Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Embrace your inner liberal!

Ann Althouse, middle-aged conservative law prof by day, teenaged rock and roller by night, blogging in between to try to reconcile those two sides of herself, and somehow always managing to discover that to be a conservative is to be a teenaged rock and roller, says that all great artists, from rock and rollers to painters, are conservatives.

To be a great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist like Dylan or Picasso may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath, where it counts, there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world and focusing on that.

(Scroll down when you go to her post; she makes that assertion in her comment section.)

Someone must have given Althouse a copy of The Fountainhead at a too impressionable age.

Great artists in her mind, apparently, are all Howard Roarks, tall, manly, strong-willed, independent, healthy-minded, violent, anti-social proto-fascists, not a Mozart, a Van Gogh, a Henry James, or a Miles Davis among them, nor a reality-based version of Picasso or Bob Dylan neither.

And apparently she has extrapolated from this Randian fantasy the notion that the American Right is made up of an army of Howard Roarks and isn’t the club of Babbitts and Elmer Gantrys it appears to be to the rest of us.

Nevermind that an army of Roarks is an oxymoron, that in fact the world would be better off if all Right Wingers were Howard Roarks because they would not have anything to do with one another on principle and there’d be no organized political movement mucking up the governing of the country right now.

Althouse isn’t really thinking like a conservative, or a Randian, here. She’s thinking like a third-rate literary critic. She has decided that great artists like Dylan and Picasso don’t know their own minds, that she knows them better than they know themselves, and it turns out they happen to think just like Ann Althouse.

We’ve all met people like this. People who can’t appreciate a work of art except as a mirror. Heck, we’re all guilty of this sometimes, usually, though, when we’re 20.

It’s not peculiarly conservative of Althouse to believe that because she likes a work of art or an artist that work or that artist must reflect her own beliefs, virtues, ideals, prejudices, and vanities.

(Didn't G.K. Chesterson try to make the case that Dickens was a closet Catholic. Was Chesterson a conservative? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m asking for my own information.)

It’s immature to think that an artist or work that she likes, and which therefore is an image of herself, cannot also reflect things she doesn’t like about herself.

If she likes a song by Bob Dylan, but that song seems to express some “naive,” “superficial” lefty politics, then that message can’t possibly really be there, or Dylan can't really have meant it, because Ann Althouse wouldn’t like anything lefty.

This would be like me deciding that Dostoevsky wasn’t an anti-semite because I like Crime and Punishment.

As I said, this isn’t peculiarly conservative of Althouse. But what is, is her assumption that certain virtues---being a strong individual, taking responsibility for one’s own place in the world---are not simply conservative, but exclusively conservative.

Liberals don’t have ‘em.

The idea that Liberals are anti-virtue---anti-family, anti-religion, anti-American, godless!---has come more to the fore since the Right Wing Fundamentalists joined the party, but it has been a driving force of the American Right for a long time, a long time. In fact, that’s how the Republicans attracted the Christian Right.

To be conservative is to be good and to be for what is good.

Conservative would-be culture vultures like Althouse, Jonah Goldberg, and John Podhoretz tie their minds into knots---and paint themselves into corners---because of this assumption.

If you can only like and admire what is good---what is conservative---you are forced to find political meanings that aren’t there, ignore political meanings that are there, and, when you can’t do either you, like or dislike movies, books, songs, paintings, comic books, TV shows, and cereal boxes because of and exclusively for their political meanings.

In this way, Cinderella Man becomes the best movie of 2005.

(The hero, boxer Jimmy Braddock, gets back into the ring to keep his family together and then uses his winnings to pay back the dole money he got from the New Deal because real men don't go need no government handouts, they stand on their own two feet. Get it?)

This kind of ideological self-straight-jacketing is perfectly demonstrated in the National Review’s list of the top 50 conservative rock songs, as Amanda showed here the other day---Jon Swift takes it a step further, hilariously.

Many things in life are not political, or at least not primarily so, and should not be politicized. One’s own taste in art and music, for instance.

And an individual’s public political actions have never, ever been proof of that individual’s personal virtue.

It’s just plain foolish to say that because people are liberals, or conservatives, they can’t be good persons (or great artists). Virtues aren’t gifted upon us by ideological angels.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that some beliefs, ideals, virtues even, are inherently conservative. Conservative in that they support and enforce the status quo and legitimize established and traditional authorities.

A conservative might put it that conservative values support and enforce a stable society, but liberals can reply that if that’s the definition of conservative than liberalism is more truly conservative than the corporate capitalistic ethos of the American Right. Another time, another post.

Althouse’s definition of great artists as Howard Roarks makes them very much not conservatives. Howard Roarks are not stablizing influences on society, nor do they go in much for legitimizing traditional authorities.

But let’s say that to believe certain things and practice certain virtues is to be conservative.

I can be conservative. I can believe that a two-parent family is best for raising children, I can believe in God and go to church, I can admire policemen and support the troops, I can be against abortion---seriously; not just in that I wish nobody would have to have one, but in that I think it’s wrong (but!)---I can coach little league and be a Cub Scout den leader, I can believe and do all these things (and I really do and have), I can be in many ways very conservative, and still not vote like one because of other things I think and believe that are more important to me, or which I think are more important for the country, and because I don’t think conservatives are any good at governing, which is to say that they can’t bring about a stable and safe society. Ask New Orleans. Ask Badgad.

And in that way, as conservative as I am, I’m a liberal.

Doesn’t stop me from admiring some businessmen and women whose politics I know are right of Barry Goldwater’s. Doesn’t stop me from admiring some conservative politicians. And it sure doesn’t prevent me from liking the work of some artists.

I love John Wayne movies.

Well, except for The Green Berets. But that was plain awful.

I also think Charlton Heston’s a lot better actor than he gets credit for being. Sue me.

What I’m saying to you, all my many conservative readers, is suppose you are basically pro-choice, socially libertarian to the point of thinking that heck, a little premarital sex is no big deal, even if it’s two men doing it and especially if it’s two women, and think the drug laws are ridiculously draconian, you can be a conservationist if not an out and out environmentalist, and you oppose preventive wars, and think that while God is to be found in the details He’s not necessarily found in church and shouldn’t be found in science text books, and you can believe in the redistribution of wealth (just not that the government should be the redistributor), and be essentially egalitarian and want people to smile on their brother, everybody to get together, and try to love one another right now---you can think, believe, and even work for all that, you can be in many, significant and sincere ways liberal, and still not vote Democratic or consider yourself a liberal, because you think there are more important things for yourself and the country.

As it happens this is one of things that’s the matter with Kansas.

I have been in churches that have had wonderful social outreach programs, whose congregations are alive with real charity, that do all kinds of “liberal” good, and yet are firmly in the category of Right Wing Fundamentalist.

It’s possible to be conservative and liberal.

So embrace your inner liberal! You’ll be happier.

You won’t have to reconcile your artistic tastes with your political opinions.

You can admire Dylan and Picasso for who and what they are, not for what you wish they were.

And you won’t have to watch Cinderella Man anymore.

Cross-posted from Michael's Juke Box.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Wouldn't it be nice...?

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn't have to wait so long
And wouldn't it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together

Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through

The happy times together we've been spending
I wish that every kiss was neverending
Oh Wouldn't it be nice...

Better, hipper, cooler minds than mine have dealt with the National Review's list of the 50 best conservative rock songs. See Roy, Amanda, Jon Swift, Zack, Kevin Wolf, and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Daniel Rubin to start. (Thanks to Susie Madrak for the link to Dan.)

As for me, as amusing as the whole list is, there are only two songs I'm truly surprised to see on it.

One is only a shock because they had the honesty and the nerve to put it on the list. Sweet Home Alabama. Conservativism means you hero-worship George Wallace? You really want to brag about that?

The other is the Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice.

How conservative is it to celebrate the impatience of a pair of teenagers to escape the authority of their parents so they can go have sex whenever they want?

Oh, I see. It's ok because the kids want to get married!

This is how hypocrites flatter themselves. They identify a virtue or a form of good behavior, praise it as if they had just discovered it, deny that anybody they don't like has or practices it, and then congratulate themselves mightily for condemning the people they don't like.

Actually, practicing the virtue themselves? Of course they do! Only the children of liberals don't want to get married before they have sex. Sororities and fraternities are temples to Chastity.

Only conservatives are pro-marriage, and want to have children. Liberals hate marriage and are anti-family.

From this morning's Times Herald-Record:

They've been together about 10 years now. Together, they bought and completely renovated a 200-year-old house that fronts a beautiful stretch of wetland. They have a lively 20-month-old daughter who's the delight of their lives. They struggle to make ends meet.

Jeanne Vitale and Amy Trippi are everything but legally married. They've gotten as close to being married as New York state allows; they became domestic partners in New York City a couple of years ago. They went even further in 2004 when they were among 25 couples married by New Paltz Mayor Jason West in a ceremony that's still under legal review.

And tomorrow Vitale and Trippi will be among 13 gay and lesbian couples who are plaintiffs in a legal challenge - brought by the American Civil Liberties Union - to the state's Domestic Relations Law. The state Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, is scheduled to hear the case at 2 p.m.

You can read the rest of Jeremiah Horrigan's story here.

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true (run, run, run)
Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do
We could be married (we could be married)
And then we'd be happy (then we'd be happy)

Wouldn't it be nice (ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba)

You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But lets talk about it
Oh, wouldn't it be nice...

Monday, May 29, 2006

Local Authors

[Holiday weekends are busy around the homestead. Hard to carve out time for blogging. Probably most of my readers have found better things to do with their holiday too. I hope those of you who do stop by don't mind a re-run. This is from last year. Last Memorial Day weekend we were visiting Uncle Merlin in Boston and a year ago today we headed out to Concord for some sight-seeing and after a walk along the Battle Road and some lunch, we wound up at the Concord Bookshop, where I met up with two of my favorite ghosts.]

In most bookstores, outside of the big cities, when you browse the Local Authors shelf, you think, Who are these people and how much did they pay to get their "books" published?

At the Concord Bookshop the names of the local authors are vaguely familiar.


Hawthorne, Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau...

There was a time when you couldn't throw a brick in Concord without hitting someone carrying a fresh letter of acceptance from the Atlantic Monthly in their pocket.

The Transcendentalists would like the way the owner of the book store has arranged his wares. In the Classics section you find only the Classics---Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Plato. If it wasn't translated from Greek or Latin, you have to look for it in the regular Fiction section, no matter how many college syllabi it appears on.

I grabbed a copy of Walden---I had a wide assortment of editions to pick from; I chose the new one from Princeton---and a book of excerpts from Emerson's journals, found a chair, and sat down to read.

I read the first chapter of Walden and got a kick out of this passage

I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders "until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach"; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars- even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra's head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.

I laughed, because many of the buildings that lined the main streets of Concord in Thoreau's day are still standing, still in use, still housing shops and little businesses that I had just walked by and peeked in the windows of, and they'd all looked like quite cheerful places to me, full of smiling rather than penitential faces. Life was harder in the 19th Century, but sometimes, when the subject was other human beings, and not plants, animals, and the weather, Thoreau saw a little too much of what he expected to see and not enough of what was really there. Or as his friend Emerson put it, perhaps thinking of Thoreau, who sometimes got on his nerves, Thoreau made a difficult friend:

People only see what they are prepared to see.

There are entries in his journal where, writing about a visit from Henry, Emerson sounds as though he wishes that he'd pulled the drapes and hid behind the furniture, pretending not to be home, when he saw Thoreau coming up the walk.

The collection of excerpts from the journals is one I've read through many times before. It's my favorite. Emphatically Emerson edited by Ralph Crocitto.

Sitting there in the bookstore, I found at least 20 quotes I want to copy down, memorize, put to work. I had a notebook with me but didn't use it, because I was pretty certain I already had most of the quotes that struck me saved in my own journals. Sure enough.

The maker of a sentence, like the other artist, launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.

The sum of life ought to be valuable when the fractions and particles are so sweet.

Who can blame men for seeking excitement? They are polar, and would you have them sleep in dull eternity of equilibrium? Religion, love, ambition, money, war, brandy—some fierce antagonism must break the round of perfect circulation or no spark, no joy, no event can be.

Are you not scared by seeing the Gypsies are more attractive to us than the Apostles? For though we love goodness and not stealing, yet also we love freedom and not preaching.

The god of the cannibals will be a cannibal, of the crusaders a crusader, and of the merchants a merchant.

Fools and clowns and sots make the fringes of every one’s tapestry of life, and give a certain reality to the picture. What could we do in Concord without Bigelow’s and Wesson’s bar-rooms and their dependencies? What without such fixtures as Uncle Sol, and old Moore who sleeps in Doctor Hurd’s barn, and the red charity house over the brook? Tragedy and comedy always go hand in hand.

God had infinite time to give us; but how did He give it? In one immense tract of a lazy millennium? No, but He cut it up into neat succession of new mornings, and with each, therefore, a new idea, new inventions, and new applications.

Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.

If I should write an honest diary, what should I say? Alas, that life has halfness, shallowness. I have almost completed thirty-nine years, and I have not yet adjusted my relation to my fellows on the planet, or to my own work. Always too young or too old, I do not justify myself; how can I satisfy others?

The sannup and the squaw do not get drunk at the same time. They take turns in keeping sober, and husband and wife should never be low-spirited at the same time, but each should be able to cheer the other.

Emerson is my bible. I can open up his essays and journals at any page and find a passage that matches my mood, addresses my concerns, makes the point I am struggling to make on my own.

Still sulking about being stuck with this handyman’s nightmare of a house, Lance?

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, bobolinks, and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying.

Need to be flogged into doing some work?

Like the New England soil, my talent is good only whilst I work it. If I cease to task myself, I have no thoughts.

Worrying about the 11 year old heading off to junior high and the nightmare of his initiation into the adolescent social scene?

When I was thirteen years old, my Uncle Samuel Ripley one day asked me, “How is it, Ralph, that all the boys dislike you and quarrel with you, whilst the grown people are fond of you?” Now am I thirty-six and the fact is reversed—the old people suspect and dislike me, and young love me.

Feeling a little full of myself?

Every man I meet is in some way my superior.

Feeling a little too much the other way at the end of the day, crushed by an insight into my own worthlessness, and unable to fall asleep as I count and recount today's mistakes and failures, a nightly occupation for me?

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Not at all comforted by that quote and close to deciding to chuck it all and light out for the territories?

No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character.

Emerson would have made a wonderful blogger. Thoreau too. Their journals read very much like blogs. Thoreau would probably have been a Libertarian blogger. Emerson a Liberal:

All conservatives are such from personal defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive.

Men are conservatives when they are least vigorous, or when they are most luxurious. They are conservatives after dinner.

Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.

But he was not an un-self-critical Liberal:

Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.

So it's no surprise that Emerson has a lot of good advice for bloggers.

Trying to make sense of the rage of the dittoheads on the Right and some on the Left, as well?

Henry Thoreau made, last night, the fine remark that, as long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, governments, society, and even the sun and moon and stars, as astrology may testify.

Thinking of posting something pithy about Bush and the Blair memo?

America should affirm and establish that in no instance should the guns go in advance of the perfect right.

DeLay, Rove, Frist?

These rabble in Washington are really better than the sniveling opposition. They have a sort of genius of a bold and manly cast, though Satanic. They see, against the unanimous expression of the people, how much a little well-directed effrontery can achieve, how much crime the people will bear, and they proceed from step to step...

Disgusted by what you read in the newspapers, watch on CNN, hear on the radio, overhear in lines at the supermarket and at the water cooler at work?

To what base uses we put this ineffable intellect! To reading all day murders and railroad accidents, to choosing patterns for waistcoats and scarfs.

Thinking maybe you're quoting too much from Emerson?

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.

Of course the editor of Emphatically Emerson chose the journal selections based on his judgment of their universal applicability. And I have been reading and thinking about Emerson for such a long time now that he’s hardwired into all my thoughts, into my outlook, probably into my very habits of thinking and seeing. When I was teaching I made a conscious effort to become a Transcendentalist. I went looking for Emerson everywhere and made sure I caught him, brought him home, and pinned him like a butterfly on every other page of my notebooks. So reading Emerson is just looking into the mirror and using it to arrange my thoughts the way I use the mirror to shave and comb my hair, to see what I know intimately is already there but can’t groom without aid. And, as for all that, would it have mattered if I’d never read a word of his or Thoreau’s all day?

I can get the same result from reading the newspaper, Dickens, a poem, the back of a cereal box, or thinking and writing too much about Star Wars.

I can find my biography in every fable.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Night noises

Round ten o'clock last night I grab a book and head outside to sit on the front porch to read. Our block's quiet and empty but the neighborhood and the town beyond are alive with noise.

Noises of treefrogs and spring peepers. Noises of teenage girls shrieking happily as they walk towards town where there is nothing open now except for a couple of gas stations and a bar they sound too young to even fake their way into. Noises of children up late running around their backyard, and through the treetops across the way I pick out the upstairs light in the house I'm guessing is their house, possibly it's their bedroom light and someone's upstairs waiting for them to come to bed.

Noises of firecrackers, M-80s, thumping, farther off.

Noises of cars on the main street still damp from rain earlier in the evening, incessant, Friday night and we're on the way between everywhere you'd want to be on a Friday night. Noises of adults laughing on their front porch and hearty good nights and car doors slamming. Noises of birds startled from their roosts. Noises of geese carrying a mile up from the river.

A night when sounds travel. Low clouds, air damp. Fire horn sounds and it's not the one from our firehouse. The next town over's three miles away but that's to the south and this seems to be coming from the east which would put it six miles down the road. The horn hoots for several minutes, calling the volunteers. No sirens follow it.

Dog noises do. Every dog has to answer the first dog that barked in surprise at the fire horn.

The fire horn stops. The dogs discuss it for a bit and then settle down. Traffic dies. Nothing now but the peepers, clucking high, then low. cheep cheep cheep CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP cheep cheep cheep CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP.

Another teenage girl cries out. This one is angry. Can't hear what she says. I know her tone. Her parents have offended her. She lets them and the neighbors know it.

Quiet again, except for the peepers, and then some noises in the house behind me. My house. I go in to investigate. The noises turn out to be a wife calling a cheerful goodnight and a 12 year old boy raiding the refrigerator for a glass of lemonade to take upstairs with him to bed and a 10 year old boy, long thought asleep, stumbling downstairs to use the bathroom and then making it no farther back towards his room than the couch in the living room, where he collapses, asleep again immediately.

Then there's the sound of a father shaking out a blanket to spread over the boy and then the noises of a computer ordered to boot itself to the ready and now just the sound of typing.

And the peepers and treefrogs outside the open windows, and a breeze.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Lapgogs at the table in Vanity Fair

Ever browse through my archives?

Me neither.

How about your own? Or the archives of any of your other regular blog reads?

Searching for back posts on a particular topic I'm interested in at the moment I do often, of course. Routine.

Looking up old posts for the pleasure of it or in hopes of stumbling upon some useful facts or ideas?

Not so much.

I suspect few people do browse back posts of blogs, and this means that almost everything that's posted on blogs disappears from memory as soon as it disappears from view, a good thing from my point of view, considering some of the things I've written.

Still, collectively, there are surely losses, gems of posts that deserve re-reading, which, their revels ended, melt like spirits into air, into thin air, and leave not a rack behind.

But there's another kind of loss, a more practical one. Bits of information, specific stories, ideas and observations from the past that are needed to bring things in the present into sharper focus have to be dug up and Google searches, Technorati searches, Lexis-Nexis searches, all data base mining are at the same time indiscriminate and too inclusive, and often too specific so that a search will bring up only exactly what you were searching for, which could very well have been not quite the right thing to have aimed your sights at.

You just can't thumb through the interent the way you can through a book.

What I'm getting at is that Eric Boehlert's book Lapdogs is a godsend.

Oh, all right, it's a publistsend, but I'm still awful grateful to have it.

I've been jumping around in it, and I have yet to come across anything that I didn't already know from five years of reading blogs, but on every page I have bumped up against something that I had forgotten, always something that even if I had accidentally jogged it back into memory on my own I would not have been able to recall in the detail that Boehlert provides or with anything near the amount of supporting facts he provides.

Boehlert's thesis is simple and straight-forward and, again, nothing new to those of us on the Left side of the bandwidth: Over the last decade the major organs and players in the mainstream media have become mostly willing purveyors of Republican propaganda and cheerleaders for the Bush White House, a role they are only now showing signs of giving up and they are doing it reluctantly and with constant backsliding.

I'll probably do a series of posts next week in place of a single, serious review. For now I just want to look at something that bothered me again and again as I was reading this morning.

Boehlert doesn't try to read minds and he doesn't profess to have the kind of insider information that tells him why any individual journalists, pundits, editors, or TV new producers have allowed themselves to be used so obviously and egregiously as tools by the Bush Leaguers. He attributes the MSM's surrender of its collective spine to a mix of timidity, business pressures, careerism, power-worship, and a style of journalism dependent on a social access that blurs the lines between reporter and source and friend and friend...and even, more insidious, potential job hunter and potential employer.

All of that's observably the case. But this morning it was the last item in the list, the socializing, party-going, rubbing-elbows-with, Vanity Fair aspect of the MSM's corruption that troubled me most, because that's what won't disappear if and when the Democrats come back into power.

I'm talking about Thackeray's novel not Conde Nast's magazine.

The Republicans rule in Washington's Vanity Fair as surely as they rule in Congress and the White House. Vanity Fair everywhere is the world of high society and fashion and Vanity Fair everywhere is ruled by the people with money and in Washington's Vanity Fair, as in pretty much Vanity Fairs everywhere outside of Hollywood, the money is in the hands of rich conservatives.

Many members of the MSM have become regulars in Vanity Fair, but they are the poor relations at the table. Their continued presence depends on their being agreeable to their hosts. Their egos and pride may not let them admit it to themselves, but they have to show themselves to be hostile to Democrats and Liberals to keep their seats at the table. And there are few truly independent minds in the world, all of us tend to "think" according to the company we keep, which is to say we adopt the ideas and opinions of the people around us. The members of the MSM who sit at the table at Vanity Fair grow to think like everyone else at the table. In this case human nature enables cynical opportunism.

The Democrats can take control of both houses of Congress, they can put a Democrat in the White House, but unless they take control of Vanity Fair as well, the MSM will likely remain dismissive and hostile and in league with the Republicans to regain their power.

Cross-posted at the American Street.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sharing a beer and a burger with the next President of the United States

Margaret Carlson, giving Al Gore his due at last, and doing it the only way a paid-up member of the Media Elite can give a Democrat his due, with a backhanded compliment, observes that possibly, just possibly, likeability isn’t the only qualification for a President of the United States.

Sure, she admits, George Bush might have been the more likeable guy back in 2000, but:

Maybe Americans prefer to have a beer and burger with the charming frat boy to the student who always does his homework. But is that a wise basis for choosing a president?

As Shakespeare’s Sister’s father would say, No foolin’, Red Ryder?

Carlson goes on to note that George Bush, as charming a frat boy as he is, hasn’t done a bang-up job:

With all the needless death from a ill-conceived war, the wasteful corruption of sweetheart contracts in Iraq and New Orleans, debt and deficits as far as the eye can see, gas prices through the roof with no energy policy in sight, and with a president who delegates to incompetents and cronies, I’m ready to give the class nerd his due and raise a glass to a serious man.

You’ll note that giving Al Gore his due doesn’t require her to admit he’d have been a better President or that he should run again in 2008 or for her to give up referring to him and Bush as if running for President of the United States was the same as running for high school class President.

Al’s still the class nerd. And as Bob Somerby keeps pointing out, this caricature of Gore is not going to go away. And if Gore does run and faces off against John McCain, the Media Elite will follow a very similar script in 2008 as they did in 2000, portraying the election as a contest between the robotic class nerd and the authentic, straight-talking, independent (but intellectually average and on the issues wronger than wrong, as wrong as George Bush) man of the people.

The Green Knight dug up something Carlson had to say about Gore and Bush back in 2000:

You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator or you look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore.

If you can find the difference in tone between what she said then and what she’s saying now you have a finer ear than I have. The problem, back then, apparently, was that telling the truth about Bush would have required work, while picking on Al Gore just came naturally. Of course, in order to have done that, they needed to make things up about Gore, but that was ok because he was the class nerd, and nerds have no excuse to live if they aren’t there to be picked on.

But I want to deal with the likeability thing a little bit, the idea that Americans want of vote for the candidate they’d enjoying sharing a beer and a burger with.

I don’t know when this notion took root. Maybe back in 1800 pundits were pointing out that regular Americans would prefer to quaff an ale with the charming, straight-talking war hero Aaron Burr to the cold, intellectual elitist Thomas Jefferson.

But the first I became aware of it was back when it was Morning in America, and analysts and journalists were trying to explain how it could be that while it was obvious to them that Reagan lied, flip-flopped ever which way on issues, blew off his conservative base when it suited him, ignored the will of Congress when that suited him, broke the law (Iran? Contras? Death Squads? Ah, memories!), praised dead Nazis (Bitburg. Good times, good times.), just plain made stuff up, and basically was wrong about almost everything, he remained wildly popular.

Throwing up their hands collectively, they decided, Heck, it’s just that he’s so gosh darned likeable.

You can imagine yourself sitting down to have a beer with the guy. There’s even a famous picture of Reagan in a pub raising a beer---that he didn’t drink.

I don’t recall anyone suggesting at the time that Reagan’s likeability and apparent sociability excused everything else.

By 2000, their tune had changed. George Bush was likeable, the charming frat boy you’d share a beer and a burger with. Al Gore was the class nerd, the kind of annoying twerp who always did his homework and made sure you knew it (Sigh.). And not only did this explain why Bush was the people’s choice, even though he was only half the people’s choice, it made Bush the pundits’ darling and the Right Man at the Right Time.

Somerby would probably argue that it wasn’t so much the case that the Media Elite thought, or even cared, that Bush was likeable. They were just using the likeability script to demonize Gore.

As Kurt Vonnegut likes to say, Whatever.

Here’s my point. The beer and the burger thing? It’s not necessarily such a dumb way of looking at candidates and why voters vote or don’t vote for them.

I have never heard anyone say that they voted for the candidate they thought would make the best drinking buddy, fishing buddy, hunting companion, lunch date, first date, second date, husband, wife, father, mother, best pal, parish priest, or starship captain---at least not until right after some talking head on TV had just suggested that such and such a candidate was the kind of person voters could imagine as a drinking buddy, fishing buddy yadda yadda starship captain.

But I have heard people I know voted for Reagan and then Clinton and then Bush and the next time out will vote for Al Gore or Hillary or John McCain or Russ Feingold or Mike Huckabee and who did not and will not see any inconsistency in their choices.

These are not stupid people. And they aren’t necessarily ill-informed. What they aren’t is all that sure that any politician, whatever his or her ideology or positions on specific issues, can accomplish anything they set out to accomplish. They see government as a mainly improvisational business. It’s catch as catch can. You deal with this problem, then you deal with that problem, as they come up.

What they want in a President, or a governor or a mayor or town selectman or school board member, is someone who knows what the problems are---what their problems are.

They want leaders who understand the people, sympathize with them, like them, and trust them to know what they want and need and to have at least some idea themselves as to how to go about getting what they want and need done.

Those leaders don’t have to be the kind of people you’d feel comfortable sitting down to have a beer with. But they have to be the kind of person you’d feel comfortable taking your problem to.

Jeffrey Goldberg has an article in the latest New Yorker (May 29) in which he looks at what the Democrats need to do to win in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t up on the New Yorker’s website yet, but there is an interview with Goldberg here.

Boiled down, these are what I think are Goldberg’s main points.

1. The Democrats need to win in the South and Midwest.

2. Look out! Bloggers! Run for your lives!

3. Whatever else they do, the Democrats must not, repeat, must not, nominate Hillary.

Nevermind points 2 and 3 for now. Point 1 in Goldberg’s article isn’t as simplistic as I’ve stated it. Boiling that one down, it comes out to this:

Whoever the Democrats nominate should be a moderate who doesn’t condescend to voters in the Heartland.

Goldberg seems to have done most of his legwork in Missouri, where a self-described "not a liberal" Democrat named Claire McCaskill is running for the Senate.

McCaskill ran for governor in 2004 and lost a close election. McCaskill doesn’t come flat out and say it, but she makes it plain that she thinks John Kerry cost her the election. Kerry got stomped by Bush in Missouri, and having him at the top of the ticket probably cost McCaskill the relatively few votes she needed to close the gap on her opponent and win.

Actually, the way Goldberg tells the story, it appears that Teresa Heinz Kerry cost McCaskill the governorship.

Kerry was making a campaign stop at a soybean and cattle-farm in Smithville, MO:

Kerry reminisced about clearing fields on a Massachusetts famr and promised to side with small farmers in their struggles against agribusiness. Teresa Heinz Kerry handed her husband a note, and then stood up to speak, recalling a visit to an organic hog famr in Iowa. "It’s really inspiring to see the work they did," she said, and encouraged her audience to consider organic famring. "It can be done. It’s economical, and there is a huge market in America."

At that point, winston Simpson, a hog farmer from Clarence, Missouri, stood up and interrupted. "I said, ‘Mrs. Kerry, you’ve got to undertand that hog farmers just freak out when they hear people telling them to go organic,’" Simpson recalled recently. "She looked kind of surprised. I was just there helping out, making a crowd [Simpson’s a Democrat, even something of a Liberal], but I’ve got an adrenaline problem, and when someone pisses me off I jump up and tell them."

Simpson is a grower-finisher; four thousand or so hogs come to him at forty pounds and leave their pens for slaughter two hundred and fifty pounds later. "I’d go broke if we switched to organic farming," he said. His public advice was informed by tactical, rather than ideological concerns. "I don’t have a problem with people raising food organically. If people want to eat that way, fine, but she shouldn’t have been pushing that as a solution to the farm problem A lot of farmers think those organics as some kind of elitist lunatic-fringe thing." For some, Mrs Kerry’s performance recaleld other moments of Democratic campaign obliviousness, like Michael Dukakis’s endorsement of Belgian endive as alternative crop for Iowa farmers...snip

Referring to the Kerry-Edwards campaign stop, [Claire McCaskill] said, "I’m sure Teresa’s motives were fine. But I think it’s a tone thing. It’s the ‘We know better’ thing. Some of it is completely unfair, but there’s a critical number of Missourians who believe that people from the East Coast or West Coast don’t think that people in the heartland are smart."

Leaving aside the whole Teresa thing and the unfairness of judging a candidate by his or her choice of a spouse, and ignoring another example of John Kerry’s fitful and embarrassing attempts to pass himself off as a man of the people---like I said, I don’t think the people necessarily want a President who is one of them; they want somebody who understands them and sympathizes with them and respects them---it’s important to note two things.

One, the farmer Teresa pissed off was a Democrat. Is it really so hard for us to find candidates who don’t annoy their own base? And I’m not talking about us netroots types. We aren’t the base. We’re a pack of weirdos and normally we’re pretty proud of that fact.

Two, judging by what McCaskill says about how folks in the Show Me State feel about East and Left Coasters, the only way for the Democrats to win in the Heartland is to nominate someone who comes from there.

I don’t buy that. It’s true that the only three Democrats who’ve been elected President in the last 40 years were from the South. (Four if you count Gore, but I’ve made the case that nobody sees Gore as a true son of the South.) But their two biggest losers were from the Heartland and both of them lost to Californians.

I do buy that neither John Kerry nor Al Gore came across as men you felt you could bring your troubles too---and I felt that before the Media Elites set out to caricature them as pompous, elitist stiffs.

This beer and burger thing, it’s another way of describing the common touch.

This being a democracy, having the common touch is in fact a qualification for public office.

Not the qualification, but certainly a qualification.

Some aristocrats have it, and some sons and daughters of the working classes don’t.

And whatever it is, it is not a matter of being a charming frat boy, or of not being the kind of A student who always has his homework done.

And whatever it is, should the Democrats find and nominate someone who has it, you can bet the Media Elite will do their best to tell us that that person doesn’t really have it or that the Republican candidate has it more authentically.

Or if they find someone who has it and the Media Elite can’t deny it, they’ll change the rules. Having the common touch will be a sign of the Democrat’s bad character. He, or she, will be dismissed as being someone who tries to be "all things to all people."

This has already been done.

You may remember that the Democrats had someone who was at home among the people, who liked crowds, who loved to talk with voters, who wasn’t just someone voters felt they could share a beer and a burger with but who wanted to share beers and burgers with them, who was someone people felt they could tell their problems too because he felt their pain.

You probably also remember how the Media Elites felt, and still feel, about that guy.

Cross-posted at Berube's Burger Shack.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Their strength is as the strength of ten

Sometimes I think I read Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone novels just to annoy myself and give myself something to grouse about here.

I groused about Trouble in Paradise. And I groused about Stone Cold.

After Stone Cold I told myself that was it, no more. But commenter Scott Klebe convinced me to give Stone another chance. Scott's point was that while the plots of the Stone novels are implausible, Stone himself was a more realistic character than Parker's other and more famous detective hero, Spenser.

Scott's right. Spenser isn't human. He's superhuman.

But it's more than his physical invulnerability that makes him so. It's his moral invincibility.

Spenser has no flaws, no vices, no weaknesses.

His strength, as Spenser himself likes to say, as if he's joking, is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure.

Spenser's no Galahad, but he is a knight in shining armor, worthy of sitting at the Round Table, somehow transported through time to our era.

A lot of readers find him and his books annoying because of this. If I were to interview Parker, and with luck someday I might, I'd ask him if this criticsim of Spenser, coming either from without or from within---he himself might get tired of writing about a hero so virtuous that his only character flaw is a habit of making bad jokes at the wrong moment---led him to create.

Stone is flawed.

Over the last generation or so a new tradition has grown up among writers of mysteries and thrillers----the flawed detective-hero, angst-ridden, conscience-striken, ghost-haunted, introspective and moody, scarred by the horrors, evil, and tragedy that they have witnessed and taken part in, prone to self-destructive behavior in their spare time, either actively in the form of making stupid personal decisions or passively in the form of addictions to booze or self-doubt or self-pity. They are disconnected from friends and family, alienated from any community they nominally belong to, withdrawn, lonely, sad.

Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch is the exemplar. I think of P.D. James' wistful, brooding, poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh as the prototype, but you could make the case that Chandler's Philip Marlowe was the first. Marlowe carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was burdened by some guilt or sadness or both, perhaps connected, that he never explained, but which often made him more melancholy and cynical than the victims of the crimes he was investigating. Whatever he saw while on a case didn't make him sad or sick, it just confirmed him in his sadness and malaise.

The new breed of detective novels just make explicit and a part of their plots what Chandler used to give Marlowe his tone of voice.

So along comes Jesse Stone, recovering alcoholic, who drank himself out his job with the LAPD and out of his marriage with the beautiful, vivacious, adoring, but flighty Jen. Stone now clings to the end of his tether in Paradise, Massachusetts, with a bottle of Bushmills in his bottom drawer calling to him all the time and Jen breezing in and out of his life, twisting him up into emotional knots.

Stone is definitely flawed.

Except that he's not.

He has weaknesses. He makes mistakes. He gives into temptations he wants to resist. He does "bad" things.

He has "flaws" but he is not flawed because he has no vices. In that way he is as pure of heart as Spenser.

I'm nearing the end of the newest Stone novel, Sea Change, and while Jesse has been as maddeningly "flawed" as he was in Stone Cold, Parker does the same thing he did in that one---he excuses all of Stone's bad behavior on the grounds that Stone is "a good man."

We know he's a good man because all the good female characters are at pains to tell him so.

Some of the bad female characters tell him so too.

And they're right. He is good, and all his flaws are excusable.

Stone has flaws but like almost all heroes in contemporary popular entertainment he has no vices.

Stone and those other heroes can make mistakes. They can goof up. They can cause trouble for the people they want to help accidentally. They can give in, for a time, to certain weaknesses, usually self-doubt or anger.

But they can't sin.

They are allowed to feel as though they have sinned. But when they do other characters will quickly assure them that they really did the right thing or had no other choice but to do the wrong thing in order to get the right result.

But they can't actually sin.

I said Spenser was like a knight of the Round Table. Actually, he's like only a few of them. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors, the three who got to see the Grail.

None of the other knights are allowed near the Grail---although Launcelot is granted a vision of it---because they all have sinned.

They are all sinners. They have vices. Gawaine is vain and boastful, too quick to anger, and not always as chivalrous as he manages to be with the wife of the Green Knight. Kay is eaten up with envy and spite. Launcelot...

Launcelot brings about the destruction of Camelot because he can't put aside his feelings for his best friend's wife.

It’s worth noting that in many of the tales Percivale is portrayed as something of a holy fool and Galahad is assumed into heaven---he dies---when he is 17, that is not yet a man. He’s still a boy. A child.

It’s as if the lesson of his tale is that the purity of heart that is required of us to get into heaven is only possible for children. To grow up is to grow corrupt.

But that’s the point. The stories of the Knights of the Round Table, at least as they are finally tied together and summed up in Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, are cautionary tales.

They warn us that even the most heroic among us, those of the greatest virtue are equally capable of vice. To be human is to be weak.

The Greeks knew this too. The heroes of the Iliad are all shown at their worst. Achilles is vain, sullen, selfish, disloyal. Odysseus is conniving, duplicitous, bloody-minded. Hector is vacillating. It’s been a long war and they are all worn down and at the ends of their tethers.

It’s the old lesson: Heroes are flawed and their flaws are their undoing.

All stories of heroes are---used to be---inherently tragic.

I can’t pinpoint when that view of heroes changed or explain why it did. But it was still alive enough in the 19th Century when Robert Louis Stevenson came up with Alan Breck Stuart, the swashbuckling hero of Kidnapped and David Balfour.

Alan Breck is vain, boastful, reckless, selfish, and even on occasion cowardly. He has an instinct for self-preservation that coupled with his reflexive urge to throw himself headlong into a fight makes him a very problematic travelling companion. He gets David into as much trouble as he gets him out of.

David is the much more virtuous character. He is level-headed, reliable, self-aware and self-critical. He is brave and he is resourceful and he can be heroic. But he is not a hero or the hero of his own books.

It’s as if Stevenson is trying to tell us through David that being good is not just not the same as being heroic, but that it is actually antithetical to it. That there’s very little that separates a hero from a villain would definitely seem to be one of Stevenson’s theme if you read Kidnapped back to back with The Master of Ballantrae.

There is a separation. Stevenson isn’t making the anti-heroic point of early 1970s cop movies. You can tell Stevenson’s good guys from his bad guys, even if like Long John Silver, the bad guy can be charming and likeable.

I’m taking too long to say what I set out to say. I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.

There’s a moral lesson to be drawn from this, but there’s probably a political lesson as well.

I doubt it’s been all that good for us as a nation to have spent a hundred years telling ourselves stories in which the hero has no vices and the apparent bad that he does, all his flaws, are really signs of his superior virtue.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Law and Order and Revenge

We taped Law and Order's season finale and didn't get around to watching it until Saturday night.

I wish we'd given it the skip.

This is twice in a row now Dick Wolf's dumped an ADA in a way that seems designed as much to humiliate and punish the actress as to explain the departure of an important character.

Elisabeth Rohm got off lightly compared to Annie Parisse. Wolf canned Rohm in an afterthought, as if to say, "By the way, I forget to mention it. You're boring and who cares if you're pretty and have great legs, you're cold and unsexy, which means your character's gay, so you're fired. Now let's see you get work as an ingenue."

But Annie Parisse had the nerve to quit on Wolf and this time it was as if Wolf said, "Oh yeah? Well then take this!" And out came the duct tape.

Jill Hennessy and Carey Lowell were allowed to leave with their dignity intact and with the door open to their return. We didn't know for sure that Claire Kincaid was killed in that car accident and it was a long time into the next season before anybody referred directly to her as being dead. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anybody ever did. Is it possible Claire's in a coma somewhere? At any rate, Lowell has been back a few times and she'll probably return again.

I suppose Rohm's Serena Southerlyn might be invited back. Parisse though...

Spoiler alert for those of you who have Tivo and DVRs or who are waiting for the summer reruns.

MASH set the standard for killing off a main character. Henry Blake's death was not only beautifully handled, it felt right for the show and the character. It was in keeping with the spirit of the series and with its subject. As Henry once observed himself about war, there are two rules, "Rule Number One is that young men die."

Henry wasn't young compared to the kids coming through the 4077th's OR. But he was supposed to be 43. His wife was 38. His kids were in grade school. He was young enough to be too young.

Rule number two, you probably remember, is "Doctors can't change Rule Number One."

Henry's death was also used to signal a change in the direction and tone of the show.

In war lots of men like Henry Blake die.

In the New York County District Attorney's office very few young ADAs leave the job by being kidnapped, tortured, and left to choke to death on their own vomit in the locked trunk of an abandoned car.

What Wolf and his writers did to Annie Parisse's character wasn't true to the situation. It didn't happen as an outgrowth of her character or the plots she'd been part of. It didn't dignify her or salute her or even sum her up. It just shrank her. They reduced her to one of the practically anonymous vics whose tripped-over corpses get the ball rolling every week.

The plot that unfolded after her body was found wasn't even about her. It was about Jack McCoy seeking and getting the kind of righteous revenge that countless cop characters have sought and got in all the run of the mill cop shows that have ever aired.

For all that Alex Borgia actually mattered, they might as well have introduced a new girlfriend for Jack or discovered he had a niece we'd never heard of before or finally dragged in his ex-wife, whom we've never seen, or his daughter and killed her off the way Bonanza used to knock off Little Joe's wives and girlfriends every other week. Alex's death served the same purpose. She died to give us reason to root for the hero to get even.

Another revenge fantasy.

I gave up on Law and Order: SVU midway through the first season when it became clear that every week's episode was going to be about the detectives getting outraged and seeking revenge on the part of the victims. I gave up on Law and Order: Trial by Jury after two episodes because both shows pushed an idea that Revenge equals Justice. Over the last couple of seasons, at least, it's seemed to me that the original Law and Oder has been tending toward more and more revenge fantasies.

I know some people have seen a political sea change at work, a rightward drift of the show's sensibilities, signaled by the implausibly conservative Arthur Branch's arrival as DA.

But after watching last week's show I think what we're seeing is a loss of confidence by the writers and Wolfe in the show's premise and characters.

For years, the aspect of Law and Order that made it different from every other cop show around it was that the writers were content to let the characters reveal themselves to us in bits and pieces and almost always obliquely in conversations that weren't about them but about the job they were doing at the moment. Emotional outbursts and long speeches about their personal feelings were rarities.

What we knew of their private lives and personal feelings sneaked in at the edges of the stories. The perfection of this was the affair between McCoy and Kincaid which was never, never acknowledged. The only proof we ever had that they were in fact together was that Claire started sporting her own motorcycle jacket.

The result of this was that the characters had personal lives.

They lived off-camera in a way characters from the usual TV dramas never do. (Cheers is the only other show I can think of, comedy or drama, that made its characters' off-camera lives more vivid by not showing them and only allowing us hints.) On most TV dramas, the characters do all their living, loving, and emoting on the set, which is to say on the job. Their jobs revolve around their personal dramas. This makes for lots of drama, which is to say the characters shout at each other a lot and act at us.

Sam Waterson acted up a storm on last week's Law and Order.

I might as well have been watching ER.

That'll get the old adrenal glands pumping

Last night, Billy Wagner gets the call in the bullpen, starts out for the mound, and the crowd at Shea cheers.

Wagner wasn't sure what to make of the applause. He thought it was from Yankee fans thanking him for falling apart so completely Saturday afternoon and expecting him to do the same for them again.

Saturday he took the mound with the Mets up 4 to zip over the Yankees and shocked the Yanks by not giving them anything good to swing at. Jason Giambi managed a single, Robinson Cano did too. Miguel Cairo is probably still mad at himself for giving into temptation and lofting one when Wagner clearly had nothing. Everybody else Wagner faced might as well have left their bats sitting on their shoulders while he showed the crowd where the strike zone was by drawing an imaginary dotted line all around it with his pitches.

He walked the bases full. Walked in a run. Hit a batter to let in another run.

All of a sudden the great job he did Friday night's a memory so distant it might have been a dream.

But last night he comes back and redeems himself and all good Mets fans can forgive and forget and let their hopes rise a little bit again.

Guess I'm not a good Mets fan. I'm still grumpy.

Going into the series, I was praying for 2 out of 3, so I should be thrilled. But Saturday's game shook my faith in Willie Randolph a bit.

I'm going to risk opening up a debate on the designated hitter here. I'm actually neutral on the DH. I'm so used to there being different rules for the two leagues that when I'm watching a game in an American League park I don't even think about it.

But not having to send the pitcher up to the plate does make life a little easier for managers. When you never have to take a pitcher who's in a groove out of close game to put in a pinch hitter because you're desperate for runs, that's got to be a load off your mind. You can leave your starter in another inning, let your middle reliever take you into the ninth, and save your best pinch hitters. A National League manager, thinking about lifting a pitcher, has to consider how many more pitching changes he's going to have to make as a result, how empty his bench is going to get and how fast.

Defenders of the DH can argue that not having that automatic out every ninth batter can still bring about situations where the manager's forced to take out a pitcher he'd rather leave in, so you've still got your strategy there, bub, and besides it's just no fun for the fans that there's that automatic out every ninth batter.

This isn't directly relevant to Saturday's game. Pedro Martinez was pitching like Pedro Martinez and when he's doing that you just wish he could stay in there forever. But part of Martinez being Martinez is that he's fragile and he's just not going to pitch complete games anymore. Even if Willie Randolph had had the DH to work with, if the game had been played in the Bronx instead of Flushing, Martinez probably would have been gone. But Sanchez, who had pitched fine in the top of the 8th, wasn't due up in the bottom of the inning. He could have come out in the 9th. Randolph's hand wasn't forced.

What I'm getting at is that a manager's toughest job, I think, is handling his pitching staff. So while I was as surprised as Tim McCarver and the other guys in the broadcast booth when Randolph brought Wagner in even though it was not a save situation, I don't think the decision was crazy or wrong on the face of it.

McCarver worried about it because as he said if the Yankees managed a comeback against Wagner, Randolph didn't have another Billy Wagner to call on to shut them down.

But the Mets weren't winning because they'd been knocking the Yankee pitching staff around all day. A four run lead against the Yankees with the heart of their order due up looks dangerously insufficient. Randolph wanted the game over so he made the simplest and most apparently logical decision. He called for his best reliever.

Now. The adrenaline question.

The criticism of Willie's decision was based on the idea that great relievers like Wagner are at their best when they're working at the very edge. They live on adrenaline and there's just no way you can expect adrenaline junkies to perform unless it's in a high wind and there's no net.

I don't know that great relievers live on adrenaline.

Dennis Eckersley lived on mad.

Goose Gossage lived on nails, raw meat, and a blazing hatred of the batters who had the gall to make him have to come out there and work.

I guess adrenaline figured into it for them.

But Tug McGraw lived on hope.

Dan Quisenberry lived on batters' amazement that his arm didn't unscrew and come off at the shoulder with every pitch, him throwing like that.

And Mariano Rivera seems to live on divine grace and being at one with the universe.

What most relievers live on is strength, focus, luck, and one good pitch.

If Wagner lives on adrenaline, and coming in with a four run lead was too relaxing a situation for him, all I can say is that his adrenal glands should have started pumping again at about ball 3 on Alex Rodriguez.

Willie Randolph doesn't buy the adrenaline deficit excuse.

"When I put in a call to the bullpen, I assume all my players are mentally and physically ready to come into the game," Randolph said. "Period. Unless someone tells me on the other end, that's different."

He's right in a "I'm the boss, we're professionals, this is your job and it's important you do it right" kind of way.

But great managers don't just know baseball, they know people. Wagner did an amazing job Friday night and it would have been only human of him to have come to the park Saturday, less than 24 hours later, mentally and physically wrung out.

Randolph didn't need him. The rest of his bullpen's doing pretty well for him. He should have let Wagner get some rest. There are 119 games left to play.

Over the course of the season Randolph will be right far more often than he'll be wrong when he makes the decison to call for Wagner.

But that'll be just more proof Billy Wagner's a great reliever, not evidence Willie Randolph is a genius when it comes to handling his pitching staff.

Last night Wagner comes in. Robinson Cano goes down on three pitches. Bernie Williams bloops one to right. Melky Cabrera singles to left. It looks like Wagner was better off when he couldn't find the strike zone. But then Stinnett strikes out and Cairo grounds one to Matsui at second and that's all she wrote.

Great game, great series.

I'm still worried.

Friday, May 19, 2006

What do you call a Right Wing Christian? What do you call a Right Wing Christian? What do you call a Right Wing Christian, ear-lie in the morning?

According to Peggy Noonan, there's a large market for books aimed at Christians who want to have their faith debased and destroyed.

Noonan, you may have heard, is in a fluster---well, ok, she's always in a fluster. This time she's flustering over The Da Vinci code. She's aghast that that nice Ron Howard and that nice Tom Hanks have collaborated to make a movie that's so blasphemous, so subversive, and insulting!

I do not understand the thinking of a studio that would make, for the amusement of a nation 85% to 90% of whose people identify themselves as Christian, a major movie aimed at attacking the central tenets of that faith, and insulting as poor fools its gulled adherents. Why would Tom Hanks lend his prestige to such a film? Why would Ron Howard?

Beats me, Peg. As Scott Lemieux says, it's a puzzle.

I'm guessing Noonan's heard that the novel The Da Vinci Code's something of a bestseller.

In fact, it's an industry.

That she apparently can't see any connection between its bestseller status and it's being turned into a movie is just another sign that she needs to get out more and spend less time communing with angels in the form of dolphins.

But her assertion that 85 to 90 percent of Americans are Christians shows that A.) she doesn't bother to look things up before throwing numbers around and B.) she has the same understanding of math and fractions as Bertie Wooster, who has observed that half the world doesn't know how the other three-quarters lives.

Surely it should have occured to her that if 85 to 90 percent of Americans are Christians and The Da Vinci Code is selling like...well, like a book that everybody and his brother are buying, then some of those books must be being bought by Christians.

Unless she thinks that the 10 to 15 percent of Americans who are godless Liberals are buying up multiple copies and forcing them on their Christian friends in order to shake their faith in the divinity of Jesus, there must be a lot of Christians who want to be told that Jesus didn't die on Golgotha that day 1973 years ago.

Because, you know, no one reads potboiler novels or goes to the movies just for fun.

Now, there are folks of the Right Wing persuasion who believe that seeing movies about prepubescent children learning magic will inspire a generation of witches and warlocks, and others who believe that movies about gay cowboys will cause their sons to run off to go fishing with their best guy pals, and others who argue that movies about crusading journalists exposing lying demogogues as the liars and demogogues they are will teach us all that Communism is the cat's meow and way cooler than democracy.

So, if Noonan believes that a movie about the murderous adventures of an albino monk and how Tom Hanks' physical charms are irresistable to the likes of Audrey Tautou will lead to crises of faith all over God's Country, she's simply conforming to a type, and God bless her and save her.

Not much I can do to help her, except point out that generations of kids have grown up quite certain that real mice don't talk or wear red shorts and white gloves.

The real danger in what she's saying is in the continuation of two ideas: A. America is a Christian nation. B. Somehow the great Christian majority is being oppressed by a tiny minority of Liberal elitists.

The truth is that a minority of people who identify themselves as Christians feel themselves to be oppressed by the existence of a majority of people who don't agree with their idea of what Christianity is or ought to be.

It is true that most Americans are, nominally, Christian. Something like 5 out of 6. But most of them are not of the type of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or the various non-denominationalists that make up what goes by the name of Christian in the Media these days.

Most of them are Catholics, Episcopalians---you know, those people with the gay bishop---and the other more established Protestant churches. In other words, most Christians are of the type of Christian that those who speak for "Christians" in the media these days think aren't truly Christian or aren't Christian enough or aren't Christian in the right way---right as in correct in their religious beliefs and practices and right as in correct in their Right Wing politics.

Right Wing Christians refer to themselves as just Christians, naturally, because in their minds they are the true Christians. It turns out to be useful politically to refer to themselves this way because it blurs the distinctions between themselves and other types of Christians, helping to disguise the differences between themselves and those other Christians so that not just all those other Christians don't realize what the Right Wingers really are and want, but also so that their non-Christian political enemies fall into the trap of using the term Christian as an insult and an accusation.

When Liberals speak or write dismissively of "Christians" and their reactionary politics and general assaults on reason, science, art, and a democratic, pluralistic culture, other Christians instinctively close ranks, joining their votes with people who are even more contemptuous of their faith than the godless Liberals.

Once upon a time the Media used to identify Right Wing Christians as Fundamentalists or Evangelicals or Born Agains or Right Wing Christians. But because there are many Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Born Agains who are not Right Wingers, either because they are apolitical, liberals, or merely somewhat conservative, the terms have been generally abandoned and replaced with variations on Conservative Christians.

Since most Americans consider themselves conservative, although surveys of their actual beliefs on most issues show that they aren't anywheres near as conservative as they think they are, the term Conservative Christian might as well be read as simply Christian, and in fact that's how it's often read and abridged, allowing Right Wing Christians to pass themselves off as mainstream and portray opposition to their agenda as attacks on Christianity in general.

It would be nice then if we could come up with a term, and convince the Media to use it, that would strip away the Right Wing Christians' camouflage.

Lately, Andrew Sullivan has suggested the word Christianist.

David Neiwert points out that he and Tristero sort of came up with the same idea a while ago, but while Tristero still uses it, Neiwert himself decided it's a poor choice.

I had some reservations about the term, particularly because it seemed ripe for mau-mauing from right-wing pundits -- say, Rush Limbaugh or Hugh Hewitt -- who would almost certainly twist it into an attack on "ordinary Christians." I didn't necessarily think it was an inaccurate coinage, but it was one that lent itself to misinterpretation in the wrong hands.

Neiwert prefers another term, Dominionist. David's post is too long for me to summarize here, but as usual for him, it's thorough and informative and well-worth reading. In it he lays out the Dominionist agenda, which is, in a nutshell, to make America a Right Wing Christian quasi-theocracy.

I have two objections to the word Dominionist.

One, it's not punchy.

Go ahead, say it out loud. You'll sound all mush-mouthed to yourself.

Two, it's not going to catch on without lots and lots and lots of repetition and patient explanation.

I don't think we've got the time.

I've always liked the phrase Right Wing Fundamentalist. It's punchy, it's got a history, it distinguishes between Fundamentalists who are not Right Wingers and those who are, and it denies the Right Wingers the words conservative and Christian, which is not just useful but accurate, because they are neither.

Its weakness is that it wouldn't seem to include Right Wing Catholics of the Scalia stripe.

The Media in its currently cowed state will be hard to bring round. They seem wedded to the idea that the Republican Party is a conservative party. Conservative is for them a synonym for Republican and Republican is a synonym for small town, Middle American, traditional, flag waving wholesomeness.

Right Wing Christians vote Republican, therefore they are conservative, wholesome, traditional, Middle American.

You know, the mainstream majority.

Cross posted at the little church known as St Michael's in the Groves.

I first heard of Dominionism from Shakespeare’s Sister.

Another way to take the word Christian away from the Right Wing Fundamentalists/Dominionists/What you will may be for Democratic, Liberal, and Progressive Christians to start inisting on their Christianity in the public square too. Yellow Dog Sammy reports at the American Street that this is going on in Ohio these days, not to everybody's comfort.

Neddie Jingo doesn’t like the novel The Da Vinci Code, not now, not ever, and probably doesn’t like anybody who does.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

St George and the Dragon, a fable by Richard Cheney

What a shower, [the Grand Master] told himself. A bunch of incomptents no other secret society would touch with a ten-foot Sceptre of Authority. The sort to dislocate their fingers with even the simplest secret handshake. But incompetents with possibilities, nevertheless. Let the other societies take the skilled, the hopefuls, the ambitious, the self-confident. He'd take the whining resentful ones, the ones with a bellyful of spite and bile, the ones who knew they could make it big if only they'd been given the chance. Give him the ones in which the floods of venom and vindictiveness were dammed up behind thin walls of ineptitude and low-grade paranoia.

I read that a while back in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, and I thought, Hey, the Right Wing blog mob!

I thought about it a little more and grew uneasy.

You know, Lance, I said to myself---I can talk to myself as if I'm two people because I have a pen name---You know, Lance, I said to the side of myself that goes by the pen name of Lance, They could say it sounds like the Liberal blog mob, and you know it would be true of some people we could both name.

In fact the Media Elite does say it about the Liberal blog mob.

Furthermore---the side of me that does not go by the pen name of Lance likes to use high falutin' transitions like furthermore---Furthermore, Lance, there are days when you'd say the same thing about you! Maybe we should stop thinking like a blogger and just enjoy the book. Lance agreed, and we read on.

The Supreme Grand Master smiled in the depths of his robe. It was amazing, this mystic business. You tell them a lie, and then when you don’t need it anymore you tell them another lie and tell them they’re progressing along the road to wisdom. Then instead of laughing they follow you even more, hoping that at the heart of all the lies they’ll find the truth. And bit by bit they accept the unacceptable. Amazing.

Oh ho, I oh-ho-ed to myself. I forget which me was oh-ho-ing, Lance or the furthermore guy. Doesn’t matter. Perhaps we oh-ho-ed together. Oh ho, we said, the Grand Master is Karl Rove and the Elucidated Brethern are the Right Wing blog mob! Unless…

They’re the media!

Maybe they’re both, I suggested to me.

Maybe, I agreed. We’d better keep reading.

So we read on, and only a paragraph or two later we came to:

"Look, the Supreme Grand Master said what we do, we find some handsome lad who’s good at taking orders, he kills the dragon, and Bob’s your uncle. Simple. Much more intelligent than waitin’ for a so-called real king."

Holy mackerel! I exclaimed, speaking to my one and only self now, the shock of the realization integrating my personality in an instant and causing me to give up the lame literary conceit of being two different people, Holy mackerel! They’re talking about George Bush!

That makes the Supreme Grand Master…

This might be a good time to stop and summarize the plot of Guards! Guards!

The Supreme Grand Master is in reality a second-tier functionary in the government of the city of Ankh-Morpork who, wanting power but aware that he is not the sort of person the people would trust enough to just hand him the power over their lives he craves, hits on a scheme to put his own puppet king on the throne.

He will conjure up a dragon to terrorize the city and when the people are sufficiently frightened and despairing, he will send out his puppet to slay the dragon---an easy job because the Grand Master thinks he has the power to make the dragon just disappear at his command---and the people will be so grateful they will proclaim the puppet king. The Supreme Grand Master will then rule the city through his puppet.

Which is why I was thinking to myself as I read that that the puppet was obviously George Bush and the Supreme Grand Master was...Dick Cheney!

As for the lad [the puppet]...he was a distant cousin, keen and vain, and stupid in a passably aristocratic way. Currently he was under guard in a distant farmhouse, with an adequate supply of drink and young ladies, although what the boy seemed most interested in was mirrors. Probably hero material, the Supreme Grand Master thought glumly…

Just a few more nights [he thought]. By tomorrow the people will be so desperate, they’d crown even a one-legged troll if he got rid of the dragon. And we’ll have a king, and he’ll have an adviser, a trusted man, of course, and this stupid rabble can go back to the gutter.

Definitely Cheney! And Bush! And the War on Terror is the dragon! What a brilliant satire of the Bush Administration! Terry Pratchett’s a genius!

Now, Terry Pratchett is a genius, but Guards! Guards! isn’t a satire of the Bush Administration, at least not this Bush Administration. It was published when W.’s father was running the show back in 1989.

So was Pratchett preternaturally prescient?


Maybe he was just paying very close attention to American politics and studying the characters roiling around the first Bush White House.

It’s a point of pride with me that I’ve despised George W. Bush since the 1980s. Somehow, while his father was still Vice-President, W. popped up in the news in a way I don’t remember specifically anymore but which showed him to be an angry, insensitive, loudmouthed jerk with a giant chip on his shoulder and a sense of entitlement not seen in Washington since Alice Roosevelt Longworth outgrew her roller skates and stopped breaking things in her father Teddy’s White House. Bush was drinking back then but I don’t remember being aware that he was a drunk. I just knew he was a jerk and definitely not half the man his father was---and I didn’t think all that highly of his father.

I dismissed him from my thoughts, convinced that once his father was out of office he’d disappear from public view. Jeb, I thought, was the Bush son who’d be going places.

Fooled me, didn’t I?

But the fact is that anyone who was close enough to observe the workings and personal dramas inside the White House in those days and who was paying attention could have seen the beginnings of the second Bush Presidency. They could have seen how Karl Rove had latched on to the apparent screw-up heir apparent. They could have seen Dick Cheney courting and grooming the son.

They could have seen the plot of Guards! Guards! unfolding right then and there.

Terry Pratchett, however, did not need to be on the spot to have come up with the plot for his book. He did not have to have been thinking of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove in order to have imagined the Supreme Grand Master and his ambitions and his dragon.

Characters like them are as old as time and the story has played itself out again and again.

Devious, ambitious, and unscrupulous men and women who don’t have the strength or the wherewithall to take power for themselves directly have always known how easy it is to achieve power by latching onto and flattering and manipulating stupid and egocentric bullies.

The story is so old and familiar and true that even television writers know it.

Another point of pride with me is that I recognized what Dick Cheney was up to when he made himself Bush’s running mate. I knew what he was doing because when I was a kid I saw an episode of The Wild, Wild West with the same exact plot. Anthony Zerbe played a brilliant but twisted political genius who because he was scarred from the Civil War was too ugly to be accepted as a leader by the voters of his territory so he found a handsome, charismatic, but dumb and vain puppet to run for governor so that he could rule through him.

So it was shocking to me that so many members of the punditocracy didn’t seem to see what Cheney had managed to do. Instead they praised Bush for being smart enough to know his own limitations and humble enough to choose the wise old statesman to be his Vice-President.

They didn’t see who had picked whom.

They didn’t see what I saw when they looked at George Bush’s resume.

They didn’t see what Dick Cheney was, the bitter, angry, thwarted would-be powerbroker, the old Nixonian who could not get himself elected President in his own right, could not even get his own Party to nominate him.

They didn’t see Anthony Zerbe or Terry Pratchett’s Supreme Grand Master.

When the time came they didn’t see what a dragon the Bush Leaguers made out of Saddam Hussein.

Why not, I asked myself, in disbelief. Why can’t they see it when it’s all so obvious and so familiar? Don’t they read? Don’t they know any old stories?

As it turns out, the problem is that they do read. They did know a story and they were very busy telling and re-telling it.

The story had three primary authors. Maureen Dowd, David Maraniss, and Joe Klein. And the story was this: Bill Clinton was a disgrace of a man who should never have been President.

And that story, because they loved it so much and refused to give it up no matter how much reality contradicted it, had to have a sequel and in that sequel a hero king had to come forth to redeem the time.

End of Part One. I’m not sure if there’ll be a Part Two. Maybe I should just re-post this one, It’s always been about Whitewater.

Cross-posted at Berube's skating rink.