movie but a movie about heroism in an unheroic reality. And in that way it’s very much a product of its time.

Which brings us back to its similarities to M*A*S*H.

What the two movies have in common, besides the presence of Donald Sutherland in their casts, is an unglorious definition of heroism. Heroism is staying alive and helping others stay alive—which is to say, stay human—in the face of unspeakable inhumanness. The enemy in both movies is Death. And War equals Death. Any justification of war, any justifier of it, whatever uniform he wears, is on the side of Death.

Watching Donald Sutherland play his character as the first hippie is a clue. The movie may be set during World War II but don’t let that fool you. Kelly’s Heroes and M*A*S*H are both anti-Vietnam War, anti-Johnson, anti-Nixon.

What’s different between them is that Kelly’s Heroes has no equivalent to Frank Burns while M*A*S*H has no equivalent to Big Joe.

Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke are basically compassionate men. They care about their patients and look out for each other and their friends. But they are also anti-social types and more often than not pretty darn selfish. They are like Kelly. They don’t want to be where they are, they didn’t volunteer, they don’t feel called upon to do anything over and beyond the call of duty, and they are on the lookout for a way to get something for themselves out of the awful messes they’ve been stuck in—they want some kind of payback.

Big Joe talks tough, comes on like a cynic. He dismisses any outbreak of idealism—but the only idealism that appears in the movie is inside his own head and we only know it’s there from his spoken rejection of it. He says that all he wants for his men is decent “beds, booze, and broads.” But under the circumstances that’s an awful lot to ask.

Essentially, it’s to ask for their lives and their humanity. And he sets out to get those for them. He’s not an anti-war protester. He’s a social activist.

I don’t mean to suggest that Kelly’s Heroes is the better movie. I just think it has the better heart, and that makes it a better movie than it has any business being.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Life begins at conception...or within in six months of it...more or less...maybe...

Not that it will do me any good to say it, but...

I am pro-choice.


No argument for unrestricted abortion holds water unless it includes the argument that at no point is a fetus anything more than a parasitical accumulation of tissues taking up space in a woman's body.

There are a few pro-choice advocates who believe this and say it, who will argue that a fetus is not a person until it can survive on its own outside the womb.

Trouble is that human beings can't do that until they are four or five years old, at least.

Old Jewish joke:

When does a fetus become a full-fledged human being?

When it graduates from law school.

Most people who are pro-choice don't believe it. They will say that a fetus becomes a baby when it can survive with help outside the womb. Since science and technology keep pushing that point back---we can probably grow babies from conception to nine months in artificial wombs if we choose---it's best to add "when it can feel, think, and respond in kind" outside the womb. But we don't know exactly when that is. We do know that it's pretty much the case that everything that needs to be in place for the fetus to be considered a person is in place early in the third trimester, which is why most people who are pro-choice accept bans on abortions in the third trimester except when the mother's health is at stake. (Nowdays this is could be an argument for early induced delivery or Caesarian sections, not abortions, except, as many anti-abortion types refuse to acknowledge, very often what puts the mother's health at risk is that the fetus has not developed as it should have.) This means that most pro-choice people accept that at some point while still in the womb the fetus turns into a baby.

But we don't know that point.

We know it isn't during the first three months, which is why a sane country would allow an unrestricted right to abortion during the first trimester, but we don't know what's going on in the second trimester. Exactly when does the fetus start paying attention to its surroundings? When does it start to learn?

Some pro-choice people are content to think and act and argue as if it really is the very first day of the third trimester. Before that day, the fetus is a thing. A growth. And the woman who finds that thing growing inside her has every right to decide all on her own, without any interference from the thing's male co-planter, the state, and certainly not anti-abortion zealots, to keep it and see what comes of it or have it excised, just as she is free to have a burst appendix or an impacted wisdom tooth or unsightly mole removed.

This is generally not a good tack for pro-choice advocates to take because it is unpersuasive and insensitive---or it's unpersuasive because it's insensitive. It amounts to saying to a lot of expectant mothers who are happy to be pregnant and looking forward to the arrival of their child, That thing you're carrrying around in there, trying to decide on a name for, playing Mozart to, buying diapers for, painting the nursery for, starting a college fund for? It's no more a person than a bad tooth or a precancerous mole and you're just being sentimental and even delusional in thinking of it as a "baby."

But besides this, the third trimester date is arbitrary. Babies outside the womb develop at different rates; so do fetuses within the womb. One fetus can become a baby a few days shy of entering its third trimester, another might need another week in. We don't know.

On top of this it often can't be said for sure when the third trimester begins. Some women know exactly what day they conceived. Others have to guess. A woman who think she's in her second trimester may be a few days, even a couple of weeks, into her third. What if she has her abortion too late?

Well, she wouldn't know.

We wouldn't know.

Nobody knows.

And that's the pro-choice argument's basic premise. We don't know. Not exactly. All we know is that at some point around here (gesturing toward a calender) it's a baby. Anything we do or say about it before then is just guessing.

The question is, who should make the guess?

For thirty-five years, as a nation, we've agreed that the guess should be left up to the woman who has to live with the outcome of the guess.

The anti-abortion crowd think they know.

They don't, of course, they have no proof, only a belief. God puts the soul in as soon as the sperm smacks through the egg's outermost membrane.

Anyone who says that is guessing and should be told so.

If there is a soul---and let's say there is---when does God, if there is a God---and let's say there is, as long as we agree we're all just guessing---when does He or whatever angels are detailed to the job insert a soul?

Catholics used to believe that it was at quickening, when the mother felt the baby kick, which is pretty late in the game.

The Church has since changed its mind. Now, the priests tell us, life begins at conception. How do they know?

They don't know.

They're just guessing.

Abortion is murder!

At some point, yes, it is. But when? You don't know. You're guessing. So am I. Your guess is as good as mine and our guess is no better than the woman who is actually pregnant. Since we're all just guessing, but it's her body and her life depending on whose guess wins, shouldn't she have the first and final guess?

So far I don't think I've said anything that isn't obvious to most pro-choice people.

Here's where I go off the reservation.

What if the mother is guessing wrong?

What if the fetus becomes a person earlier than she supposes?

How does she know how to make a good guess? Since nobody knows when a fetus becomes a person, a good guess has to be hedged. She has to think, "At this point, today, when I'm going in for the abortion, the thing inside me is probably not a person."

That seems a little bit thin.

Let's face it, human beings are selfish enough that they can blithely justify to themselves torturing other human beings who are undeniably persons in their own right. Do you really think that they're any better at deciding between their own self-interest and that of what may very well be a person inside them?

You are, I know, a moral and intellectual paragon. Or your wife or girlfriend or sister or mother is. I believe you. But most people aren't paragons of any sort.

They are selfish, foolish, scared, desperate, and, often, not very bright.

This is why we don't leave decisions about right and wrong up to individuals. We take them on as a society.

We put limits on our own and each other's behavior.

We do this all the time.

We do not operate from the assumption that what you do is your own business, although we pay lip service to that idea.

We put limits around what we can all do with our lives.

Here in the United States we believe that we should set as few limits as we can and we should set them pretty far out from the epicenter of an individual's self.

I am pro-choice because there's too much guessing involved in an absolute anti-abortion/abortion is murder argument.

But I am not in favor of unrestricted abortion rights. At the moment the only restriction I can think of that is not really an attempt to ban abortions entirely is the one on abortions in the third trimester, except when the mother's health is in danger---but I'm open to restrictions on what it means to say the mother's health is in danger.

But because I believe that most people advocating other restrictions are arguing in bad faith doesn't mean that I can't see the point in certain restrictions, including parental notification, waiting periods, and mandatory instructions on how to put an unwanted baby up for adoption and why it might be a good idea to consider.

And if the Supreme Court were to decide or Congress were to pass a law stating that except in cases where the mother's health was at risk, abortions should be banned, or severely restricted, after the fourth month instead of the sixth, I wouldn't be outraged.

The Court would still be guessing, Congress would be guessing, but as it is we're all just guessing.

I would be outraged if they banned abortion any earlier than that, which is what is going to happen in many states as soon as the Supreme Court gets around to letting them.

I do not believe that men should have no say in the debate, except when they make the case that men should have no say in the debate, any more than I believe that only people who drive should have a say in making traffic laws or the young men in the military who will be on the front lines should be the only people who have a say in whether or not we go to war.

I don't think it is shaming a woman or guilt-tripping her to have it generally acknowledged that a lot of people think that the fetus she wishes to abort may be a person. Part of making an adult decision is knowing that other people won't agree with it and will even disapprove.

I don't think that women should have to face this fact on their way into the clinic in the form of raging mobs waving bloody pictures.

Now, if you have had an abortion or someone you love has had one, as several people I love have, you might be inclined to be offended at the idea that I might think you or she might have guessed wrong.

Before you get angry, remember that I might not think you or she did, because of the point when the abortion was done, which is none of my damn business. But whenever the abortion was done, let me restate my position. I think that any attempt to decide when a fetus becomes a person before the third trimester is just guessing. We as a society have an interest in trying to pin that point down, if we can, which is why the question should always be open for discussion. But as long as we can't agree exactly when that point is, we have to leave the final say to the person most affected, the woman whose body and life are at stake.

The anti-abortion crowd does not want to discuss it. They've made up their minds and they want the rest of us to accept their guessing as the ultimate truth.

But that isn't the way the country works. Minorities do not get to impose their guesses on all the rest of us. We should be allowed to have our say.

If they really want to end the discussion they should amend the Constitution to say that life begins at conception.

I know some of them would like to. But it's not going to happen. Most people in the country just aren't that sure.

We're still guessing.

And our guess is just as good as theirs.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Founding Brothers

"He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less, and he had a particular regard for those, like General Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance."

That's from John Adams by David McCullough, and there's so much I love about both men, Adams and Washington, buried in that short passage, starting with each man's awareness of his own shortcomings.

Adams knew himself to be abrasive, hard to get along with, argumentative, full of himself, gabby.

Washington's "great reserve" was the result of tremendous self-discipline and humility. He was naturally hot-tempered, stubborn, judgmental, even a little vain. He was an aristocrat and that meant something to him; he expected deference to his rank and social station from people he regarded as his inferiors. And, when you got right down to it, he was better than most men around him, even those of his own rank, braver, stronger, more honest, harder-working. It must have been hard for him not to presume upon his reputation and use it as club to bully inferiors, and no doubt his self-regard could make him cold and arrogant when suffering fools or having to listen to advice and instructions from lesser men. In short, he had all the makings of a first rate bastard and he knew that and he did not want to be one. He knew his own weaknesses, faults, and limitations, and he set about keeping them in mind and keeping them, and himself, in check.

(He was also sentimental, affectionate, forgiving, and had a good sense of humor.)

Adams, a Puritan who read poetry and Cerventes and the Classics regularly, understood human nature and he never supposed Washington was a saint or even a born hero. He admired Washington because he believed the Virginian to be every bit as weak and foolish and prone to vanity and error as every other human being and yet somehow, through force of will---what Adams would have called virtue---Washington did not give in to his weaknesses and vanities the way everyone else, including John Adams---Adams would have thought especially John Adams---did. All this is to say that both men were hard on themselves.

Both Adams and Washington were relentless self-improvers. Washington was far quieter about it, and ultimately the more successful at it too. At the very end of his life Adams, in his letters, in his diaries, and in conversation---he was still gabby---was still picking on himself as mercilessly as he had when he was 20, angry that he had never managed to curb a single one of his faults.

I like it that such a successful man thought so poorly of himself. I like it that he admired Washington so much and without the least trace of sycophancy---in fact, Adams being Adams, he was probably ruder and more opinionated and harder to get along with when he was in Washington's company. Washington managed to like him, but in small doses, at a distance.

Not much more to say about this. Adams and Washington were keenly aware of their achievements, they were ambitious, they knew their merits, and they wanted fame, which is not the same thing as celebrity. But while they were justly proud of their accomplishments, and in Adams' case incensed when people didn't acknowledge his contributions and effort---"I have been so stragnely used is this country, so belied and so undefended..." Adams wrote that to his wife about his inauguration as President!---each man managed to see himself apart from his successes as a human being, judge himself harshly, and set out to mend his ways.

When I was a kid, we were taught we should try to grow up to be like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. Mostly this meant we should work hard, study hard, and never tell lies. Maybe it sneaked in there that it also meant we should be aware of our faults and our weaknesses and work to overcome them. I think Adams should be added to the schoolbooks, if only to teach that one. But their examples are as important to grown ups as to children. We should always be striving to mend our ways just as they always were. I'm proud to say I continue to model myself after my heroes.

I'm as short-tempered and arrogant as George Washington, as dreamy and bad with money as Thomas Jefferson, and as self-pitying, full of myself, and gabby as John Adams.

The nuns would be so proud.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My favorite philosopher

Does anybody remember, back when George W. Bush was asked who is favorite philosopher was and he replied, Jesus, did the reporter follow up?

Did the reporter ask Bush, "Why?"

"Which of Jesus' teachings do you live by, Mr Bush? Judge not lest ye be judged? Blessed are the meek? Sell everything and follow me? Do not store up treasures on Earth?"

Did the reporeter ask, "Mr Bush, I know you credit Jesus with saving your life from death by Jim Beam, but why do you think He did it? What did He save you for? Did he save you so you could go on to trade Sammy Sosa? Did He save you so you could become a millionaire through shady business dealings by your father's friends? Did you ever for a moment consider that Jesus may have saved your life expecting that you would go out and do something right away to help others or do you think He saved you so you could hang around for a decade or so until He could figure out a way to make you President?"

No, none of you remembers, because it didn't happen. He wasn't asked to explain himself. He was just applauded in public for showing what a humble, regular guy he was and complimented in private for knowing how to play up to the prejudices of the rubes.


Some day, if the Republic survives the reign of George W. Bush and his puppetmasters---which I believe it will, although I'm not looking forward to cleaning up the mess they'll leave behind---I hope the Media Elites hold a kangaroo court like sports teams set up for themselves when they feel a collective attitude adjustment is needed.

I hope they will put themselves in the dock and stand before a jury of themselves with one of their own acting for the Prosecution in the case of The People and the Truth v. Smug Media Bastards Like Carlson, Russert, Matthews, CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times et al laying out the indictment:

"That we the overpaid and self-congratulatory did willfully and wantonly, with careless disregard, stand by and not only watch but even cheer as a gang of psychopaths and sociopaths, whom we had every reason to know were psycopathas and sociopaths, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, a pair already known to history as very bad guys, fronted by George W. Bush, a man with a life history of unrestrained sociopathy in which he demonstrated nothing like a conscience, a sense of responsibility, compassion, or a hint of awareness that his actions might hurt other people, took over the White House and the United States Congress and then proceeded to behave as sociopaths and psychopaths, starting a war for the sheer fun of it, establishing a policy of torture antithetical to everything this country is supposed to stand for and an assault on morality and human decency, looting the Treasury, and generally doing nothing else but making life easier for their rich sociopathic and psychopathic pals.

"That, furthermore, while they behaved openly and recklessly as sociopaths and psychopaths we treated them on our TV shows and in on our editorial pages and even in our supposed news stories as if they were all great statesmen acting always in the Nation's best interests with no thought for the main chance for themselves.

"And that, even as we neglected our duty to our readers and viewers to tell them the truth, we begged for the favors and attentions of the psychopaths and sociopaths and even put ourselves on their payrolls, then we attacked, ridiculed, ignored, and otherwise dismissed any one and every one who tried to tell us what the sociopaths and psychopaths were up to, and to top it all off when it finally began to be impossible to ignore the damage the psychopaths and sociopaths were doing to the country we were unconsionably slow to correct our errors and mend our ways and we refused to admit our mistakes or our complicity but instead set out to blame all the people who were right about the sociopaths and psychopaths---we blamed the Democrats for not being tough enough, we blamed the bloggers for being irresponsible and paranoid, and we blamed all of the critics for being consumed with an irrational hatred of George W. Bush.

"To sum up, we stood by and let them get away with it because it was more fun and a hell of a lot easier to beat up on those out of power than to challenge those who had power and were using it to do wrong."

Then, after the evidence is presented and all the witnesses are heard from, the jury will reach its verdict of guilty and the Judge will pronounce sentence:

Mass resignations of editors, producers, columnists, and reporters, all of whom will live in self-imposed exile in Kansas where they will work on local weeklies for 15 grand a year and no company health insurance.

I look forward to the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting in the world to come, as well.

Enlightened self-interest

No such thing.

Enlightened self-interest is the idea that we can be intelligently selfish. It's ok to look out for Number One, as long as you remember that sometimes what's best for Number One is taking the time and trouble, making a sacrifice, and spending the money to look out for Numbers Two through Five Billion.

Enlightened self-interest is bastard of a boss that way.

Enlightened self-interest, which is supposed to be the guiding force of democratic capitalism, is an idealistic goal we're hardly even bothering to pay lip-service to anymore, let alone achieve.

The main obstacle to achieving enlightened self-interest is self-interest.

It takes time, trouble, sacrifice, and money to become enlightened.

It's not in our self-interest to give any of those things up.

What this means is that the odds are really good that no matter how a good a person you think you are, or how good a person I think I am, we're probably wrong. We're most likely as selfish and self-interested as the next guy.

Therefore, our support for any political or economic policy that directly benefits us is probably selfish and for that reason alone we ought to reject it...or at least think twice before accepting it.

Anything people do out of selfishness is very likely going to be a disaster for everybody around them.

And this is why I am not a Republican.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

If Columnist A writes something incredibly dumb on Tuesday, and Blogger B calls him on it on Wednesday...

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen has advised high school students everywhere that algebra is a waste of their time.

You're never going to have to solve an algebra problem again in your life, he says, unless of course you do something foolish with yourself and become a scientist or a mathematician or something useless like that, instead of pursuing the higher calling of Washington Post columnist. And if life does surprise you some time and throw a problem your way that requires algebra to solve, well, don't worry, that's what computers and calculators are for.

No, that's what androids like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation are for.

Data is conscious, he can reason on his own, and he can self-direct. He can recognize a problem as it develops and solve it without Picard having to tell him, Make it so.

Computers and calculators have to be told what to do. And if you can't recognize an algebra problem when faced with it, if you can't translate a problem into an algebraic equation yourself, how do you instruct the computer? What numbers do you punch into your calculator and in what order? Which function keys are you going to press?

If you haven't studied algebra how do you even know that the problem in front of you can be solved by doing some algebra?

But here's the flip side: If you have studied algebra and internalized its logic, there's a very real possibility that you are doing algebra all the time without even knowing that's what you're doing. Of course it would be of a rudimentary sort. But just because you don't see all the x's and y's and z's over a's and a's divided by b's in your head, doesn't mean that you haven't reasoned that problem through in an essentially mathematical way.

Doesn't mean that you're like the poet who doesn't know it either and are an unconcious mathematical genius. I'm just saying that the things we learn when we are young have a habit of being useful later in life even though we don't necessarily remember when, where, how, and if we learned them. And that's the argument for a liberal education, for learning as much about every subject as we can get our heads around. At 14, 16, 18, 22, 30, we don't know if we're ever going to need to know history, geography, art history, algebra, or organic chemistry. We don't know if we're ever going to need to be able to bake a cake or repair a computer. We can guess that some things are more likely to come up than others, but we don't know.

The purpose of an education is to expand the mind and soul in preparation for whatever the future brings.

Cohen, a supposedly educated man, is arguing for a purely vocational education system.

PZ Myers is appalled by Cohen's column, as both a scientist and college professor, of course.

Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it's about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It's basic stuff—I know many students struggle with it, but it's a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it's a basic requirement for getting into a good college...

Because Cohen's column is framed as a letter to a specific young woman, Myers is also appalled as a Liberal with strong feminist principles:

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she's doing beyond pushing buttons. It's Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, "You're as stupid as I am; give up."

But finally it's as a humanist that Myers is most outraged. Cohen writes, "I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used—or wanted to use—algebra." And Myers replies:

If sheep could talk, they'd say the same thing.

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It's so easy.

Or we could push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more—skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn't asking much. It's knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.

We're supposed to be living in a country built on Enlightenment values, founded by people who knew the importance of a well-rounded education...

In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

I think Cohen would probably defend himself by saying that he was only trying to point out that people have different skills and talents and there are plenty of ways for a person to make a living besides as a scientist or mathematician. Atrios makes a similar point here.

The difference between Cohen and Atrios is that Atrios is pointing out a fact of life, while Cohen seems to have internalized the purely utilitarian approach to education: You go to school for job training. If you don't see any immediate prospect that studying a particular subject is going to lead to a paycheck, don't bother with it. Cohen is the English major version of all those business majors who can't fathom why they have to read Shakespeare. "Why do we need to know how to write well? Isn't that what PR flunkeys are for?"

It's not surprising that people who have devoted their lives to making a buck, judge everything by its dollar value. But it's dismaying that so many people like Cohen, who have supposedly devoted their lives to loftier ambitions, accept the idea that education is most important as career training, including a great many educators.

This comes out every time "Boys are in trouble" or "Girls are in trouble" issue arises in the Media---it was on display recently in this Newsweek cover story.

For over 200 years, from when the Pilgrims landed until sometime after the Civil War, schooling was just about useless to the future careers of most students because they were going to grow up to be farmers or laborers. But their parents still sent them off to school.

Times have changed. As Atrios points out, a higher education isn't truly necessary for many jobs that you can't get without a diploma of one sort or another. But people don't see that. What they see is: Diploma=good job. Diplomas are given out by schools. Therefore, since if A=C, and B=C, A=B, then school=good job.

Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's place.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Democrats must not allow a biography gap

Accidents will happen, but as any Freudian will tell you, there are accidents, and then there are self-destructive moments when you unconsciously conspire with Fate, circumstance, a few beers, and a shot gun to reveal the whole of your twisted inner psyche to the world as if seized by a heavenly desire to stand on the Salem scaffold, confess it all, and show the assembled congregation the great big scarlet A on your chest.

A for Asshole.

Dick Cheney appears to have had one of those accidents. Over the last week everything rotten, seamy, dangerous, and threatening in his character seems to have summed itself up in one perfect, symbolic story. The fable of his life has been written and you'd think that from here on out, wherever he goes, he will be held in the universal contempt he's so determinedly earned. But probably not. I think he may get away with it.

The story is just too good a story.

As I said, everything rotten about Cheney has been on display all week. His arrogance, his hypocrisy, his innate dishonesty, his sense of entitlement, his swaggering certainty that the laws as written do not apply to him, he can obey them to whatever degree he feels like, and the police as his personal flunkeys will bow and scrape and follow his orders. His carelessness about others, his placing of his self-regard and reputation above another man's life. The circumstances that set up the accident show up the material corruption of the man. Canned hunts are the most childish, wasteful, and brutal way for a spoiled rich man to indulge himself. My god, if you can't think of a better method for throwing away your money, then just keep it in the vault and go down and count it in the dark every night, at least that's a form of avarice that pays homage to the virtue of thrift.

It's all perfect, in the way perfect stories are perfect. Chekhov couldn't have written one more revealing, although he came spookily close.

But that's the trouble. People love good stories and they react to the true ones with the same excitement and sympathy with which they react to the made up ones. We love stories for the way they entertain us, but we also love them for the lessons we learn from them, and the best stories all teach the same thing, that human beings are flawed and weak and deserve understanding and pity. They encourage tolerance and foregiveness.

The story of the shooting shows up Dick Cheney as a rotten human being. But it shows him as a human being. He's easier to hate as an abstraction.

We can despise someone and sympathize with him.

I don't know what will come of all this. I think that those of us to whom Cheney is a clear-cut villain might very well wind up as frustrated as the Clinton haters who were sure that Monica would be the end of Bill. The Lewinsky Scandal was another great story---I'm still surprised there's been no good novel written about it yet.---and Monica and Bill turned out to be sympathetic characters. Ken Starr made a convincing villain.

I don't know if Cheney will be saved by the story that should damn him, but this has me thinking about one of the problems Democrats have. Republicans these days seem to make better stories.

I don't mean that they are better at telling stories, which they are, as many a blogger and pundit has pointed out.

I mean that their lives make for better stories.

Not because they're better people. Just the opposite. But flawed, weak, sinful, and vice-ridden people are more interesting characters.

I'll have to expand on this idea later.

For now, to put it simply, look at the comparative biographies of George Bush and John Kerry.

George Bush's biography makes a great story---with a terrible moral. It's still a fascinating story, full of chills, thrills, and suspense---How much more harm can the man do?

But after his days leading the Vietnam Vets against the War, when he settled down to his career as a lawyer and politician, John Kerry's biography makes...

A great resume.

Cross posted at Ezra Klein's place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No more A students, Part 2

As I was saying yesterday, I don't know much about Ohio politics and I haven't followed Sherrod Brown's career. On paper, he looks like a good candidate.

But on paper they all look like good candidates.

How does he look on televsion? In front of a crowd at the union hall? Facing down a gaggle of reporters? Debating an opponent? Walking across his own front yard to pick up after the dog?

On paper, I like him.

But on paper, he not only looks like a good candidate, he looks like all the other candidates the Democrats tend to nominate for higher office.

An A student, an Ivy League grad, a career spent in politics. At least he's not a lawyer.

At first glance, it's confounding how closely their resumes track. Think about it though. These are among America's best and brightest and there are paths laid out from high school for our best and brightest, whatever their field and their particular talent. Watching from above as they make their way along those paths, hitting all the right milestones at all the right times, they do look alike, as if they were all built out of the same kit by the elders in their professions who designed them to be perfect replacements for themselves. And this is in fact the case. It's why fields of study, professions, industries, and the various arts stagnate and decline until someone who didn't follow the path comes along and changes the way everybody does things.

When the United States got itself up and running, there was no path for young politicians to follow. When the path was laid out it had lots of sidetracks and there were many parallel roads. And there weren't any set rules of the road---there was no rigorous code of behavior. Nowdays, after a certain point along the road young travellers have learned how they are expected to comport themselves. They shape their behavior and their manners, the way they dress, their habits of speech, and even the way they think accordingly. Pretty soon it's not just that they look abstractly alike from a distance; up close they look alike as much as clothes and manners and expression can make people look alike---there are uniforms, not only to be worn, but to be assumed as habits of mind and conduct of body---and they act and sound alike too.

Consequently, they are dull to outsiders who don't know the rules or care. Consequently, it's the eccentrics among them we who are not in their fields like and admire. And consequently, in politics, it's not surprising that the politicians that are most interesting to us are the ones who didn't follow the path and, consequently, those are the kinds we make President.

Or at least we make the kinds we think didn't follow the path President.

Leaving aside Gerald Ford, of the 9 elected Presidents since FDR, who followed the path beautifully, only John Kennedy and the first George Bush appear to have walked the approved course from beginning to end.

The rest, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Dubya, all appear to have arrived at the top by blazing their own trails.

Clinton and Dubya, however, don't really belong on the list. They are there in disguise.

Bill Clinton's biography is interesting because until he was in college he didn't appear to be on the path. That's because he was surrounded by a lot of colorful and dysfunctional characters and grew up in a small town and we think of small towns as eccentric and authentic and the people who come from them as eccentric and authentic by default. Clinton's teachers knew he was on the path, other successful grown ups in his life knew it, and they all helped guide him along it. By the time he reached Georgetown he was steadily on course. Naturally, however, when he ran for President he emphasized the first 16 or so years of his life at the expense of the next 30.

George Bush's biography is interesting because of how many times he left the path either by falling off it or wandering off or storming off in a fit of bad temper and it's a cautionary tale because of how every time he decided to come back he insisted on coming back at the point where he'd have been if he'd hadn't left. He was the hare who thought he ought to be rewarded as if he'd been the tortoise, and fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the country, the judges were always willing to bend the rules for him.

Somehow this career as a privileged screw-up has won him a reputation as an authentic and self-made man.

But Truman the shopkeeper, Ike the solider, Johnson and Nixon the self-made men, Carter the peanut farmer and engineer, and Reagan the actor are more alike than appears on the surface. They were all smart, ambitious, hardworking, and steady of purpose. Not an Ivy Leaguer in the group, not one of them was to the manner born. They were all eccentrics compared to the other politicians around them. They talked funny and they looked funny, even Reagan. But although they didn't follow the approved path, they followed either parallel paths or, in the case of Reagan and Eisenhower, the right paths in their non-political careers.

To the people who were looking, at any point in their early careers these were all young men who showed the right qualities of intelligence, drive, adaptability, leadership, and competence in a combination that said, "Watch this kid. Put your money on him."

Dubya is unique among the last 10 Presidents---counting Gerald Ford now---heck, among our last 16, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, who interestingly was born on the path yet insisted on making his own way anyway, for never in his whole life showed any of these qualities---not that anyone except his mother and Karl Rove ever saw, at least.

What this means, I think, is that it ought to be possible to take a good look around and find men and women in their 20s and 30s and even in their early 40s who aren't on the approved path but who have shown those qualities and who would make good candidates for public office.

Not being privy to Chuck Schumer's thinking, and not knowing anyone who is, I can't tell if Schumer and other Democratic leaders who are out recruiting not just for Senatorial candidates but for candidates for state legislature, town council, city hall, Congress, and the White House are looking along those other paths.

My sense is that they're not.

I don't want to discriminate against the Sherrod Browns of the world whose only fault is that they have been good at what they're doing from an early age.

I want to widen and deepen the talent pool.

I don't want to lose any Sherrod Browns. I want to recruit more Paul Hacketts.

When I heard that Chuck Schumer had decided to dump his second choice, Hackett, and go back to his first choice, Brown, I wasn't just disappointed because I like Hackett.

I was disappointed because I looked at Brown's resume and thought, Oh no, another Senator.

Which you'd think is what you'd want for the job of Senator.

But the Democrats already have 44 of those, and it's not been working out all that great for us, has it?

Why I need an editor update # 1: Ezra Klein points out in his comment that there's a serious failure of thought behind the last sentence of this post. Ezra writes, "Having 44 [typical Democratic Senators] may not be working out too well, but having 55 would be just fine." Sure would, and I'd be thrilled if we had a Senate majority made up of 55 Sherrod Brown clones. But when I wrote that I was being lazy and looking for a quick and easy way to finish off the post. What I hoped I was implying, and what I should have taken the trouble to say, is that having all those Democratic Senators all seeming to come from the same mold has contributed to an image problem for the Party---we're the party of pointy-headed policy wonks, snooty intellectual types, timid careerists and elitists---and that image problem is part of what the Democrats have to overcome to get those 11 extra Senators.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

No more A students, Part One

From Susie Madrak, I learned the disappointing news.

Paul Hackett's dropping out of the Ohio Senate race. At least, he won't be challenging Sherrod Brown for the Democratic nomination. In his statement announcing he's pulling out he sounds mad enough at the Democratic Party to run as an Independent.

Actually, in his statement he sounds a little bit like a kid taking his ball and going home. Party leaders have been urging him to drop out of the Senate race and try again for a seat in the House. But Hackett won't run for the House, he says. He's mad. According to him, party leaders have been calling his donors and asking them to stop giving. If they're going to treat him that way, Hackett feels, well, they can just find another patsy.

“For me, this is a second betrayal,” Mr. Hackett said. “First, my government misused and mismanaged the military in Iraq, and now my own party is afraid to support candidates like me.”

I understand how he'd feel betrayed. And I understand why a guy like Hackett might have a hard time understanding why the Democrats don't want him. But he seems to have forgotten that he was not the Party's first choice. Chuck Schumer came to him after Brown had turned him down. It's natural for anybody to change their minds about their second choice if it turns out they can have their first choice all of a sudden, and when the stakes are this high, feelings have to be hurt and egos bruised. Hackett is an attractive candidate, but the Ohio Senate seat isn't going to be an easy pick-up---especially now that the Ohio legislature has passed a law pretty much legalizing stealing elections for the Republicans---and Hackett has no guaranteed constituency to come out to vote for him in numbers big enough to counteract Republican thefts.

What's more, United States Senator is not an entry level position. It would have been a very rare thing indeed, to elect a Senator whose only political achievement to date was losing a Congressional election by fewer votes than a member of his party should have.

Yeah, it's cynical and pragmatic of Chuck Schumer to be thinking this way, but that's politics, and although he's hurt Hackett should be trying to take the long view. Ohio has two Republican Senators. Brown could lose. If Hackett won a seat in the House this time, he'd be in a better, stronger position to run the next time, whenever that next time comes, and whatever opportunity it presents---George Voinovich's seat in 2010, DeWine's in 2012...the governorship. A Democratic Governor of Ohio stands a better chance of being nominated for President than a Senator.

Keep your mouth shut, take one for the team, and wait your turn, that should have been the advice he gave himself. Instead he goes and equates what Schumer did to his ego to what Bush did to the country and Iraq.

Not tactful.

The Democratic faithful are infuriated every time Democratic politicians and the Party's supposed leaders and advisors criticize other Democrats for the entertainment of the Media and the amusement of the Republicans. Here's Hackett doing the same thing, except that he's doing it in forthright language full of real feeling.

Hackett is a fighter. That's great! He's also a loose cannon. Fans of his like me admire that about him. We like it that he'll walk away from his entourage to stand chin to chin with a loudmouth bully and back the bully down. We'd love to see him doing the same to Republicans and their toadies in the Media. Would we have wanted to see him beaten up by a deranged heckler or knifed to death for the pleasure of the cameras? There's a downside to his fighting spirit, especially if what he's fighting for is his vanity not his constituents or his ideals.

Loose cannons are fun, but you never know which way they're going to roll, and they have a bad habit of rolling over people on their own side. We'd like to see more independent, stand-up men and women in the Senate. But then there are already a couple of mavericks among the Demcratic Senators---Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden---and you can understand why Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid would rather not to have to worry about another one of those.

Still, I would have preferred having Hackett as the candidate to Brown.

Hackett has everything the Democrats need.

He speaks plainly. He's a born Media star.

He's demonstrated an ability to win votes in Red districts.

And he's a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Don't need to get into again just how badly Democrats keep coming across on television. Their inability to speak plainly is one of the reasons they fail to come across. They have a habit of talking policy instead of people. They fudge. They try too hard not to lie, which is only a virtue if you manage to tell the truth in the process not just avoid the lie. It's not that their answers are "nuanced." It's that they are as calculated as an answer to a test question---designed to show off their knowledge, flatter the teacher, and cover as many bases as possible, just in case.

It's not that they can't bring themselves to call a spade a spade. It's that because they know that there are all sorts of implements for digging and not all of them are spades or even shovels, they find it necessary to go through all the categories and sub-categories of holes that might be dug and what the proper entrenching tool is necessary for each kind of job.

As for winning votes in Red districts, that's always a dicey question. Lots of people think the only way for a Democrat to do that is to be as little like a Democrat as possible. Some of these people think, well, then fine, let's run as Republican Lites. And some of them think, The hell with that, let those Red districts and Red states go fry an egg.

Paul Hackett went out into his Red district as a fighting critic of George Bush and the War. He showed that it was possible to win votes there and other places like it by running as a Democrat.

I don't know Ohio politics at all, and I haven't followed Sherrod Brown's career, but on the face of things it looks to me that the strategy for Brown will be to win big in Cleveland and other Blue urban areas and hope that turnout's low in Cincinnatti and the farming towns.

Part of Hackett's appeal to Red voters is that he's a Marine and looks and acts the part. Being a vet won't protect him against Republican smears, but it helps. And Democratic candidates are going to need a lot of help that way this fall, because the Republicans are going to run on two ideas, ideas that are in a way connected: The Democrats are weak on National Security and they want to give away the country to the gays.

Democrats have to acknowledge the fact that the gender gap is their problem. There is a preception that the Democrats are the party of the girls. And part of that perception is their being seen as the party that wants to sit down and talk about "feelings" instead of standing up to fight back.

Another part of that is being the party seen as always caving in to its "special interests." That's really code for black people, but it's an adaptable code and also means women, gays, teachers, trial lawyers, and corrupt union bosses.

The perception that Democrats are weak on National Security blends with the perception that they are weak overall because they are a party of the weak and the dependent.

Of course this makes me want to holler, but hollering won't change it.

But running a guy like Hackett is a good start. Hackett just by being himself is a walking argument that real men are Democrats. Real men care about women's rights and Civil Rights, real men care about the rights of gay people, real men care about our children's schools, real men care about working people, real men care about all of them and all of that, because real men care about everybody's rights, everybody's safety and security, everybody's prosperity, and everybody's health and well-being.

I'm not saying that the Democrats should never run women or that they should run only clones of Paul Hackett. All I'm saying is that Paul Hackett is a gift.

Hackett's pissed off but I hope he gets over it quickly and makes a point of apologizing and working hard for Brown.

And I hope Chuck Schumer's out there trying to smooth his feathers.

Hackett may think he doesn't need the Party.

But the Party needs him.

If not this time out, next time.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cinderella men

Intrigued by Steve Goddard's review at History Wire, I took a book about boxing out of the library and started it over the weekend.

Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink by James Wolcott's Vanity Fair colleague, David Margolick.

So far, it's good.

Very good.

And I've already learned some things about the world of professional boxing in the 1920s and 1930s that I never knew. To start with, boxing in the United States in those days was a Jewish sport.

I always knew that once upon a time boxing was the most popular spectator sport, more popular than baseball. And I knew that there were many good fighters, so many that even fights between apparent nobodies were important because if you didn't know either guy's name now, there was a good chance that one of them, both of them, maybe, could be a contender, soon, something that's never been true in my lifetime, when at any given time there's been no more than a handful of boxers who mattered. What I didn't know is that many of those fighters were Jewish.

Every weight category, except heavyweight, was dominated by Jewish fighters. Jewish fighters held many of the titles. This made boxing very popular among Jewish sports fans. Since most Jews lived in cities, cities were where the big gate money was to be made, particularly one city on the East Coast that had a large Jewish population and was already the center of the professional boxing world, New York.

Trouble was, heavyweight fights were the really big draws. It was the heavyweight championship that mattered to most fight fans, and heavyweight championship fights that brought in the million dollar gates. Wouldn't it be great, thought the fans and the money men, if we could find a great Jewish Hope?

Along comes Max Baer.

Baer, for a long time known if known at all as the father of the Beverly Hills' Jethro Bodine, Max Baer Jr., until the release of Cinderella Man last fall, was perfectly happy to be the Jewish Hope. He might even have been Jewish. At any rate, his father might have been Jewish. Or half-Jewish. Whichever, he wasn't orthodox about it, neglecting to raise Max as Jewish and supporting the family by running a pig farm. For the good of the sport and his people, and his wallet, Baer embraced his heritage. He fought with a Star of David on his trunks.

For a time, Bear was the heavyweight champion of the world. He beat the best, including Max Schmeling. Imagine how that sat with Adolph Hitler who had become Schmeling's greatest fan, a Jew beating a hero of the Master Race.

I haven't seen Cinderella Man. Max Baer Jr complained about the way the movie turned his father into a villain, portraying him as a murderous thug, intent on killing the movie's hero Jimmy Braddock in the ring the way he'd killed two other men.

The truth was, says Max Baer Jr, his father was one of the nicest guys alive. The truth was, writes David Margolick, Baer was something of a lighthearted goof. He didn't take his fights as seriously as he should have. He lost focus. Sometimes, in the middle of a fight, he'd look out into the crowd and find friends to wave to and pretty girls to flirt with.

Baer did kill a guy. Frankie Campbell. The other fighter the movie credits him with killing died in his next fight. It might have been that Baer had damaged him so badly that it didn't take much to finally finish him off. But that's just guessing. Frankie Campbell did die from the beating he took from Bear. But that didn't make Baer a killer. Margolick and Max Baer Jr. say that what he did to Campbell weighed on his conscience all his life. He paid Campbell's kids' way through college, Baer Jr says. Margolick says that people who knew him at the time, as well as sportswriters and other insiders, thought what he'd done to Campbell took the heart out of Baer. He became afraid of his own strength.

The fight between Bear and Braddock that's at the center of Cinderella Man is portrayed as a slugfest, with Braddock standing up to a terrific onslaught and wearing Baer down in the end. It looked to some that after a certain point Baer gave up. It may have been that after Braddock got up and came back at him after another horrific punch, Baer became afraid that the only way to finish the fight was to give Braddock everything he had and Baer couldn't bring himself to do it because it would have meant risking another man's life.

Brutal as the fight might have felt to Braddock or looked to his adoring wife, or to Baer too, maybe, most fans watching thought it was a yawner, the worst championship fight in history. Joe Louis watched it from ringside and afterwards said he thought he could lick both fighters easily, at the same time. Louis wasn't known for idle boasting.

Like I said, I haven't seen the movie. If you have, you can tell me. Does it say anything about why that fight was important, not just to boxing, but to the whole world?

Because by taking the title away from Baer, Braddock moved Louis up in the rankings. It rearranged the match-ups.

Max Schmeling had been looking forward to another shot at Baer.

Baer had won their last title fight.

Schmeling wanted to get his own back.

Nazi Germany had adopted Schmeling as a cultural and racial hero. The Nazis hadn't been happy when Schmeling lost to the "Jewish" Baer. They were looking forward to Schmeling redeeming the Aryan race in a re-match.

They weren't going to get it.

They way things were now set, Schmeling would have to face Louis.

A black man.

Imagine what the Nazis made of it when Schmeling beat Louis.

Imagine what they felt, what Americans felt, particularly black Americans, when Schmeling met Louis again and Louis knocked out Schmeling.

Two minutes into the first round.

That was something, wasn't it? Almost easy to take for granted now, but impossible to believe then.

Impossible to believe too that America was represented in the eyes of the world by two athletes, that the symbols of hope and defiance against the growing Nazi War Machine were two athletes, a runner and a fighter.

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.

Cinderella men.

Black men.

Friday, February 10, 2006

More naked actresses---because February is sweeps month

Following up on yesterday's post.

As someone who has made a movie featuring gratuitious scenes of female nudity, I believe that most female nudity in the movies is gratuitous.

The question of how much pressure actresses feel to get naked on camera is separate from the question, "Why should they?"

I think it's also separate from the issue of the double standard. Should more men be asked to get naked on screen? The polls are open. I'd guess that if they were asked, most actors would have the same attitude as most actresses. Eventually. It could take some getting used to. A generation might have to pass in which older actors who'd gotten into the game when regular male nudity wasn't a job requirement left the stage to be replaced by younger actors who'd grown up knowing they'd might have to do nude scenes all in a day's work, just as happened for actresses in the 60s and 70s, and just as it was for the actresses of the time, there might be a period when there was pressure and coercion.

The aspiring male actors I knew in college mostly professed to being relaxed about the prospect of getting naked on stage someday---"Whatever it takes, man." But the truth was the prospect was not as imminent for them as it was for the actresses I knew.

Now, of those four young actresses who told me the limits of their modesty, only two went on to have professional careers of any length, and only one of them ever had to appear even topless on the job (professionally---you can't really count my student film) during the 10 or so years she was in the business. But three of the men I was friends with became professionals and two of them had to do nude scenes and the other one could have done one if he'd wanted---he was in a wild production of The Jacobean revenge tragedy, The White Devil, by John Webster, that featured at least half the cast getting naked on stage.

Jacobean revenge tragedies are silly affairs that start out ridiculous and grow more and more absurd as the dead bodies pile up. Their plots often turn on issues of illicit sex, usually adultery, but frequently incest, brother-sister incest being the most popular combination. So adding lots of gratuitious nudity to the sex and violence is thematically and stylistically justifiable. It depends, of course, on how you stage it.

And here's an important part of the question for actors and actresses of whether or not to appear naked.

Being naked isn't anything in itself. It depends on what you have to do while you are naked. It's one thing to take a shower, undress for sex, skinny dip, or just walk across the set for some reason the director deems essential to his artistic vision. It's quite another to have to simulate sex and another to have to do what the lead actress in that production of The White Devil had to do, which was to stand fully naked, facing the audience straight on, and masturbate to a picture of her murdered husband.

That, by the way, was one of the least risible and shocking moments in the play. It was also one of the dullest, even though the actress was gorgeous and, um, believable. Actually, all the sex, violence, and nudity got tedious. I had fun counting the number of people in the audience walking out throughout and trying to gauge from their faces whether they were leaving because they were offended or because they were bored.

The guy I went to school with played a character who was foully murdered in Act II or III. (A character who is foully murdered describes most of the dramatis personae of The White Devil, I think.) The script calls for his bloody corpse to be dragged on stage by his revenge-seeking brother. The director decided that the corpse should be stark naked.

The actor decided that it shouldn't.

The director said it would be.

The actor said "Over my dead body."

The director said, "Fun-nee." But he gave up. The corpse was dragged out fully covered in a zip-up body bag with one naked, blood-streaked arm sticking out.

Got a good laugh.

I can't recollect anymore if the actress had veto power over her scene. I think I remember the actor saying the director gave her the option of wearing a nightgown but not of passing on the auto-eroticism.

The fact is that actors aren't asked to get naked as often as actresses and I'll bet they have more freedom to refuse, mainly because male nudity is still considered transgressive in some way.

I believe the first actress Jack Nicholson asked to star opposite him in his remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice was Meryl Streep. If it wasn't Streep, it was a young actress of equal seriousness and repute. It wasn't Jessica Lange, who wound up playing the part, though. Whoever it was, when he approached her he told her that the part would require her to get naked for some explicit sex scenes. She said she was fine with that---as long as Nicholson got naked too.

He cast Lange.

That was a generation ago and I don't know how the dynamic would play out now, if say it was George Clooney asking Keira Knightley to star in his movie. (It's funny that Nicholson is still an enforcing agent of a double standard, this one for older stars. Diane Keaton and Kathy Bates both got naked in recent movies Nicholson kept his clothes on in.) The important point is that Nicholson, a serious artist if a deeply unserious man, thought that it was artisitcally justifiable to include a realistic sex scene in which only the woman was naked.

Or shown naked.

If he could wear some clothes, why couldn't she?

To put this more generally, if the guys can keep their clothes on in movies, why can't the girls?

Men shower. They have sex. They skinny dip. They even walk across rooms naked.

But apparently they don't do any of these things naked in movies, even get naked.

And if they don't have to, why do the women?

Well, because the scripts call for it.

And why do the scripts call for it? Is it artistically and thematically justified? Is it necessary to the plot?


Back in the days before cable, video, dvds, and NYPD Blue and the relaxation of standards for network television, it was usual for people making a movie to make two versions, one for the theater, the other for television. Up until recently, if you saw the movie my girlfriend's sister did a nude scene in on television, you saw her wearing her skirt and a bra. (You also heard her co-stars cursing a lot less and saying things like shoot instead of shit.) Before that, it was a regular practice to film two versions of a movie, one for American theaters, and one that featured nudity and more explicit sex for European audiences.

Usually, when you watched the TV version the changes were laughable. But they didn't do serious harm to the movie as a work of visual storytelling. Which is a way of saying that the nudity (and the cursing) in the theatrical versions were not necessary.

That doesn't mean they were gratuitous.

There is a difference between unnecessary and gratituitous. Unnecessary scenes, nude or otherwise, may be artistically, thematically, and stylistically justifiable. Writers and directors have to ask themselves if those scenes will also be effective.

(Being able to justify their inclusion on the grounds that they are "realistic" is irrelevent. Movies aren't real life. Everything in them is artificial. Whether or not a real person in a real life situation would be naked at that moment doesn't mean that an actor playing a fictional version of that situation needs to be.)

There might seem to be a lot of nudity in the movies---and increasingly on television---but when you look over an individual actor or an actress's career you will see that he and even she has done very few nude scenes. It's not just the case that as soon as they get the box office clout most actresses start refusing to do them, although that happens often. It's that most serious movies (artistically serious---comedies are serious business) don't waste time on scenes that aren't needed or that don't advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters or the movie's themes.

Most nudity in movies is gratuitous and most of it appears in un-serious movies, in movies that aren't about anything much more than putting people in the seats of movie theaters holding jumbo size sodas and giant barrels of popcorn.

Young actresses and actors whose careers survive early appearances in schlock and who go on to work in serious movies are rarely called upon to strip off again.

Movies that aspire to be taken seriously and include gratuitous nudity are hurting themselves.

Blue Girl mentioned that she finds nudity in movies distracting. I do too. Because it usually is just a distraction. To get it in, the moviemakers have to stop their stories dead in their tracks or send them off on tangents that are hard to return from.

Yes, people in real life shower, have sex, skinny dip, and walk across the room for no good reason naked. But they tend to do it when they are not in the middle of more important matters, when they can take a break from the stories of their lives.

When a movie shows us a character showering, having sex, skinny dipping, or walking naked across a room for no good reason, it's usually---although not always---because the movie's taking a break from its own story, and that's distracting.

As much as I might enjoy seeing Keira Knightley or Scarlett Johansson naked (I can't see Uma, she says she won't do any more nude scenes) there's a time and a place. I'd rather see whether or not Keira realizes that Mr Darcy loves her or if Scarlett's going to get murdered (Don't tell me!!!!!!) in Match Point.

In Twilight, Reese Witherspoon strolls into a kitchen topless trying either to tempt or just completely unnerve Paul Newman, I'm not sure which, it's not that good a movie. The scene may or may not be a conscious rip-off of a similar scene in Shampoo in which Carrie Fisher's character sets out to seduce Warren Beatty.

Now, when she was 19, Carrie Fisher had a much better figure than Reese Witherspoon had at 21 and far more lovely breasts. And from what I've heard about Fisher at that age, I don't think she'd have been all that modest about showing those lovely breasts on screen. But she does that scene in a white tennis outfit and is still more powerfully sexual than Reese managed to be topless. And Witherspoon is by far the better actress. The talent difference between the two scenes though isn't in the young actresses' skills or their breasts. It's in the directors' and writers' skills.

Warren Beatty, who co-wrote Shampoo with Robert Towne, and Hal Ashby who directed it, understood that it wasn't necessary for Carrie Fisher's character to get naked to seduce Beatty's character. Beatty, being a great appreciator of women as sexual beings---and according to Julie Christie and Annette Bening as human beings---knows how much power they can exert with just a look, a gesture, a wiggle, or a flounce of skirt. Furthermore, he knows that the very nearness of a luscious 19 year old can unnerve a man. Ashby directed the scene accordingly and it's very sexy.

Robert Benton, who directed Twilight, is a good director, but I think he got lazy with this scene. He let Witherspoon's naked breasts do the job that Witherspoon herself could very easily have done. Furthermore, Newman's character was supposed to be close to his own age, an old man afraid he is losing his strength and competence and reason to live---lazily symbolized by his being impotent. Reese could have walked in wearing a parka and caused a guy like that to panic. As it is, she's coming in from the pool, so she'd have been wearing a bathing suit, more than enough to do the job on Newman's ego. The scene would have worked better if she'd strolled on wearing both halves of her bikini. Then it would have been a scene about Newman's sexual anxieties. Instead, it's a scene about what small tits Reese Witherspoon has.

In The Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn's character is woken up in the middle of the night to find Isla Fisher tying his wrists to the bedposts. That's not what wakes him up though. Fisher's character wakes him gently by tickling his lips with her nipples. It's a shot of the one of the most spectacular breasts I've seen on or off the screen, absolutely stunning, but not distracting (except that I immediately suspected a body double at work) because although it's not strictly necessary it's effective storytelling.

Fisher's character is wild, wilder than Vaughn's character suspects, which means she's wilder than up to till that point the audience knows. Tying him to the bedposts shows she's kinky. But using her breasts like that shows she is truly sexy and that she wants to please and to be pleased, not just dominate.

You can make the case that she could have shown this by waking him with a kiss or that she could have been wearing sexy underwear and teased him awake with a taste of her latest purchase from Victoria's Secret.

Personally, I'm more distracted when a director sets up a scene calling for gratuitious nudity and then lets the actors cover up or frames the shot to hide the nudity than by actual gratuitous nudity, but I'm not sure having Fisher wearing a pretty bra wouldn't have done the trick just as well. But the scene isn't just there to show us her character's wild side or her passionate side. It's there to set us up for the two characters to fall in love. Vaughn is shocked when he opens his eyes to find her breast so close to his face, of course. But part of his shock is how beautiful she is. This is the moment when he finds out just how crazy she really is but it's also the moment when he begins to realize he likes that about her and likes her. And part of the point of the scene is to make us see her as he's seeing her and be just as shocked that she is actually a beautiful and tender-hearted young woman not just a comic freak.

As beautiful as the topless shot is, even more beautiful are the shots of her naked back and rear end (although again I was distracted by suspicions of a body double. Fisher seemed to have grown a few inches taller and become broader in the shoulders.) and part of her beauty is her vulnerability in the moment of her apparent dominance.

Her nudity isn't necessary, but it's effective, and possibly more effective than having her wearing something would have been. It's justified thematically and even helps move the story along. On top of which it's realistic, although that doesn't count for much since Wedding Crashers is hardly a realistic movie.

Twilight is more realistic and in real life spoiled daughters of movie stars sunbathe topless around their parents' pools and some of them may not bother to reach for their tops or their towels before wandering into the house to get a drink from the fridge. And Robert Benton may have told himself, and her, that Witherspoon's naked breasts were thematically justified. But having her appear topless wasn't necessary to the plot or the development of the characters and it wasn't as effective as having her appear clothed but acting would have been.

One more example and then I'm going to let you go to work.

Wings of the Dove ends with a sex scene in which Helena Bonham Carter becomes I think the only serious actress to show as much of herself on screen as Jenna Jameson.

It's startling.

But not distracting.

And not gratuitous.

The movie is coming to a close and Bonham Carter's character, Kate Croy, is desperate. She's realized that Merton Densher doesn't love her anymore, that he's planning to leave her. She is frantic and wants to do something, anything to keep him. Kate's problem is that she has been up to this point playing it very cool, too cool. She has been cynical and pragmatic and for her purposes it's been necessary that she downplay her own emotions, which has had the effect of hiding from herself as well as from Densher how much she loves him.

Now, you could say that because the movie is based on a Henry James novel and Henry James' novels are set in Henry James' time, the late 19th Century and early part of the 20th, and people back then were more sexually reticent, a good option for Kate would be to take him to bed.

The director's problem, though, is that he's already showed us that the two of them have had sex. What's more, they've been using sex to keep each other at a distance. They slept together at a time when that was a really big and transgressive deal as a substitute for revealing the depths of their feelings.

The director, Iain Softley, had to come up with something intense, revelatory, and quick, because he has very little time left in his movie, the story has reached its denouement. There is no time left for any extended dialogue in which Kate can tell him how she feels. Softley might have been able to come up with something symbolic she could have done.

But he decided on another sex scene but a very different one. This time the characters would be nakeder. Since nudity is not as revealing to contemporary audiences as it might have been to real life versions of Kate Croy and Merton Densher, Softley needed something more, something that would reveal the extent that Kate was going to show Densher her true self. Bonham Carter helped him with that by showing much more of herself to the audience than the audience for that sort of movie would have been expecting.

So I think the nudity (and Linus Roache is more naked than most serious male actors ever get) and the explicitness of the sex are artistically justified, effective, and finally necessary to telling the story.

Kate offers herself completely to Densher and he rejects her anyway. He'd rather live with the memory of the dead Milly Theale than with the very much alive and in the flesh Kate.

So, here's your homework for the weekend: Give me an example of a great nude scene or sex scene, gratuitous or not. Alternatively or in addition, give an example or two of the most gratuitious scenes you can think of.

On the subject of male nudity and the vanity of actors, Gregory Thelen left this funny comment on yesterday's post.

tigtog, who doesn't agree with me that the double standard is a separate question, left a link on yesterday's post to the second best thing I've read about the Vanity Fair cover.

The best thing I've read is the Siren's comment, which I'm going to post whole here, because some people just don't have time to search through the comments:

It's a typical Leibowitz cover, overretouched and making the subjects look about as come-hither as the smoked-fish counter at Russ & Daughters. Actually, the smoked-fish counter is eminently droolworthy. What I wouldn't give for some of their sable right now ...

Where was I? The actresses are very beautiful and as a fair-skinned lass myself I am personally ecstatic to see such acres of alabaster, tan-free skin. But their expressions are glassy-eyed and vacuous and Tom Ford's pose just looks like a staged version of a Fashion Week air-kiss. It makes me cringe. I don't know why VF, an admirable magazine in so many ways, persists in posing ravishing young actresses in ways that make them look like tired call girls.

And don't forget. Nominations for the Swimmy Awards are still open over at Nite Swimming. Cali dem wants to know your picks for the best political song, movie, and book you heard, saw, or read last year.