Hoof-and-Mouth Disease

As the wrangling over the venue of John Lee Malvo’s trial continues, we are often reminded that the U.S. is one of only a handful of nations with the death penalty and (in some states) part of an even smaller subset that executes juveniles. These litanies fail to recognize that the practical difference between a codified death penalty and an institutional indifference to rigorous investigation of officer-involved fatalities is rather slim.



It seems St. Paul shares more with St. Louis and New Orleans than just the Mississippi River.


Polk In The Eye With A [Big] Stick

Yes, I’m certain that of those 40% who favor annexation, 100% think that they’d be doing Canadians a favor.  Monroe goes north as well as south, hosers.

Speaking of the Hapsburgs, Bush’s démarche to Iraq reminds me of nothing so much as the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum issued to Serbia in July 1914.  Those demands, also issued in an atmosphere of outrage caused by uncertain provocateurs, were deliberately crafted to avoid the possibility of Serbian compliance and averting war. Bush must believe he has similarly trapped Saddam, or he wouldn’t admit to this tortured redefinition.

As the mobilization continues, don’t forget which was the only nation to actuallly achieve its pre-war goals by 1918...


Sick For A Very Long Time

I decided not to watch the second season of 24 because I didn’t think they could top the first season.  Apparently, I was wrong.

The Idea of North

Nick Denton considers a recent poll that alleges that 40% of Americans* favor U.S. annexation of Canada, and sees an electoral advantage to the Democrats in such an expansion.  As much as I’d like to see an electoral dilution of the hindbrain right, it is clear that both America and Canada are enriched—culturally, politically, economically—by having each other as distinct nations.  Each country has taken a different path from being an agrarian British colony to becoming a post-industrial representative democracy, and it is immensely helpful to have an alternative next door to provide both a role model in times of doubt and a laughingstock in times of conviction.

For myself, I have affection and respect for many aspects of Canada, but discussion of a "merger" of Canada with the U.S. reminds me that I also think of Canada, particularly British Columbia, in the same way that the Pakistani generals think of Afghanistan; ie, as "strategic depth" for liberals (Where would conservatives fall back to?  Chile, probably).  I doubt I will ever move to Canada, and I’m sure that—were I to do so—I would find plenty to complain aboot.  But it’s nice to know it’s there.  Garrison Keillor once spoke of attending grade school in rural Minnesota, where each child was assigned a family living near the school that would care for him or her in the event of a blizzard that closed the roads.  Whatever traumas beset him during his childhood, Keillor often took comfort in the knowledge that, if things got really bad, he could always go to his "storm home," where he would be accepted and succored without condition.  That’s why I want Canada to remain separate from the U.S.; it’s my "storm country."

Of course, there is one simple compelling argument against merging the U.S. and Canada: they couldn’t put up with Texas, and we couldn’t put up with Quebec.

* Yammerheads who insist upon the nightmare cacologism "Unitedstatesian"—out of a benighted desire to include Canada and Mexico in the term "American"—display a politically-motivated blindness as to how language evolves and why words gain currency.  Such butchers of the mind deserve no quarter, and we shall give none here.


Stop All This Beautifull Society

The novelty of Babelfish has long worn off, but genuinely poor translations are still good for a chuckle, particularly when married to subjects of questionable taste.


Keep It Wholly

You won’t see the U.S. Postal Service in action today, and you won’t be able to talk to a bank teller, but I doubt you would otherwise be able to tell that our society is observing Columbus Day.  On the face of it, I would say that this is a good thing; American society is pluralistic and accepting of many cultures, and I like it that all sorts of ethnicities and microcultures are free to celebrate their particular holy days and I am equally free either to vicariously share them or to ignore them altogether.

When it comes to Federal holidays, however, the United States comes as close as it dares to prescribing official Days of Rest.  Even this handful of dates is too many for all employers to agree on, and Mammon whips most of us past Washington’s Birthday and (when it falls on a weekday) Veterans Day without a backward glance.  These partial, half-hearted holidays were hard to explain to my French wife; in France (and, I imagine, most other countries lacking a Protestant work ethic) everyone has all holidays off, and they don’t shift them to the nearest Monday to minimize economic disruption.

Altering the calendar of Federal holidays is a delicate matter, not only because every shaman with a congregation of one can make a numbing case for public observance of the Feast of St. Billy-Bob, but also because Federal holidays are written into almost every labor contract in this country and holiday pay is more sacred than Thanksgiving turkey.  Nevertheless, I would make the case for the "demotion" of two Federal holidays and the concommitant "promotion" of two others.

Columbus Day ought to mean something to Italians (although it should really be restricted to Genoese), I suppose, and I can see Spanish (actually Castilians) taking pride in it.  Americans as a whole, however, have very little to do with Spanish imperialism.  We do have something in common with bold exploration, and I would therefore suggest dropping Columbus Day in favor of what I call Tranquility Day.

The U.S. Code calls it Washington’s Birthday and everyone else calls it Presidents Day, but while I find both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to be admirable historical figures, this holiday still represents hero worship, and both Washington and Lincoln would hastily remind us that the country they fought to create and preserve should revere the law, not men.  No age is safe, but these days in particular we should stop and remember the singular grace of our Constitution.


Roll Call

Had a Toby Ziegler moment yesterday, listening to the House "debate" on Bush’s gift certificate for one (1) free Declaration of War.  Toby is most often the occasion for the phenomenon that causes me to wince when watching The West Wing: smug, self-righteous, preaching-to-the-choir impatience with the pluralism of our society that requires accommodating the interests and voices of howlingly ignorant people.  Toby frequently lets himself become exercised about hypocrisies spouted by political opponents, professing incredulity that anyone could possibly swallow such calumnies, until he begins to expectorate bile and his interlocutor gives him a weary look, as if to ask, Why are you shouting at me?

I wince at this because it is not persuasive; it is patronizing and alienating.  It provides ammunition to those who claim that liberals are elitist and out of touch with the "common people."  Yesterday, however, I was too demoralized to wince.  I was cast into Toby’s pit of despair, and only Toby’s rage could get me out.  From the floors of the House and Senate, 9/11 was repeatedly invoked as the reason why legislators were forfeiting both their prudence and their Constiutional duty to check the reckless adventurism of Pretender Bush, but there was no acknowledgement of the fact that affecting a "regime change" in Iraq will do nothing to reduce the likelihood of a similar terrorist atrocity in the future.  No one looked at the pertinent and pressing example of our failure to achieve any lasting success in Afghanistan as a model for this Administration’s contempt for the very idea of foresight and patience in foreign policy.  No one pointed out that it was obvious before the first WTC tower fell that there is not much to be done about suicidal zealots with high technology.  We are much more inconvenienced and restricted in our civil liberties than before 9/11, but we are no safer.  In calling for this non-sequitur war, Bush is exploiting American outrage and fear from 9/11 but has failed to demonstrate any Iraqi responsibility for 9/11.  Instead, we have been spooked by the possibility that Iraq might have a nuke or two.  Meanwhile, there are thousands of kilograms of fissile material in the former Soviet Union that this Administration has refused to help secure.  Without qualifying the Iraqi nuclear threat, isn’t it a bit disingenuous for Bush to suddenly display such concern?  Is it possible that the Bush Administration’s agenda in all this is just a bit impure?

Why am I shouting at you?  I don’t know.


I Am Jack’s Pegged Lateral Incisor

Cached the sprog with the ’rents and went to see a movie in an actual theater for the first time in nine months; unfortunately, it was Red Dragon.  Detailed comments (and spoilers) may be found here.  Suffice it to say that I would not recommend it, not even to devoted fans of any of the artists involved (except, perhaps, Emily Watson).

Before the movie started, however, we were treated to a big-screen version of the new trailer for The Two Towers.  As much as I dread some of the rumored changes made by director Peter Jackson, I am somehow more jazzed about viewing the second Lord of the Rings installment (opens 18 December 2002 (my mother’s birthday; she gets her grandson for five hours again this year)) than I was for the first.  Nevertheless, I remain bemused by the use during the trailer’s tension-building "second act" of the Kronos Quartet’s pendulum-strings theme from the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream.  The practice of using music from other (better) works to advertise for movies is not new and is marketing at its most mercenary.  In this case, however, I suspect the methodical surrender of autonomy lamented in Requiem is probably an accurate description of the dynamic New Line expects to act upon the movie-going masses this winter.


Eat Your Vegetables

The 30 Sept 2002 issue of The New Yorker wasn’t dubbed the "Literary Issue", but after reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Harold Bloom followed by Jonathan Franzens’s Oedipal mutilation of William Gaddis and other "treacherously" difficult writers, I felt a bit guilty spending 45 whole minutes watching The West Wing (not counting fast-forwarding over commercial breaks).  Both articles touch on the question of Why One Should Read, and the corollary What One Should Feel Bad About (Not) Reading.  Perhaps predictably, the latter question seems more immediate to me. Franzens contrives a dichotomy between two models of the author-reader relationship: Status, in which difficult writing and difficult reading are pursued as elitist virtues in themselves; and Contract, in which authors both respect and reward the time and effort readers invest in novels (as opposed to other forms of culture/entertainment).

After the Oprah Book Club dustup, Franzens clearly wants to establish his props in the reading-for-pleasure camp.  Much of the criticism that Franzens—declaratively Gaddis’s "number one fan"—levels at Gaddis, that the source of his obfuscation lies in his angry resentment at disenfranchisement, sounds tediously similar to the jeremiads "boldy" proclaimed by anti-PC "debunkers" a decade ago (these "voices in the wilderness" now so predominate the halls of cultural commentary that they have to take turns pretending to recant so they can continue to have debate partners).  I suppose if I had earned the English degree necessary to getting me an editing job instead of my Poli Sci/Philosophy mouse pad, I might have been more exposed to such Dire Threats To Western Civilization as Gaddis and his postmodern posse (or not; the Jesuits still run a tighter ship than most).

I knew little of Bloom before reading MacFarquhar’s profile, but it’s not hard to see why he would inspire a cult following.  I’ve always thought our society could do a lot worse than to embrace the notion that universities should remain isolated preserves for sinecured lunatics who happen to have a gift for so agitating the minds of students that they (the students) have to re-invent their entire personalities every six months.  His obvious facility aside, Bloom seems to have a curiously impractical notion of Why To Read: one reads neither to know the author nor to know oneself, but to jettison such distractions as considerations of character, plot, and historical style in order to "more accurately misread" the author’s meaning.  That Bloom finds poetry to be the most "rewarding" form of literature to so read is perhaps predictable, but hardly helpful.  Where Bloom and I might agree, however, is in contesting the claim, implicit in Franzens’s Contract model of authorship, that reading is a form of cultural engagement or intake easily comparable to appreciating paintings, viewing films, or listening to music.

It remains fashionable to use market analogies to describe the artist-patron relationship, and while I’m not about to suggest an alternate model for remunerating artists, I would warn against "consumers" of culture evaluating any artistic experience solely in terms of its return on investment of money and time.  Because of their association with academic obligations, books evoke a Puritanical reaction similar to American anxieties over "eating right."  As someone who can index development of my personality by when I read certain books, I know that choosing what to read can take on an almost moral urgency.  I am therefore sympathetic to the anxiety that by avoiding "difficult" books one is risking cultural, if not spiritual, poverty.  Nevertheless, there are many kinds of pleasure in reading, and over the years I have usually been able to rely on an awareness of vita brevis to validate reading books of most (but not, of course, all) degrees of Importance.

Ich Bin Ein Baghdader

As our nation is stampeded into a military adventure whose only exit-strategy will clearly require "nation-building," pause this 03 October to reflect on the generosity of spirit and constancy of purpose that was necessary for our most recent success in such an enterprise.