February 27, 2004

But have you read Q? Oh yes, Q.

I went through the proofs of Dale Peck’s upcoming Hatchet Jobs yesterday. Although crawled through might be the more accurate term—Peck is a writer you end up reading slowly, drudgingly. The method is this: glance at a paragraph, get bitter, read it again, go smoke a cigarette, watch some Jerry Maguire or similar palliative, smoke again, and consider that much of what you had previously thought about reading and writing fiction was wrong or horribly silly. Peck’s hatchet is meant, apparently, for the secret heart of his reader; no matter how much you want to be on his side—and I wanted to be on his side—he’ll make you wince at some squalid fictional bias you’ve squirreled away somewhere, deep down. It comes at a different point for everyone, I guess, but for me, this was my hatchet passage:

The single most important literary convention of the twentieth century was the double-spaced paragraph break. That gap could stand for anything: sex, sleep, a tedious taxi journey between apartment and opera house. It was the reason why, on the one hand, twentieth-century literary fiction was so much shorter than what preceded it—a double-spaced break could elide the passage of hours or years without troubling the reader, who filled in the gap with personal experience—but, on the other hand, it was also why most so-called departures from realism tended to reinforce the very suppositions that made realism possible in the first place.
I confess to much fondness for that gap, and my first thoughts were toward weakly obvious counterexamples: Tolstoy’s ruthless fast-forwards through time, Chesterton’s reduction of a character’s life to a single sentence. But no, those are different things. Modern fiction really does shy away from fleshing itself out, confident that evocative hints do better than descriptive calcifications. For Peck, the consequences: “Until it seemed that there was more conceptual air than text in virtually every major work written in the eighties.” Oy.

One complaint: Peck is prone to sweeping pronouncements on names, without giving his reasons. When he says that Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation, he summons up 6,000 words in support. Fine, but too often we get passages like the following:

It’s hard to think of a contemporary British novelist who [“connects”]. Rushdie? Not really, though Zadie Smith is doing her Oxbridge best to fix that. Ian McEwan? The man’s books smell worse than newspaper wrapped around an old fish. Martin Amis? Well, Martin Amis isn’t really British any more, is he? Perhaps the salient question isn’t why Julian Barnes is such a bad writer, but how the current crop of British novelists managed to ruin the British novel. The idea that Julian Barnes is the successor to Laurence Sterne is nearly as unbearable as the idea that Margaret Dabble is George Eliot’s heir. And how has Fielding been watered down into A.S. Byatt, and Defoe bastardized into Jeanette Winterson? At least there’s Alan Hollinghurst, who is as pleasantly proficient as Forster ever was.
This tells me nothing. This is cocktail party chatter aimed to stun, not to provoke. I suppose every serious literary commenter has their instant ‘shocking’ opinions—Joyce’s quip that D’Annunzio was the greatest Italian writer. It’s the stuff cocky undergraduates are made of—as a book reviewer in college I used to make offhand remarks about Don Delillo’s mediocrity, and once casually mentioned the ‘evident’ (!!) superiority of Heinrich Mann to brother Thomas. The ruse is embarrassing, in hindsight. Why should anyone have trusted me? But hey, why should we trust Dale Peck? The line from Fielding to A.S. Byatt (who I certainly think wonderful) is not at all clear. It could be that I am too dense to see the link; Peck makes me feel that way all too often. But otherwise, this is just juvenile skeet-shooting, serving no purpose but indulgence.

Although… once you start seeing the names enough, in different places, with different quips attached to them, you can slowly build up a vague sense of what Peck thinks of the author in question. From snatches here and there on Jeanette Winterson, I get the sense that Peck dislikes her frivolous attempts to be clever, etc. But it’s a very hazy sense, and how Winterson relates to Defoe is unclear—perhaps this is no more than a whimsical go at playing Harold Bloom (who creates those 'surprising' connections rather well).
-- Brad Plumer 4:59 PM || ||

Hate, haters, and gay marriage

In the course of the evening I should also mention that I browsed through The Best American Essays, 2000, edited by Alan Lightman. Having previously stuck my nose in the volumes from 1991 (ed. Joyce Carol Oates), 1993 (Joseph Epstein), and 1997 (Ian Frazier), I can say that this is one of the better quality collections.

Thus far, the best essay of the bunch seems to be none other than Andrew Sullivan’s piece that year for The New York Times Magazine, entitled “What’s so Bad About Hate?” (2000). What is so bad, anyhow? The fact is, people really know very little about hate—how it works, how it seethes. Sullivan’s target seems to be the very idea of ‘hate crimes,’ and how that idea tries to cordon off and define hate through dull abstractions.

The concept of “homophobia,” like that of “sexism” and “racism,” is often a crude one. All three are essentially cookie-cutter formulas that try to understand human impulses merely through the one-dimensional identity of the victims, rather than through the thoughts and feelings of the haters and hated.
This, I should add, is Oakeshottian conservatism at its best—paying attention to the breathing, teeming rustle of what actual people do and go through, rather than organizing life under a vapid ‘ism.’ Sullivan continues:

This is deliberate. The theorists behind these isms want to ascribe all blame to one group in society—the “oppressors”—and render specific others—the “victims”—completely blameless. And they want to do this in order in part to side unequivocally with the underdog. But it doesn’t take a genius to see how this approach too can generate its own form of bias.
Here Sullivan does what an Oakeshottian does best—and remember, Sullivan’s bio tells us that his thesis on Oakeshott won all sorts of awards—he presents us the infinite variability of hate. Gay men are assaulted because of jealousy, or insecurity, or sheer repulsion. Motives multiply endlessly. Victims become haters. Blacks brutalize whites. And so on.

There must be a moral here. The moral: All crimes involve hate, and the hate is always different. Sullivan’s point is facile, but in this day and age it obviously needs a good hammering home. “There are black racists, racist Jews, sexist women, and anti-Semitic homosexuals. Of course there are.” Of course there are.

The truth is, the distinction between a crime filled with personal hate and a crime filled with group hate is an essentially arbitrary one. It tells us nothing interesting about the psychological contours of the specific actor or his specific victim. It is a function primarily of politics, of special-interest groups carving out particular protections for themselves, rather than a serious response to a serious criminal concern.
Which leaves me, the reader, here, trying to rack my brain, thinking of why I ever supported hate crime laws in the first place. Some groupthink, no doubt. I’m a liberal, and my first reflex is always to err on the side of minority groups, women, gay people. The reflex works well most of the time, and in the case of hate crimes, I saw no reason to think otherwise. But in this case, Sullivan is right: the liberal party line really does condense a whole world of viciousness into a mere excuse for petty politics, and what’s more, it obscures our understanding—our hope of understanding—what actually drives hate. Liberals refuse to understand hatred, or prejudice, as something nuanced, and complicated.

In the current ‘culture war’ over gay marriage, the liberal side, my side, really has declared total war. There will be no tolerance for intolerance, no concessions to the very human concerns of those who really are bothered by gay marriage, for whatever reason. I don’t know what to make of this. I feel strongly about supporting gay marriage, so it’s easy to shrug and cheerily proclaim that the ends justify the means. Oh posh, go ahead, castigate the ‘fundamentalist right,’ if it’s for a good cause! But ay, those means… I can’t be happy with them, not fully.

Then again, war is war. Perhaps there is no other means with which to fight it. Would that we lived in Habermas’ ideal society, where everyone communicated properly and deliberated rationally. In so far as we don’t, it looks like we’ll have to resort once again to caricaturing hate, ignoring it, and wishing it away—hoping it away—with legislation and rhetoric.
-- Brad Plumer 4:54 PM || ||

February 20, 2004

Me and my poor little toes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who offers out loud their theory on why the 66 Bus is late deserves to be slapped.

That said, it really was unnecessary for three little buses huddled in a row to zoom by the bus stop this morning right before I arrived.
-- Brad Plumer 6:00 PM || ||

I saw the "sign"...

The long and the short of it is this: Jacques Derrida has fallen on hard times. The right ridicules him, the sensible left eyes him with unease, and the rest file him firmly under "jibber-jabber." The fault lies partly with Jacques himself: it was he and not any bitter conspirator who put forth the embarrassing Philosophy in the Time of Terror (“Something terrible took place on September 11th, and in the end we don’t know what”), or this inexcusable joke. But setting those—this is charity—gaffes aside, what has the man done to merit such abuse?

The answer is context. The man deserves context, and he receives very little. By themselves, passages from Derrida look and sound pretty stupid:

Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask whether the word or signifier "communication" communicates a determined content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value. But in order to articulate and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have had to predetermine communication as the vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one.
Worse, summaries of his work sound even more dreadful. When I say, “Derrida believes that the meaning of all utterances is undecidable,” what else can you do but roll your eyes? This has nothing to do with paucity of paraphrase: the quote above is accurate enough. The plain fact is that Derrida’s ‘main point’ is dull, dull, dull.

But that’s also not entirely fair. Philosophers aren’t always meant to stand alone; nor can they always be expected to offer insta-brilliance in short, isolated passages. Some certainly do: Lucretius, Herzen, Nietzsche. But what about the rest? The importance of Schiller, for instance, has nothing to do with what he wrote in itself, but in how his work fit into a larger framework of Romantic thought and writing. Open any random volume of Schiller, and you are apt to turn bitter at the sheer, sheer imbecility of it all. But study him through the eyes of Coleridge, and you begin to see how everything fits together, how thoughts here nudge thoughts there, how inspiration leads to inspiration, and so on.

So it is, I’m beginning to realize, with Derrida. His big doff idea—that a structure and system of signs cannot ever be fully self-enclosed—begins to look a little more reasonable when we see what might be done with it. Here is media critic David Morley, whose writing is reprehensible, but instructive all the same:

[The TV message] is a complex sign, in which a preferred reading has been inscribed, but which retains the potential, if decoded in a manner different from the way in which it has been encoded, of communicating a different meaning.
Er… he means that sometimes we can hack through media bullshit and whatnot. It’s obvious, yes, and yet I wonder if media criticism would have become at once so sophisticated and so obvious had it not been for gallantly verbose critics like Morley. And in turn, Morley might not have been Morley had there not been Derrida, telling us to poke through the 'coding' of signs, giving us muddy and recondite means to achieve what is now obvious.

(Granted, that’s just one example; but I’ll assume for now that others exist.)

That said, there is no real excuse for Derrida to be so, er, Derridean in his writing. The difficulty, the goofiness, the ‘mua-ha-ha’ behind each phrase seems to serve only one purpose: brainwashing. When an undergrad takes the time to struggle through Derrida’s writing, he/she needs of course to justify all that tiresome labor, and so declares the work brilliant. I should know: I was once so suckered, spending weeks ecstatic over 'the master.' But eh...

Many are the joys
Of youth; but oh! what happiness to live
When every hour brings palpable access
To knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
And sorrow is not there.

-- Brad Plumer 5:57 PM || ||

Proof by electricity

This cover story in the new issue of Foreign Affairs is odd. Shleifer and Treisman try to show that Russia’s current situation isn’t all that bleak. What they actually show is that Russia’s situation isn’t all that bleak when you compare it to other pretty bleak countries.

Actually, there’s more to it than that, and the article is well worth reading, but what charmed me most was this curious little passage:

Estimating the scale of unofficial activity is difficult, but (since even underground firms require power) one technique to measure the whole economy’s output is to use electricity consumption. […] Although official GDP fell 29 percent during this period, electricity consumption fell only about 19 percent, suggesting that Russia’s decline in output was not as sharp as indicated by the official statistics. Since firms are likely to use electricity more sparingly under market conditions, the decline in electricity consumption probably still overstates the real drop in output.
There’s an obvious monkey wrench to this argument, namely the fact that household electricity consumption went up considerably during the same period (as the essay notes on the very next page). But ignore that. I just think ‘proof by electricity’ is a pretty clever argument. That’s all.
-- Brad Plumer 5:47 PM || ||

Quote of the day

I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.

—Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae

-- Brad Plumer 5:43 PM || ||

February 18, 2004

Jean Echenoz
Piano: A Novel

This book represents the new kind of French comic novel. The old kind was never really comic, but at least we knew when and when not to laugh. The new kind presents more of a challenge. We certainly recognize that it’s funny, we tell our friends that it’s funny, but we also aren’t laughing, at least not at the right spots. But we’re not laughing in the wrong spots, either. Where does that leave us?

The blame here rests with the French, for not being funny. A widely known secret, that one. They can do farce, slapstick, overblown satire, punning and wit. Add to that buffoonery, drollery and lunacy, and you can pretty much sum things up from Moliere to Plantu. But where is funny?

When The Economist asked this rather pressing question last December, they blamed France’s hyper-logical Cartesian mindset, which sits flabbergasted at even middling jokes like these: "The governor of the Bank of England began an address to an assembly of bankers with these words: 'There are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who can’t.'"

Even more distressingly, French novelists are never flippant. Jean Echenoz tries to be flippant, but you also know he is trying from the very start:

Rose could have been living on the other side of the world… Or perhaps she was dead, having had, on that score, no less predisposition than the rest of us.
The phrase 'on that score,' signaling the punch line, should tip us off to the real scandal: the French need their comic cues, their laugh tracks, to keep things moving. At this point we flip our way to the back cover, and see Mr. Echenoz himself peering out at us, expectantly, all-too expectantly, with—how’s that?—a wry smirk on his face. Doing his best wry smirk impression. What more can we give him? Pat him on the head: There, there. He tried. Perhaps the French are so over-gorged on cynicism that they cannot bear to be cynical in their humor, at least not without due warning. Other pet theories would do just as well.

Thankfully, Echenoz has other aims besides saving French comedy. Namely, a plot: Max Delmarc, concert pianist, lives life rather shakily, comes to a bad end, mulls around in purgatory, and finds out that hell resembles Paris on a cloudy day, exactly. Ostensibly, Paris is the ‘real subject’ of this novel, but through his descriptions of the city, I cannot tell whether Echenoz is fond of Paris, leery of Paris, or simply working desperately to perfect his comic tone. Judge for yourself:

Skimpily clad beneath their umbrellas, [the prostitutes] were more or less constantly observed by four categories of men: first the Bulgarian or Turkish procurers scattered about the vicinity, snug and warm in their high-octane sedans, having made the standard recommendations (At least thirty tricks a day; less than twenty-five and we break your leg); secondly the customers for whose benefit, day and night, they declaimed in every tone the same perfect alexandrine, classically balanced with a caesura at the hemistich (It’s fifteen for a blow and thirty for the works); thirdly the forces of law and order that, for their part, emerged especially at night, though not too aggressively (Hello hello, it’s the police, do you have ID papers? Nothing? You sure? Not even a photocopy?); not to mention, fourthly, the television crews making sure that, when the nth report on the subject was broadcast after prime time, in accordance with the law on the protection of privacy, the faces of these working girls appeared duly pixilated on the screen.
The alexandrine bit is a nice touch, but the rest feels second-hand, or worse, sincere. I don’t know whether a mass of minute details (‘why, their faces are pixilated…’) adds up to humor. Something seems lost.

Better is Max’ death scene, which puts these long list of details to good use:

The stiletto first pierces Max’s skin, before its momentum carries it through his tracheal artery and esophagus, damaging large vessels of the carotid and jugular type, after which, gliding between two vertebrae—seventh cervical and first dorsal—it severs Max’s spinal cord, and there is no one left on the scene.
Perhaps I’ve been lulled by that final, gentle clause, but this passage is wonderfully, beautifully serious. Sturges would be proud.

Where Echenoz takes most from some of the best French writers—this probably means Stendhal—is in the quick movement of his sentences. Action happens, heaps of action, in the breezy yawn of a single clause:

Given their work conditions, Félicienne and Max hardly saw each other anymore, except on Sundays when they took the kid out for some air—which kid, initially standoffish with Max, ended up letting himself be won over to the point of becoming very familiar, then more and more familiar, and soon much too familiar for Max’s taste.
It takes a lot of polish and callous self-editing to staccato forth a whole scene like that, which calls to mind a similar crescendoing act by Gibbon in Decline and Fall:

The Imperial captive was suddenly relieved by the fame, the approach, and at length the presence of the hero whom he had so long expected.

At what point in Piano does comedy cease and prettiness take over? The new comic novel has baffled us again. We are glad of it. When towards the end of the book the protagonist, Max, chases after a half-glimpsed dream girl in a slow-moving subway train, some measure of bliss occurs. Naivété—as most French filmmakers have learned—flows, and succeeds, in only one direction. Hence The Dreamlife of Angels and not The Dinner Game. Bunuel and not Cocteau. You get the picture...

The novel is short. Why is the novel short? Or better, why is The Novel so short these days? Does it come down to a lagging attention span among readers, or are we looking for something more urgent, more truncated in our means of expression? Saul Bellow, in 1991, cited approvingly an old Chekhov musing: “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whenever I read my own or other people’s works it all seems to me not short enough.” Chekhov was talking about utterances themselves, sparse parsings of thought. And so was Bellow, as witness certain threadbare sentences in his petite novel, The Actual: “Your inwardness should be, deserves to be a secret about which nobody needs to get excited.” Lucid to the quick. But Echenoz is rarely this lucid, barrelling out instead whole carnivals of phrases and details:

In the lounge at Iquitos airport, locals departing for Lima crossed paths with clusters of vacationers come to tread the limbo of the Amazonian forest, study the natives, consult their shamans, and have their minds exploded by the ingestion of ayahuasca.
So how does passage upon beefy passage of this shrink into a measly 179 pages of novel? The ironic ‘twist’ at book’s end seems a little too abrupt, although gracious, I won’t spoil the surprise. Perhaps it all makes sense, and Echenoz had motives other than writing a novel: namely, embracing, then abandoning the new comic novel, and harkening back to something more tender in the Parisian spirit:

They went out. The street. The cars passing by. The various kinds of music escaping through the lowered windows of the cars. Sometimes it was just rhythmic blips, sometimes heavy bass lines that sent a shiver up the spine. At first they walked without saying anything; then Béliard resumed speaking.

-- Brad Plumer 5:32 PM || ||

February 16, 2004

Debating the primary schedule

Campaign higher-ups from the Clark and Lieberman campaigns debate the front-loaded primary schedule over at TNR. All things considered, the plan of getting an early nominee and wiping away an ugly primary battle is probably a pretty good one. Only two real problems exist. First, voters in later states have no real reason to follow the race, leading to increased disinterest and apathy. This could be partially mended, of course, by randomizing the order of primary states each year-- knocking New Hampshire down a notch and giving a state like Pennsylvania a reason to get excited. But really, it seems like it can only help the Democrats by campaigning heavily in every state, turning out voters and generating discussion. It would be interesting to check whether 'early' primary states have a higher turnout in the general election.

The second problem is that a quick nominee like Kerry avoids having his faults and dirty laundry aired in the primary, making him much less battle-tested for the general election. Perhaps. But this could also be a virtue. It seems to me that it would be easier for accusations against Kerry to 'stick' if they were made by fellow Democrats in the primary. A Republican smear that crops up in the general election looks like just that, a Republican smear. But an accusation or criticism that has been around since the primaries looks like conventional wisdom, and might be harder to shake. Again, it would be interesting to check to see how many important candidate criticisms are birthed in the general election campaigns, as opposed to taking form in the primaries. For instance, Al Gore was the mastermind behind the Willie Horton attack against Dukakis in 1988. Would Bush Sr. have been able to make that criticism stick if it hadn't been around for so long? It's worth researching, I guess, next time I have a few hours in front of Lexis-Nexis...
-- Brad Plumer 7:57 PM || ||

A mosquito problem

I have to admit, for questions and issues on which there is no 'stock' conservative answer, the National Review can be quite, quite good. So goes this blather-free article by Robert Bate about the failure of the WHO and the Global Fund to treat malaria:

Across Africa, the Global Fund spent more money to buy the obsolete medicines rather than ACT, in quantities large enough to treat at least 10 times as many patients. Those obsolete medicines were supplied to countries where drug resistance is known to be rampant, and where child mortality of malaria is shown to be up to 1,100-percent higher because of this. As a result, tens of thousands of children died of malaria-and continue to die-who needn't have.
Why isn't this a bigger scandal? If these were bogus AIDS drugs being shipped, we would be reading about feelgood rallies and candlelight vigils across the world. I've never quite understood why 'minor' diseases in Africa such as malaria and tuberculosis garner so little attention, as opposed to, say, AIDS. Yes, the latter is truly horrific and becoming an increasingly severe problem, but malaria still dominates and devastates Africa, costing the continent some $12 billion a year. And the harsh truth is, malaria is easily treatable. It comes down to relatively cheap medicine and mosquito nets, really. Third World nations and global health organizations might honestly be better off focusing more of their resources on these easily treatable diseases, and worrying--dare we say it?--less about costly treatments for AIDS victims. (HIV prevention, needless to say, should still be fully pursued.) It seems perverse, but it might also be prudent.
-- Brad Plumer 7:32 PM || ||

Fear Itself

In The New York Times today, Edward Rothstein takes a gander at a wince-inducing conference entitled "Fear: Its Uses and Abuses." The keynote speakers and organizers, including Al Gore and the editors of Social Text, apparently do little more than trot out the usual accusations of fear-mongering against the Bush administration:

[T]he dominant idea was that, as the conference's thematic statement put it, fear was being "encouraged by our government and exacerbated by our media." It was compared with the irrational fear of Communism and the perversions of McCarthyism. It was described as part of a counter-constitutional coup by a radical right.
As Rothstein notes, a little perspective is in order. The terrorist threat levels, silly as they might be, are nothing compared to Nazi rhetoric against its enemies. The editors of Social Text may be surprised to learn that most Americans are intelligent enough to take 'Code Orange' for what it is: a semi-useless reminder that terrorism still exists, and the government is trying to keep tabs on things. Unless I missed mass outbreaks of hysteria somewhere in Skokie, IL, it seems like the country isn't really 'gripped' by fear.

On the other hand, it is true that the administration took advantage of the terrorist threat to advance its own domestic agenda. The extent to which this occurred is certainly worth exploring. But no one wants to hear frantic jabber about how 'the American government is using its war on terror "to justify the national security state."' Honestly, what purpose do these rants serve?

Update: Double goes for this guy...
-- Brad Plumer 1:00 PM || ||

Reality TV

Speaking of academic leftist conspirators, Matthew Yglesias serves up a cynical explanation for the rise of reality TV that involves, surprise, shadyfaced capitalism:

Since reality shows are cheap to make -- no pesky actors or writers to pay -- they're also cheap for networks to buy. [...] Reality shows -- and animated films and shows -- are a kind of union-busting tactic, demonstrating that in the event of a strike the networks and studios could still find content but the actors and writers wouldn't be able to find work.
Little wonder, then, that unions want in on the fun. Of course there's little chance that the actors will ever form unions-- the whole point of these shows is that you really can accost any shiftless shmuck off the street and he'll be readily willing to join up.

Finally, if you simply lack the time to keep up with all the hot reality TV gossip, The Reality TV Weblog is the natural solution.
-- Brad Plumer 12:45 PM || ||

Book clubs, promises, etc.

As soon as I get a better grasp of the blogging format-- I'm still in a pretty awkward infant stage-- I'd like to pin up a few posts on books that I'm reading. I'm not sure if I mean formal reviews or informal reactions. Vague promises are all I really have. But for the moment, I may as well plug Edwidge Dandicat's upcoming book The Dew Breaker. It's a grossly difficult book-- each chapter is a new narrative thread about a nameless character whose relation to the general plot is fairly undefined-- but anything involving Haitian prison guards and Brooklyn landlords would be grossly difficult. The important thing, of course, is that it's better than The da Vinci Code (link intentionally missing), which can be found in the arms of namby-pambies all over the Boston subway system.
-- Brad Plumer 1:59 AM || ||

If whining works...

Josh Chafetz of Oxblog attempts a wry little swipe at the liberal media:

THE NYT HAS TWO INTERESTING ARTICLES -- one on the political crisis in Iran, and one on growing pressures for reform in Syria. I'm sure neither has anything whatsoever to do the war in Iraq ... (To the NYT's credit, it mentions the "more than 100,000 American soldiers next door in Iraq" as one source of pressure on the Syrian regime.)
The implication here seems to be that the Times is unforgiveably slack in failing to note the Iraq-Syria connection with sufficient fervor. Why those liberal buggers! But wait... the headline of the actual article reads: "Syria Frees 130 Prisoners; Some See a Reaction to New Pressures." And the second paragraph goes something along the lines of this:

But some human rights officials say it is a sign, if a small and ambiguous one, of the larger pressures Syria is under these days, with more than 100,000 American soldiers next door in Iraq and increasing impatience for change at home.
If that's not strong insinuation of a connection, then what is? Recall that there is no real evidence that the war in Iraq is the main catalyst for change in Syria. That question should be left to historians and political analysts-- you know, the blokes who tackle these (often difficult) questions for a living. Until the experts get a crack at it, all causal analysis is speculative at best. But setting all that aside, the Times goes ahead and suggests the possibility of a link anyways, since it is after all a reasonable conclusion to make. And this still merits a 'liberal media' smirk from Chafetz?

Some people need new hobbies. Times-bashing gets stale after a while, and silly.
-- Brad Plumer 1:38 AM || ||

Now Playing

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead's Madonna. Not too shabby. Would that I could flaunt some cool music marginalia. But honestly, apart from my proud classical 'collection,' I just listen to whatever comes along. And how do I get what comes along? Favorite tricks include nosing through some hip sucker’s hard drive via Direct Connect; and following the trail of “Customers also bought…” links on Amazon.com. How people ever learned about new music before the internet, I don’t know.
-- Brad Plumer 1:31 AM || ||

Vicious volleys on the academic left

If we're going to read an article as savage as this attack on leftist academy bias, we may as well consider the source. Ah, there it is: "Edward Feser is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles." Would it be cheap to suppose him petty and bitter? Maybe. But then, ad hominem seems to be Feser's line of work-- in the course of a single essay we hear that university professors are either "sucker[s]" or "lacking in common sense" or "delusion[al]" or "professional sycophants." All this, of course, explains why so many professors are leftists. It's good clean schadenfreude for the first five minutes, but after a while, it gets tired. Take, for instance, item one:

He is typically the sort of person who, in school, did well academically and not so well socially. That is, he was rewarded for his exemplary compliance with the directives of a central authority (the teacher) who implemented a comprehensive plan (the curriculum) within a regimented social setting (the classroom); he was not rewarded for any contributions he tried to make to the decentralized, unplanned sphere of voluntary interactions that constitutes the life of a young person outside the classroom (the playground, parties, dating situations, and so forth). He thus naturally tends to think the first sort of setting more reasonable and just than the latter, and in generalizing (perhaps unconsciously) to the level of society as a whole, will accordingly tend to favor policies that involve centralized planning by governmental authorities rather than the unplanned results of free interaction by citizens in the marketplace.
Why, our favorite old scapegoat, the classroom automaton, has come back to play! When in doubt, blame all academic ills on the kid who 'knows how to do well in school.' Never mind that these kids, in all likelihood, don't actually exist in such throngs-- Feser's on a roll! But honestly, put this issue to rest. Students who do well in graduate school are faced with a great deal of unplanned difficulties and decentralized madness. Yes, it is a vastly different experience from swilling martinis at parties and rocking the playground fisticuffs, but academic life does not produce the sort of robotic, fascist minds described here. On the other hand, students who can't hack it as academics usually flounder because they don't have the rigor of mind and self-discipline, not because they are overflowing with a surfeit of spontaneous imagination. Plenty of students like to spout off about how they could never succeed in graduate school because they're too rebellious, because they can't just 'regurgitate what the teacher wants,' because their ideas are 'too bold,' and so on. Bullshit! Independence of mind is too often a pisspoor coverup for stupidity, or dullness. Feser should know that.
-- Brad Plumer 12:44 AM || ||

February 15, 2004

Budget Fudging

It's worth scribbling down a few notes on this post by Mark Schmitt on how to 'interpret' the federal budget. Note that the tricks used aren't really confined to one party or the other. Some of the cuter little machinations include:

  • Cuts to programs whose congressional defenders are out of power and whose beneficiaries are not swing voters.
  • Proposals for cuts that will simply never happen and everyone knows it. (Especially if one proposes to cut, say, defense appropriations that can then later be 'saved' by a heroic congressman).
  • Cuts that the administration will itself later reverse with great fanfare.
  • Proposals for some sort of inoffensive policy change that might lead to a chain of events that would reduce spending on some federal program. And then get the Congressional Budget Office to "score" the change as producing a budget savings.
  • Schmitt's list ends here, but of course the full list, The List, the complete ledger of tricks, trumps, and sneaks used to fudge the budget goes on and on. For instance, "emergency" appropriations are declared all the time when there is not (surprise!) an emergency of any sort. This testimony by the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitchell Daniels, Jr., sums up a lot of the problems pretty well, in suitably boring testimonial form. Which is part of the concern: these boring problems are still, well, boring problems. Not many voters are going to get riled up over a crusade against fiscal chicanery, apart from a few Cato and Heritage wonks. And 'Damn the Man' outsiders like McCain and Dean can't seem to carry the day. So really, all of these devious accounting tricks deserve an affected 'huh' in response, and no more.

    And while I'm bookmarking the odd budget stuff, Max Sawicky has a handy FAQ on the budget on his weblog. What's a debt? What's a deficit? Would that we knew, from time to time...
    -- Brad Plumer 11:04 PM || ||

    February 09, 2004

    Rants and raves

    If this was your older brother, fine, it would be humiliating; if this was your grandfather: tiresome, sure. But because it's just some boob the internet, this 'tirade' against Oprah gets a giggle:

    ‘How in the hell can I bully a billionaire who outweighs me by several 100 lbs.? How can you decry Oprah? Easy, she’s the living embodiment of the dumbing down of American discourse. Granted, I do not subscribe to terminal Golden Agism - where the past is always filled with virgins, flowers, and great Twilight Zone episodes- but I can simply argue that the pre-Oprah, talk shows were far more intelligent, and dealt with substantive issues that now are ghettoed to Sunday morning, PBS, & cable tv talk shows.
    Wince at that rapier lede if you must, but be warned, the hits only get bigger and more vicious throughout. Whoosah!

    This site (hackwriter.com) probably deserves a closer peek at some point, as does screedmaster Dan Schneider's personal website. To wit, his yen: "I want to be the first great cosmic poet." More to the point, his evidence: "I'm more consistently surprising than Whitman or Rilke; you know how they're going to approach a poem, but you never know how I'll approach a subject or how it's going to look on the page." Well, yeah, I mean, I totally thought that the anti-Oprah piece was going to be just another tired bit of 'Golden Agism.' But nay; the dude doesn't subscribe. Swipe that, chumps.
    -- Brad Plumer 7:53 PM || ||

    Bully for homotopies

    It seems as if Grigori Perelman's on the cusp of solving the Poincare conjecture. Weep for a spell: This will probably decrease the number of grad students who are rarin' to specialize in topology, seeing as how the Big One has just been up and solved. Not to fear, lads, there are six more Milennium problems just sitting around. Incidentally, one of my topology professors once told me that he spent his Fridays quite quixotically, taking a crack at proving one of those big six-- the Riemann Hypothesis. Lest we think his weekends ill-spent, we should remember that "a proof that [the hypothesis] is true... would shed light on many of the mysteries surrounding the distribution of prime numbers." Diggity. But still....

    Oooh, speaking of which, reminder to throw John Derbyshire's book on Riemann on the to-do pile. Hopefully it proves less slavering than this little dud, by truly one of the suckiest writers of our time.
    -- Brad Plumer 7:26 PM || ||

    Yes, even the Solicitor General...

    Can't say I've ever given much thought to Theodore B. Olson, the Solicitor General of the United States:

    The major function of the Solicitor General's Office is to supervise and conduct government litigation in the United States Supreme Court. Virtually all such litigation is channeled through the Office of the Solicitor General and is actively conducted by the Office. The United States is involved in about two-thirds of all the cases the U.S. Supreme Court decides on the merits each year.

    The Solicitor General determines the cases in which Supreme Court review will be sought by the government and the positions the government will take before the Court. The Office's staff attorneys participate in preparing the petitions, briefs, and other papers filed by the government in its Supreme Court litigation. The Solicitor General personally assigns the oral argument of government cases in the Supreme Court. Those cases not argued by the Solicitor General personally are assigned either to an attorney in the Office or to another government attorney. The vast majority of government cases are argued by the Solicitor General or by one of the Office's other attorneys.

    Another function of the Office is to review all cases decided adversely to the government in the lower courts to determine whether they should be appealed and, if so, what position should be taken. The Solicitor General also determines whether the government will participate as an amicus curiae, or intervene, in cases in any appellate court.
    So much for the office. Who's the dude? Well, besides being a possible anti-Clinton conspirator, Theodore Olson seems like a decent guy. (If you can decipher this jabbering complaint against Olson, a hat tip and a nod.)

    But even if he was a rotten egg, what could he actually do? Does he stonewall any important cases before they reach the Supreme Court? Doubtful. Supposedly he made a splash on some abortion decision back in 2002. But so what? Did his arguments actually have any effect? I really have no clue...

    ...update: Now we're on to something (slanty letters all mine):

    This view, one to which I generally subscribe, emphasizes that the SG is a political appointee of the President, subject to his authority and direction. In that role, the SG's immediate responsibility is, in large measure, to shape and advocate the legal theories and philosophies of the President he or she serves. [...]The President's views may be as rhetorical and political as he chooses (though he, too, has a duty to uphold the Constitution and took an oath to do so). The SG's Office is supposed to provide legal grounding for those views.
    Fair enough. So two questions. How far do SGs tend to stretch their legal reasoning to accomodate the White House? And more importantly, how has what sort of splash has the SG made in the three years since Olson's been in charge? Or, for that matter, during the Clinton years, or beyond? Guess this will take more than a tiny bit of googling.
    -- Brad Plumer 7:01 PM || ||

    Epstein v. Steiner

    Score one, maybe two, for Joseph Epstein. His hostile takedown of George Steiner is wonderfully, gleefully brutal and long overdue. Nothing against Steiner, of course. Not personally. It's nice that he's got the biggest brain around, and it's nice that he's read more books than anyone since this guy (or maybe, possibly even this guy). But oy, the man's been subjecting his readers to thin dribblings like these for decades:

    The new sound-sphere is global. It ripples at great speed across languages, ideologies, frontiers and races. The economics of this musical Esperanto is staggering. Rock and pop breed concentric worlds of fashion, setting and life-style. Popular music has brought with it sociologies of private and public manner, of group solidarity. The politics of Eden come loud.
    The politics of whunnit? Buh-duh. Well at least Epstein seems undaunted, and keeps his balance for a few well-placed axe-kicks: "What George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world's most learned man." Nicely done. And likely right. That is, it's probably true that overgorged polymaths like Steiner will no longer have a place on the intellectual 'stage'. The Joseph Epsteins of the world, the Dale Pecks, even, will carry the day, because they can hit the mark with wit and fury. And meanwhile, the sheer brainiacs will do no better than cheap impressions: It's embarrassing to hear the author of "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?" hold forth on the global music scene, just like it's painful to hear Harold Bloom badger on about Wesley Clark. Sad to say, but bring on the professional commentators, bring on Mark Steyn, or Martin Amis. The hugebrowed wisdom seekers might be tending towards irrelevant.
    -- Brad Plumer 6:33 PM || ||

    February 08, 2004

    Title and Registration

    At last, at last! My very own blog. Now the real dilemma, of course, is what to stuff the turkey with? The answer: Probably a bunch of hideously boring reading notes, a shake of political gabbing, a few random links and bits dredged up from the daily internet trawl, and uh... and if all else fails, I'll just send the whole thing off to a watery bloggery grave. Failproof!
    -- Brad Plumer 8:23 PM || ||

    February 07, 2004

    Recent List

    Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind
    Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos
    Charles Fried's Saying What the Law Is
    John Banville's Shroud
    Tobias Wolff's Old School
    Heinrich Mann's Young Henry of Navarre
    Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections
    Michael Lewis' Moneyball.
    -- Brad Plumer 6:36 PM || ||