Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
“The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their place,” Lillian Smith writes in Killers of the Dream, her 1949 memoir of growing up in Jaspers, Florida. “The father who rebuked me for an air of superiority toward schoolmates from the mill and rounded out his rebuke by gravely reminding me that ‘all men are brothers,’ trained me in the steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. They who so gravely taught me to split my body from my feelings and both from my ‘soul,’ taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition.”
Let’s not pretend, in the euphoria of returning one Negro to the White House, that certain realities of southern tradition have changed that much. The map above, duplicating a different red-blue divide, says plenty. “Every now and then,” Michael Lind wrote in Slate two days ago, “someone highlights the overlap between today’s Republican states and the slave states of the former Confederacy. As clichéd as the point may be, it remains indispensable to understanding what is happening in American politics today.”
That can be summed up in a different overlap: between what Lilliam Smith wrote some 60 years ago and what Lind writes today, a nearly perfect overlap of the social and the political in the southern psyche: “Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.” The difference, Lind writes, is that race is not the dominant motive. Economics is. Southerners push a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation economy that has its roots in slavery’s no-wage, no-tax, no-regulation economy, and that carries over today, altered somewhat, in the way southern states market themselves to companies. Florida’s Rick Scott is a standard-bearer of that economic devolution.
“White supremacy,” in other words, “was never an end in itself, but a tactic used by the Southern oligarchs to divide white workers from nonwhite workers. But the Southern elite can dispense with racism, because it has never cared what color its serfs are.”
But it isn’t all economics. The white working class southerner isn’t conducting business strategy when he perpetuates the institutional bigotry described by Smith. Racism in the south is also identity. And, beyond the enormous gender gap (the largest in the hostory of Gallup polls), it was an ugly identity at play in Tuesday’s vote. “For close to the surface lies a political racism that harks back 150 years to the time of Reconstruction, when African-Americans won citizenship rights,” Steven Hahn, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Times Sunday. “Black men also won the right to vote and contested for power where they had previously been enslaved. How is this so? The ‘birther’ challenge, which galvanized so many Republican voters, expresses a deep unease with black claims to political inclusion and leadership that can be traced as far back as the 1860s. Then, white Southerners (and a fair share of white Northerners) questioned the legitimacy of black suffrage, viciously lampooned the behavior of new black officeholders and mobilized to murder and drive off local black leaders. [...] The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black officeseekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.”
Today’s tactics have only changes in style, not in substance: the bogus witch-hunt of voter fraud that led innumerable states to pass voter ID laws, restrict early voting days, intimidate or delay voters at voting time, and the equally bogus pandering to the middle class as one way to ignore the more serious issues the country has been so adept at ignoring since the age of Reagan: “THE repercussions of political racism are ever present, sometimes in subtle rather than explicit guises. The campaigns of both parties showed an obsessive concern with the fate of the “middle class,” an artificially homogenized category mostly coded white, while resolutely refusing to address the deepening morass of poverty, marginality and limited opportunity that disproportionately engulfs African-American and Latino communities.”
Democrats haven’t fought back. Obama won, but his victory was driven by demographic, not by ideas. The egalitarian ideal is dead. He’s doing very little to revive it, or to counter–as Bill Clinton more effectively did, and as Lyndon Johnson last did most effectively–the nation’s deepest corrosion and greatest liability in the long term: inequality (of which deficits are a symptom).
So we wait for an Obama who, effectively emancipated from the burdens of re-election–and the shattering consequences of not winning it, which would have been far greater for Obama than they are for Romney, who’s just another white male in a long line of losing white males–offers up a new vision, or at least a rediscovered vision, for a nation now almost three decades retarded by southern conservatism. Maybe his second inaugural will point the way. The nation is well overdue. But so is Obama.
I doubt this state of mind I’m in is unusual for Americans around this time: aggravated, exasperated, infuriated, hopped up on the latest blips of polling from Florida or Ohio or Virginia, a fugitive from campaign ads, a hostage to campaigns’ phone calls, an unwilling witness to the every-four-year massacre the American language–the most imaginative and inventive language on earth as far as I’m concerned–endures from candidates and pundits and mercenary mouths. It’s the quadrennial Olympics of our great national delusion. (Democracy, Bertrand Russell wrote, “means despair of finding any heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them.” Not that there’s a better alternative out there.) Is there a more embarrassing reflection of the juvenile state of our politics than the contest between the two campaigns over which candidate looks more “presidential” (one of those words that should really be banned for the six months leading up to a presidential election)? Is there anything more smarmy than candidates who speak like hobbits on furlough from Neverland (our local congressional candidates especially come to mind)? At least it’s Halloween night: fantasy without the hypocrisy. But there’s six more days of crud, and not enough oxycodone on earth to dull the torture. At least there’s Schubert. He’ll have to do as an antidote for today. The rondo from his A major sonata, played with an entirely non-party-affiliated fluidity by Alfred Brendel.
To call the Orlando Sentinel liberal of course is to seriously misread the house organ of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, central Florida edition. That the Sentinel can count Scott Maxwell among its saving graces (for now) doesn’t mean it’s less of a traditionally right-wing apologist for the all-business faction of the Republican Party. A quick reminder: The Sentinel endorsed the first Bush both times (in 1988 and 1992), it endorsed Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000. It came to its senses, as many newspapers did, in 2004, when it endorsed John Kerry, and Barack Obama in 2008, when endorsing John McCain would have been like choosing a mortician to officiate a wedding. Nevertheless, a newspaper endorsement is a newspaper endorsement, whatever that means anymore now that what’s left of newspapers’ readership looks like a diminishing mass of John McCains with late-Reagan memory problems.
The Sentinel endorsement: “Economic growth, three years into the recovery, is anemic. Family incomes are down, poverty is up. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, highlighted these and other hard truths in this week’s second debate.” Substitute half for hard and you have a more honest assessment. The Obama years may have managed to create more jobs than the first four Bush years (or the four years of the first Bush), even though W was emerging from a much shallower recession, but the judgment on Obama will always be made as if the Great Recession had barely happened. It’s an article of faith now that mentioning his economic inheritance is unacceptable, as if history, like facts, were the disagreeable obstacles to the mythology powering Mitt Romney’s unicorn campaign. Incidentally, the anemic Obama years have created more jobs than all eight years of the Eisenhower administration).
The endorsement continues: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.” Cleaning up after Bush’s wars, getting health care reform passed, putting the economy back on its rails, reforming the banking system (albeit too timidly): none of those things really matter.
Elizabeth Drew in the current issue of the New York Review of Books describes Obama pointedly as “a contradiction of ambitious and cautious,” a contradiction that often infuriates those of us who consider ourselves his supporters. But she goes on to describe what it is that infuriates his ardent opponents too, and why it’d be a loss to have that once again replaced by the more conventional oiliness of Romeny’s garden-variety politicking. Of Obama, Drew writes, “He’s simply different from the conventional politician. He’s more self-contained, less needy, than almost any president in modern times. (Certainly less so than Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson.) He’s quite evidently not displeased with himself—and there’s much to be pleased with himself about. And Obama’s unique personality affects his political dealings. He conducts the business of politics but keeps a certain part of himself in reserve, holds it back. Why this matters is that Obama’s reserve can come across as aloof, be off-putting to other politicians, and translate into a reluctance to get his hands dirty by working with them. It can irritate businessmen who do not understand why he isn’t falling at their feet, doing whatever he can to win their approval.”
Barack Obama’s enduring sin: the negro is not only not prostrate before his masters. He makes them look small, for good reason: they are. And he enjoys it. A bit too much maybe, which ultimately may bring his downfall.
Late afternoon update: From the Times: “Mitt Romney may be something of a Utah native son, having helped turn around the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, attended Brigham Young University and once owning property there. But on Friday, The Salt Lake City Tribune tossed its support to President Obama, in a editorial titled “Too Many Mitts.”
Give Obama this much: he had good reason, standing on that stage at the University of Denver last week, to feel contempt for Mitt Romney and wonder what on earth he was doing, sharing the stage with an intellectual vacuum cleaner. Today’s foreign policy address by Romney, to the Virginia Military Institute, was better suited for the Hoover Historical Center in Canton, Ohio. He spoke for about half an hour. He said absolutely nothing of substance. He did the expected, saying “hope isn’t a strategy,” blaming Obama for not standing by Israel (well, aside from sending Israel $10 billion in free military hardware, at our expense), blaming Obama for doing nothing about the 30,000 Syrians massacred by Assad;’s regime, blaming Obama for letting Iran march toward a nuclear weapon, blaming Obama for losing the peace (what peace?) in Iraq.
OK. He had to to that. It’s what good speeches are made of: diagnose the problem, then tell us how you’d do things differently.
But he didn’t.
Here’s what he said, for example, on Iran: “I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” Really? You promise? Better yet: “I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its securityy—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.” Good. I was really getting tired of Obama lumping Israel with North Korea and Iran in Axis of Evil Redux. And the last thing our dark-age relationship with Israel needs is daylight. “I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.” Funny, he didn’t mention any names. Let’s do that: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and a few other backward, anti-democratic, authoritarian and illegitimate regimes that think nothing of murdering their own citizens to keep their version of peace, and whom we, going back decades, have called “partners.” In that regard, there is no daylight between Romney and Obama.
I was really curious about what he was proposing for Syria. “I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” That’s it? That’s it. Also, this: ” I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” That’s anice change from his famous address that included his slur about the 47 percent, when he trashed the two-state solution: ” “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way. [...] “[S]o what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” No Romney speech is complete without a few barrels of flipflops.
And gross, outright errors. “The President has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years,” Romney said. Someone should be editing his speeches. Here, for example, is how one of a few thousand stories headlined it last October: OBAMA SIGNS FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS.” Notice the s in agreements. A little detail for the guy who is reportedly not even reading the briefing papers his foreign policy team is writing for him: “President Obama has signed into law the long-awaited free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, as well as the latest trade adjustment assistance for workers.
He also repeated a lie he’s made his own: “The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916.” He’s already been slapped with a pants-on-fire rating from Politifacts for that one. But he keeps repeating it: not just a liar, but a malicious one, too. He relies on a Heritage fear sheet about “The State of the U.S. Military” from 2010, which says, on page 17, that “The U.S. Navy’s fleet today contains the smallest number of ships since 1916. The total number of active ships in the Navy declined from 592 to 283 between 1989 and 2009.” Heritage does that with a straight face. It is literally comparing this:
That’s the sort of math we have to contend with from Romney. Not to take a sledgehammer to it, but considering the very large number of people who still take Romney seriously, it’s worth restating explicitly, as Politifacts did: “Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney’s comparison ‘doesn’t pass ‘the giggle test,’ ‘ said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia. Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four specialized submarines for launching Cruise missiles — all categories of vessels that didn’t exist in 1916.”
It’s a particularly long list–much longer alas than my list of favorite Arabs–but these two are pretty near the top, especially since, to my knowledge, the “I Voted” sticker on the little one’s head wasn’t revelation of his first absentee ballot for Benjamin Netanyahu, though rumor has it he might vote Likud given the chance. (Sam, as the tiny one is known, and who’s made an appearance in these pages once before, was born during Netanyahu’s cataclysmic first stint as prime minister, when he gave Clinton so much grief that Clinton sought refuge in Monica’s mouth; it’s a wonder “Bibi” hasn’t yet screwed up Obama’s mind or loins. Can’t fault him for not trying.) So these two, Markowitzes by name, each had a birthday in the last few days. Sam is 14, Dave is somewhere in his late 80s, which is rather young in his family. His parents are well into triple digits and still crusading for unions, the Yankees and the Dead Sea scrolls (authored in part by Dave’s dad). I’d have wished them a happy birthday in person, but a paywall now separates us fatally, and the News-Journal, where Dave is serving a sentence of undetermined length, has a visitor policy a little tougher than Evin prison’s in Teheran. So I got Duke Ellington to wish them both a happy birthday:
Brilliant opening to Mark Lilla’s review of Charles Kesler’s new book on Barack Obama: “Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized. His name was Richard Nixon.”
The rest of the review isn’t a bad read either, summing up conservatives’ fear and loathing of liberalism in the Obama mantle more wittily than I usually see it done by liberals, who tend to be more dour than necessary (the brooders Lilla calls “the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine”). Kestler is a professor at Claremont McKenna College, a temple of conservative ideology, where he also edits The Claremont Review of Books. Lilla demoloshes his book with praise: “A sense of proportion, once the conservative virtue, is considered treasonous on the right today, and Kesler cannot be accused of harboring one. But his systematic exaggerations demonstrate that the right’s rage against Obama, which has seeped out into the general public, has very little to do with anything the president has or hasn’t done. It’s really directed against the historical process they believe has made America what it is today. The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation. If you want to experience what it’s like to be within that mind on a better day, then you need to visit I Am the Change.”
And if you don’t have time for 276 pages of the stuff (at my literacy-challenged 25-pages-an-hour reading rate, that works out to an investment of 11 hours, not counting the scream-in-the-pillow breaks), Lilla’s 2,800 words (a 15-minute read) should be plenty. Here. Treat yourself.
Richard Ford’s Canada | Mitt Romney’s Cold Showers | Polls and Bigotry | The 47 Percent Attack Ad | Moochers by State | Hubble’s Early Universe | Quote Approval | Their Haters, and Ours | Obama on Letterman | Al Hadeed on the Supremes | Embassy Security | Memories of the Ford Administration | When David Ayres Inhaled | Florida Real Estate | 9/11 and Hiroshima | From Coolidge to Romney | I love Wanda Sykes | “Built to Last,” Like Buchenwald | United States of Amnesia | Romney’s troops | Obama’s dud | Jacques Barzun on American Democracy| August Notebook | Follow me on Twitter
Richard Ford’s “Canada”: One of the many superb passages from Ford’s newest novel, a shoe-in for what ought to be his second Pulitzer (he won it in ’95 for Independence Day). Dell Parsons, his 15-year-old protagonist, is just entering the fog of abandonment, his parents just jailed after an improbable bank robbery. Berner is his twin sister: “It’s odd, though, what makes you think about the truth. It’s so rarely involved in the events of your life. I quit thinking about the truth for a time then. Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts. If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed light on it. Much easier to think about chess— the true character of the men always staying the way they were intended, a higher power moving everything around. I wondered, for just that moment, if we— Berner and I— were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves. I decided we weren’t. Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design. If our characters were truly fixed, they would have to be revealed later. It’s been my habit of mind, over these years, to understand that every situation in which human beings are involved can be turned on its head. Everything someone assures me to be true might not be. Every pillar of belief the world rests on may or may not be about to explode. Most things don’t stay the way they are very long. Knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means believing that good isn’t possible; and I know for a fact that good is. I simply take nothing for granted and try to be ready for the change that’s soon to come.” ↑
Mitt Romney’s cold showers: The gift that keeps giving. From Jay Smooth at Salon:
Polls and Bigotry: Just as James Ussher can still claim followers for his biblical fictions, Mitt Romney, a fantasist in his own right, still has diehard believers who claim all the polls are wrong and he’s right: he’s not just tied with Obama (as Romney thinks, as he put it in his appearance on 60 Minutes), but he’s ahead. Way ahead. The fantasy is being spread by unskewedpolls.com, a sort of anti-hero to Nate Silver’s mathematically based analyses of polling data. In a post wonderfully titled “How Mitt Romney is actually defeating Barack Obama in the presidential race,” Dean Chambers at Examiner.com claims that polls are pushing Obama “because the mainstream media-commissioned polls over-sample Democrats to produce skewed results that favor the Democrats.” Keep in mind, even Fox News has its polls showing Obama comfortably ahead. Keep in mind, too, that these are the same polls that called the 2008 election quite accurately. Real Clear Politics’ final average of 15 polls, coming in at a 7.6-point advantage for Obama in the week before the vote, compared to the actual vote of a 7.3 percent advantage for Obama. Pretty damn accurate. But today’s brand of evangelical conservatives, god bless ‘em, have never been accused of flirting with evidence.
So unskewedpolls.com allegedly does what its name implies, and produces the results you see below. (Chambers goes as far as projecting a 54-46 percent win for Romney.) Of course, unskewering.com’s theory could just as easily apply if existing polls were to account for all the bigots voting against Obama because they can’t stomach the notion of a fag-loving Muslim-Kenyan nigger not only occupying the precious linen closets in the White House, but defeating their mostly Christian but assuredly white alternative. Unskew for that, and Obama’s lead would likely be in the upper 60s, which should make whiter Democrats prospecting for 2016 giddy–or finally encourage Harvey Fierstein to run for president. The remarkable thing is that Obama’s lead (going by the legitimate polls, anyway) is as solid as it is despite the claims against him, and despite the not-so-latent racism of a goodly chunk of our electorate. The conclusion must be that for all its noise, for all its tea party brews and evangelical zeal, the racist white vote that did so much for Nixon and continued to do quite a bit for the first Bush is becoming an irrelevant minority, fighting its death throes. Karl Rove figured that out in 2004, when he tried, successfully, to channel the angry white vote through the angry evangelical vote, often the same thing, but with gayed-up causes to come at the polls (2004 was the year of the anti-gay-marriage amendments, one of the high watermarks of American hate in action). But there’s only so much the Atwaters and Roves can do to prolong the life of a dying monster.
It’s not for another generation that the United States will be a minority white nation. But in spirit, it has already embraced its essential pluralism. The re-election of Obama will be–among the many things that it will be–an affirmation of that reality that Strom Thurmond’s descendants cannot accept. But their marginalization, self-inflicted–because it goes against the grain of the American character as it has finally grown–is unmistakable. Here, for laughs, is the how the unskewed see it:
The 47 percent attack ad: It’s finally here: the Obama campaign is making Romney’s 47 percent blunder pay. It took a week, an unusually long time for the Obama war room. Every campaign has an ad it hopes will make the ultimate difference. I’m not so sure this one will: it’s more cluttered than one would expect, and diffuses the message by first pounding the 47 percent,l but then going off on Romney’s other matters–his refusal to release tax returns before 2010 (which to me is not that relevant), his Cayman Islands bank accounts, his 14.1 percent tax rate last year. It ends: “Maybe instead of attacking others on taxes, Romney should come clean on his.” Again, not the most memorable line in the world. In the pantheon of attack ads, few stand out like this one, from the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, still a classic of fearmongering that worked: a little girl is pulverized by a nuclear explosion. Curiously, it’s an American-voiced countdown, presumably that of a Goldwater man, making him, in Johnson’s view, a more threatening child-killer than the Soviets:
This was the classic of the first Bush campaign, the Willie Horton revolving door ad that appealed directly and very successfully to the bigotry Southern whites, always a reliable bloc of racist votes. Here’s the ad with a little extra analysis:
Four years ago there was McCain boasting of agreeing with Bush 90 percent of the time:
So in light of these ads, I’m not sure how effective this one from the Obama campaign will be. Once again though, Obama is helped by Romney’s flaccid response. He has yet to produce a memorable ad.
Not surprisingly, moochers are concentrated in the South:
The early universe: I never get tired of seeing these time-traveling pictures, these stutters of eternity lit up like smudges on creation’s retina. This is the latest from the Hubble Space Telescope. “Like photographers assembling a portfolio of best shots, astronomers have assembled a new, improved portrait of mankind’s deepest-ever view of the universe,” NASA tells us. “Called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, the photo was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full moon.” It is disbelief in full, real suspension.
Quote approval: Good to hear from the Gray Lady, though it tells you how low journalism ethics have fallen when our most important news organizations have to write policies about what should be a given: “The New York Times is drawing ‘a clear line’ against the practice of news sources being allowed to approve quotations in stories after the fact,” Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s new public editor, writes. “The practice, known as quote approval, ‘puts so much control over the content of journalism in the wrong place,’ the executive editor Jill Abramson told me in an interview. ‘We need a tighter policy.’” Abramson’s memo: “The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. In its most extreme form, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview.”
It’s not a black and white thing of course. There’s nothing wrong with reading back quotes to the un-initiates, those private people who haven’t dealt with media before: it’s our responsibility as reporters to protect them, not take advantage of them. But it’s an entirely different story with politicians, public figures, business interests and especially PR flackers whose job is to manipulate, spin, lie, self-serve, making it our job to turn on the bullshit meter and limit the damage as much as possible. That includes forbidding quote approval, which is in reality a different way of saying quote manipulation–spin by other means. The always straight-shooting David Carr got to the point in his column Monday, aptly entitled “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval“: “Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.” That was written just before Mitt Romney’s 47 percent bomb. Carr concludes: “Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.” ↑
Their haters, and ours: Thomas Friedman sums up the hypocrisy of the Arab-Muslim world well today, but it’s only half the story, with a convenient veil on its American equivalent. He writes: “I don’t like to see anyone’s faith insulted, but we need to make two things very clear — more clear than President Obama’s team has made them. One is that an insult — even one as stupid and ugly as the anti-Islam video on YouTube that started all of this — does not entitle people to go out and attack embassies and kill innocent diplomats. That is not how a proper self-governing people behave. There is no excuse for it. It is shameful. And, second, before demanding an apology from our president, Mr. Ali and the young Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese who have been taking to the streets might want to look in the mirror — or just turn on their own televisions. They might want to look at the chauvinistic bile that is pumped out by some of their own media — on satellite television stations and Web sites or sold in sidewalk bookstores outside of mosques — insulting Shiites, Jews, Christians, Sufis and anyone else who is not a Sunni, or fundamentalist, Muslim. There are people in their countries for whom hating “the other” has become a source of identity and a collective excuse for failing to realize their own potential.”
But then there’s this: The Arab-American institute released a survey in August on how Americans view Arabs and Muslims. The results got little attention in the American press, not least because of the source: the Arab-American Institute, because it has the word “Arab” in it, is taken less seriously than, say, Gallup, for the very reasons the survey’s numbers are what they are: bigotry toward Arabs (and Muslims) is a casual fact in American life. The survey found that 42 percent of whites and rate Arabs unfavorably, and 44 percent rate Muslims unfavorably, with Republicans thickening the unfavorable numbers: 57 percent of Romney voters see Muslims unfavorably (compared to 26 percent of them seeing Mormons unfavorably). Just 32 percent of Republicans surveyed said they were confident an Arab could do the job in a position of influence in government. Just 27 percent of Romney voters say so. It’s not flattering to Democrats that just 50 percent of them think so. (See the full survey.)
And in July there was this: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 17 percent of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, and 30 percent of Republicans do–double the proportion of Republicans who bought into the bigotry-laced lie four years ago. It’s not that Obama’s religion would be necessarily relevant, but that his association with Islam is designed to be denigrating by the very people who (see above) see Islam as a third-class religion–the same Christians who would, from behind their very glassy houses, since Christianity remains by far the most murderous and blood-soaked religion in the history of humankind. (To the Muslim world, those GIs running around Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, those planes raining missiles, are no different than their Crusader forefathers). ↑
Obama on Letterman: It was his seventh appearance. Letterman had no other guest. No Top 10 List. No stupid pet tricks, except when discussing Romney for a segment. We learned that Obama weighs “about 180,” which means 190, and that he would not put a precise number on the national debt as it stands today ($16 trillion, Mr. President). Letterman also asked him who holds all that debt. A lot of it is owed to ourselves, the president said, correctly: All but $4.7 trillion is either owed by the government to itself, or owed to Americans who’ve invested in Treasury bills. The remainder is owed other nations, lead by China ($1.3 trillion) and Japan ($885 billion), and Luxembourg is in there somewhere, in 12th place or thereabout, with $114 billion owed that postage stamp of a nation. Here’s the full list. And here’s the full bit from last night’s show:
Of course Letterman asked him about Romney’s confessions on his road to Damascus, by way of Boca Raton. The full exchange:
Letterman: Now, I don’t know if you have seen the videotape, but I’m sure you know what we’re referencing here. Mitt Romney at a fundraiser, I believe, in Florida, there’s a cell phone videotaping his remarks, and he talks about being – in very dismissive terms, why 47% of the people voting don’t matter to him. And what does that mean? Is that just – is that what rich guys at country clubs are talking about?
Obama: Well, I don’t know what he was referring to, but I can tell you this: when I won in 2008, 47% of the American people voted for John McCain. They didn’t vote for me. And what I said on election night was, ‘Even though you didn’t vote for me, I hear your voices, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to be your President.’ And one of the things I’ve learned as President is you represent the entire country, and when I meet Republicans as I’m traveling around the country, they are hard-working, family people who care deeply about this country and my expectation is that if you want to be President, you’ve got to work for everybody, not just for some…The other thing you discover as you travel around the country is, boy, the American people, they work so hard. I mean, the progress we’ve made since the great recession is because you’ve got single moms out there who are working two, three jobs to help make sure their kids can go to college. And you’ve got small business owners who are keeping their doors open and keeping their employees on even though it means they may not be taking down a salary. And, you know, you go up to Detroit or Toledo and you see auto workers who take huge pride in the fact that they’re bouncing back. But they work hard. And you don’t meet anybody who doesn’t believe in the American dream and the fact that nobody’s entitled to success, that you’ve got to work hard, and so I promise you, there are not a lot of people out there who think they’re victims, there are not a lot of people who think that they’re entitled to something. What I think the majority of people, Democrats and Republicans, believe is that we’ve got some obligations to each other, and there’s nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand, so that if there’s that single mom’s kid, even after all the work she’s done, still can’t afford to go to college, for us to be able to give them, you know, some help on a student loan so they can end up being – curing the next disease or making sure that they’re starting the next Google, I think that’s a good investment for America, and that’s – if you want to be President and you want to bring people together, I think that’s the attitude that you’ve got to have. ↑
•Al Hadeed on the Supremes: Here’s something you don’t often get to hear locally, as gleaned from the county’s web calendar: “Al Hadeed, Flagler County Attorney, will be [the] featured speaker on how we select our justices for the Florida and U.S. Supreme Court. The talk is entitled ‘The Law of the Land: The Public’s Role (or not) in Selecting our Justices.’” That’ll be at the Flagler County Library today, Monday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m., part of the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. From what I know of him, Hadeed–when he’s not mired in the muck of government legalese–has two intellectual passions: history and environmental protection. He is an absorbing storyteller who can get into the trance of his narrative to such a point that somewhere in him must float a few atoms of Billy Sunday. The topic today is especially relevant in two regards: A reactionary group that calls itself the Southeastern Legal Foundation (based in Atlanta), with more Southern than legal foundations about it, has been chasing after three of Florida’s supreme court justices in hopes of booting them off the bench, just because they’re Lawton Chiles appointees. That is, they’re relatively more liberal than the rest of their colleagues. So far the sniping has been unsuccessful. More critically, and I hope Al addresses this, is the fate of the U.S. Supreme Court, should Mitt Romney be elected. Justice Ginsburg is on her last walker: she wants out. But if Romney were to appoint her successor, those occasionally salvaging 5-4 majorities that still give the court a measure of liberal sanity would be history. We would have a court no different than that of the 1920s, when Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis alone faced the equivalent of a Chamber of Commerce board as supreme court justices, led by the rotund William Howard Taft, who at least could be occasionally reasoned with, but also sullied by the likes of Joseph McKenna, one of the great incompetents in Supreme Court history. Taft himself tried to get him to resign several times. Didn’t work–until McKenna’s wife’s death, which got him off the court in 1924. He was replaced by the far better Harlan Fiske Stone, but a minority of three was not enough to overcome the court’s compulsion for legal classicism, which translated into a war on labor unions and civil liberties in the name of business and property rights. We’re already there in several respects, though the present court has been more respectful of civil liberties than its 1920s version. Let’s see how Al takes on the Nine. ↑
•Embassy security: Disheartening pictures from the Benghazi embassy attack in today’s Daily Mail and in the Independent, what looks like a better report on what took place that day than what we’ve read so far in the American press, including this blast of Hurricane Katrina behavior: “According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.” They hadn’t had time in Benghazi to start building an embassy in line with the ugly and expensive fortresses being built around the globe by the State Department for its imperial staff, like that $750 million monstrosity in Baghdad, which sooner or later will have to be vacated if that country continues to go the way it’s going, or the even uglier horror going up in London, that one at a cost of $1 billion, with an architectural evocation of the Middle Ages: one of its security features is a 100-foot moat. No joke. If American embassies have to be guarded the way nuclear plants do, something has gone seriously wrong with America’s image in the world. Stephen Walt in a 2010 Foreign Policy article: “We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we’re supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the ‘Fortress America’ approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia. Don’t get me wrong: states in the modern world have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it’s possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence.”
But that’s been nothing new since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, or maybe–going by Bill McGuire’s timeline–since 1953, when the CIA toppled Iran’s Mosaddegh. Compare the new London embassy to the one it’s replacing, that one, as Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in an appraisal in 2010, “an effort to project a progressive cultural image abroad, at the height of the cold war. One entry led straight from the street up a broad staircase to a public library and an art gallery that showcased postwar American artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Philip Guston.” I imagine the new embassy will have paintings of Thomas Kinkaid and scenes from “Singin’ In The Rain.” ↑
Memories of the Ford Administration: Anthony Ferreira was a third grader at Henry B. Milnes Elementary School in Fair Lawn, N.J., when he wrote this letter to President Ford, after Ford’s Sept. 8, 1974 “full, free, and absolute pardon” of Richard Nixon, who himself now seems like a third-grade lawbreaker compared with his party’s successors to the White House (Iran-Contra, the S&L scandal, Bush II’s encyclopedic end-runs around the Constitution):↑
When WNZF’s David Ayres inhaled: “Yes I did inhale,” David Ayres, our favorite closet liberal–he’s the general manager of WNZF and joyful host of Free For All Fridays–said this morning on his show, talking about marijuana and the Palm Coast City Council’s stoned decision to chase after sellers of synthetic pot, “but got past that stage in life.” Too bad he did. Radio chat hosts without pot. What do you get? Conservative radio. ↑
Florida real estate: “They took us prospective buyers on a special train out to a barren waste where it was proposed to sell them lots. Hastily thrown-together headquarters–indifferent lunch. But, after lunch, sudden eruption into room of real estate evangelist: he said there were three cardinal sins–fear, caution and delay–and gave them a sermon on those three heads. ‘And if Jesus Christ were alive today, he’d buy a lot right here!’–Inspirational effect on audience–several bought lots then and there. –When everybody else had gone, the promoter complimented the evangelist, who was mopping his brow like Billy Sunday: ‘That’s a great line of bunk you’ve got there! You ought to make a lot of money out of it!’ Evangelist: ‘Yes, it is. And I don’t get paid half enough.’”–From Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties.↑
9/11 and Hiroshima: John McCain, the senator, the former presidential candidate and a man for whom John Hersey might have dedicated one of his books, just released a statementcommemorating the anniversary of 9/11: “Our shock over the enormity of the attack has long passed, as has the nation’s trauma, at least for those of us who did not lose loved ones on that terrible day. But we have not lost, and we never will, our outrage at the inconceivable cruelty, the depravity, it took to plan, organize and execute the atrocities. And let us act on our outrage, and teach our children to do the same, by not only remaining resolute in our efforts to defeat our enemies, but even more so in our efforts to remain the moral opposite of our enemies. Let us be, forever, a people whose respect for the dignity of all human life is our highest and defining value.”
Strange. Apply the very same sentiments, the same sentences, the same outrage and sorrow at the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it would be just as appropriate a statement, at least if you’re Japanese (this past Aug. 6 and 9, the anniversaries of those war crimes passed in the United States with hardly a mention of the more than 200,000 killed in those couple of flashes.) Just goes to show that no one has a monopoly on sanctimony, or the moral high ground.↑
From Coolidge to Romney: It happened with Ronald Reagan, when that great fabulist said he’d eliminate all tax brackets but two and cut the top marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent (and reduce the other rate to 15 percent). Reagan said he’d do that and balance the budget. By the time those brackets and rates were fully in effect, from 1988 to 1991, the federal budget deficits he’d promised to erase went from $55 billion (in 1979) to $255 billion in his last year as president, and $375 billion a year later. The nation went from the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor. The national debt went from under $1 trillion in Jimmy Carter’s final year to $3.2 trillion in Reagan’s last–more debt accumulated on his watch than by all presidents before him combined, the enormous spending of World War II and World War I combined and included. Yet Ronald Reagan is still Republicans’ hero of fiscal responsibility. He’s certainly their role model, too. (See all marginal tax rates from 1913 to 2011 here.)
So it happened again with the second Bush. When he was running against Al Gore, he claimed he could cut taxes from Bill Clinton levels (39.6 percent for top wage-earners, still among the cheapest rates in the western world) and not only preserve the federal budget surpluses he’d inherited from Bill Clinton, and a projected $5 trillion surplus over 10 years, but help pay down the debt and save Social Security and Medicare. Paul Krugman called him a liar, since the math simply did not add up. Bush went on to win the election and lose the economy: the deficit in his last year was $472 billion, the deficit in the following year, Obama’s first, but largely driven by the wreckage of Bush’s economy, was just under $1 trillion. And the national debt had literally doubled on his watch (it had tripled on Reagan’s), from $5.8 trillion to $12 trillion.
Now it’s happening again with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Not only does that odd coupling claim to be able to balance the budget (eventually), and restore fiscal responsibility, but it’s doing so by almost precisely replicating and compounding the Reagan and Bush approaches: first, make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Then reduce all marginal tax rates by 20 percent, which means reducing the current top tax rate of 25 percent to 28 percent–back down to those Reagan-era levels, which, not so incidentally, happens to be the lowest top marginal tax rate since when? 1929, when it was 25 percent. Please don’t think the Coolidge-Hoover years were the norm in tax rates: they were, like the Depression they seeded, aberrations. Before Coolidge, and from 1917 to 1923, the top tax rate was between 67 percent and 58 percent. So our current Coolidge-Hoover reenactors want to bring back the 1920s in tax laws, despite the lessons of the 1980s and of the 2000s. It gets worse. Romney claims his plan can be revenue-neutral. In other words, federal revenue won’t drop. He says he’ll eliminate tax breaks to make it work. Nothing else. But when he was asked on Meet the Press on Sunday which tax breaks he’d eliminate, he didn’t say. Not one. Not a single example. How’s that for trusting the blind? Yet he claims he won’t raise taxes on anyone, including the middle class. “The problem, tax analyst say,” the Times reports today, “is that it is mathematically impossible to do all three of those things.”
Can’t cut taxes for all, eliminate tax breaks and keep it all revenue neutral while not raising taxes for anyone. Cannot be done. In other words, in good Reagan-Bush style, Romney, good Mormon that he is, is lying. Yet he’s still taken seriously by half an electorate that claims to want honesty and responsibility in government.
Calvin Coolidge, too, had been governor of Massachusetts. ↑
I love Wanda Sykes:
“Built to last.” Frightening to discover that that phrase, a centerpiece of the Obama campaign (stolen from GMC’s monster-truck ads), was once used by Ed Murrow in a radio dispatch from Europe, on April 15, 1945, after his visit to Buchenwald: “It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last.”↑
United States of Amnesia: It’s not just pandering. It’s forgetting. Nobody really cares that the Afghan war is still going anymore than anyone gave a snot about the Iraq war once the economy here began to sour (ironically, in good part because of those wars, which sucked the blood out of the fiscal soundness of the treasury). I referred to this last month, but the words of a Marine, Sgt. Damon Cecil, at the funeral of a fallen soldier from Iraq, put it best: “‘I feel like the world has changed the channel,’ he said. ‘When the soldiers started dying at the beginning, it was like this big movie on the screen. And now it’s like it’s gone to DVD. It’s on the shelf….Those yellow stickers, it was like they were cool for a while, but everything seems to come as a fad, a big wave. But the wave crashes.’” Cecil is quoted toward the end of Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute, the excellent book by the Rocky Mountain News reporter who covered military funerals and followed the lives of victims’ families and survivors back home over a year. He won the Pulitzer in 2006. The photographs in the book are equally powerful, shot by Todd Heisler, who won a Pulitzer for them and was eventually hired away by the New York Times. The Rocky Mountain news went out of business in 2009. Sheeler is now a professor at Case Western Reserve University.↑
Romney’s troops I’m no fan of Romney, and he didn’t help himself when given a chance to explain, but too much is being made of his not pandering enough to troops at the Republican National Convention while democrats went porno on pandering at theirs. Sheer exploitation. First send them off to get killed and maimed for absolutely no useful purpose, not even to the nations on whose soil they’re dying (do I really want to spill blood to protect Afghanistan’s regressive religious rule? I don’t mean the Taliban, but the reigning tribes and the existing government, whose oppression is different from that of the Taliban only in degrees, not in principle.) Then they use them as props. What’s left of them, anyway. The country spends altogether too much time indulging in that sort of tumescent militarism, a sad commentary on what Andrew Bacevich (a conservative) refers to the country’s “path to permanent war.” ↑
Obama’s Dud: I sure hope Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention isn’t an indication of his next four years, should he win. The speech was a dud regardless. Coming after Bill Clinton’s, Michelle Obama’s and Joe Biden’s, it bombed: uninspiring, cliche-ridden, unliterary, tired, light-weight. We expect that from Republicans, who have no idea how to turn a phrase, making more glaring the vacuum at the heart of their policy ideas, such as they are. We don’t expect it from Obama. Maybe he’s become too self-conscious about his alleged eloquence, the charges of “soaring rhetoric” at the expense of solid ideas. But his convention speech abandoned both. I didn’t need him to tell me what he’ll be doing over the next four years. That’s what he’s being criticized for, but that’s beside the point. We pretty much know what he’ll be doing. I was wanting to hear him tell us what method he’ll use to get done what he wants to get done, since method hasn’t been his strong suit in his first term, despite considerable achievements: he waited too long (two and a half years) to finally realize that Republicans weren’t interested in governing with him, but in screwing him at every turn, as Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, put it candidly and cynically in July 2011 (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”). Obama didn’t have to wait until July 2011 to learn what we all learned weeks into his administration, when not a single House member and just three senators voted for the stimulus package that, speaking of achievements, prevented a second depression. But it wasn’t bold enough to lift us out of the enduring recession. The convention speech sounded as mired as his governing style. He can use an awakening. For now he’s relying too much on the Democrats’ Great White Hope: Romney’s astounding vacuity.↑
From Jacques Barzun, “Of Human Freedom”: “The United States is a free democracy, but we who live in it are still afraid of discussion. We prefer kindness to intelligence, boosting to knocking, conformity to criticism. We dread unpopularity and so court one another with lies, as minions used to court princes, to their joint peril in this world and the next.” ↑
“Moderation in all things. Not too much life. It often lasts too long.”
–From H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks.
| Jefferson’s religion | Norwegian welfare | Emerson on Rabelais| Bare necessities | Flagler’s primary election day | Spanking Vidal | Losing AC | canoeing John Updike’s Florida lizards | Afghan indifference | Clint Eastwood’s endorsements | Flaubert’s retardation | September Notebook | Follow me on Twitter
Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
A Thomas Jefferson line that never gets old: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (From his Notes on Virginia) ↑
Norwegian welfare: Watching Elling, a Norwegian movie released in 2001 about two misfits who learn their ways in the world, but not without the generous care and subsidies of the Norwegian government’s welfare state. The humanism of the characters’ slow self-realizations aside, that’s one of the striking things about the movie, the more so because it’s not at all part of the plot or the director’s intention. The normalcy of the welfare state’s safety net is just there, taken for granted and to be taken for granted, like air to breathe and water to drink–and a livable, roomy apartment to live in, and time, with government checks coming, to learn to make one’s way after living in an institution for two years. It’s part of that Norwegian matter-of-factness, a combination, in that national character, of supreme self-assurance–they didn’t call their nutty ocean-braving ancestors Vikings for nothing–with unapologetic social responsibility. It helps to be the world’s 13th biggest oil producer, and to have a population smaller than Colorado’s. But Norway is the only oil-rich country that hasn’t corrupted its government or its social functions on its crude riches. It has used them to, refine, above all, itself. ↑
Emerson on Rabelais: A nugget from Emerson’s DeBeers quarry of diamonds (meaning his journals): “Rabelais is not to be skipped in literary history as he is source of so much proverb, story & joke which are derived from him into all modern books in all languages. He is the Joe Miller of modern literature.” If only I knew who the hell Joe Miller is. There were all sorts of baseball-playing Joe Millers in Emerson’s time. ↑
Bare Necessities: Not much debate about it. In the pantheon of the greatest music ever written, for me it’s a tie between Bach’s St. John Passion and this. ↑
Primary election day: I’ll be glad come 11 p.m. when all the numbers and stories will have been put to bed, me with them. But it pisses me off how even candidates who should know better–Colleen Conklin, for one–still go around talking about voting as a privilege. “Come what may.” Colleen wrote Monday evening on her Facebook page, “I’m looking forward to Wednesday morning! Please, please make sure you go out and take advantage of your opportunity and privilege to vote!” What privilege? It’s a goddamn right if there ever was one. Casting it as a privilege plays into the Republican fraud of the last few years, which has so successfully made voting more difficult–and a privilege, rather than a right–under the guise of fighting (non-existent) fraud. Voters buy the bullshit, too, whether it’s about voting being a privilege or about its alleged abuses. Meanwhile where there are issues with voting fraud (absentee ballots are the problem, and Republicans vote that way far more than do Democrats or Independents), Republicans do nothing. Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, summed it up in The Times on Aug. 5: “I have not found a single election over the last few decades in which impersonation fraud had the slightest chance of changing an election outcome – unlike absentee-ballot fraud, which changes election outcomes regularly. [...] Pointing to a few isolated cases of impersonation fraud does not prove that a state identification requirement makes sense. As with restrictions on absentee ballots, we need to weigh the costs of imposing barriers on the right to vote against the benefits of fraud protection.” There is a solution: “We need to move beyond these voting wars by creating a neutral body to run federal elections and to ensure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, can cast a vote that will be accurately counted on Election Day.” But the partisans–Democrats or Republicans–won’t allow it. What makes too reasonable sense in terms of voting rights is toxic to the political advantages of one side or another, which of course have nothing to do with rights and everything to do with the essential fraud at the heart of the current system. ↑
Spanking Vidal: Speaking of Vidal, I love this little review of his Judgment of Paris, in the London Times of April 4, 1953: “Mr. Gore Vidal, one of the younger American novelists of whom perhaps too much has been made in this country, continues to ask for more than the normal amount of indulgence given to his clever and demonstrative kind. He has an egocentric shrewdness and unusual fluency of expression, and some of the more restrained passages of comedy in The Judgment of Paris are entertaining enough in their not altogether adult way. But the novel as a whole is high-pitched and pretentious, and in the reading becomes increasingly tiresome.” Odd: I’ve felt the same way about every novel of his I’ve read, his historical novels included. Only the essays sparkle, and even then, it takes constant effort to look past the slabs of Vidalian ego. The Times continues: “Mr. Vidal’s variation on the Jamesian theme of the essential American in contact with the culture of Europe is robbed of real point by his preoccupation with the conventionalities of vice and by the intrusion of his somewhat large and unoriginal personal opinions.” Unoriginal is an unusual word to find in anything to do with Vidal. ↑
Uncool: We’ve lost our air conditioning on the second floor here, where all our operations are wired. Something about a coil leaking gas, and dollars. The repairs will be as expensive as a trans-Atlantic trip in high season. We don’t spend the money on that sort of thing out of prudence or lack of it, but a coil springs a leak, and there it is. Spent. Either that or we bake. It’ll make working in sauna conditions interesting. Faulkner of course didn’t have air conditioning either in his stifling Oxford, but he managed to write a few pages once in a while. And there’s always the downstairs air conditioner, which still works. Until this thing is fixed, our stairway to heaven goes downward. ↑
Updike’s Florida lizards: “No sooner do Russian scientists claim that they have revived two lizards that had been frozen in the Siberian tundra for five thousand years than American scientists announce that there is no life whatever on Venus. In a way, we’re relieved, for there’s so much life in France, Cuba, and the subway these days that it’s a comfort to know there are still a few undeveloped areas in the universe.” From a March 1963 fragment by John Updike, reprinted in his forgotten Assorted Prose (1979). And that was before he discovered the lizarding of Florida. I haven’t quite gotten used to the planet being without Updike. He wasn’t great. But he was grand enough, for these times, and he had at least ten books left in him. And he was a bit of a literary parent, which counted for more than what it sounds considering the premature deaths of my other parents. I had to pick a few subs. Gore Vidal’s death last week wasn’t fun either, though he’d more than had his time, and he really was spent. Unlike Roth or Updike, he’d had nothing left for at least ten years, probably more. He stopped being interesting when his boyfriend died, or when he left his villa in Ravello. But as Updike himself would remind us, “men die, each father in turn has lost a father, it is unmanly and impious to persist in unavailing woe.” ↑
Afghan indifference: In March a Times/CBS poll found, about 11 years and a few dozen thousands of deaths too late, that 69 percent of Americans think the United States shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, a number snug with hindsight. The more relevant number is how little Americans care. When Gallup asked its open-ended question–”What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today–72 percent cited the economy, 72 percent cited economic problems, dissatisfaction with government got 12 percent, 11 percent cited the federal budget deficit, and everything else was in single digits. The gap between rich and poor? 1 percent. Corporate corruption? 1 percent. And Afghanistan? 1 percent. The war in Afghanistan might as well not exist anymore. “In marching, in mobs, in football games, and in war, outlines become vague,” Steinbeck wrote in The Moon is Down, “real things become unreal and a fog creeps over the mind. Tension and excitement, weariness, movement–all merge in one great gray dream, so that when it is over, it is hard to remember how it was when you killed men or ordered them to be killed. Then other people who were not there tell you what it was like and you say vaguely, ‘Yes, I guess that’s how it was.’” Afghanistan might as well be a past season’s football game, though chances are more people will remember the scores of every game their team played last year than know the number of dead in Afghanistan so far this year (209 American soldiers, 63 coalition soldiers, a few thousand Afghans. It’s always a few thousand Afghans, whose deaths register even less. ↑
Flaubert’s retardations: Flaubert in his youngest days appeared, to his father, “hypersensitive and intellectually retarded,” Henry Troyat writes in his Flaubert biography. “At every turn he isolated himself in a sort of stupor, a finger in his mouth, his look vapid, deaf to whatever was said around him and incapable of pronouncing a single phrase correctly.” This was the man who gave us Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, reinventing realism and the novel along the way. I wonder how he would have done on the FCAT. No, I don’t. He’d have failed, intentionally. Genius doesn’t suffer idiocy. ↑
I’ve been asked why Andraste’s comments in the John Pollinger-Anne-Marie Shaffer case were approved, considering their lavish innuendoes and borderline slanders. I’ve asked myself the same thing. The decision bears explaining as a case study of this site’s comment policies and what we may be looking at through the end of this year’s distinctly foul election season.
The issues Andraste raises aren’t new. The matter of the Pollinger-Don Fleming “deal” (that the two Republicans are hoping to split the vote in Fleming’s favor, leaving Ray Stevens in third place) was reported here in an April 26 story. Considering the amount of money Pollinger is pouring into his campaign from his own pocket, it’s an outlandish claim. The matter of Pollinger’s retirement-resignation controversy in New Jersey was first reported in Flagler County on FlaglerLive in a January 4 story. It didn’t go further than that because it didn’t need to: a man’s quarter-century career with hardly a blemish isn’t defined by an end-of-life smash-up with the town manager, which clearly had more to do with two massive egos (Pollinger’s and the manager’s) clashing than any earth-shattering revelations about the character of either.
There is such a thing as news judgment, which also explains why the American Legion business was not worth reporting: insider-baseball type issues of the sort happen all over the place, whether the individual involved is Mother Teresa or Ray Stevens or John Pollinger. It’s gossip. It’s not news, however “true” it may be. And in this case Andraste’s account is quite far from the truth, from what I’ve learned: Pollinger will have his version told soon.
Same thing with Andraste’s innuendoes about the Dennis Craig-John Pollinger connection. Without naming her, Andraste was referring to Ann Martone. So she apparently worked for Judge Craig’s election, and is now working for Mark Dwyer, who is a lawyer in Chiumento’s firm, the firm that represented Pollinger. Dig a little deeper and we might find that Ann Martone was in a movie with Kevin Bacon. So what? This is the sort of conspiratorial dot-connecting that attempts to suck scandal out of implications, where there’s no there there. Absolutely none. For us to report that sort of thing would itself have been verging on slander, or whatever it is that the check-out counter gossip rags do. Ann Martone—with whom I’ve had nothing but disagreements over the years, incidentally—has as much right to work for whatever campaign she pleases as Andraste does, without being turned into a pawn to someone else’s conspiracy hysterias. I don’t see her hiding what she does, either.
No one is “gang-raping” Shaffer, as Andraste claims. She filed a lawsuit in the most high profile race in the county. What did she expect—an appearance on Dancing with the Stars? Amazing how certain people want to have it both ways: fire their artillery but claim absolute innocence and victimhood on a pile of apple pies.
This site could not possibly have spent more time reporting the Shaffer-Pollinger case, essentially giving Shaffer a broader platform than she could have dreamed of (though that was the intent of the lawsuit) and Ray Stevens more exposure than a month’s worth of community appearances, until Craig’s decision. Shaffer was repeatedly contacted for comments about all this even before the suit was filed, when we heard it was coming. She refused to speak with FlaglerLive, though she’s commented here under an assumed name (itself a deceptive tactic for someone involved in the news in which she’s commenting).
Ray Stevens has done the same. He used to speak with me, and had no issues doing so when his motives weren’t being questioned. No longer. His choice. But let’s not claim one-sidedness and poor victim status when the subjects involved are themselves choosing not to tell their side of the story while bitching about the one-sidedness of the press and relying on nameless proxies like Andraste to keep the artillery going, and pile on the claims about one-sidedness. I can also assure you, knowing the folks there as I do, that there’s no intention at either the Observer or the News-Journal to “smear” Stevens or Shaffer. (Their staffs are stretched enough to report basic news. The effort required for a smear campaign is simply not in their budgetary means.) Simply going by what the record has revealed through this lawsuit—simply going by what’s in the depositions, what’s been said in the courtroom—the smearing has been self-inflicted. Let’s not now pretend to dress up damage control as fault-finding with everybody else.
I could care less what Republicans and Democrats do to each other, or within their ranks: I don’t know what has been more contemptuous this season—the juvenile idiocies of Republican ideology and infighting, or the hide and seek antics of Democrats, who don’t even have the courage of their convictions. My only concern is the credibility of this site and the relevance to a broad readership of what’s being reported. So let me address Andraste directly: You’ve been granted this broad platform to make your claims. Fine. It’s borderline permissible. It’s politicians we’re talking about, and the threshold of the permissible when politicians are in play is quite low. But it’s not non-existent. To call what you’re doing “vetting” is stretching the definition of the word. It’s closer to sniping. To use everyone else, the press included, as a whipping boy, to do it behind a mask, and to do it here, jeopardizes our own credibility, and cheapens the debate.
I would much prefer that you unmask yourself, given the extent you’ve gone to speak of and for candidates, their proxies or the supremely ironically named Ronald Reagan group. The I-have-children-in-the-community argument doesn’t wash. So do I. You know them. One of them is hanging on my shoulders in the image above. We all have our stake in the community. We stand by them, honestly and openly. There’s always a place for anonymity, and in most cases it doesn’t matter one way or the other when ideas and policies (as opposed to people and reputations) are being discussed. That’s no longer one of those cases: these anonymous comments are like nameless financial contributions to campaigns, exploiting advantage without accountability. They’ll still be allowed. But much less permissively.
Pollinger is going to be given a chance to respond, and his response will be featured prominently. Beyond that, comments regarding these and all other election issues—the county judge’s race especially—will be moderated much more strictly. Discuss, debate, take on a candidate’s policies and ideas all you like. But sail your swift boats elsewhere.
It’s Lord of the Flies on a school bus. Four middle school boys unrestrained by any sense of civility or compassion revert to a primitive state, savaging their prey: a 68-year-old woman, ostensibly their bus monitor. The boys taunt, insult, demean, often in language inspired by slasher movies: they speak of torturing her, eviscerating her. The only thing that may have kept them from becoming physically violent is the presence of a bus driver, or other students on the bus: witnesses, though it doesn’t appear as if either the driver or other students are concerned with the assault, which goes on for 10 minutes. The four boys have become a pack, feeding on each other’s frenzy as they exult in their cruelties.
The woman is Karen Klein of Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. The students are seventh graders at Athena Middle School, a middle school like any other. Klein is sitting on her own, against the window, alternately looking out, glaring at the students, or, even more painful to watch, trying to engage them in what seems to interest them, a perverted, heartbreaking sort of Stockholm Syndrome in microcosm. It only encourages them to pile on. They ridicule Klein’s gestures, taunt her with something she’d like to read, seize on the seeming poverty of her purse, on (to put it politely) the effects of her 68 years on her body, though she is the prototypical woman of advanced age we see every day in Florida. She is the norm, nor the exception. She could be any of the children’s grandmother. Or the grandmother of the very child they bullied at school that day.
“Unless you have something nice to say, don’t say it at all,” she says at one point, her arms crossed, leaning over.
A boy’s reply: “How about you shut the fuck up?”
And on they go:
“What’s your address so I can friggin’ piss all over your door.”
“You friggin’ just touched her arm flab.”
“It’s probably all stinky and smelly.”
“She probably fucking eats deodorant because she can’t afford her own food.”
“She’s going to die of fucking diabetes because she’s so damn fat.”
“You’re a troll.”
They “joke” about stabbing her in the stomach, about how “a whole value meal is going to be coming out of McDonald’s.”
They ridicule her “sweating.” She is actually crying. “She probably miss her box of Twinkies,” they say.
“Maybe she is an elephant.”
One of the boys talks about his yearbook. “She’s going to pick out which kid she’s going to rape next.”
“Karen you have herpes?”
“Why are you looking at me like that, you want to rape me?” one of the boys says.
“I’ll send you a donut, fat ass.”
“Did you get that purse on lay-away?”
“Naah, she got it in a fucking garbage can at Walgreens.”
One of the students recorded almost the whole thing and posted it to YouTube under the boastful title: “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.” The video went viral, as such things do. More than 4 million views in two days. It triggered an odd backlash. Someone set up an online fund-raiser to send Klein on vacation. The goal was $5,000. The fund raised $537,000 by Friday afternoon. There’s vindication in that, a sense of collective fury that transcends the helplessness one feels when watching the video. Klein’s Facebook page had 146 friends before the incident. She must’ve received almost 5,000 friend request since, because none are accepted anymore. There’s also a measure of disproportion, and a question. How can a bus monitor be so easily persecuted, if not for having been miscast as a bus monitor? Middle schoolers’ barbarity is not news to anyone.
The students meanwhile have seen their identities leaked. They’ve been subjected to death threats. The police in their town has had to patrol their neighborhood to protect against acts of vigilantism. And of course the global court of public opinion is weighing in. The original video amplified the offense to a world audience. The disproportion is boomeranging in spades.
There’s no question the students flirted with the savagery of Golding’s characters on their lost island. Their punishment should include reading the book. But 13 year olds are responsible for their behavior only up to a point. They’re still more than not the reflection of their homes, their school, their society. Prejudices are not yet their own. They’re trying out the prejudices they’ve witnessed the way they try out idiotic hair styles and degenerate behavior. They’re acting out the persecuting spirit that christens their daily lives. It’ll be easy to point fingers at schools. That’s the scapegoat with the most currency these days, schools being the extension of that other bugaboo of small minds: government.
But schools are not at fault here. Parents are. Parents and their prejudices, reflected in their children, or prejudices parents are too lazy to check. Not once, at any point in the assaults on Kline, does one of the children intervene to temper the mob, to cool down, to protect. It’s a quiet fear among the children, the fear of going against the grain, itself also a reflection of parental submission to that mob mentality that cheapens our culture and what we accept it to be.
Listen to the attacks: Kline’s weight, her supposed poverty, her age, even her sexuality. The most common ammunition in any bully’s bag of crud, but also a reflection of the most common prejudices of our culture. She is no different than a 13 year old they might have bullied at lunch, except for the twist of age, which to the students doesn’t make a difference. Bullying isn’t about the victim. It’s about the bullies’ cowardice, which—like compassion—is either taught or inherited more than it is inherent to a child’s sensibilities. The scene on the bus is itself a window on our culture so rich in persecutions, so poor in individual valor that dares break the mold. In that sense, even the redemptive fund-raiser on Kline’s behalf is, aside from its original creator, the result of a different type of mob mentality, however positive and joyful the outcome.
Then there’s what’s sure to follow. The inevitable post-game show. The soul-searching discussion about the whys and hows, which is never a bad thing, but also the exaggerated claims of the downfall of American civilization, the hyperbolic claims about an epidemic of bullying in schools (schools are far safer today than they were a generation ago, when bullying was more typically ignored as a rite of passage), the usual condemnations of younger people who, no matter how you slice their cruelties, could never in a billion years match their elders’ more subtle savageries, wrapped as they are in political sanctimony.
There’ll also be the parading of the children, who even now may have been hit up by savvy marketer and agents. There’ll be talk shows. There’ll be People magazine profiles. Dancing with the bullies. Almost certainly a few joint appearances between bullies and Ms. Kline on, if not an Oprah special, something approximating the national therapist’s couch. There’s money to be made here. Before it’s over Klein and the children might well want to run off to a desert island of their own.
Together, now that they’re joined for good for what remains of Klein’s life.