Friday, March 31, 2006

That's not filmmaking, that's typing!

The blonde and I have Capote on tap for the weekend.

Movies about writers are problematic contraptions. If you want to make a movie about what a writer like Truman Capote actually does, you end up with Breakfast at Tiffanys, The Grass Harp, and In Cold Blood. What a writer seems to do is tell stories to a piece of paper or a computer screen, and movies about that cripple themselves from the start. Why do you want to look at somebody sitting around typing? Capote has some things going for it that most movies about writers don't have---the main one being Truman Capote, who talked a lot more than he wrote. Second, it has murderers. Murderers aren't really more interesting than writers, but they are more dramatic.

And Capote is set in a time when writers were more visually and sensorily compelling. They smoked a lot back then. And they used typewriters. Typewriters make great, dramatic noises. And then the actor gets to do that terrific, heroically violent act of slamming the carriage back at the end of every line.

My first commandment for young writers is Thou shalt not write about a writer writing his/her first novel.

A descant upon that would have it that when writers feel compelled to write about a writer at any stage in his/her career, they should ask themselves, "Is this going to be as good as David Copperfield?"

It should also be remembered that while David starts his own story with the line, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show," the pages wind up showing that he isn't the hero.

He's the love interest.

The part of hero is shared by Aunt Betsy, Steerforth, Dan Peggoty, and David himself as a boy, but only while he's a boy.

The lesson in this is that if you really must write about a writer, don't make that writer your hero or heroine.

Writers watch. Heroes do. Let your writer watch your hero.

Movies about writers come into existence when a writer---a screenwriter but still someone who sits still a lot staring at computer screens---decides to write about a writer.

There have been a few good movies about writers.

I'm sure.

There must have been.

Let's say that there have been some movies about writers that I've liked.

Wonder Boys. Adaptation. The Moderns, but the main character, played by Keith Carradine, is a painter and a boxer. The writer in the movie is played by Kevin O'Connor and he is named Ernest Hemingway. Painters and boxers are more dramatic than writers, even writers named Ernest Hemingway, which is the great joke of the movie. Hemingway spends all his time drinking too much, quoting himself, and watching Keith Carradine fight off bad guys and win Linda Fiorentino in the end.

Shakespeare in Love is another special case because it's about a playwright. Playwrights spend most of their time staring at blank pieces of paper and computer screens too but then they go to rehearsals.

Rehearsals are fun because there are actors and actresses there. Actors and actresses are sexy.

And they're dramatic. Especially when they're not on stage.

Also, Shakespeare in Love is set in Elizabethan England. The Elizabethans were very dramatic.

And it had Gwyneth Paltrow.

Shut up! I don't want hear it.

You can bash Scarlett all you want, but if you start on Gwyneth I'm going to have to challenge you to a duel.

I will win.

I've killed twelve men.

Some of them were armed.

That's all the movies about writers I can think of that I've liked.

If you can think of more, help me out here.

Movies about journalists don't count.

Movie journalists are always really private eyes or secret agents.

I just found out that there are two new movies out that are about writers and they sound like movies I might want to see.

I don't go to writer movies.

But I will gladly go to a Zooey Deschanel and Ed Harris movie or to a Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek movie.

That's Winter Passing and Ask the Dust.

I found out about both movies because a blogger named Pops linked to a newspaper article that quotes Lance Mannion. The movie critic who wrote the article, the News-Observer's Craig Lindsey, didn't do to me what AP did to RawStory and He gave me credit and put my URL in his article.

Lindsey was writing about actresses getting naked. What a coincidence. He says that Salma Hayek gets naked in Ask the Dust. So I will go see it.

Colin Farrell probably gets naked too, but Lindsey doesn't say.

Roger Ebert says it isn't all that good.

I'll still go see it.

Even though the website features a quote supposedly written by the movie's writer-hero that has to be the most fatuous thing ever written about the craft of writing.

"My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists."

That blogger named Pops, by the way? He doesn't believe Lance Mannion is my real name.

He also thinks I'm gay.

I have a regular reader who thinks I'm crazy and blogging from a lunatic asylum.

She used to think I was an incarcerated felon blogging from the state pen.

My being gay or crazy or in jail would make a movie about my life more dramatic.

I think it's only a matter of time before they make a movie about a blogger.

Keifer Sutherland will play me.

After all, it will be an action-adventure movie with operatives from the Bush Administration trying to hunt me down.

The blonde thinks I should be played by William Hurt.

A younger William Hurt. Not the Body Heat-Children of a Lesser God young William Hurt. Not that young. But definitely not the old, bald A History of Violence William Hurt.

Shakespeare's Sister will probably say I should be played by John Corbett.

My father says Nicolas Cage.

My brother Larry Mannion says a young Dick Van Dyke.

If those suggestions don't confuse you enough about what I really look like, consider this. Uncle Merlin says I should be played by Shaun Cassidy.

But he thinks it's still 1982.

Uncle Merlin, by the way, should be played by Vince Vaughn.

Who should play you in the movie?

Don't treat this as a version of the old what celebrity do people say you resemble question. You don't want a lookalike playing you. You want someone who can portray the real you.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is out of bounds.

He can play all of us.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

As if torture is justified

Last night's episode of Law and Order bugged me.

The show's producers would probably say, "Good, it was meant to."

The episode was called Thinking Makes It So and the storyline was set up to manipulate viewers into cheering when a perp is made to spill the beans about where he's stashed away the little girl he kidnapped.

Ingredients. Little girl lost. Desperate cop. Sleazy, arrogant suspect who won't talk. Conveniently nearby toilet bowl.

Couple of dunkings later, the cops are riding to the little girl's rescue.

Now the lawyers take over. And for the next half hour McCoy and Borgia agonize over the morality of torture. Borgia is just sickened by the whole idea and wants to wash her hands of the case. McCoy is more torn. He wants to win the case. He's been on the job too long and has lost about all sympathy he's ever had for the criminals he prosecutes. But he believes torture in any form is wrong and he's recently signed a petition protesting the horrors at Guantanamo. He also knows that the judge made a bad decision in allowing the case to go forward. The story depends on our accepting that the only evidence that the bad guy kidnapped the little girl is that he has the little girl. Evidence obtained illegally should be excluded, therefore the case should have collapsed.

So there's a part of McCoy that wants to lose the case. To complicate matters, the kidnapper's given the smartest and most likeable of all the defense attorneys in Law and Order's rotating stable of supporting players, Randy Dworkin, who's kind of a younger, more frenetic, thoroughly American Rumpole of the Bailey, and Dworkin admits that a part of him wants to lose, he wants the cops to always be able to rescue lost children...but goddammit torturing suspects is wrong!

The writers could have cheated in one of two ways, and I think I might have preferred if they had.

They could have had Fontana dunk the wrong suspect's head in toilet.

Or they could have made the suspect a lot more dangerous and despicable.

Instead, they made it clear that up until he turned to kidnapping he'd been nothing more than a smooth-talking con artist charming rich widows out of their money. Not admirable, certainly, but not somebody obviously capable of violence of any kind, let alone murdering a little girl.

We've even met him at work being a con artist. So have Fontana and Green. They interview him in the course of their investigation and buy his line that he's had no contact with his no-goodnik son whose death in bank robbery gone awry has revealed the kidnapping. (It's complicated.) Not only is he charming and reassuring, he shows real grief at the "news" that his son's been killed. In fact, he is more cut up over his son's fate than the parents of the little girl appear to be over their daughter's kidnapping---they're involved in a bitter divorce and their anger and resentment towards each other keep getting the better of their concern for their daughter.

We find out later that the suspect has treated the little girl so well that she feels as though she's been on a little vacation. But at the time Fontana's washing the guy's hair in the john we don't know that and neither does Fontana. Fontana also doesn't know if the guy has any partners, partners who might be a lot more ruthless and dangerous.

On the other hand, the guy's ex-wife is downstairs in the house where Fontana's caught up with him and for all Fontana knows she might have information that would save him the trouble of torturing the creep.

We learn later that she did.

And she'd have gladly given it up.

Fontana didn't need to torture the guy. And he had some time to think it over and reasons to doubt himself.

So the episode sets up a debate over the use of excessive force. When is a good cop justified in giving a suspect the old third degree? The answer could be when he has good reason to think that a 6 year old little girl's life is in immediate danger if he doesn't find her this minute, but the response to that is, even the best cops make bad judgment calls and if you excuse the best cops, doesn't that give the next best cops, and the worst cops, permission in their minds to exercise their less reliable judgment?

How do you prevent that? Do you select a handful of the very best cops and write them a license to torture the way MI6 has given James Bond a license to kill?

How do you decide that this cop or that cop is a good one, good enough to trust with that decision? And that sort of mistake by a good cop has the same consequences as the same mistake made by a bad cop, anyway.

This storyline would have been more effective back in the day, I think, when the cast of characters included Ben Stone, Claire Kincaid, Adam Schiff, Lennie Briscoe, and Mike Logan, and it was Logan the hothead pushing the creep's head in the can. Back then, Law and Order allowed itself more moral ambiguity. It let its main characters be more fallible and, more than occasionally, wrong.

Back then Law and Order was about how hard it was to do the job.

Over the last few seasons it's become more about catching the bad guys and seeing they get punished.

It's become a better written, better acted run-of-the-mill cops and robbers show.

When we see a perp get what's coming to him now, we always know he deserves it and we are meant to cheer.

Last night's episode, despite all the ways it tried to work against itself, didn't manage to raise enough doubts about having that reaction.

Oddly, the script made no reference to the first episode of this season, recently repeated, in which another little girl was kidnapped. In that episode the suspect was dangerous, violent, and ruthless and the little girl was in real, immediate danger and the cops still managed to get her back without resorting to torture.

It was pure luck that they did, which would have made it very useful last night. Both sides could have used it to justify their arguments.

But, finally, I think the whole interesting moral question about cops and the limits of their judgment was overwhelmed by the writers' raising the stakes too high. When the debate went immediately from whether or not Fontana was wrong to torture the suspect to the awfulness of what's going on at Gitmo, the show's own plot was trivialized by a matter of scale.

Who cares about one fictional cop sticking one fictional and guilty criminal's head in a toilet a few times compared to what's being done to hundreds, thousands, of innocent and real human beings?

On top of that, by comparing what Fontana did to what the torturers at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and all our secret torture centers elsewhere are up to, the writers excused him.

After all, he made one mistake in the heat of the moment. The situation was unique and not likely to be repeated---here's another reason for bringing in that other episode. Similar situations are not the same as duplicate situations.---Fontana goofed and knows he goofed, we know he'll be more careful the next time (We wouldn't have known that about Mike Logan, by the way.), and a very real good came out of it. The little girl was rescued.

So I didn't like the show.


Looked at another way, the way the writers probably wanted me to look at it, what Fontana did, although it was wrong, is a repudiation of what we're doing in our torture chambers.

First of all, the situation Fontana found himself in was unique and not not likely to be repeated.

Our torture chambers are set up and run to constantly create and repeat the situation over and over again.

Fontana had very little time to think about what to do.

The Bush Administration has had all the time in the world and has decided it just doesn't care.

The torturers Bush has employed have had all the time in the world too and they don't care.

Fontana knew that his guy was guilty and had the information he needed.

We know that probably 99 out of 100 of the people who have gone down into our torture chambers don't know anything and aren't guilty of anything except being our enemies or related to our enemies, and we tortured and continue to torture them all anyway on the off chance that one of them might turn out to be a real bad guy. In other words, we deliberately torture innocent people for the hell of it.

Fontana did not actually hurt his victim, while Major Organ Gonzales' definition of hurting someone doesn't include anything short of immediate death apparently.

And Fontana got information he needed at the moment, information that was vital at the moment, and specific to the moment.

Nothing like that has apparently come out of our torture chambers. Nothing like that can come out of them now. Too much time has passed.

Even if Saddam had had WMD and even if he had had the capability to use them against us and even if he'd been all set to use them right away, within days of his overthrow they would have been as useless to him as if they'd never existed.

Even if the members of the Taliban and al Qaida we captured in Afghanistan knew where Osama was hiding and knew he was planning another attack, within days of their capture Osama's hideout and his plans would have changed. They did change.

So we got the torture chambers up and running and kept them running after we knew that it was too late for them to do anything useful.

Nevermind that torture is reprehensible, unamerican, and almost impossible to justify except by resorting the unlikeliest and most exteme hypotheticals. Our torture chambers are wasting time, energy, and money.

And here's the point. The apologists for torture always argue as if we aren't doing what we are doing.

They always argue as if the situation we are in in Iraq and Afghanistan is the same as the one Fontana found himself in.

They always argue as if there's a nuclear bomb buried under the White House and the person being tortured knows exactly where and has the code to defuse it.

And the apologists for Bush's spy on everybody for the hell of it program always argue as if Bush was spying only on terrorists who have planted a bomb under the White House and are calling each other up on the phone to give the order to detonate it along with the code to defuse it.

They argue as if the worst possible case scenario that might justify a single instance of resorting to torture is the reality of this very moment.

So that's why what Fontana did was wrong and has to be seen as wrong and why as good and smart and right as he is he still can't allow himself to do what he did.

Because it doesn't take much for stupid, bloody-minded, cowardly, and basically terrified people to argue themselves into thinking they are good and smart and doing the right thing for the right reason, to excuse themselves everything as if they were Joe Fontana saving a little girl's life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"I'm on Tokyo time."

Woke the 12 year old for school this morning with my usual jokey, "Time to get up! It's morning in America," which surprisingly hasn't yet been answered with the nearest hard object being winged at my head.

"It's morning in America," I cried cheerfully.

And from under his covers the 12 year old growled, "Yeah, well, it's sundown in Tokyo and I'm on Tokyo time."

I feel for the kid. His school day starts at 7:30 and he has a one hour bus ride, so he has to be up, dressed, combed, brushed, and fed by 6:30. That means waking him at 5:45 so that he's out of bed by 6. It's physically painful for him some mornings. It was worse in the winter when he had to do it in the cold and the dark.

He's never been an early riser, for a kid, and as he approaches adolescence I expect that he'll be even harder to dislodge from his slumbers. Because as every one knows, teenagers need more sleep.

Well, as almost everyone knows.

Coturnix, who runs the indispensible science and politics blog called, um, Science and Politics, is a biologist working on his Ph.D. and he has a second blog, Circadiana, devoted to his field of research, sleep (snooze-ology?). He has a good introduction to the subject of sleep and sleep patterns in adults and others here, Everything you always wanted to know about sleep (but were too afraid to ask), and a follow-up here, ClockNews---Adolescent Sleep.

Upshot, somewhere around the time they turn 30 most adults fall into a sleep pattern they more or less stick to for the rest of their lives. Some people are night owls, going to bed late, sleeping late, or as late as they can. Others are larks, rising to sing before the dawn and nodding off ten minutes after the supper dishes are washed and put away. Most everybody else falls somewhere in between, with idiosyncratic variations.

I'd call myself a night owl, except that I rarely sleep in, even when I don't have to drag a surly 12 year old out of his bed. In fact, the happier, better rested, and better exercised I am, the less sleep I need, so that when I'm down on Cape Cod I barely bother to close my eyes.

But I'm also a napper. Weekends and on vacation I can sleep less at night because I sleep for a good hour or two in the late afternoon. Naps, or rather the absence of naps, is one more piece of evidence that America is a barbaric country. When I was a kid I thought the idea of a siesta---the whole adult world stopping everything in mid-afternoon to take a nap?---was the most civilized concept I'd ever heard of, and I haven't changed my mind.

So I'm a night owl who cheats. And as it happens I believe that one of the ways God punishes sinful people while they are still alive is by marrying them off to spouses with exact opposite habits and zero sympathy for the sinners' quirks and peculiar needs.

The blonde isn't a lark, but she needs her sleep. She sleeps long and she sleeps deep. Logs, stones, the dead, the just, bears in winter, newborn babes, and the clear of conscience are light sleepers next to her, nervous, jumpy, easily startled types who shoot out of bed with wide-open eyes at the merest pindrop of sound like alarm clocks, telephones, screaming children, and the occasional firecrackers going off right next to their pillows.

Sleep comes to her like an old friend at about 9 or 10 o'clock, they embrace, and stroll off to the bedroom together, and there's no stopping them, and don't you dare interrupt them, for the next 9 hours exactly.

I knew what I was getting into. Back in college, before we started dating, we worked on a class project together. One night our group had a meeting at our apartment. The meeting lasted a few hours and we finished up about midnight, early by college student time, I thought. But after seeing the gang to the door I returned to my room to discover that one of us hadn't left. One of us was sound asleep on my bed.

At this time I did not know that the blonde and I were going to wind up married. She hadn't even informed me yet that we were going to start dating soon. At that moment I had no particularly warm feelings for her at all. I felt a mild, friendly pity. "Poor kid," I thought, "Guess she's had a hard day. Better wake her up and send her toddling on home."

I gave her shoulder a gentle shake.

I spent the night in a chair.

In the morning she couldn't understand why I was so grumpy and rude or why I wanted to crawl into bed and not go skipping off to my first class. Since that happened to be the class we were in together she guilted me into going with her.

That's been our life ever since.

I was telling this story to my pal Margot the other day. Margot's a borderline insomniac like me. Turns out her husband is like the blonde. When it comes to sleeping, he's a natural.

Like I said, this is the kind of joke the Almighty likes to pull on the wicked.

The blonde is one of those rare birds whose sleep patterns have remained constant throughout her life. Most people, to get back to my original point, change their sleep patterns during adolescence, because of the simple fact that teenage bodies and brains are growing and changing wildly and the whole process is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

Everybody knows this.

Everybody except, apparently, school administrators who schedule their districts' school days exactly as if the opposite was true, starting their high schools' days at the crack of a winter dawn. There is absolutely no good reason for this.

I've heard it suggested that it's a left over from the days when most people lived on farms. Not true. Farm kids do have to get up early---to do chores. In farm communities school days started later and ended earlier to give the kids time to do those chores.

Chew this one over: School days used to be shorter, summer vacations longer, and kids learned better how to read and write and cipher. I'm thinking class size figures in this, but also all the rote memorization and reciting out loud helped.

I've heard it suggested that the early start has to do with transportation costs and logistics. But the current school day has been in place for at least three generations and seventy years ago most schools were neighborhood schools and the kids walked (up hill, both ways, in the snow).

I've heard it suggested that it's so that the day can end in time for sports practices and extracurricular activities. But 70 years ago most schools did not have big sports programs and offered fewer extracurriculars, and besides what would be so bad about having play practice between 4 and 5:30 instead of between 3 and 4:30?

Ezra Klein had a post on this very same subject back in January, Death to the Morning! Lots of interesting speculation developed in his comment thread but no conclusions were reached or persuasive answers given.

My guess is that the day is as it is because of assumptions about the maturity of high school students and Puritanical beliefs in the need to start treating them like grownups who have to learn sooner or later that life is stern and earnest and they'd better get used to being miserable all day just like their parents.

Amazingly, I might be right. Coturnix wrote the other day, "The shift in sleep-phase of adolescents is one of the best documented and most studied phenomena in human chronobiology." But that doesn't mean that the right people are reading the studies:

I am often alarmed at the levels of ignorance still rampant in the general population, and even more the negative social connotations of sleep as an indicator of laziness.

Nothing pains me more than when I see educators (in comments) revealing such biases in regards to their student in the adolescent years. Why do teachers think that their charges are lazy, irresponsible bums, and persist in such belief even when confronted with clear scientific data demonstrating that sleep phase in adolescents is markedly delayed in comparison to younger and older people?

What's this? There are teachers who don't like their students?

Of course there are. I've known a few, even though being a teacher and disliking students would seem to be a matter of not liking to teach, period.

But there are teachers who don't like to teach. And there are lawyers who don't like to argue, doctors who grow woozy at the sight of blood and think their patients are whiny malingerers, politicians who hate public speaking, truck drivers who don't like to sit still and bus drivers who don't know the meaning of the words traffic safety, art critics who are philistines, movie stars for whom acting is an embarrassing chore, priests and ministers and rabbis who don't believe in God, engineers who can't do the math, misanthropic philanthropists, anti-authoritarian cops, vegetarian butchers, acrophobic airline pilots, agoraphobic socialites, spendthrifty bankers, cowardly generals, and lactose-intolerant dairy farmers.

Why, down in Washington, there's a whole passel of journalists who don't like to report the news.

There are even bloggers who get sick of the sound of their own typing.

Time to end this.

Anyway, I need a nap.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


The blonde and the 10 year old have been enjoying watching The West Wing together this season. I'm still not allowed to watch. If you've been following the show too, you know that the Presidential election campaign pitting Democrat Matt Santos against Republican Arnold Vinick is coming down to the wire. The 10 year old, good little Democrat and still loyal Kerry man, is rooting for Santos and thinks he's going to win.

He's rooting for Santos, but he likes Vinick better.

Part of it is that Vinick is played by Hawkeye Pierce. But then Santos is played by Bail Organa, so you'd think that with the 10 year old's Democratic sympathies coming into play and Star Wars ranking much higher in his Pantheon than MASH, it would balance out in Santos' favor.


He likes Vinick.

Doesn't mean he doesn't like Santos. Doesn't mean that if it was a real election and he could vote he'd vote for Vinick.

He just means something like Vinick seems more like a guy he'd enjoy having a chocolate milk with.

That idea, expressed by adults, that it's important that you feel about a candidate like you'd enjoy having a beer with him, drives lots of smart people nuts. And no wonder, considering how it was used by the Media Elites for six years to justify the Presidency of George W. Bush and to bolster their conviction against all evidence that Bush was popular.

Bush's supposed companionability as a drinking buddy is still making it hard for many of them to admit that Bush isn't just wildly unpopular, he's verging on despised.

But there is some truth in the guy you want to have a beer with notion, and not just that the Media Elite would rather drink with a wise-cracking featherweight who gives them nicknames and doesn't annoy them talking about boring stuff like issues and policy than with a successful heavyweight whose very existence reminds them of their own mediocrity and real ineffectualness.

But there is another truth to it, and that's this. People want a candidate they feel they can approach. The want somebody they feel they can talk to, somebody they feel will listen, understand, and care about what they think and about their problems.

The bubble that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have blown around Bush is necessary so that no one finds out that he is just a puppet. But it has been self-defeating. When he faces voters, he faces only voters who already like and agree with him. What Rove and Cheney forgot, if they ever knew it, or what they can't afford to risk putting to the test, is that liking a candidate, agreeing with that candidate, and voting for that candidate are three different things that influence each other but are not dependent on one another. They are contingent but not necessarily and definitely not always causal.

People will vote for candidates they disagree with on the issues as long as they feel that those candidates have their interests and concerns at heart.

Which is why it's not a bad thing if you're running for office to put yourself in a postion to be challenged by voters. It's often the case that you win voters over when you are disagreeing with them and explaining why you do, because it's while you are doing it that they can judge whether or not you are taking them seriously.

It's easy to sound sympathetic when you are just saying, "You're right."

I take that back. Often it's harder. You can come across as dissmissive or condescending if you don't watch it.

I think it's kind of a truism that Democrats nominate the candidate they agree with while Republicans agree with the candidate they nominate. I think it's also a truism that truisms are only more or less true, usually less.

It's another truism, though, that Democrats tend to like the candidate they agree with, while Republicans tend to like candidates who seems more like their kind of people. This is why I don't think McCain's going to get the Republican nomination.

It's not true that this has resulted in the Republicans nominating generally more likeable candidates for President.

In the last 42 years the Republicans have nominated exactly the same number of likeable candidates as the Democrats have.


They had Reagan. The Democrats had Clinton.

That's it.

Goldwater, Nixon, Ford, the first George Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush is not a more congenial list than Johnson, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.

(Actually, it looks to me as though the edge goes to the Democrats, and we're not even measuring likeability in terms of decency and personal charm here.)

George W. Bush's "likeability" is a Media creation.

Studied carefully, that list should provide a counterargument to the Democrats are losers storyline.

In the last 42 years the Republicans have elected 3 Presidents and the Democrats have elected 4.

Historians will give the 2000 election to Gore. Probably they'll wind up giving 2004 to Kerry or at least deciding that because how many votes the Bush Leaguers stole can't be positively determined the actual outcome of the popular vote will always be a mystery.

I think it's becoming clear that they stole Ohio, so Kerry won the electoral vote. We know they cheated egregiously in Florida and Nevada and time will probably show that Kerry would have won them both in honest elections.

Regular readers of the BradBlog and Avedon Carol will have been following this.

For now, let's say the count is 4 to 3. I'm not counting re-elections of popular incumbants. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton each count as one President.

What this means is that the Democrats have a better track record for picking likeable (in the sense of being electable) candidates than conventional wisdom holds. The only true loser in the pack was Dukakis and he didn't do as badly as people think. McGovern and Mondale were doomed from the start and nothing can be said about their electability, one way or another, except that sometimes current events are against you. In McGovern's case, current events were for him before they were against him.

I'm not saying that not having to face a popular Nixon or Reagan would have meant that either or both could have become President. I don't think that either one would have been nominated under other circumstances.

At any rate, Democrats looking ahead to 2008 are worrying about nominating an electable candidate. But electability is a nebulous notion.

Hard-core Democrats will vote for the Democrat. Hard-core Republicans will vote for the Republican. But the hard-cores of both parties make up for at most 60 per cent of the electorate. The real fight is for that other 40 percent, or a little more than half that 40 per cent, and most of those voters make up their minds about who's electable usually on the grounds of which candidate they think they'd like to have a chocolate milk with.

Which, as I said, is a way of saying the candidate they think has their interests and concerns at heart, even if that candidate has different ideas about how to go about advancing those interests and concerns.

I don't know how you go about judging who that is before the candidates have really gone out and met the voters.

There is a serious case to be made that it's the candidate who stands for something and stands for it squarely and steadfastly. But then shouldn't we be into the second year of President Kucinich's first term now?

Voters do care that a candidate stands for something.

They want her to stand for them.

And as I've been trying to say, they have a more open definition of what that means than pundits and insiders generally believe.

Personally, I think the upshot for Democrats trying to judge which candidate is electable here is that they need to look for two things.

The candidate must be telegenic, because television is the way most voters get to know and judge a Presidential candidate, and she must have a compelling biography, because it's by looking over what a candidate has gone through in her life that voters decide whether or not she understands what they have gone through in theirs and can take their concerns, their interests, their lives to heart.

You've probably been watching the pronouns.

Yes, I mean Hillary.

I'm not thrilled about it. But I've come to the conclusion that she is the one.

I'll go into it more in another post.

Meanwhile, at Liberalism Without Cynicism, Laura Turner has been looking over the field of Democratic hopefuls so far and although she is as wildly unenthusiastic about Hillary now as I am she's pretty much come to the same conclusion.

But you'll be very surprised to see who else Laura thinks has "that electability thing."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I want to know the details behind this one

Ben Domenech isn't the only one who had a bad day at the office yesterday. At the post office late yesterday afternoon, two women bumping into each other after work:

First woman: I don't know. I don't know what happened. Something did, between just before break and the time they escorted him out of there.

Second woman: But he's the one who had the coffee thrown at him!

Friday, March 24, 2006

The liberal bias of facts

Rob Farley, the Guns of Lawyers, Guns and Money, has posted a list of movies he has used in his classes to help him teach, either as introductions to lessons or as tools to foster what Rob calls non-traditional ways of analyzing and discussing concepts and to expose his students to non-academic perspectives on issues and questions they've been studying.

I know some college profs who'd complain that they have the opposite problem. Their students are all too willing to embrace non-academic perspectives. They have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to get their students to think academically, that is like scholars, critically and analytically, and not mistake an emotional response for a considered opinion.

As Obi-wan tells Luke, much depends on your point of view. Your feelings will depend on whether you teach grad students or undergrads, upperclassmen or freshmen, and if you're teaching a required course for majors or an elective open to all students.

Having taught only undergrads, I'd say that one of the biggest problems college professors have to deal with is an almost universal attitude among students that, "If a teacher says it, it must be boring."

Boring translates variously as irrelevent, not worth my time, useless, of no practical application to my life, nerdy, stupid, clueless, probably untrue, doesn't jive with anything I know, makes sense only to Martians, and a flat-out lie.

Many students arrive at school never having read anything by Henry Adams, not even having heard of Henry Adams, desiring nothing more than to never hear of Henry Adams, yet they still land in your classroom already in complete agreement with Adams on two things.

That "a schoolmaster [is] a man employed to teach lies to little boys."

And "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts."

Whatever you can do to get students to see things in a new way, to shake up the routine, to make them think, academically or non-academically, to remind them that they do know things---another stumbling block for profs who teach undergrads is many students' secret conviction that they don't know anything and don't have any opinions or ideas that matter, at least not to adults---is good and useful. Visual aids, music, jokes, tap dancing on the desk, holding class outdoors or in the student union (ah for the days when you could hold one in a bar), movies, it's all helpful.

Rob's list of movies he's shown is an interesting one and evidence that students who take ol' Prof Farley's classes come out of there ahead of the game.

Just as interesting are the movies that Rob's commenters have used in their classes. I threw in my two cents. Responding to someone who was looking for a movie about Vietnam to show in a class studying Tim O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato and his stories in The Things They Carried, I recommended Brian DePalma's Casualties of War, "the best and the scariest of all the Vietnam movies," I wrote.

This got me thinking about how I would like to use those books and that movie in a class, and while I was thinking about that two words began to flash in big red neon letters in my mind's eye.


I can't see how you could teach those books or that movie, or any books or any movie about Vietnam, and not have the thrust of the discussion be that the War in Vietnam was not just a disaster but an evil. And this being the case, I think I would shy away from Vietnam books and movies in my classes. Not because I don't believe that the war was a disaster and an evil, and not because I'd be afraid of having conservative students report me to David Horowitz, but because I'd be teaching an English class or a writing class and I wouldn't want the class to get sidetracked into arguments about politics and history. That's what poli sci classes and history classes are for.

I never shut down debates that arose out of what we were studying. I didn't go out of my way to inject politics into the class, but political questions pop up all the time without being invited. I just had too much else that needed to be discussed.

I'll leave it to Michael Berube to deal with the likes of Horowitz and the Right Wing bully boys who are trying to shut down intellectual freedom by attacking a nightmare in the closet they call Liberal bias in the classroom.

But I was in grad school and was a young instructor in the 80s and early 90s and I had a lot of colleagues, all teachers of literature and creative writing, who turned their classes into forums on politics, gender biases, feminism, and racism. There are many classes offered by English Departments that are really quasi-poli sci and history classes and any student who signs up for one of these and then is shocked, shocked to find that politics is being discussed is a dissembler or a dope. But few of my politically inclined colleagues taught those kinds of classes. Most of them taught what looked in the catalogs like traditional literature and creative writing courses. And they'd come back from class and brag how they'd given it to Reagan or Bush or Newt that day, how they'd come down hard on the frat boys and the sorority sisters---"I really made them think." They weren't all bad teachers. Some of them were quite talented and did make their students think and even the conservative students appreciated them. But many of them were just being intellectual bullies.

I don't know how much this went on at other colleges. There was probably a lot of it. Not as much as conservatives claim, more than liberals and leftists like to admit, I suspect. The fads of deconstructionsim and post-modernism gave people license to turn every class period into a seminar on politics. All I know is I didn't do it myself, but only because it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Some of you might find that hard to believe, that I could keep my political opinions to myself.

A blog is not a classroom.

The important point here, though, is that I taught literature and creative writing. I didn't teach political science. I didn't teach history. And I can't imagine how you could teach history without the class having a liberal bias, even if the professor herself is a conservative.

It's not quite true that the whole history of the United States has been one story of the triumph of liberalism after another, althought that hasn't stopped me from saying it from time to time. There have been a number of periods when liberalism was defeated. The Salem Witch Hysteria. The end of Reconstruction. The centuries-long war to exterminate the Indians. And it's hard to see how you can teach those as good things. Unless you believe that defending religious authority requires the hanging of the odd innocent now and then, or the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and Jim Crow had some positive benefits, or the only good Injun is a dead one, you end up teaching in favor of liberalism.

(There are plenty of people who are liberal when they time-travel but conservative in the present.)

If I put my mind to it I could probably come up with an argument that those liberal defeats were also defeats for conservativism too.

I can't come up with a conservative take on the Labor Movement.

"When the mine owner heard that several small boys had also been killed in the explosion in Shaft No. 8, he almost couldn't finish his lunch."

"Labor Unions are basically evil and all those bad conditions they supposedly fixed would have been fixed eventually by market forces."

How many more decades in an eventually, boss?

History is biased against conservatives.

Movement conservatives don't like this.

So they rewrite history.

Conservative students come to college indoctrinated in an alternative history of the United States that includes such facts as

The founders were Christians who established a Christian government.

The American Revolution was all about the evils of taxation.

The Civil War was fought over States' Rights in general, slavery was a separate issue, and anyway the slaves weren't so bad off, so what's the problem?

The Robber Barons have been given a bad rap.

The New Deal was a failure.

The Civil Rights Movement ended racism for all time.

Women were happier before evil Feminists forced them to take jobs as lawyers and doctors and Indian chiefs and they could just go about happily being suburban mothers and housewives with nothing much more on their minds than what to make for supper.

We didn't lose in Vietnam. Namby-pamby and traitorous Liberals at home wouldn't let the Army fight.

Ronald Reagan was the greatest American President.

George Bush is the next greatest.

We're winning the war in Iraq, which was a good, just, and necessary war.

I don't see how any honest professor can duck a charge of LIBERAL BIAS these days.

It was pretty easy for me to avoid politics in my classes. But how does a college professor go about avoiding facts?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Talkin' about nobody's generation

As I was saying yesterday, I don't really believe that the Boomers are the Worst Generation ever. Generations don't do anything. Individuals do. There just happened to have been a lot of individuals born between 1946 and 1964.

The exploits of any few members of a generation don't define all the rest. Just because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (both born in '46) were elected President doesn't make all Boomers Presidential timber or mean they are all inclined to start losing wars or start chasing interns---but let's face it, most of them did inhale---any more than Meryl Streep (b. 1949) makes them all Academy Award winners, Eddie Murray (b. 1956) makes them all Hall of Famers, Cindy Sheehan (b. 1957) peace activists, Bill Gates (b. 1955) billionaire entrepreneurs, Madonna (b. 1958) constantly self-reinventing pop stars, Sam Alito (b. 1950) dissembling Right Wing authoritarian Supreme Court Justices, or George Clooney (b. 1961) the world's sexiest men.


What should be just as obvious is that just the fact that some Boomers marched against the War in Vietnam and for Civil Rights here at home, and some dropped acid, and some burned their draft cards and others burned their bras, and some were at Woodstock and some were in Chicago, and some joined the Peace Corps, and some joined the Weatherman, and some voted for McGovern, doesn't say anything about the idealism or lack of it of all the rest of them.

Nor does the fact that a great many of them grew up to become soulless Yuppies mean that the whole generation sold its soul.

In fact, the vast majority didn't become Yuppies at all, soulless or soulful. They became like most people in most generations, working stiffs. They became mechanics and store clerks and factory hands and insurance agents and truck drivers and nurses and steamfitters and school janitors and beat cops and bus drivers and postal workers and housewives and nursery school teachers.

And when you get right down to it, the whole idea of lumping together millions of people born over a span of close to 20 years into one homogeneous entity called Baby Boomers and defining them all by the fads and pop culture and historical events of the high school and college years of the eldest of them is absurd.

Why should someone who was born in 1963 be assumed to have more in common with strangers born in 1946 than with their own brother or sister born in 1966?

In his Boomer bashing book Balsamic Dreams Joe Queenan, besides providing me with an opportunity to have fun with alliteration, makes the case that the ideas, stereotypes, cliches, history, and answers to all the Trivial Pursuit questions we associate with the Boomers should properly be assigned to the cohort born between 1940 or so and 1954. The boom in the birth rates that's usually attributed to the end of World War II and the prosperity of the 1950s---all those soldiers and sailors coming home to marry and start families---Queenan says really began a few years earlier and is actually a post-Depression boom. People who had put off starting families or having more kids because they were broke during the 30s felt prosperous enough, or at least secure enough, to begin again.

This is the group that we really mean when we think of Baby Boomers, says Queenan.

And if you do the math, you see he's right. The babies born between 1940 and 1954 were the ones who grew up to watch Howdy Doody, wear coonskin caps, scream for Elvis and then the Beatles, remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, march against the War in Vietnam, fight and die in Vietnam, get clean for Gene, go to Woodstock, give Peace a chance, tune in and drop out, and still somehow bring themselves to cast their first Presidential votes disproportionately for Nixon in 1972 and turn themselves into the first wave of Yuppies.

The incongruity of the last two stereotypes on that list of stereotypes has been used as proof that the Boomers sold out their early idealism. What they are, really, are evidence that the Boomers are not a homogeneous mass of ex-hippies, ex-peaceniks, and ex-rebels. Most of them, in fact, are none of those things, and most of them are like every other generation that came before and will come after---they pretty much take after their parents.

This is to say that most Boomers are conservative by nature and upbringing, afraid of change, self-centered, far more worried about taking care of themselves and their own than in changing the world for the better, or the worse, not given to deep thought about big pictures---although prone to congratulating themselves for having "deep thoughts" and looking at "big pictures" that confirm them in their conservativism and selfishness---harmless on the whole, but capable of great good, and great evil, if moved by the right or wrong angels.

In short, Boomers are just members of the damned human race.

If they have been more destructive than previous generations, it's only because there are more of them so there are more of every type of human being among them, including destructive ones.

If they were more idealistic---an arguable claim---it's because there were more born idealists in their ranks. And if the generation cannot be said to have lived up to the idealism of the minority among them who were and are idealists, it's not so much because they sold out as because opportunities were denied them by accidents of history...and the selfishness and carelessness of the supposed Greatest Generation, themselves the product of huge historical accidents. For example, the Boomers could have and should have been the Generation that put colonies on the moon, filled the night sky with space stations, and landed human beings on Mars. But after the moon landing, the leaders of the Greatest Generation, who were still running the show in the 1970s and would run it through the first part of the 1980s and who, by the way, started the war in Vietnam (Just saying.), decided that they were done with space exploration, it cost too much money, and it was time for them to start cutting back on everything that had helped reach a prosperous late middle age and start saving for their own retirements.

Of course, their Boomer kids, those who were well provided for, decided they liked the low taxes better than the glories of space exploration and here we are, still stuck on this rock.

At any rate, Generations, as much as they can be defined, are defined by events, not by their music.

And history works itself out in longer time scales than the 25 years or so when a single cohort of human beings happens to be in their primes.

The Culture Wars that Gen Y is now providing the cannon fodder for are continuations of fights that began in the 1950s and 60s. The Baby Boomers' secure retirements are being threatened by angers and resentments that date back to 1932. Are we living in the Boomers' world or are they living in their grandparents' world?

Look at the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party, count all the ex-Dixiecrats and crypto-Confederates, and then tell me the Civil War and Reconstruction are over.

It may be the case that what makes the Bush Administration so dangerous and destructive is that it has brought into power all at once a whole lot of last gapsers. The last of the Confederates have joined up with the last of the Roosevelt-hating plutocrats and the last of the Better Dead than Red Cold Warriors and the last of the hippie hating Nixonians to wage war on the past 140 odd years of American history.

That most of these people are Boomers is merely a biological contingency---individual bodies last only a few decades. Ideas, attitudes, hatreds, feuds, hopes, fears, and dreams live on and on and on.

There are no generations.

We are ruled by ghosts.

I think it's the conventional wisdom these days to believe that while the Boomers may have rotted from the cores out, the kids are all right. That's probably about as true as every other generational cliche, but here's a group of Gen Y-ers who are doing their Boomer parents proud.

By the way, Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams is good for a few laughs but it's mostly a lot of cheap shots taken at the least offensive Boomer stereotypes---Queenan treats a middle-aged Boomer in cargo shorts and Bierkenstocks eating yogurt as a far more deserving target for satire than one wearing a business suit, sitting in an office, carelessly deciding to close a factory to increase her stock options. He's a much better and funnier writer when he sticks to movies, sports, and travel writing.

And for the record, I was born in 1785.

In New Orleans.

Damn vampires.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nation unbuilding

George Bush has a plan to end the war in Iraq.

Leave it to the next guy.

Our troops are going to be there for years to come, he insists.

He talks as if the next President will have an easy time of it, bringing the troops home, because by then Iraq will be a stable, flourishing, even prospering democracy, and our continued presence will an unnecessary extravagance.

Also the coming economic boom will have wiped out the deficit here at home, the earth will have cured itself of global warming, and New Orleans will have risen from the muck cleaner, brighter, richer, and whiter than ever, but with better gumbo and hotter jazz.

Bush probably believes it will all come to pass thus.

There are plenty of Congressmen, Senators, think tankers, pundits, journalists, bloggers, and regular citizens who believe it along with him, more who talk as if they believe it, because they need to believe it. To admit the truth would cost them their jobs or, worse, injure their vanity and self-regard.

There are plenty who are willing to admit the war has been a botched job, some who'll even admit it was a mistake from the start, but nevertheless insist there's nothing we can do but more of the same, except maybe with more intensity and forethought---they mean that we need to kill more Iraqis. They call them insurgents as a way to avoid calling them Iraqis and thinking of them as people. But that's basically their plan. Kill as many as we can until the rest get scared or tired or run out of explosives. They call killing them bringing stability to Iraq.

All the American soldiers and Marines and all the Iraqi innocents who die in the process are the price of freedom, and it's a small price to pay, so buck up and be proud. Support the live troops and ignore the dead ones.

That's the "opitmist's" argument.

More and more we're hearing the "realist's" argument. Yes, it's a mess, the realist says, and probably there's not much that can be done, but we have to try. It's our obligation. Our nation's honor is at stake. We broke it, it's up to us to fix it.

I believed this myself, for a little while. But that's because I didn't yet know the extent to which Iraq had been broken. If Iraq was a priceless vase that the Bush Leaguers dropped, then they also stomped all over the pieces in heavy boots and ground them to powder while they were scrambling around looking for the glue.

Ok, maybe it can never be fixed, other realists say, but if we pull out now it will only embolden our enemies. We don't want our friends or enemies thinking we don't honor our committments. We can't appear weak.

Actually, what we've "accomplished" in Iraq should scare the bejeezus out of enemies like Iran and North Korea. Look at how much havoc we caused while only half-trying. Mess with us, and this is what we can do to you---destroy your army, wipe out your infrastructure, behead your government, kill thousands of your citizens, and leave what remains to the mercy of the rats and the bandits and the germs.

I'm hardly advocating that as our negotiating posture with either Iran or North Korea, but that is the ultimate threat, even if we never say it out loud.

What we've "accomplished" ought to serve as a warning to our enemies...and to ourselves that this is why diplomatic solutions are always preferable.

But back to arguments that we need to stay the course.

I'm sorry that I gave into the temptation to be a smart aleck in my post the other day, Peace with honor. I don't really believe that the Boomers belong to the Worst Generation Ever or that Gen X is the most useless cohort to come along. Generations don't do anything. They aren't even are anything, except useful measurement tools for actuaries, marketers, and census takers.

I was just being a wiseguy to get a rise out of people, and I did. But I took the focus off my real point, which wasn't that the Boomers are a blot on the landscape or that Gen Xers mere chaff with no wheat.

My point was and is that nobody who was alive and cognizant then should be writing about Iraq as if they'd never heard of Vietnam or learned none of its lessons.

I'm talking about Liberal hawks and the truly realistic Republicans.

The neocons and Right Wingers didn't learn any lessons from Vietnam because they didn't want to. They learned the lessons of Rambo.

So I undermined my own point. Fortunately, Tom Watson's around to make it for me and then some:

On this anniversary, some would have us waive the grand Bush error rather than look back to mistakes and failure and wasted blood. Look forward, they urge. It's our only course. [This is the favored line of the growing number of Republicans who have abandoned the President they worked so feverishly to elect]. Some want us to fight our way out - but which way, and with whom? John McCain says he's moderate Presidential material, but he ought to channel LBJ if he thinks Americans can stand many more thousands of lives and many more billions of dollars in a clearly lost cause. We don't have three, five, ten or twenty years of bleeding left in our all-volunteer military - or another trillion in our indebted, outsourced economy, either.

Go read Tom's post Mister, I Ain't a Boy. And be sure to follow the links at the end of the post to Gilliard, Wolcott, and especially to Juan Cole.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Joe Louis, matinee idol

David Margolick's Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink is a terrific book. Feels like I've learned something new on every page, which makes me about 250 items smarter than I was when I started. Could've and probably should've blogged about a dozen of those things along the way, instead of the just once so far before today, but here's a fact that caught my imagination and won't let go, because it's something I feel I should have known about before.

Joe Louis starred in a movie. It was released in 1938, while he was gearing up for his fight with Jimmy Braddock (which he would win, making him the champ, but not the undisputed champ. He became that when he knocked out Max Schmeling later in the year.) That's not the something, not the whole something at any rate. The something is that the movie, Spirit of Youth, was intended for a particular niche audience, African-Americans.


Louis, meantime, bowed on the screen when Spirit of Youth opened in black movie theaters. He followed the premieres up the eastern seaboard, appearing before thousands of feverish fans in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Many couldn't get seats or, even if they did, were too busy staring at the live Louis in the audience to watch the filmed Louis on the screen. That may have been just as well, for the critics, white and black, were not kind about the film, which, with its tale of a young fighter falling for a nightclub actress, breaking training, and giving lip to his managers, sounded too much like 1936 [when Louis lost his first fight with Schmeling---a lot of people, including his manager and trainer, thought Louis had loafed and played around during his training for that fight---LM] and reportedly had [fight promoter] Mike Jacobs squirming in his seat. Louis was a great fighter and a good guy, but as a screen lover he was "a dud, with a capital D," the Afro-American delcared. But an Afro columnist thought most wives would like Louis anyway. "His awkwardness will remind them of their husband and they will feel perfectly at ease," he wrote.

In the 30s, Hollywood used to turn over its studios and sets and scripts at night to the making of movies in Spanish for distribution in Mexico and South America. The films employed Spanish-speaking actors and were essentially remakes of the movies being made in English during the day. I've seen scenes from the Spanish version of Dracula and, shot on the same sets and using the same script, it's visually more interesting and sexier than the Bela Lugosi version that was filmed at the same time. I don't know how long this practice lasted or how many Spanish doubles of what are now American classics got made.

Now I'm wondering if there was something similar going on for black audiences here at home.

Margolick reports that Spirit of Youth had an all-black cast but he doesn't go into the making of the movie at all, so I don't know if this was a one-shot deal or if it was filmed as part of a side-industry of movies made specifically for African-Americans.

(Cabin in the Sky had an all-black cast but it was a major studio production and shown to all audiences.)

Does anybody know? Can you recommend any books on the subject? Mr Wolcott, sir, next time you bump into Mr Magolick around the Vanity Fair offices, would you give him my compliments and ask him what he knows about this? Seems amazing that there could have been a forgotten Hollywood counterpart to the Negro League.

Monday, March 20, 2006

God in the details

Isaac Newton was a believer.

One of the many lines of inquiry he pursued in a life devoted to pretty much nothing else but scientific inquiry---except for the period when he was head of the Mint and he carved out some time for catching, torturing, and executing counterfeiters---was proof for the existence of God.

He also went mad.


Both episodes may have been brought on by mercury poisoning as a result from his work in alchemy.

And he used to poke needles into his eye sockets when he was working on his theories of light and optics.

At any rate, he believed in God.

So you would expect that there might be a long tradition, in England, at least, of mutal respect between science and religion.

But Newton's personal faith didn't stop his adherents from using his theories to argue for a materialist and mechanistic universe independent of any god, and then there was that whole Darwin thing and the business between Thomas Huxley and Soapy Sam Wilberforce.

Still, science and religion don't have to be at odds and over at Preemptive Karma, Carla reports that a scientist has won this year's Templeton Prize, a 1.4 million dollar award for "progress or research in spiritual matters."

Five of the last six winners of the Templeton Prize have been scientists.

This year's winner is John D. Barrow, a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Cambridge, which I always thought was called Cambridge University. Barrow's field is cosmology and he's the author and co-author of many books, including The Universe That Discovered Itself, The Artful Universe, and The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

Now, here's a question for the scientists who stop by my laboratory.

I thought the anthropic principle was sort of the deist's version of intelligent design and not taken seriously. Am I wrong? How wrong?

Dr Thorsett? Dr Myers? Dr Carroll? Dr Lynch? Mr Zivkovic? Pop Mannion?

What say you?

One of Sean Carroll's co-blogging colleagues at Cosmic Variance, Mark Trodden, thinks very highly of John Barrow but wishes he hadn't accepted the award. Writes Dr Trodden:

But the problem is that when the odd well-known scientist allows their name to be associated with ideas such as those pursued by the Templeton Foundation, it lends credence to non-scientific ideas, and ultimately does a disservice to science and the scientific method.

Peace with honor

Asked my best source in the newspaper biz to estimate the average age of editorial page editors for the major newspapers and syndicates. My souce puts it at about 50, probably a bit higher.


Depressing to think about the fact that the world is now run by the Baby Boomers with a bunch of Gen Xers as their right hand men and women. The Boomers are the big bosses and the Gen Xers are the next level of management below but rising fast.

The Worst Generation Ever, having spent its 10 or so years at the top of the ladder attempting to undo everything accomplished by the Greatest Generation, is about to be succeeded by the Most Useless Generation Ever.

But to pull back from the brink of despair to the newspaper business (on the brink of disaster as Nancy Nall can tell you).

The biggest newspapers' editorial boards are run by and are full of Boomers. People who could have voted for McGovern. People who but for the grace of college deferments, fortunate lottery numbers, obliging doctors, or, in some cases, a missing chromosome, would have spent the end of their teenage years wet up to the knees in rice paddies in Southeast Asia.

Some of them did spend the end of their teenage years wet up to their knees in rice paddies.

You would think then that anybody from that demographic or who had a big brother from that demographic and watched that brother anxiously watching the mail for a letter that began Greetings would be looking at what's happening in Iraq, listening to the President say Stay the Course, and be wondering if they were having another long-delayed acid flashback.

You would think that anyone who'd had a real draft card would have their arms fall off before they'd type something like this (emphasis added by me):

Bush has painted himself and this country into a dangerous corner from which no exit is in sight, save more years of bloodshed and misery in Iraq on the one hand or, on the other, a hasty U.S. departure that would dishonor America and leave Iraqis to cope with the tragedy visited upon them.

I suppose that could have been written by a precocious Gen Y wizkid for whom Henry Kissinger might as well be Don Kessinger who might as well be Adrian Messenger, and whoever that is was probably a secondary character in a mediocre episode of the Simpsons. Which is only an excuse if you believe that a knowledge of history isn't essential to an editorial writer for a major newspaper chain. That's from an editorial from the McClatchy newspaper chain, by the way.

As Greg Mitchell reports in Editor and Publisher, the editorial writers of the bigger and more important papers and chains have come around to admitting the War in Iraq is a disaster. But that doesn't mean they have concluded that it's time to get out. In fact, as Mitchell says, they haven't been able to bring themselves to conclude anything. He writes:

...the editorial boards of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Knight Ridder collective and others appear to be as clueless about what to do as are Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mitchell says these editors are aware that we need to get out but they can't bring themselves to say it. So their only hope is that there will soon come a "turning point"---something will happen that will allow us to declare a victory and go home.

And it looks to me that that something is the creation of an Iraqi goverment we can hand things over to and then leave in the lurch.

An editor for Knight-Ridder wrote:

We helped make this mess; we have a moral obligation to try to leave Iraq in one piece.

And the New York Times says:

For the present, our goal must be to minimize the damage, through the urgent diplomacy of the current ambassador and forceful reminders that American forces are not prepared to remain for one day in a country whose leaders prefer civil war to peaceful compromise.

It's easy. We hand them the keys to the country, give them a good stern talking to about the proper running of a democracy, remind them that the owner's manual's in the glove compartment, and buzz off. And then when what we can now admit is a Civil War, because we're not holding the pink slip on it anymore so what do we care, tears the new goverment to pieces, we can tut tut and shake our heads and say, Well, we warned them.

After that, we can all go about the business of forgetting the names of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and George Bush so that thirty years from now graying Gen Y editorial writers can tut tut about how we can't just pull out of the war on Mars.

Peace with honor.

Mitchell quotes one Boomer who did spend some time in the rice paddies of Vietnam. He doesn't work for any newspapers though. He's a United State Senator from Nebraska. Chuck Hagel.

And this mindless kind of banter about, well, if we leave, the whole place falls apart; we can’t leave; we can’t even think about leaving. Wait a minute: You just showed on your screen the cost to the American people of the last three years. It’s helping bankrupt this country, by the way. We didn’t think about any of that and not just the high cost of lives and the continuation of that but our standing in the world.

Thanks to Susie Madrak for the link.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Another very short story

Young woman talking to her friend at a bar after Syracuse's St Patrick's Day Parade, March 18, 2000.

They were newlyweds and one night he got drunk and he trashed the place. Then he put his hands around her neck. She called me all crying and shaking to come over, pick her up. The next week I went over there with a check for a thousand dollars. "For your lawyer," I told her, "For the divorce." But she said, "No, I’ve got to give him a second chance." Well, after a couple of second chances...”

Friday, March 17, 2006

A praise of folly

Watching and re-watching Chris Hansen's Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and thinking and writing about its gentle critique of its main character's "faith" has put me in the mood to talk about religion.

Regular readers know that I'm not always rational on the subject.

I'm a Catholic, but I don't attend mass and I go along with the blonde's wishes to raise our kids Catholic because that's what I promised to do when we got married and I do it with a gritted teeth.

I'm not a lapsed Catholic. I'm not a "recovering" Catholic or any of the other cute terms former Catholics use to assure their non-Catholic friends that they no longer go in for all the magic and idol worship, not to mention agree with the Church's teachings on abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex.

I'm not a lapsed Catholic or a recovering Catholic. I'm an angry Catholic.

I'm angry at the men in skirts, first and foremost, and my anger pre-dates the revelations that the men in skirts have been running a ring of pedophiles on a world-wide scale for years and really has nothing to do with it, although the news sure made it easier to be angry, and the way the Church has dealt with the scandals by not dealing with it, choosing to scapegoat gays both in and out of holy orders instead, has further infuriated me.

Lately I've been angry with God too so I've decided to get back at him by not believing in him.

Show him.

But this is why I'm sometimes intemperate on the subject of religion and why some readers might think---have thought---I'm hostile to their faith.

I'm sorry. I hope you'll forgive me unto seventy times seven.

Unless you are a Right Wing "Christian," one of the kind of persons who used to be identified, truthfully, as Fundamentalists, but who for some reason the Media has decided are just generic Christians, as if they represent the majority of Christians instead of being what they are, a furious and loud minority of bigots.

There I go being intemperate again.

You people don't have to forgive me or even turn the other cheek. Not that you would anyway.

Sometimes, instead calling them Christians, the Media refers to them as Evangelicals, lumping into one category Jimmy Carter, Pat Robertson, my son's old piano teacher who was the most liberally socially active person I've ever met, snake-handlers, Martin Luther King, and Martin Luther.

An Evangelical, by the way, should not be a biblical literalist. The Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, wrote a very small portion of the Bible. An Evangelist is, or ought to be, someone for whom the most important part of the Bible is that part made up of the four versions of the Life of Jesus of Nazereth, so far more important than the other parts that it pretty much replaces them. An Evangelist shouldn't care much about what's said in Genesis, whether or not it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, whether he was made out of clay puffed into life with the breath of God and not the hopeful monster son of some great ape, whether or not she really is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, whether or not it was all done in seven years by magic or the product of eons of genetic mutation and malfunction.

An evangelical should have only one interest in the Bible, the answer to the question, What would Jesus do?

The answer to that one is always so hard that it's no wonder most people choose to do the opposite.

You're probably aware that there's been some discussion lately on the left side of the bandwidth over whether or not Liberals are hostile to religion and religious politicians. Steve Waldman says they are. Avedon Carol, Shakespeare's Sister, Atrios, and Digby, among others, have begged to differ.

I'd have to say Steve is right, and too bad for him.

Liberalism---Democracy---has to be hostile to religion, if by hostile you mean resistant to attempts to use politics to advance a religious agenda. A liberal, democratic society thrives on debate, on people being able to change their minds, on individuals being able to exercise their consciences freely. The "because God says so" argument short circuits the whole process. God trumps everything, including the right of an individual to exercise his or her conscience freely---that is, to dissent, to say no, to refuse to go along.

It's often pointed out that religion has always been a part of American politics, that many of the Abolitionists were Christians and made Christian arguments against slavery. The Civil Rights Movement was led by ministers and its rhetoric was energized and ennobled by appeals to faith.

But the religious arguments of those causes were always made side by side with political arguments and kept separate from them. The Aboltionists and the Civil Rights leaders didn't begin and end with "Because God says so." They also said, "Because the Declaration of Independence says so. Because Lincoln and Jefferson said so. Because the Constitution says so. Because the Supreme Court said so."

But for the last 35 years or more, that loudmouth minority of self-styled Christians has been pushing their way into the political debate, pushing aside political debate, insisting on having their beliefs be everyone else's beliefs "because God says so," and doing their best to end liberal democracy in this country and replace it with an illiberal theocracy. They want to convert all the rest of us at gunpoint.

And I'm not saying that as a figure of speech. The guns are holstered and in the background, on the hips of the cops who would enforce all the theocratic laws these people would enact.

Would enact?

Are enacting.

And, amazingly, these people are to be allowed to go about this without any criticism. To criticize them is to be "hostile to religion." As if their warped, joyless, oppressive, God-bothering cult is religion and all the rest of us Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos, and Native American believers have no religion.

The Media has already surrendered on this. They quote in their newspapers and put front and center on television Right Wing Fundamentalist Preachers spouting utter nonsense, without questioning them hardly at all, nevermind challenging them or even mildly criticizing them.

As Atrios says, "If you wrap what you say in religion our media will give you nothing but deference."

So, here we have Nightline doing a profile of Franklin Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham's aggressively Right Wing son, showing clips of Graham saying the most ridiculous, pig-ignorant, and basically unchristian things without once noting that Graham's knowledge of the history of his own faith, let alone the history of Islam, is close to nil.

Via Media Matters via Atrios:

GRAHAM: I know about Islam, I don't need an education from Islam. I've been working in Muslim countries now for, oh, 40 years or more. So I know about Islam. If people think Islam is such a wonderful religion, just go to Saudi Arabia and make it your home. Just live there. If you think Islam is such a wonderful religion, I mean, go and live under the Taliban somewhere. I mean, that's -- you're free to do that.

Here's how the Nightline reporter follows up on that outburst of ignorance:

DONVAN: So, Franklin Graham may not get a diplomacy prize, either. And yet, his message when he's preaching is actually quite positive.

Not being diplomatic is the least of Graham's problems, and a postive message that's wrapped around bigotry and hate, no matter how thickly, is like chocolate flavored rat poison.

Nope. I wouldn't want to live in Saudi Arabia. I wouldn't have wanted to live in Spain during the Inquistion, Germany during the wars of the Reformation, England under the reign of Bloody Mary, France at the time of the St Bartholemew's Day Massacre, Salem, Massachusetts at the time of the Witch Trials, or Belfast in the 1970s.

Bigotry, hatred, intolerance, tyranny, and violence can wear a Christian mask as well as a Muslim one. Graham has this in common with Richard Dawkins. He thinks the problem is religion and not human nature.

I don't want to live in the Christian America Franklin Graham and his like are trying to bring about.

Anyway, I don't know what it is about Saudi Arabia that so offends him. I haven't heard that he has a problem with the notion of oil rich authoritarians having unlimited power to push people around here in the United States, and he's not a woman. In fact, his kind seems pretty determined to reduce women here to second and third class citizens, even non-citizens. They probably aren't planning to introduce the chador, but watch, once they get abortion and birth control banned, they'll start pushing for a dress code.

Listen to them talk about their daughters' fashion choices and you'll realize they already are.

What does Graham think of them?

Would asking him that be demonstrating hostility to Christians?

Who exempted these people from criticism?

Who decided that they should be the only Americans whose beliefs and ideas can't be challenged?

Who died and made them the kings and queens of Christians?

Why does Franklin Graham speak for Christians and not Jimmy Carter or my son's old piano teacher, besides the fact that Carter and my son's piano teacher have too much Christian humility to presume they could speak for all Christians?

When a preacher goes on TV and starts talking about the laws he wants passed and the kind of government he thinks we ought to live under, he's not a preacher anymore.

He's a politician.

And he should be treated as such.

Historically, criticisms of other people's religion have led to torture chambers, autos de fe, holy wars, and suicide bombers.

But Christianity has a long tradition of peaceful, intellectual, faith-full self-examination and self-criticism, as well.

In fact, since the Reformation, you could say that any self-styled Christian who is not open to self-examination and self-criticism, who expects to have his beliefs accepted by everyone around him without question or challenge, hostile as well as friendly, isn't much of a Christian at all.

Bibliographic note: Some of what I wrote above was inspired by an I'll bet superficial reading of the first chapters of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present

Tristero gets the last word:

Republicans have been claiming a God monopoly for well over 30 years, and national Democrats as well as liberals have let them get away with it. That is very, very stupid. If [Rick] Santorum keeps saying, as he has, that John Kennedy wasn't really a Catholic president, then Catholic Democrats should wrap that canard around Santorum's slimy little neck. But that's not all. And then they should chase Santorum back into his church and refuse to concede that his perverted political philosophy has anything to do with the real practice, let alone the pressing concerns, of true American Catholics.

And then you let Santorum hang himself explaining why his "Catholic faith" comes before his Americanism.

...I'm not suggesting Democrats out-God Republicans. They already have, people! Since when did Christ call for tax cuts on the rich or abandoning the poor to the flood waters? No, what I'm suggesting is that Democrats and liberals make it impossible for Republicans to cynically work the God angle without a serious fight.