One of these days I'm going to sit down and list the 87 different ways Kip Manley's site, Long Story; Short Pier, incites me to fits of jealousy, envy, and covetousness. And when I do this post will probably be near the top of the list.
Go take a look. It's about guns and dogs, among other things, but it's not a country western song. No trucks.
I posted this back in September when the new season of Law and Order started. I'm reposting it because Jerry Orbach died last night, and now I miss Lennie Briscoe more than ever, but in another way.
I miss Lennie.
But then I still miss Stone.
And Adam Schiff.
The only one of the junior ADAs I ever liked was Jaime.
And I miss her.
A few years down the road, when every show on NBC is called Law and Order Something or Other, and Dick Wolf decides to fire Dennis Farina or ship him off to one of the spin offs, I'll probably miss Fontana.
Specifically, he said in his sermon Christmas day, that Christmas trees aren't Christian symbols. Actually, he said, "they ain't." Father Mo likes to affect a New York Street Smart folksiness when he's being his most didactic.
Ken Layne goes Father Mo one better. Layne says that Christmas isn't a Christian holiday. Christmas, as far as Layne is concerned, is just the name we've given to the ancient celebration of the winter solstice and insisting that anything is going on other than our throwing a party to show how happy we are that the days will be getting longer is ruining a perfectly good holiday.
Technically, Father Mo is right. Christmas trees didn't figure in Christmas celebrations outside of Germany until Prince Albert convinced Queen Victoria to put one up in Buckingham Palace in 1850 or so. The greatest propagandist for Christmas and the man responsible for rousting the last vestiges of Puritanism from New England and making Christmas a real holiday in the United States, Charles Dickens, probably never had a Christmas tree in his house. Lots of holly and ivy and evergreen boughs but no trees. And Christmas trees aren't universal even now. They don't have them in Mexico, for instance.
But Layne is just being a contrarian. Insisting that Christmas is and ought to be the pagan holiday it replaced is bigoted and hemisphere-o-centric. Christmas is celebrated on December 25 all around the globe, but it only falls in the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Hard to celebrate the end of darkness on the longest day of the year.
For that matter, not every Christian church celebrates Christmas on December 25.
I doubt that either Father Mo or Layne believes his own argument. After all, they're saying that the way things used to be is the way they are and always will be, which is like saying that because the people who owned your house 45 years ago used the room you've made into a home office as a bedroom it's still a bedroom no matter how many calls from clients you take in there.
Layne is just ticked off at the way some "Christians" this year have been trying to cut people who don't believe that Jesus was the son of God out of the holiday celebrations. Father Mo was pointing out that while almost every Christian home has a Christmas tree, not nearly as many put up a Nativity scene, which is the one unambiguous Christmas decoration.
As for me, although I sympathize with the urge to give the "Christians" apoplexy, I don't understand why well-educated and steadfast atheists think that a reasonable alternative to Christian superstitious behavior is a return of pagan superstitious behavior. And Father Mo is a stickler. While every other Catholic church in the country reads Luke's version of the Christmas story on Christmas morning, Father Mo insists on following the church calender precisely and delivered John's gnostic nonsense "In the beginning was the Word" to a church full of little kids who wanted to hear about the angels and shepherds again.
I'll tell you though what Christmas trees symbolize to me. Memories. And here's one of my favorite Christmas tree memories:
During World War II, my grandfather, who was in the Army, broke his neck, not in combat, and was in Walter Reed for a long time. My grandmother, who lived in Albany, used to take the train down to see him every chance she had, often arriving back in town at dawn just in time to go to work. Many times she rode the whole way standing up because when the car was crowded she refused to take a seat if there were any soldiers on it, and there always were. She felt that considering what those men were on their way to do for her, the least she could do was make sure they had a comfortable ride. The day before the day before Christmas, she was down visiting my grandfather the day and she took an earlier train back so she could pick up a Christmas tree on her way home. But the train was late and when she got to the Christmas tree lot they were just closing up. The man who ran the lot told her they were out of trees but that a truck was coming in with a new shipment early in the morning. My grandmother sat down on her suitcase and waited.
And waited. All night.
The truck came before dawn. My grandmother bought her tree and one of the men helped her get it home and set it up. When my mother, who was a little girl at the time, woke up and came down from breakfast, there was the tree in the living room, all lit and decorated with the presents all around.
So that's what Christmas trees are all about, Charlie Brown. My grandmother.
This is not merely traditional in a Merrie Olde England way, it's the current Church calender. No Christmas carols are sung in church until the vigil mass on Christmas eve. They've been playing Silent Night in the department stores since the weekend before Thanksgiving, but in Catholic churches you won't hear it until Midnight Christmas morning.
Since we've tied the end of the year holidays together---Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's, then Happy Holidays is the appropriate greeting. Happy Holidays covers a period that includes Thanksgiving, St Nicholas' Day, Beethoven's Birthday, Christmas, Chunukah, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, Eid, New Year's and Twelfth Night.
"Christians" who want everybody going about with Merry Christmas on their lips before Christmas are spoiling the holidays for the rest of us and rushing their own holy day and helping to ruin Christmas for themselves and everybody else as well by insisting that Christmas is the word that covers the four weeks of shopping between Thanksgiving and December 25.
Nobody should say "Merry Christmas" to anyone until Christmas day, although in the week or two before Christmas "Have a Merry Christmas" is an appropriate goodbye to people you know will be celebrating Christmas but whom you won't see on the day.
But Merry Christmas is an appropriate greeting (to anyone you meet who you know celebrates Christmas) for the twelve days that follow December 25.
But try saying it to anyone, even on December 26, which is the Feast of Stephen, the day Good King Wenceslas looked down and saw that poor man coming in sight gathering winter fuuuuu-el. Ever done it? I have, and the best reaction I've ever gotten back was a slightly goggle-eyed frozen grin, the terrified but not daring to show it look of someone thinking Who is this lunatic who can't read a calender and is he dangerous?
It's only the second day of Christmas but the holdiay is so over and done with in most people's minds that it might as well have happened simultaneously with Thanksgiving.
For many people it did. All the good times and warm feelings that are supposed to happen on Christmas were enjoyed to their fullest Thanksgiving day and after that came 30 days of shopping and worrying and rushing and cooking and cleaning and tiring themselves out so that their feelings on Christmas night can best be expressed not by Merry Christmas but Thank God that's over.
Even "Christians" who are complaining about the commercialization and secularization of Christmas and warning that the phrase "Happy Holidays" poses a moral threat to the nation, treat Christmas day as the end, just like the stores.
Wish Bill O'Reilly and the other defenders of Christmas a Merry Christmas on the eighth day of Christmas, that is New Year's Day, and they'll turn their bloodshot eyes on you and frown irritably out of their hangovers and growl, Happy New Year to you, moron.
There are reasons why we let Christmas end on Christmas night. We've built the holiday around children and both their schedules and their hopes climax the day or two before. School lets out and Santa comes and that's it as far as they're concerned, and once they're satisfied their parents find it hard to feel anything except relief.
Even people who don't have children or whose children have grown up still have the little kids they used to me inside them and those inner children influence the outer adults' feelings and attitudes about the holiday.
Office Christmas parties and holiday vacation schedules also affect feelings about when the holiday comes and goes.
But mostly our feeling that the Christmas season begins at Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas morning is conditioned by our shopping habits, and our shopping habits are controlled by the stores, which put up their Christmas displays the day before Halloween and by the week before Christmas are busy emptying their shelves of Christmas items to clear them for the January inventory.
Try to find a nice Christmas card (a single card, as opposed to a discounted box of the ugliest cards no one wanted a month ago) and you'll find the racks in the card stores empty or the clerks putting out the Valentines cards.
If a bulb burns out on your Christmas tree Christmas eve you can't replace it until next October.
Once upon a time, and that time was only a generation or two ago, many people waited until Christmas eve to put up their trees. The rest put them up only a few days before. But now if you haven't picked out a tree by the second week in December you're in trouble. It's depressing to go out anywhere in the week before Christmas and see the near empty lots with a few scraggly trees lying in heaps and no one around wanting to buy.
You wander into the wrong stores on the weekend before Christmas and you'll see that for them Christmas is over and done with. The Christmas Muzak playing on the loudspeakers sounds mocking and hollow.
But that's no reason for the rest of us to give up our Christmas spirit so early.
It's probably impossible to get people to keep it alive past New Year's, and I long ago gave up on my plan to single-handedly revive Twelfth Night in America. But when I was growing up New Year's Day was part of Christmas for our extended family. My grandparents gave Christmas dinner and my parents held a big dinner on New Year's, and all during the week aunts and uncles and cousins visited back and forth to show off their trees and their presents and exchange some more gifts and have parties and enjoy each other's company. Christmas week meant it was Christmas all week.
So, those of you who celebrate Christmas and those of you who have friends who do, if you didn't finish your cards this year, you've got the whole rest of the week! If you didn't finish shopping, you have lots of time still! If you still want to play that old Bing Crosby album to hear der Bingle dream of a white Christmas, go right ahead! Bake cookies, sing carols, hang more mistletoe and grab someone to kiss under it. And if there are people you wished you could spend the holidays with, go visit them! And when they let you in, wish them a Merry Christmas!
If they let their eyes google and smile weakly, so what? It's Christmas, be nice.
And if you're still looking for a perfect gift for your true love---the house slippers or the socket wrench set or the Mixmaster or the copy of What's the Matter With Kansas didn't quite do it---today is the thrid day of Christmas.
One thing about throwing a party; you offer people free food and free drink, they're very likely to show...
Oh, it was quite a party. Besides the egg nog, there was straight bourbon, or beer in the refrigerator, and a big jug of Gallo hearty burgundy exactly like the stuff Dortmunder had drunk at the shopping center the other night. Christmas music played on the phonograph, Herman X and Foxy and Greenwood and Doreen danced from time to time, and Stan Murch and Fred Lartz and Wally Whistler sang along with some of the more well-known songs, such as "Jingle Bells" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." May and Thelma Lartz and Maude Chefwick were putting together a nice buffet supper in the kitchen, and generally people were having a real nice time. Also, most of the guests had showed up with a gift, and from the size and shape of these gifts, now under the poor excuse for a tree, Dortmunder suspected most of them were bottles of bourbon, so the party couldn't be considered a dead loss. All in all, Dortmunder would have to describe the occasion, and even himself, as damn near cheerful...
"To the founder of the feast!" Kelp suddenly cried out. "John Dortmunder!"
"Aw, come on," Dortmunder said, but a full-bodied cheer drowned him out. And then goddamn Stan Murch had to start singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," despite "O Little Town of Bethlehem" currently emanating from the phonograph, and everybody else had to join in, and Dortmunder had to sit there like a fool...and get sung at.
After which everybody put their plates and glasses and cups and beer cans down and applauded their own singing or something, and turned bright cheery eyes on Dortmunder, who realized he was expected to say something. He looked around and his eye fell on Kelp's sparkling face.
He lifted his fresh egg nog. "God help us," Dortmunder said, "Every one."
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Yesterday I was in a toy store. The sales clerk was a college student who was busy helping a friend pick out a Christmas present for somebody's new baby. The friend was particular. She wanted something "really noisy and annoying!"
This was an old-fashioned toy store, it would be better to call it a shop rather than a store, and the toys were the kind that Santa brought your grandparents. Kaleidescopes and building blocks and wooden cars and yo-yos and hand-painted toy soliders and dolls with big eyes that blink. So the choice of noisy and annoying toys wasn't as wide as it would have been in Kaybees or Toys R Us, but it was enough to delight the friend. Popguns and fire trucks with working sirens and snare drums and peg boards with wooden mallets, kazoos, toy pianos, castanets, whistles, Jacks-in-their-boxes---she couldn't make up her mind. She wanted them all.
The toys are well-made and expensive and glow with the shine of wholesome good fun and educational value. Whatever she picked out, no matter how evilly-intended, would look to everyone except the poor parents of the child receiving it like a thoughtful and loving gift.
The friend was a student too, nothing out of the ordinary about her, except for the little gold ring in her nose. Not fashionalby on the side. In the middle, like a cannibal in a Tarzan movie, exactly where it would cause her parents the most distress and make her mother say every time they get together, "You have such a lovely face, dear. Why do you want to disfigure yourself like that?" The family rebel, I guessed. I imagined that the baby is her new niece or nephew, the child of her older sister, the good sister, the apple of their parents' eyes, and her total opposite and rival all the while they were growing up.
The sales clerk directed her attention to a wall full of musical instruments.
"Oh!" she exclaimed with mischievous glee as she picked up a toy accordian, "I love music! I think it's important to foster the love of good music in a child!"
It's always unnerving when people are loving. The slightest act of kindness...directed at my person and I fall apart. Goes against one's core beliefs about one's self. Sets off a skirmish on the inside. I'll be the first to admit it: my whole unconscious---well, I'm somewhat conscious of it---outlook on life is built on the premise that I can't stand myself and should be shot. So if people love you, it makes it difficult to go about your business of being blissfully self-destructive and impulsive.
The 11 year old got into a bit of trouble at school the other day.
His teacher had the class working on holiday placemats for their families. He attends a public school but the kids were allowed to make their placemats appropriate to whatever holiday their families celebrate at this allegedly festive time of year. So the 11 year old drew a Christmas scene for his placemat.
He drew a scene from The Nutcracker.
How sweet, you might be saying. How sophisticated, maybe. A little boy who's a fan of ballet.
He's not a fan of ballet or of the ballet, as it happens. He's a fan of the E.T.A. Hoffman story the ballet is based on, particularly the version illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and he's an 11 year old boy, he drew the scene that would most appeal to 11 year old boys.
The battle between the mice and the toy soldiers.
The teacher did not approve. She thought a picture of toy soldiers skewering mice with their bayonets and the Nutcracker running the Mouse King through with his sword wasn't Christmassy enough. She suggested that the 11 year old's mother might prefer something more traditional.
The kid was dumbfounded. The Nutcracker was a Christmas story, wasn't it? How could a Christmas story not be Christmassy? And he knows his mother. He knows what she likes. She likes drawings of Spider-man battling Doc Ock and pictures of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. She likes drawings of soldiers and spacemen and Aliens versus Predators. He knows she likes these because she posts every one he gives her up in her office. So he had no doubt that she would have loved her placemat, and he said so.
There followed one of those wars of will between teacher and pupil that the pupil never stands a chance of winning. The 11 year old tore up his drawing, put his head down on his desk to hide his tears, and refused to work anymore on the placemats.
And there went three recess periods out the window. He's having lunch with the school disciplinarian the rest of the week.
That night when I talked to him about it I had to take the teacher's side. He'd been defiant and no teacher can stand for that, nor should she have to. We talked about how he has to obey the rules and do what's assigned. He'd disregarded her instructions, I said, and learning to follow instructions is a kindergarten lesson. By sixth grade it should be second nature. Then we talked about the reasons it's a good lesson to learn, when it comes to doing work. Nobody he admires who does anything well didn't first learn how to follow instructions. Stan Lee, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, all his favorite actors and TV stars followed their teachers' instructions.
Some day he'll come back and ask me what to do when the instructions are wrong.
The next part of our discussion was about why the scene from the Nutcracker wasn't Christmassy enough.
I said that even though it's a Christmas story it's not a version of the Christmas story. It's a story we tell at Christmas, that's all.
A Christmas story, I said in a patient, soothing, but still lecturing tone of voice that made me sound to myself like Davy's father at the end of an episode of Davy and Goliath, a Christmas story is a story that reminds us of or in one way or another actually re-tells the Christmas story. The Nutcracker, I said, is a wonderful fairy tale but it isn't either explicitly or symbolically about the birth of Jesus or what Jesus's birth meant for people. (Editor's note: I may be wrong on this. But I once saw an excellent production of The Nutcracker that very persuasively made it clear that it is a Freudian fable about a young girl's sexual awakening. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the same rebirth and redemption message played out in It's A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol.) So then we talked about the true meaning of Christmas and the reason for Jesus's coming to earth as the child of a poor couple who couldn't afford a good hotel room and why the first witnesses to his birth were outcasts and outlaws and then how kings and princes sought him out to kneel down before him.
The 11 year old knows all this but he likes the story and did most of the talking. When we'd done with that, tying it all up by agreeing that peace on earth and good will to all were pretty neat ideas, I said, "What your teacher wanted was you to draw pictures that were about the meaning of Christmas." And I went on to explain that all the traditional images, the toys and the stockings and the tree and the star and even Santa Claus were all symbols of the Christmas story.
This is true.
The very colors of Christmas, red and green, love and hope, are the essential messages of Christianity.
Holly, ivy, mistletoe, evergreen boughs, fir trees---symbols of hope, of life continuing even in the midst of death, of the gift of eternal life that Jesus brought.
Candy canes? The shepherds' crooks.
Silver bells? Those are church bells, aren't they?
Santa Claus? Saint Nicholas, kids. And his sleigh full of toys? Gifts, like what the magi brought to the baby Jesus.
Even the children who get the presents are symbols---of the first child who was given presents on Christmas.
When you get right down to it the only secular images that turn up in department store windows are snowflakes and snowmen.
This isn't clever semiotics. It's not a hermeneutical trick taught to me by trendy college professors.
It's the fall-out of 2000 years of Western art.
And as I was explaining all this to the 11 year old I got to thinking.
Just what more do those "Christians" who think that Christmas is being robbed of all its meaning want?
At this time of year you can't throw a plum pudding in any direction without hitting some public depiction of the Christmas story!
Nevermind all the Nativity scenes. The strings of streetlights, even stop lights, blinking a bright red and green, are semaphores constantly flashing out the message, "For on this day is born unto you a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
The art teacher at my sons' school was inspired this year. She put all the kids to work decorating the halls, not just with boughs of holly, but with life size scenes of Santa and reindeer and Christmas trees and starry nights and toys and sleeping children and sugar plums dancing all the way from the library past the gym down to the music room and around the building and back again.
I'm hoping the principal bothered to find out that there are no Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu kids in the school before she let the art teacher run loose. But I'll bet she didn't, because she probably thought all the the decorations were safely "secular." They were, but only in the sense of being non-denominationally Christian.
No little Jewish kid would have been fooled.
My best friend Sandy Weissman knew what it all meant. Just as when I looked at the Menorah in his front window I didn't think, Gee, what pretty lights.
Somehow at eight years old I knew not to push the message of my Christmas celebrations on my Jewish friends. Probably my mother taught me. I had a nun in grade school who would have been happy among the Born Agains. In class one day she told us that children who weren't baptized were not allowed into heaven. I went home devastated, thinking that Sandy was going to hell. My mother, who was and still is the most truly devout Catholic I've ever met, sat me down and told me the truth.
Sister Mary Francis, my mother said, is full of sh**.
Everyone knows what they're looking at when they see a Christmas tree or a candy cane.
Everyone, except the "Christians."
When the 11 year old and I were done I felt pretty proud of myself. He seemed to have followed our discussion with interest and understanding. I said, "So, son, now do you see why your teacher thought your drawing of a battle scene wasn't Christmassy?"
"Golly, Pop!" he exclaimed, full of respect and admiration for his old man. At moments like this we become Andy and Judge Hardy. "I sure do now! No more dead mice and flashing cannon will adorn my Christmas placemats!"
"Good. I'm proud of you, son."
"You're welcome, my boy."
"Does this mean that tomorrow when I work on my new placemat I should draw a stable?"
I put my head down on my desk.
"Son," I snuffled through my tears, "I think it's time we discussed the First Amendment."
One of the ways I'm a failure as a father is I listen too closely to my sons' conversations.
They'll be discussing superheroes, Star Wars, their favorite TV shows, and instead of burying my nose deeper into the newspaper or leaving the room to go tinker in the basement, as Ward Cleever would have done, I sit there and try to follow their arguments.
Inevitably, the urge to butt in overwhelms me.
"No, sons," I'll start to say, before I get a grip, "Superman's X ray vision can't see through lead, but..."
Or, "Boys, you've got it all wrong. When Obi wan joins the Force..."
I'll have to ask my father if he ever had to bite his tongue to keep from correcting my brothers and me on matters of fact about The Lone Ranger, Superman, and the Hardy Boys.
But it's when I overhear their games that I have to struggle hardest against the temptation to stick my oar in.
"What the devil is Bart Simpson doing rescuing Lois Lane from Darth Vader?" I want to shout.
Nance and I once had a friendly argument about the kids in Toy Story. She didn't much care for Andy, the little boy who owns Woody and Buzz. She didn't like his matching cowboy blankets and sheets and wallpaper. She thought it was all a sign that he was a little by-the-booker, a future conformist and Republican. The rotten kid next door, she felt, was more her style---creative, iconoclastic, ready to assert his own will against the status quo and rebel against petty rules that dictated that these legs belong on this toy and those tentacles can't be attached to that doll.
I sided with Andy. I would have given anything when I was a kid to have cowboy wallpaper!
Not surprisingly, when I was nine I played by the book. Or books, if I happened to be playing a game based on something I read. When I played superheroes, I played superheroes. When I played cowboy, I played cowboy. When I played spaceman...you get the idea. And my imaginary supporting casts were appropriate. Supervillains fought my superheroes. Indians attacked my cowboys. Aliens captured my spacemen. I kept my make believe universes apart and chose my toys accordingly. My motto was, the right toy for the right game. In fact I knew it was time for me to give up playing with toy men and stop being a little kid when Barbie started making appearances alongside my GI Joe.
My kids aren't anywheres near as cosmologically strict. Not only do the Simpsons meet regularly with Superman in galaxies far, far away, but GI Joe has dated Spidergirl and together they've teamed up with Sherlock Holmes to track down the orcs who have stolen the Golden Fleece. The cops routinely have to fight off dragons, dwarves and elves turn up in Gotham City, and the kids from Fox Trot and the characters from Shrek join up with the Teen Titans and the Rescue Heroes to defeat Kayba and Team Rocket in the Pokemon arena.
I'm still a kid at heart, but I am that kid, the little by-the-booker and it used to drive me nuts when I'd hear them mixing up universes and toys like this.
Don't worry. I kept my mouth shut. I stayed out of their way.
But deep down I fretted. I wondered if there was something a little weird about their games. There have been days when I've felt a little like Martin Crane watching Niles and Frasier growing up.
When the film folks first talked about manufacturing toys, Handler was nonplussed.
"My reaction was, 'Of course not!' I'm a serious writer, and until they come out with Philip Roth action figures, there should be no Lemony Snicket action figures."
He capitulated only when he recalled his own obsession with "Star Wars" figures. "I remembered that for hours and hours and hours I would be acting out stories with my friends and with my sister, using pieces from our five favorite movies and two books -- or something on TV plus 'Mary Poppins.'
Mary Poppins versus Darth Vader?
Well, of course. It explains everything! Think of the way Luke and Vader cause all those pieces of machinery to tear themselves free and whiz through the air.
Then think of the toys in Jane and Michael's room putting themselves away.
Mary Poppins is a Jedi! She can tap into the power of the Force!
She's as powerful as Yoda even. Remember how that whole line of nannies blew away?
My kids are right. Nance was right. Universes bleed into one another. Nexii exist all over. Doors open around every corner.
At dinner time tonight an SUV came down our street towing a long trailer lighted with strings of Christmas lights and filled with 20 or so adults wearing Santa hats and Full of the jollity of people who'd been deep into the egg nog. The SUV pulled to a stop in front of our house and the 20 Santa's helpers began to sing.
They were the worst group of carolers I've ever heard, and I've heard some awful carolers, including groups that had me in them.
They were terrible! They couldn't stay together on Jingle Bells and they didn't know the words to Frosty the Snowman.
It was great!
All the Mannions stood out on the front stoop and cheered them on! When they finished---or rather when they gave up, leaving Frosty bumpity bumpiting over the somthing of something---we applauded lustily and they moved on to mangle O Tannebaum and Lo What a Rose ere Blooming on the next block.
"They took the bar! The whole fucking bar!"---John Blutarsky, United States Senate
I could go on and on about the ways Tom Wolfe and his new book annoy me---some of you are aware that I have gone on and on, but, take my word for it, I was restrained.---but one of the ways it's annoying me right now is that Wolfe's novel and the conservative whine with which he's been shilling for it are libels and slanders against an on the whole much nicer generation of college kids than have populated campuses in decades.
"The school has co-ed dorms, turns a blind eye to cohabitation in them, and gives the fraternities free rein to throw booze-soaked orgies every weekend [and during the week in some cases]. Also, the school either does not assign enough work to keep students from being able to indulge excessively in such distractions, or they are not making the consequences of slipshod scholarship painful enough to have an effect."
Maltz doesn't bother to respond to the comment. Too bad. She's a senior at the University of Chicago. I'm sure she could have corroborated the commentor on her school's slipshod standards.
"The sexual liberation movement on the left may not have wanted their agitations to lead to more hetero blond beast jock hookups, but that's what resulted. It's called the law of unintended consequences."
See, says the commentor, it's those damn liberals' fault that pure-hearted jock boys have become rutting pigs.
Which is exactly Wolfe's thesis.
I Am Charlotte Simmons portrays an essentially Republican social scene---status seeking, wealth obsessed, centered on sports, fraternities and sororities, anti-intellectual, and hedonistic---and then blames its decline into debauchery on liberals.
Which liberals though? The liberals on the college faculty?
Let's put it to a faculty vote. Yay or nay, do we keep frats, sororities, and sports on campus or throw them all off?
What do you think the outcome will be?
Wolfe's done this before, in Bonfire of the Vanities, in which he somehow managed to find that the awful yuppie subculture of greed in New York City in Ronald Reagan's Morning in America 1980's was the fault of the Welfare State.
So in I Am Charlotte Simmons he's not singing a new song.
We're supposed to believe that decadent liberal thinking is somehow responsible for the fact that frat boys and jocks drink a lot of beer, don't do their homework, and spend a great deal of time and energy trying to get girls to go to bed with them, as if this is something new.
Animal House was believably set in the pre-Free Speech Movement early 60s. Senator Blutarsky is likely a Republican.
Otter's a gynecologist in Beverly Hills. Think he and his pals at the country club are voting Democratic?
D-Day's whereabouts are unknown, but if I wanted to find him I'd start looking in Idaho among the guys in the Patriot Movement.
The social scene Wolfe condemns in his novel is both conservative and generations old.
The most famous recent college grads who most resemble the slackers and wastrels Wolfe populated his book with are the Bush twins.
The biggest problem on campus, the most deadly, is not drugs or promiscuity. It's binge drinking, and guess who supplies the booze?
It's not the kids in ACT-Up or WHO.
But Wolfe and his defenders have found it useful to pretend that the frat boys of the 1950s were paragons of virtue compared to kids today.
My goddaughter is a junior in the honors program at her school. I know from her mother's reports that for my goddaughter and her friends and peers hard work to the point of overwork is the norm. These kids study very hard and pile on the extra-curricular activities. They are socially engaged. They have part time jobs. They get internships. They break their backs at school. They are far more intelligent, far better students, and far better people than my generation of college students, and we weren't all that bad.
They are better than the generation of college students I taught, and those kids were an improvement on us.
It's not surprising that they're harder workers. They have to be. When I was applying to college, a B plus A minus student like me had a good shot of getting into an Ivy League school. In fact, I was accepted at Brown and I didn't even apply!
My goddaughter was a straight A student and she was turned down by all of her first choice schools.
So were most of her honor student friends.
But I don't know why they are so much better people, why they are nicer, politer, and friendlier than we were.
They were, after all, raised by baby boomers.
The truly curious thing about them is that they seem to like adults.
Yes, I am prejudiced and I know my sample is small. But from everything I've heard and read, from what I've observed in java joints across the land and in lines at movie theaters and while being waited on in restaurants, bookstores, and Blockbuster, I think it's safe to say that Tom Wolfe and his minions can go pound salt.
A quick tour of the blogworld turns up whole gangs of smart, serious-minded, hardworking, and from all appearances decent-hearted college students, grad students, and recent graduates.
Lindsay Beyerstein is a bit older, with an MA already under her belt, but she is young enough that kids she went to college with were still in school when Tom Wolfe did his much vaunted (by himself) reporting.
And I'm sure Wolfe talked to her friends, and to all the above, and the many, many college students like them.
My views on abortion changed radically 11 years ago, the moment I looked at the first sonogram of the fetus who is now our son Matt.
Part of the change was that when I looked at the fetus I did not see a fetus who would become our child. I saw our child.
I don't remember how early in my wife's pregnancy she had the sonogram, but I know she wasn't far along. I know it was before the point where the Supreme Court said that abortion should no longer be permitted except to protect the health of the mother.
I know it was at a point when, if my wife had decided, Oh heck, I don't really want to have a kid right now, she could have gone and had an abortion.
I did not become at that moment anti-abortion. I was always anti-abortion. But I was pro-choice. I still am. What changed for me was my smug certainty in my own political opinions.
When I looked at the sonogram I suddenly realized that I could no longer be sure when the fetus became a child. Was it a child the day before the sonogram? Two days? Two weeks? Or would it not become one, despite the evidence of my own lying eyes, for another month? Or week? Or hour?
The old reliable positon, a fetus becomes a person when it is viable outside of the womb, used to put the beginning of an individual life at about six months. But that has turned out to be really an admission of the limitations of the available medical technology. It is now possible to save premies at a much earlier point.
And what about fetuses conceived in petri dishes and implanted in the mother? Weren't they viable outside the womb already?
It suddenly seemed to me that the scientific and medical position on abortion should be far more conservative than the religious one. A religious view allows that there is a specific point when the fetus becomes a baby, when God implants it with a soul. Some people think that happens at the moment of conception. But the Catholic Church used to teach it happened at the moment of "quickening," that is somewhere in the second trimester. The religious position is therefore flexible, being based on a faith in things unseen.
It reminds me of that old Jewish joke. When does a fetus become a person in its own right? When it graduates from law school.
The scientific position, because it is based only on what can be seen and measured and tested for, ought to be, then, a shrug.
We don't know. We can't know right now, with the technology we have. A good point might be---might be---when the fetus develops a functioning brain. But at exactly what moment does that occur? Is there a switch that flips to on all at once and can we locate it and monitor it so we know? So we can say, Hey, you're in luck, no power to the brain yet, go ahead with the abortion, or Sorry, it's a baby now, you have to go through with the pregnancy!
The fact is that everything the baby will be is there inside the fertilized egg. But to call that a person is a bit like saying that because I have the blueprints in hand and all the materials for a house on the site where I plan to build a house I already have a house.
A potential baby in the form of a collection of living cells is quite different than a potential house.
How much different doesn't seem to have a scientific answer.
The logical and humane attitude then should be to err on the side of caution.
But the other way my faith in my own political thinking was shaken was that I suddenly realized that my old position on abortion was the position of a single young man who'd had a lot of girlfriends and no intention of marrying any of them---until I met the future Mrs Mannion, who scared the devil out of me because the only reason I even thought of dating her was that one day in class I looked over at her and said to myself, I'm going to marry that girl. Before that ephiphanic and terrifying moment, I was on my way to becoming Sam Malone.
I should note that very few of those girlfriends had any intention of marrying me either. We were all too young and too focused on our individual ambitions. Marriage and babies were out of the question, at the moment.
Safe, legal, cheap, and morally neutral abortions were a very helpful and reassuring option.
For one thing it cut down on the likelihood of any unexpected Father's Day cards.
In short, my old pro-choice opinion was entirely selfish and self-interested.
To add to my self-doubt, I noticed that a lot of my friends' positions on abortion were changing as they got married and had children.
I have two prejudices now.
One is that an awful lot of people who are militantly anti-abortion are sentimentalists. They aren't thinking about abortion. They are picturing babies. That old Angel Soft toilet paper ad is playing in their heads. They are imagining lots of happy, rosy-cheeked babies with wings bouncing around heaven.
And I'll believe the Catholic Church really believes that a fetus is a baby when it starts holding funeral masses for miscarriages.
The other is that when a lot of people who are pro-choice talk about back alley abortions and a woman's right to choose and how the anti-abortion crowd are misogynists, it's a dodge. They are really defending their own choice to have lots of sex without having to worry about anybody being inconvenienced by a surprise pregnancy.
This, by the way, is a choice I defend. It happens though to be a choice that can be made without there being an unlimited and unregulated resort to abortions.
The biological reason for sex isn't procreation. Lots of life procreates without sex. The reason for sex is genetic variation.
A "natural" argument against birth control ought to be an argument for promiscuity.
At any rate, human beings are not constrained by what's "natural." Nor are they licensed by it.
And a what God intended argument has the same problem as all what God intended arguments---it depends on the ability to read God's mind.
God made people and people invented knives and forks, indoor plumbing, airplanes, and contraceptives.
But all absolutist pro-choice arguments depend on the assumption that the fetus is a lump of superfluous tissue, until the woman carrying decides it isn't.
Besides being ugly, facile, and convenient, this argument is not something liberals should be comfortable with. Liberals, with their faith in science and their conviction that left to their own devices individuals will behave badly, that is selfishly, ought not to have an easy time with an argument about biology that is not scientific and an argument about rights that assumes that an individual, particularly one under stress, will make a disinterested and correct decision.
No liberal who believes that the woman making the choice is the only one competent to make the choice----and that men, especially, are excluded from the debate---would accept the argument that the only people who get to make decisions about taxing the rich are the rich.
It was noted at the time that the only liberal principle Bill Clinton wouldn't trim on was the right to choice. This is another way of saying that the only liberal position Liberals themselves really cared enough to cut up rough over was choice.
Since the election, liberals and Democrats have been arguing over values. How much should we start emphasizing values in our speeches and debates? Which values should we emphasize? What language should we use? How much should we allow or at least acknowledge religious arguments in debates?
Just considering the question has raised the hackles of a lot liberal bloggers and commentators, most of them seeming to take the position that any acknowledgement of religious belief amounts to surrendering to the religious right.
As if there are no religious Democrats or liberals.
But many of them also assumed that any admission of values into the debate was the same as rejecting gay marriage and abortion rights.
As if the only values we have are gay marriage and abortion rights.
And when you read their "never give an inch" rhetoric and see how quickly their arguments collapse into sputtering fuck yous and the hell with your religion to anyone who questions their positions on gay marriage and abortion rights, it's hard not to conclude that gay marriage and abortion rights are their only values.
Values much of America interprets as being two sides of the same coin: a defense of the right to screw around without worry, consequence, or bother.
"Yeah, well, fuck them! Puritan assholes!"
Yeah, well, fuck the People isn't a particularly Democratic value.
This has been a long lead in to some interesting links.
This is a position Mario Cuomo laid out 20 years ago, to much cheering by Democrats. So you'd think it would be uncontroversial, especially as a position held by a Catholic politician.
So I was shocked and dismayed to read Atrios and Steve Gilliard, bloggers I greatly admire, responding to Sullivan's post in ways that were ugly, pig-headed, and full of self-righteous bullying and barely contained anti-religious bigotry.
Atrios has the sense and the gallantry not to attack Sullivan personally. Gilliard's post begins "Fuck Amy Sullivan," and doesn't improve much. He even finishes with the hypocritical liberal male's cop-out "it's not my argument to make" because he's, just, you know, a man. Of course he is making the argument, he's just also arguing that no men have a right to hold an opposite opinion.
The comments on their posts are appalling, by the way, not just because of the stupidity of the supposed liberals joining in to beat up on Sullivan but also because of course the right wing trolls have had to have their say as well.
You get to read the rantings of two sets of jerks shouting at each other over the heads of everybody else.
It's always winter in Bob Dylan's New York. Cold and snowing and windy, steam rising through the manholes and ice sheeting the sidewalks from the folk clubs and coffeehouses of the Village up to the midtown record company offices; a blast of frost covers Dylan's metropolis at all times. At least it does is his brief, brilliantly written and richly-detailed memoir, Chronicles, Volume One,
Excuse me, I'm going to go listen to Blood on the Tracks now. You read the rest of what Tom has to say.
Seriously. Maybe not as in Citizen Kane great, or Casablanca great.
But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid great. The Apartment great.
Lord of the Rings great.
Fantasy and science fiction movies are usually allowed to be good within the conventions of their genre. The first two Star Wars movies were great science fiction movies.
The same loosening of artistic judgment is applied to westerns, war movies, kids' movies, and thrillers.
But a lot of movies transcend their genres. They are good in and of themselves.
The Maltese Falcon, Rio Bravo, The Wizard of Oz, Rear Window, The Lord of the Rings.
This seems only right when you consider that Shakespeare wrote nothing but genre pieces. The closest he came to a realistic play was The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is preposterous, and Julius Caesar, which he owed to Plutarch the way Joseph L. Mankiewicz owed the film version (with Marlon Brando as Antony) to Shakespeare. King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, even Antony and Cleopatra are fantasies as much as A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fantasy. His histories were the war movies of their day.
Hamlet is a thriller.
So it's odd, then, when you think about it, that intellectual types seem to reflexively insist that the only great novels are works of domestic realism (Sarah Weinman links to a piece in Time Magazine that operates from this assumption. She calls it "the stupidest essay of the week.") and the only great movies are great to the degree they are works of realism.
It's odder when you remember that there's such a thing as poetry and myth.
Without pulling Joseph Campbell into it, novels, short stories, movies, plays, and even TV shows (The Sopranos. Smallville. Star Trek.) can tell their truths poetically or mythologically.
I used to try to teach my students that metaphor was the most accurate way of representing our daily life because it's the only way we have of converying to each other how we feel.
Often the most factual, scientifically rigorous representation of an idea makes no sense, but the same idea presented metaphorically strikes us as absolutely true.
If you're Freud you can write that little boys want to murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers. But if you're Sophocles you write Oedipus Rex and leave it at that.
Spider-man 2 is an excellent work of moviemaking as craftsmanship. It's worth watching for that. Not just the cgi stuff, which is probably less impressive than it appears, but for things like the editing which is so brilliant that we're left with no time to notice the cgi, which is why it's so impressive---it's a trick of the eye. George Lucas could learn a lot from watching this movie. He lets his cameras linger on the computer graphics, expecting us to be awed by the technological achievement. Instead all he does is remind us that what we're watching is a demonstration by a technocrat of his latest toys.
Lucas could also pick up some pointers about writing dialogue and handling actors. Tobey Maguire wins my Christopher Reeve Award for making a character his own. James Franco has some heartbreaking moments as Peter's friend Harry Osborne, the Green Goblin's son who is doomed to follow his father into criminal madness. His best work occurs early in the movie, though, before he has to get all dark and dramatic. The way he plays a 19 year old boy forcing himself into his father's shoes and trying to sound like a hard-headed businessman makes you wince for the kid. And Alfred Molina as Doc Ock and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson should get Oscar nominations for best actor in a supporting role. They won't. Because Hollywood, though it mostly works in fantasy, accepts that only Realism counts as serious art and rewards directors, writers, and actors accordingly.
Simmons is a riot, to boot, and though comedy is harder than dying, winning an Oscar for a comic performance is harder than both.
But Spider-man 2 is not simply a well-made movie. It's a great one. Because it is poetic.
I'm not going to get into the geek argument that comic books---ahem. Graphic novels---are our myths. I have a limited sympathy with that.
I haven't ever worked out a grand personal theory of what makes something a work of art. I have a less than coherant belief that among the thing that art does is "illuminate the human condition." Sometimes I rephrase it as "Art helps us understand what it is to be human." And other times I'll say "Art makes us feel human."
Realism is not the only method that can produce those effects. Real doesn't equal true. Often because it can get lost in the minutiae of life, realism leaves us cold and feeling detached from life, not inhuman, but un-human. Which is why I'd rather read a book of fairy tales than Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and I'd rather watch Spider-man 2 than Closer.
Spider-man 2 is filled with human moments. My favorite, though, is a visual gag that's presented as a throwaway. Doc Ock is at work in his lab, bent over some piece of gadgetry that requires his complete attention and both his human hands, and as he's working, without taking his concentration off the gadget, he lights a cigar with his mechanical arms.
Sure, superpowered and intelligent mechanical arms are good for tearing bank vault doors off their hinges and mucking about in the ten thousand degree heat being generated inside a fusion chamber, but if you had four extra hands mostly what you'd do with them is exactly what people would do when they say things like If only I had an extra pair of hands. You'd use them to be a slightly more efficient and competent you.
When Mr Pecksniff and the two young ladies got into the heavy coach at the end of the lane, they found it empty, which was a great comfort; particularly as the outside was quite full and the passengers looked very frosty. For as Mr Pecksniff observed---when he and his daughters had burrowed their feet in the straw, wrapped themselves to the chin, and pulled up both windows---it is always satisfactory in keen weather, that many other people are not as warm as you are. And this, he said, was quite natural, and a very beautiful arrangement; not confined to coaches, but extending itself into many social ramifications, "For" (he observed), "if every one were warm and well-fed, we should lose the satisfaction of admiring the fortitude with which certain conditions of men bear cold and hunger. And if we were no better off than anybody else, what would become of our sense of gratitude; which," said Mr Pecksniff with tears in his eyes, as he shook his fist at a beggar who wanted to get up behind, "is one of the holiest feelings of our common nature."
The whippersnappers among you don't remember, but one of the most annoying things about Jimmy Carter, a better president than he's remembered as and a man I admire but still annoying, was his habit of proclaiming his own virtue.
"I will never lie to you," he promised.
When he admitted to lusting in his heart, he boasted at the same time that Jesus had forgiven him for it and implied that he hadn't done any lusting anywhere outside his heart.
I understood at the time that he was simply trying to assure us that he was no Richard Nixon. And I knew Carter came out of a religious background that emphasized public confession, so I tried not to be annoyed.
But still, every time he told us how good he was I couldn't help wondering just how bad he really was and I suspect most people felt the same unease and doubt.
That's because we all know the type. The people who proclaim their own virtue over and over again? You can bet the farm that they're lying hypocrites, if you could find a bookie willing to give you odds that would make the bet worthwhile.
Carter, it turned out, was not the type. But it would not have been surprising if he was, because it's an old and all too common type.
The type is there in Shakespeare, as a type, an old character with a list of ancestors stretching back to the dawn of the theater---The Greeks and the Romans featured him in their plays---whom audiences immediately recognized and knew to despise. Angelo in Measure for Measure, Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Moliere wrote about him. He called him Tartuffe.
Dickens gave the type a name that has stuck. Pecksniff.
Mr. Pecksniff was a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech...Perhaps there never was a more moral man than Mr. Pecksniff: especially in his conversation and correspondence. It was once said of him by a homely admirer, that he had a Fortunatus's purse of good sentiments in his inside. In this particular he was like the girl in the fairy tale, except that if they were not actual diamonds which fell from his lips, they were the very brightest paste, and shone prodigiously. He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there: but these were his enemies, the shadows cast by his brightness; that was all.
Pecksniff spends a lot of the book standing, metaphorically, at the front of the Temple reminding God and everybody else within earshot of how virtuous he is. So we're not surprised when first chance he has he gets a snootful and makes a lecherous lunge at Mrs Todgers.
In fact there are critics who think that Dickens wasted ink on that scene. Pecksniff's such an obvious type that the fact that he drinks on the sly and pinches women's bottoms is a given.
Sitcoms and movies love Pecksniff and trot him out again and again, in various disguises, even in drag. We know the guy. We laugh at him as soon as he starts in pontificating. We don't believe in his moralizing for a single moment...except when he appears in real life in the guise of a conservative politician or pundit.
One Pecknsiff after another pops up and gets knocked down and just as soon as the remains are swept up and carted away another one struts up the aisle and plants himself before us to tell us how good and pure he is or she is.
Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, William Bennett.
Only Bakker and Swaggert have had the decency to go to ground. The others returned to center stage as fast as the laughter died or never left.
Pecksniffs are always ready with an excuse that explains how it was that they didn't commit the sin we thought they did and how it wasn't really a sin at all.
"A youthful indiscretion."
"It's not like I was losing the rent money in the slots."
"I'm not a junkie! Junkies use illegal drugs! And they have to buy their shit themselves, they don't have maids to run out and get it for them!"
"I didn't do or say anything she says I did and anyway she encouraged it and she must have liked it and besides she was just a golddigging floozy and hey, isn't anybody going to help me defend Christmas?"
Former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik conducted two extramarital affairs simultaneously, using a secret Battery Park City apartment for the passionate liaisons, the Daily News has learned.
The first relationship, spanning nearly a decade, was with city Correction Officer Jeanette Pinero; the second, and more startling, was with famed publishing titan Judith Regan. [The emphasis is mine.]
His affair with Regan, the stunningly attractive head of her own book publishing company, lasted for almost a year.
The Pecksniff is "the stunningly attractive" Judith Regan.
The story, by the way, is from the New York Daily News and you gotta love their headline on their online front page:
Beats me why they couldn't get "hunka hunka" in there, but at least the subhead tells us that Kerik had two "gal pals."
Josh Marshall, still the source for all the news about Kerik, has added Regan as an intriguing supporting character. What Josh doesn't have, Steve Gilliard's got covered. Serendipitously, Vanity Fair's just out with a profile of Regan as a sociopathic narcissist whose life is a trailer park soap opera being played out in New York publishing and media circles.
Regan's Pecksniffery includes spending a lot of time on TV condemning other people's less than wholesome sex lives. Bill Clinton's and Monica Lewinsky's, for example.
REGAN [talking about Monica Lewinsky on Fox News]: Well, partially, but it's also an "amorality tale" because the one thing that's missing from "Monica's Story" is, you know, deep thinking about her own amorality, which we saw -- was in ample evidence during the Barbara Walters love fest the other night. I mean, here's a woman who clearly knows a lot about sex, but knows nothing about right and wrong.
REGAN [about Bill Clinton]: Well, I think that the social fabric of this country has become completely unraveled. I think the sexual revolution had a lot to do with that. I think that we are in terrible shape. I think we have a country where half the kids are being raised by single mothers. A lot of that has to do with male behavior. We look at the men in this country who do not want to be accountable to their wives, do not want to be accountable to their children and we have as a president a man who could be a symbol of everything that is good; he could be a wonderful husband, he could be a wonderful father. He is in a position of great authority to show this country and to lead this country in a way that is much more important than economically.
People who spend a lot of time tsk tsking over other people's bad behavior are usually trying to deflect attention away from their own. Often the person whose attention they most want to deflect is theirself.
People who spend their time lecturing others on their immorality are usually pots calling kettles black.
People who brag about how much they love their spouses are running around on them or abusing them or terrifed their spouses do not love them back.
People who boast of their courage and toughness are frightened and weak.
People who tell you how honest they are are planning to cheat you.
People who belligerantly defend what doesn't need defending---Mom, the flag, apple pie, Christmas---are scoundrels.
If I was looking around to cheat on my wife, I'd target the women I know who are proudest of their virtue. If I wanted to run a con using a shady business deal as my hook I'd make my mark the guy who's always bragging about how he knows all the angles.
We know these people. We meet them all the time. When Pecksniff walks into a room we've got his number the minute he opens his mouth and starts to spout.
Except when the room he walks into is a TV studio or a Congressional hearing room and Pecksniff has had the sense to identify himself or herself as a conservative.
Give her a year. Judith Regan will be back on Fox telling us all about immorality and the death of outrage. Right alongside Bill Bennett and Bill O'Reilly.
Prize judge Norman Solomon explains the P.U.-Litzer's purpose succinctly:
The P.U.-litzer Prizes were established a dozen years ago to provide special recognition for truly smelly media performances. As usual, I've conferred with Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group FAIR, to sift through the large volume of entries.
The most depressing prize was the Mouthpiece for Power Award, which went to the Washington Post.
Give credit for candor to Karen DeYoung, former assistant managing editor, for this comment in an August report examining why the Washington Post marginalized prewar doubts about White House claims on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." If counter-arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."
Some of you old codgers may remember how inevitably the Post became the mouthpiece of the Nixon Administration and how all the President's men loved the paper for that.
A close second in the drop your head in your hands, clutch your hair, and weep in despair category is the Stenographic Pride Award, which went to Ahmed Chalabi publicist and alleged New York Times journalist Judith Miller:
Defending her use of anonymous sources like Ahmed Chalabi, a highly unreliable Iraqi exile, in prewar front-page stories on Iraq's supposed WMDs, reporter Miller explained: "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence agency myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal." Miller did not explain how her job differs from being a PR agent for the U.S. government.
I'm guessing that back in journalism school Miller was sick the day her class covered the Pentagon Papers, although you'd think that little footnote to American history would have gotten at least a passing mention in the orientation session for new Times reporters. Maybe she was sick that day too.
Almost equally dismaying is the No Apology for Being Gullible Award, which went to CBS' Dan Rather.
Asked at a Harvard forum in July what network TV news could have done better during the build-up to the Iraq war, Dan Rather said "more questions should have been asked" and then declared: "Look, when a president of the United States, any president, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize."
Again, old codgers remember how Rather made himself a journalistic hero by giving the benefit of the doubt to Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam and sitting still at Richard Nixon's press conferences and nodding in quiet agreement as Nixon told him the facts about Watergate.
As you are no doubt aware---don't you love pundit-speak?---as you are no doubt aware, George Bush's nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security and Rudy Giuliani compadre Bernard Kerik withdrew his name from consideration. Kerik's excuse is that he has "nanny problems" that might make for some misunderstandings during the confirmation process, and the Bush Leaguers have been happily pushing this lie
Bernard Kerik appears to have had "nanny problems" the way Al Capone had a little trouble with back taxes.
Maybe it's more apt to put it that if it was the snow on the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the nanny problem was the snow on Kerik's iceberg.
Newsweek has had the scoop, but Josh Marshall's antenna went up as soon as Kerik's name was put in play, and he's been blogging pretty much non-stop on the matter.
Nobody who didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday believed the nanny problems dodge. But the late, great New York Times appears to hire no one to cover Washington these days except for people whose bruises are still fresh from being bounced off the back of that truck.
President Bush readily accepted Bernard B. Kerik's decision to withdraw his nomination as homeland security secretary after the White House quickly concluded on Friday evening that it would be impossible for him to win confirmation for a post that supervises enforcement of the nation's immigration laws if he had had immigration problems in his own household, White House officials said on Saturday.
The answer is that the Times not only employs but considers stars hacks like Judith Miller, although it wasn't Miller's byline on the story yesterday. It was Greg Lipton's and Elisabeth Bumiller's. I can't say whether Bumiller takes after Miller or Miller takes after Bumiller, but neither one is an aberration at the Times these days. They're the epitomes.
This habit of taking at face value the unconfirmable assertions about the personal feelings of officials—assertions hand-delivered to the journalist by a paid mouthpiece whose very job is to deadpan preposterous pieces of mythmaking to the media—is nothing new to most political reporters. But almost no one consumes this stuff more eagerly than Bumiller.
This morning the Times is finally on the real story, but you won't know it if you only read Bumiller and Lipton's piece, which keeps the nanny dodge front and center but adds a new Bush League talking point (same as the old talking points: It's not our fault!) that Rudy Giuliani owes the president an apology, because Bush's people just took Rudy's word on it when they picked Kerik to head their second most important cabinet post.
On the same theme, Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps (see Brad DeLong and type the phrase into his site search for a hundred forehead slap inducing examples) the blonde passes along this link to Romenesko. It's a letter from management delivering bad news to the staff in the usual management speak. Only the management in question is that of the Daily Planet and the staff includes reporters named Kent and Lane.
Our fictional world has been no more immune to the recent economic turmoil than our real-world counterparts. Regrettably, the Daily Planet has made the decision to separate itself from 50 newsroom employees.
Understandably, many of you want someone to blame, and many of you blame our new publisher, Mr. Luther, for these cutbacks. I can assure you Lex Luther only has the longterm interests of the Daily Planet, its readers and all of Metropolis at heart. The shareholders' investment must be maximized if the Daily Planet is to remain relevant in the 21st century. (Some of you have asked if Mr. Luther is majority shareholder, and those people are no longer employed by the Daily Planet).
The blonde swears this is funny even if you're a journalist. Some people enjoy gallows humor.
Ten points if you get the Oswald Cobblepot reference at the end. Mac, you're not allowed to play.
Baseball---every professional sport---is a fiction. The games are real, the players and coaches and agents and owners and all the hangers on are real people, but fans do not know them as real. We don't experience sports, we have them told to us as stories. Between our appreciation of any sport and the sport itself stand professional storytellers who impose their fictions on what's happening. All games come to us second hand. We read about what happened in the newspapers or on the web. We listen to what's happening as it's being described by announcers and commentators who are trying to tell a story as it's unfolding, which is tricky enough, but it's made trickier because they're usually lousy storytellers. They all tell a version of the same story no matter how the game is going---great gutsy star overcoming monstrous odds through a sheer will to power. That's why I gave up watching baseball on TV. All the commentary as the game's progressing is usually describing something that very clearly isn't going on on the field. Radio is easier to take because the announcers are more constrained by facts. They have to describe the action which forces them to keep their analyses and interpretations to a minimum.
The proliferation of sports chat has made the games even more fictional, as another story is imposed upon the story that was told during the actual games. (The importance of the will to power is re-emphasized and exaggerated in all sports chat, making it even more unbearable than the worst announcing during the games.) Then, to top it all off, we add our own fictions when we try to remember them or tell our friends what we saw that they missed.
This is how our local paper began telling the story of last night's Knicks game:
With Allan Houston on the floor last night, the Knicks played with passion. They stepped with more spring, jumped with more hops, shot with more confidence, even broke out some of their street repertoire.
Sounds true to me. It sounds even truer when I hear the rest of the story. Allan Houston sat out the final five minutes of the game and the Knicks lost. Clearly, the Knicks played better with him than without him, but that's true for almost every game. Was it especially true last night? If I'd been at the game would I have seen the passion glowing hotter in Stephon Marbury's eyes? Would I have noticed the extra spring in Kurt Thomas's step?
I only know what the sportswriter saw. Or thinks he saw. Maybe he didn't see any of this. He just saw the Knicks playing better than they've played, he knows that Houston's presence on the floor improves the Knicks' chances of winning, he knows they're glad to have him back in the line-up, and he just assumed that increased passion, higher jumps, springier steps must have been there to see.
Since I know how reporters work, I also know that this reporter might not be telling me what he actually saw. Because of deadline pressure, a lot of sportswriters are forced to write their stories as the game is being played. When the game's over, if nothing dramatic happened in the final moments, they polish what they've written and file it as is, which means that often what you read isn't what happened, but what seemed to be the story when the writer composed his lede. This writer might just be telling me the story of the first quarter! But he might be telling me what another sportswriter he talked to during half time was seeing or he might be telling me what the Knicks he interviewed after the game told him had happened. Anybody who's seen Bull Durham knows just how much faith to put in any athletes' version of what they were up to.
The happy ending was there to be written, but Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens must not believe fairy tales can come true.
Wilkens admitted he was "tempted" to give Allan Houston a chance to cap his season debut by putting him on the floor for the final play with the Knicks trailing by two points, but the coach resisted the urge and left his best shooter on the bench.
The Newsday guy's story is less dramatic, less optimistic. As he tells it, Houston played well but the other Knicks don't seem to have played with any increased passion, spring, or confidence. The story he tells is about a coach who makes a reasonable but wrong decision.
Because the Newsday writer, Greg Logan, is one of my favorite sportswriters I've read more of his reporting on the Knicks than I have of the local guy's. From what I've read, Logan either has more lead time to write his stories or he's awfully good under pressure of deadline, because his stories seem to me tofocus more on how the games he was covering ended. Consequently I feel as though he's giving a fuller and therefore more factual account.
But I don't know because I've never attended a Knicks game in my life, let alone watched last night's game.
It's a story, and to a great degree it's made up. For all I know, Logan had a sinus headache last night and was watching it out of one eye and in a surly mood.
Sportswriters have always felt licensed to interpret, speculate, hyperbolate, embellish, and even invent. They can read minds, interpret dreams, and foretell the future too. That's why they call themselves sportswriters not sports reporters.
I don't mind that it's fiction. I like the stories. Sometimes I prefer the stories to the actual games. My favorite World Series is the 1964 series between the Yankees and the Cardinals even though I was too young to follow it and don't really remember it. But I've read David Halberstam's book.
This is ok, because baseball doesn't matter.
It's not ok when the story's a Presidential campaign. The national media have adopted the sportswriters' reporting habits and now the campaigns are covered as fictions. The story that will be told is decided upon way before the campaign gets underway at some lunches at expensive Washington restaurants and the candidates themselves spend as much time trying to force the media into telling a different story as they do actually campaigning.
More on that some other time.
I can do an hour on why this makes fiction truer than most journalism, no matter how well-reported, and why this is why Tom Wolfe is full of it when he tries to make the case that good fiction is just journalism with the names changed.
Writing that I did not care about the BALCO scandal I was only trying to say that I did not see the scandal as a great threat to the institution of baseball or the moral fiber of the country or to the innocence of our children. I am not personally offended by what Bonds and Giambi did. They didn't betray me. They didn't hurt me. They can't, they aren't part of my life. I think that a lot of fans and most sportswriters lose track of what is really going on when people watch baseball games, which is that they are watching performers perform in order to entertain and amuse.
Any emotional investment in a sport, a team, a player by a fan who is not related to one of the players on the field is a form of self-delusion. When people behave about movie stars and rock bands the way they do about sports we recognize that they've gone off the deep end.
I said I was surprised that I didn't feel much about BALCO, because I usually do go off the deep end on these things. I usually do feel strongly about things like that. I still don't want Pete Rose to get into the Hall of Fame and believe me, you don't want to be in the room when I start making the case against letting him in.
What I didn't feel much about was the story that's being told. I don't care if Bonds was "cheating." I don't care if his records are now suspect, tainted, or meaningless. As I said the other night, nothing that one player does takes away from what a great player did. Even if he didn't cheat, Bonds' 73 homers don't matter the way Ruth's 60 did. And the story of his 73 is pretty dull, nothing like the story of Roger Maris' 61. And if Bonds stays in the game and he passes Ruth in career home runs, Ruth stays Ruth, and Bonds stays Bonds, and Bonds is the much smaller figure, a secondary character. Ruth is the first of the story's two heroes. (Jackie Robinson. You needed to ask?) If Bonds sticks around long enough to pass Hank Aaron, it won't take away from Aaron's story, because Bonds won't have to face what Aaron had to face, not anywheres neear on the same scale, the virulent racism, the death threats, the attempts by sportswriters and commentators and fans to belittle his achievement solely because they couldn't stand the thought of a black man breaking the record.
If Bonds sticks around, people will belittle his achievements, but only because he cheapened them himself. If he lasts long enough to hit 800 home runs, nobody will care. As far as fans will be concerned, Bonds might as well have stood out in center field with a fungo bat and knocked every one of them over the fence from fifteen feet away. The story of Barry Bonds will be a sad, ignominious tale of failure.
That's the chapter I actually am glad to have part of the story, because it adds pathos.
But now I know the right story, the real story, the one told by Elsie in her comment and the person who wrote the letter to Matt Welch.
I don't know if this is how the story goes. But this is the story that leaps to mind. Elsie's son is down there in the minors, working to get the call up to the show. He plays well, he plays hard, but he's one of a dozen kids playing well, playing hard. Teams fill their farm systems with as much talent as they can lay their gloves on because there's no sure way to predict which player who's good enough to draft at 18 is going to be great when he's 26.
But down there in the low minors, besides the kids who want to move up, there are coaches and scouts who want to get to the show too, or who at least want to keep their jobs in the system. It's in their interest that most of the young players they've got under their wing move up to the next level. That proves they know what they're doing.
Say a big league team's high on a kid. They've sent him to their short season single A club in West Middleofnowhere. Halfway through the season the kid's leading the league in stirring up breezes and tripping over his own feet on the way to first base. The execs up in the big league office call down to the manager of West Middleofnowhere. "What have you done to our phenom? My grandmother could strike him out! My six year old niece can hit the ball farther! He's supposed to be tearing the cover off the ball and now the only times he's getting on base is when the other team fails to turn the double play!"
The history of the minor leagues is full of highly touted young players who failed to blossom. Mention the name of Sam Horn to any Red Sox fan over 35.
Think the phenom's manager just tells his bosses, hey, the kid's just not growing the way we'd like?
He goes to the kid. He says, "Look, meat. You got the talent. You got the skills. We know you do or we wouldn't've drafted you. You got what it takes. So what's wrong? What's happening? Aren't you trying? Don't you want to be a major leaguer?"
And the kid says, "Course I do, skip! It's what I want more'n anything!"
And the manager says, "You do, huh? Well, I don't see you wanting it! I don't see you wanting it more'n anything! I don't see you doing everything you can do, make yourself into the kind of player we know you really are."
Maybe the coach stops right there. Maybe he walks away with a clear conscience, thinking he's lit a fire under the kid, now it's up to the kid to come to a boil on his own.
But the kid, who's frustrated, who's eating his heart out, who can't believe it, he's not succeeding the way he always knew he would given the chance, he goes to another coach, or the trainer, or a teammate, or his buddy from high school, and he says, practically begging, "I'm doing everything I can and skipper says it's not enough! I'm at the end of my rope! What more can I do?"
Change your stance, use a heavier bat, stop swinging at the first pitch...lift more weights, get stronger. Try...
If that's the story of steroid abuse, not BALCO, not Bonds, not asterixes, not how this superstar isn't worthy of shining this other superstar's spikes, but the story of how a whole generation of young athletes might be poisoning themselves while the adults who are supposed to be watching out for them look the other way, then I ought to care. We all ought to care.
I was wrong not to take the Barry Bonds story more seriously.
Wrong. Wronger than wrong. I should just take down last night's post and be done with it. But I have a feeling that removing a post you decided was horse hockey violates the bloggers' code. I wish there was a manual.
I read two things that have convinced me how wrong I was.
There are two facts about steroid use that you should understand, and why they need to be strictly controlled in sports.
1) The dosage for steroids to be "therapeutic" for athletic training is substantially beyond the dosages used to treatment specific ailments. FDA and other drug testing has not shown that these dosage levels are safe. In fact, long term retroactive studies on athletes known to use steroids, particularly East Germans athletes from the 1970s and 80s, and Finnish weightlifters from the 1950s, show significant adverse side effects, and measurably shorter lifespans. Likely increased steroid use in the NFL in the 1950s and 60s also probably has lead to the reduced life expectancy of those athletes as well.
2) Basic game theory tells us that if one party acts to gain an advantage, even if illicit, other competitive parties will be forced through the basic "prisoner's dilemma" to also act in the same. IN this case, if "clean" athletes believe that another group is using drugs which are dangerous to their health, and that those drugs clearly provide an advantage (and the pattern of track and field world records show this advantage exists), then to remain competitive, those clean athletes will either have to start using the drugs or retire. This is akin to the "technological treadmill" which has been identified in agricultural economics as a force the pushes farmers into cost reducing technological adoption which may not be economically justified.
Then, I got this comment from the mother of a ballplayer:
I think this is one of those topics you don't really get worked up over unless it hits home. It has hit my home.
Looks like it's soapbox time...
My son is a professional baseball player...minor leagues, but still hoping to make it to "The Show". It's ironic that the same people who drug-test the players are the same ones who freely distribute and encourage the taking of "performance enhancement" supplements and drugs. Sure, I understand where they're coming from- homerun hitters bring folks to the ballpark.
It's decision-making time for these young men. Should they jeopardize their health to become more competitive or should they try to make it on their own? "Cheating" isn't even an issue. Baseball might be a game to the fans, but to these young men, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, a dream and a business. How much are they willing to sacrifice to further their careers?
I, personally, don't care about Barry Bonds or any other player who uses "the cream", "the clear" or any other drug. They're big boys and should know the consequences of their actions. I care about my son, his health, other people's sons and Minor League Baseball's endorsement of these substances.
Anything that puts people in the position of having to chose between their economic self-interest and their principles, not to mention their health, is wrong. Decent people don't force those choices on each other. Civilized nations do not allow that choice to be forced upon their citizens. It's late now. I'll mount my soapbox tomorrow.
But I had to say it tonight. I was wrong. Thanks to Elsie for making me see that.
I'm not really much of a sports fan. I'm a baseball fan. When the Celtics are winning I'm a casual basketball fan, which means for too long now I've been just a baseball fan.
I love the game. I loved to play it when I was young, even though I was never any good, and now I love to follow it. I don't own any caps or team jackets. But I am the kind of nerdy fan who watches the World Series with the Baseball Encyclopedia on his lap. Well, I used to be, before my BE got too out of date. I need the new edition. Hint, hint.
Anyway, I'm a fan. And not just of a particular team. It doesn't take anything at all away from my enjoyment of the game that my favorite team, the Mets, stink and when they're eliminated from the pennant race, which lately has been occurring in May, I happily follow the fortunes of all the other teams.
So two things have surprised me this year. The first is that when my other favorite team, the Red Sox, won the World Series, I felt kind of...well, nothing. I blame that on the election consuming too much of my thoughts and on the Series itself turning out to be such an anti-climax after the playoff miracle against the Yankees.
The other thing that surprises me is that I have absolutely no opinions and no feelings about BALCO.
I don't even know what BALCO means and why the steroid scandal is called that.
I care, I guess, that these guys are taking stuff that is in the long term harmful, and I do care that they are setting bad examples for high school and college athletes who will take the stuff hoping it increases their chances of having pro careers while for most of them it will actually derail their careers and wreck their bodies for life.
But I can't get worked up over the blow to the integrity of the game, and whether or not Bonds and company are "cheaters," and how Bonds' records are all tainted.
I think this is because Barry Bonds is not a real person to me. He's more like a celebrity than anything human. Professional baseball is a spectator sport. Fans are spectators. We aren't part of it. It isn't life, for us. It's amusement. We watch it to be entertained. Getting worked up about it is like getting worked up over what is happening in a movie or any other TV show. Worrying about whether or not some ball players are juiced is like worrying that some thirtysomething actresses have "had work."
I'm not sure I really mean what I just wrote. I'm thinking out loud. It's a blog. I'm allowed to do that. I'm not going to put strikethroughs over anything in that last paragraph, although Typepad now has that feature and it's way cool very useful.
Let me try again. What I like about following baseball is that it's a story. Someone started telling it in about 1845 and, I hope, someone else will still be telling it in 3245. It's a great story and the statistics that non-fans think are meaningless trivia are really shorthand and symbols that those of us who know how to decode them can use to tell the story ourselves.
Scandals have been an important dramatic element of the story, and bad guys, villains, scoundrels, and bums have been some of the most important characters. Nothing that Bonds or Giambi or the other guys may have done (emphasis on the may, folks. Innocent until, etc.) would make them as reprehensible as Ty Cobb or Pete Rose or Charlie Comiskey. And none of them did anything as villainous, despicable, and actually detrimental to the game, and to the country, as Cap Anson. Cap Anson did the one thing that brought real life into baseball in the worst way.
Anson's the character who got black men banned from the major leagues.
To me, then, the fact that Barry Bonds may have "cheated" makes him a more interesting character in the story. Bonds really is a great player. I don't think as some fans do that he's the best player in the game but the other players I think are better are still fairly young and their careers might not turn out to be Hall of Fame careers. Bonds is the best of the guys nearing the ends of their runs or who have retired in the last few years and are going into the Hall when their time comes. He was going to get his plaque even without the 73 home runs, without breaking Mays' record, or Ruth's, or Aaron's. The irony is that if Bonds had had just an average Hall of Fame career then he'd have been quickly forgotten after his induction. Outside of Milwaukee, does any baseball fan talk about Robin Yount or Paul Molitor?
In the future, the story will be more interesting because we can endlessly debate and argue and speculate about what kind of player Bonds would have been if he'd never met Greg Anderson. We can wonder about what drove him and analyze his relationship with his father and that will lead us into telling ourselves the tale of Bobby Bonds' strange, sad, just missed being great career.
Hank Aaron's 744 home runs have never been as interesting to me or as real as the home runs Willie Mays didn't hit because he had to play so much of his career in Candlestick Park where the winds batted back a lot of deep fly balls that would have left other, friendlier parks or the home runs Ted Williams would have hit if he hadn't lost all those years to World War II and Korea.
Nothing that one player does diminishes or taints what another player's done. The great sportswriter Red Smith wrote an essay at the time when Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth's home run record. A lot of people were rooting against Aaron, many because Aaron was black and they were racists, but many because they just were against time. They wanted Ruth's record to stand for all time so that time could be defied and denied. They were afraid that if Ruth's record was broken Ruth would disappear from the history books, from memory, from life. They were scared that Ruth would die, again, completely this time, his spirit finally sent off to oblivion with his body. Smith addressed his essay to them.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's remark about another deity, [Smith wrote] Ruth must have admired records because he created so many of them. Yet he was sublimely aware that he transcended records and his place in the American scene was no mere matter of statistics. It wasn't just that he hit more home runs than anybody else, he hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and a more flamboyant flourish. Nobody could strike out like Babe Ruth. Nobody circled the bases with the same pigeon-toed, mincing majesty.
"He was one of a kind," says Waite Hoyt, a Yankee pitcher in the years of Ruthian splendor. "If he had never played ball, if you had never heard of him and passed him on Broadway, you'd turn around and look..."
...Roistering was a way of life, yet Ruth was no boozer. Three drinks of hard liquor left him fuzzy. He could consume great quantities of beer, was a prodigious eater and his prowess with women was legendary. Sleep was something he got when other appetites were sated. He arose when he chose and almost invariably was the last to arrive in the clubhouse, where Doe Woods, the Yankees' trainer, always had bicarbonate of soda ready. Before changing clothes, the Babe would measure out a mound of bicarb smaller than the Pyramid of Cheops, mix and gulp it down.
"Then," Jim Cahn says, "he would belch. And all the loose water in the showers would fall down."
What Smith did was tell the legend of Babe Ruth in a way that made it clear how important Ruth was to the story of the game. The records are admirable, the stats are fun, but they don't matter. The story matters. The characters matter.
He changed the rules, the equipment and the strategy of baseball. Reasoning that if one Babe Ruth could fill a park, 16 would fill all the parks, the owners instructed the manufacturers to produce a livelier ball that would make every man a home-run king. As a further aid to batters, trick pitching deliveries like the spitball, the emery ball, the shine ball and the mud ball were forbidden.
The home run, an occasional phenomenon when a team hit a total of 20 in a season, came to be regarded as the ultimate offensive weapon. Shortstops inclined to swoon at the sight of blood had their bats made with all the wood up in the big end, gripped the slender handle at the very hilt and swung from the heels.
None of these devices produced another Ruth, of course, because Ruth was one of a kind. He recognized this as the simple truth and conducted himself accordingly.
So I guess what I'm saying is not that I don't care but that I actually kind of enjoy what's unfolding. The story has taken another dramatic turn.
Shame on me, I suppose. I should care.
Matt Welch cares. And it seems to me that he cares about just the right thing, not Bonds' possible relationship with steroids, but the way real life is trying to intrude upon the game and ruin the story.
I swear on Lyle Alzado's grave that I had no intention of dragging the Urinalysist-in-Chief into this, nor did I start with a sympathetic view toward your left-fielder. But "looking at the issues instead of the people involved" led me to conclude that Bonds is being smeared in order to convert his notoriety into public pressure for the union to accept a drug policy more to the liking of nanny-staters like Bush, McCain, Ashcroft, Pelosi and Frist.
That's from one of Matt's own comments on this post. The comments are more interesting than the post itself---Matt's stirred up a dilly of a baseball argument, make sure you read them. The post itself is really Matt's alerting us to this excellent column by him in Reason.
(Matt's comment about the Republican nanny-staters reminds me that I've been meaning to link to this post from a couple weeks back by Nick Simmonds of Neogaidaros.)
Another guy who cares and about the right things is Bill James, he of the famed Baseball Abstracts. James cares about another ugly bit of real life intruding upon the story. He senses something really nasty behind the sanctimonious posturing of a lot of sportswriters and columnists, talking heads and grandstanding politicians who have decided to make an example of Barry Bonds.
Just as the world is recovering from the recent crime wave involving thefts of SpongeBob statues from the tops of Burger Kings across America---Nance had the lowdown as the tragic story unfolded---now Baby Jesuses have begun disappearing from their creches.
Most of the Jesuses have already been recovered, thank St Anthony. In one case, I believe, the cops were guided to the thieves' hide-out by a wandering star.
The Grinch was never a suspect, according to authorities. Cast iron alibis. Max swears he was with him the whole time. Cindy Lou Who also verifies he was carving the roast beast at the time.
The blonde---yes, "the blonde." Eric Zorn can go fry an egg on this one.---the blonde attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Her senior year someone put the snatch on the baby Jesus from the school's Nativity Scene.
The kidnappers even left a ransom note in the hay.
The Principal announced the news over the intercom in a prim, starchy voice, quivering with barely suppressed outrage. "Girls," she said, "Something terrible has happened! Someone has stolen the Baby Jesus!"
Suspicion fell immediately upon several of the blonde's best friends. She ran with a fast crowd---the class president, the valedictorian, the salutatorian, a gang of toughs who chewed toothpicks, rolled their uniform skirts up above their knees, and spit out of the corners of their mouths before giving up the solutions to complicated math problems.
The class president was the Principal's chief suspect. She was a known wiseacre and smartypants with a record of mischief who was notorious for her devastating impersonation of one of the school's most beloved or at least ancient nuns.
But there was no evidence, the class president denied any involvement in the crime, the Principal could never put together the case, and a few days later the Baby Jesus was returned to his stable safe and unharmed. No charges were ever filed.
Couple years go by, the blonde's in college in Boston and she runs into a girl she'd gone to high school with at a party. The blonde had been friendly with the girl but never close. She was a good girl and knew to avoid falling into bad company so she'd avoided consorting with the blonde and her gang of roughs. By a good girl I mean a teacher's and mother's dream, quiet, obedient, thoughtful, self-effacing, a good student and everybody's most reliable friend, the kind of girl who never got into trouble and never caused her parents a minute's worry---and yet nobody hated her.
The blonde and the good girl were reminiscing about the good old days at Archbishop Carroll Catholic High when the good girl abruptly announced, "I have a confession to make."
The blonde, a cub reporter scenting a scoop or at least some excellent gossip, said, "Do tell."
The good girl faltered. "I can't."
"Sure you can," said the blonde.
"No, really. It's too embarrassing."
"Spit it out," said the blonde, "You'll feel better."
"C'mon. I won't tell."
The good girl hesitated. Then it burst out of her.
"I'm the one who stole the baby Jesus!"
Turns out, like all good girls, the good girl had gotten sick and tired of her reputation as a good girl. She'd decided she was going to do something really wicked and wild, at least once before graduation, just to prove to everybody she wasn't anybody's perfect angel. Of course, being a good girl, stealing the Baby Jesus was the wickedest thing she could dream up.
She should have asked for advice from the blonde and her crew.
I don't know where that good girl is now. I don't know what the recidivism rate is for baby Jesus nabbers. Probably, she's still a good girl, and probably, being a good girl, she forgot to arrange alibis for all the kidnappings.
When the Mannion brothers get together at family events, we drive our wives crazy by huddling up to hold interminable conversations about movies, TV shows, comic books, and, sometimes, politics, although only as politics can be related to movies, TV shows, and comic books.
There are four brothers Mannion, just as there were four of the outlaw Younger Brothers and four Karamazovs. There were actually five Marx Brothers. No, the fifth one wasn't Karl. Gummo. He retired from the act before they made any movies.
One of us is a real grown-up with grown-up concerns to occupy his mind, so it's usually just the other three of us going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about Star Trek, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The West Wing, etc.
I'm probably the worst offender. I could write a book on why Qui-gon Jinn is the indispensible man in the Star Wars universe. I should write a book. It would probably earn me tenure somewhere.
Regular readers of these pages know this is not a habit I confine to Mannion family reunions.
But in all of the Mannion brothers' obsessive discussions and in all my lonely and morbid dwelling on subjects I should have gotten over dwelling upon when I was 12, The Incredibles has never been subjected to the Mannion treatment.
That's because we tend to pick on the imaginative and logical holes in what are really inferior works of pop art. That's why Star Wars is perfect fodder. Lucas' movies are swiss cheesed with plot holes you could fly the Millennium Falcon through.
But The Incredibles is pretty darn close to perfect, and the only thing I have to say about it after, Gosh, that was fun! is Holly Hunter sure has a sexy voice. Also I wonder why Hollywood can't find her another comic role as good as Elastigirl and if Brad Bird the director knew he was ripping off Martin Short with his voicing of Edna.
(You see why my sisters-in-law hate me?)
But even I was surprised to find out that there's a debate over the politics of the Incredibles!
Besides, Brad Bird's last movie, The Iron Giant, was very definitely a Democratic movie. Was so! Kent Mansley ("I work for the Government"), the paranoid commie-hunting super-patriot who turns out to be a super coward, isn't a character any Republican would invent to flatter himself. And the themes of self-sacrifice and putting the good of the community ahead of your own wishes and desires are not high on the Republican hit parade. Not to mention how members of the NRA must cringe every time Hogarth tells the Giant, You are not a gun!
What those conservative bloggers are doing is what idealogogues of all persuasions do. They co-opt every good thing as an argument for their own side, and assign every bad thing to their political opponents as a way of demonizing them.
"The Incredibles is a Republican film because it extols family values." Subtext: Democrats are against family values.
"The Incredibles is a Democratic film because it clearly hates the soul-lessness of the suburbs and working for soul-less big corporations." Subtext: Republicans have no souls.
Meanwhile, I didn't see any conservative bloggers rushing to claim the ugly, brutal, angry Team America for their side, even though it was made by the avowedly Republican creators of South Park.
The Iron Giant isn't a Democratic movie any more than The Incredibles is a Republican movie, because Brad Bird is an artist not a partisan propagandist and the folks at Pixar are only interested in making excellent films for kids of all ages and all backgrounds.
There are far more and different ways of looking at life than as an expression of political thought. The Red State vs. Blue State debate is intellectually crippling and the thing David Brooks is going to have to answer for when he gets to heaven.
St Peter: And what was your biggest accomplishment in life, Mr Brooks?
Brooks: I taught all of America to look at itself as permanently divided along partisan lines in ways that encouraged each side to loathe and despise the other.
St Peter: You go to hell!
The argument that The Incredibles is Republican---or Democratic---depresses me. But there turns out to be another argument, more philosophical than political, but with definite political applications, and this argument amuses me no end.
It's the argument that The Incredibles is a positive expression of the philosophy of Ayn Rand!
I was 19 and I didn't know what to make of it. I didn't know why the girl wanted me to read it. I couldn't figure out if she was telling me that she was a frigid goddess who needed to be raped or if she would only love me if I went out and blew up a building.
Fortunately, before I could come to any conclusions she waltzed off with one of the three other guys she had proving their love for her by reading Ayn Rand too.
But thanks to her I have enough intellectual ammunion to take on the Randian case for The Incredibles. But thanks to one of the guys at Long Story; Short Pier I don't need to.
As with any superhero work, there are echoes and resonances, responses and repudiations of Rand and Nietzsche. That stuff’s built in, like the secret identities and the underwear on the outside: even if you try not to do them, you have to take the time to let the audience know you’re not doing them, which means you end up doing them. Whoops. —So, yes: there’s a there there in The Incredibles, sure, but mostly because it is what it is. Brad Bird wanted to tell a story with superheroes in it; along with that genre comes certain baggage; that he hauls it about without complaint does not mean he’s crafted a candy-colored piece of crypto-Randian propaganda.
For instance: to read the conflict with Syndrome, the villain, as a “class war” of Übermenschen v. Lumpen is to miss the whole point of his costume, his tropical island, his lava curtain, his expendable henchpeople, his Heat Miser hair, his zero-point energy gauntlets. Syndrome doesn’t want super powers. He’s had super powers ever since he was a wee tot: he’s the mad inventor, the kid genius, the gadgeteer: a super-powered archetype with a long and pulpy pedigree. What it is that Syndrome wants is to be a superhero—without, y’know, the pesky bother of all those superheroics. He doesn’t get the altruistic end of the stick; he just wants to shortcut straight to the adulation.
So Syndrome isn’t an unpowered drone with delusions of acting above his station. Syndrome’s an asshole.
None of the crew there signs their posts so I don't know who wrote it, but I can tell you---warn you---he's a spiritual Mannion. Follow the link for an excellent and fun deconstruction of the Randian argument. Then check out the whole site.
Frankly, I'm jealous. They've got wallpaper! I want wallpaper! Also they have better graphics, a more attractive typeface, and, most disgusting of all, superior brains and talent.
Reading their pages makes me feel like one of the mediocrities railing against Howard Roark. Damn. The Randian argument has escaped into the blogosphere! It must be stopped! Call The Incredibles!