New York Times’ op-edifier Frank Bruni wrote a column the other day wondering What’s the matter with kids today? Because no one else has ever looked into the issue before.
The subtext, I swear, is When I was your age I had to walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways!
I’d have thought that at forty-nine Bruni was too young to be this old, but there he is on the op-ed page of America’s Paper of Record telling us how spoiled, coddled, and soft our children are.
Well, their children, maybe.
Our kids are hardworking, overachieving go-getters. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
The occasion of Bruni’s column was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s impolitic swipe at critics and opponents of the Common Core Curriculum and the concomitant increased standardized testing that measures schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness, dismissing them as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [are finding out] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were…”
Bruni sides with Duncan. But he sees the opposition coming mainly from over-indulgent parents, presumably of all colors and living in towns and cities as well as in suburbs, and sentimental teachers fretting about putting too much stress on little Tyler and Taylor.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.
Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
I think Bruni must have written that paragraph while watching a football game and was subconsciously influenced by the vapid commentary and Gatorade ads. “Reaching higher and digging deeper?” “Mettle?” Clichés don’t stop being clichés because you rephrase them as rhetorical questions.
There are serious pedagogical, political, economic, and moral objections to the elitist-driven, backed, and financed efforts to “reform” public schools.
Standardized tests measure the ability to take standardized tests and that puts the pressure on schools to teach students how to take the tests as opposed to teaching them the subjects mastery of which the tests supposedly measure.
The agenda of the test them from the moment they can pick up a pencil crowd includes closing neighborhood schools, busting unions, reducing teachers from professionals to employees, and, ultimately dismantling the public school system and replacing it with privatized academies for the chosen few---children of the elite and children the testing has revealed to be good candidates for joining the elite---and learning factories for everyone else run by the same greedy sociopaths who run just about every other industry.
And proponents of longer school days, longer school years, more homework, more tests, more rigorous curriculums have a telling habit of framing their arguments in purely economic terms. A good education is one that makes you marketable; the ideal is a form of vocational training for the elite. It’s there as part of what Bruni thinks is his final convincing argument:
“And they’ll be ready to compete globally”
As though the only reason we have schools is to manufacture knowledge workers who will help the U.S. leave China in our dust and an individual’s life has meaning and worth only to the degree he or she contributes to the GDP.
Bruni, who apparently has never heard of Michelle Rhee or if he has likes what he’s heard, acknowledges all that only to sneer it away. The problem as he sees it is the trend of rewarding kids for the wonderfulness that arises from their just being themselves instead of demanding they earn success in school and in life through hard work and real achievement. Instead of learning life is sorrow and toil, they’re being taught it’s all rainbows and ponies.
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.
It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.
Yes, because children are dumb and don't know the difference between a trophy that says Champions and a souvenir that says Thanks for participating.
Now here’s where I let my own elitism show. If I was going to pick on parents for the failure of schools to produce the kind of diligent, tough-skinned, tough-minded future meritocrats Bruni appears to think it’s the job of schools to produce, I wouldn’t blame the ones who expect a gold star on all their kids’ papers and ribbons on all their fingerpaintings. I’d blame the ones who seem to think that the only point of high school is football and prom, the ones who don’t care about gold stars and ribbons because they don’t care about what their kids are learning or not learning because fundamentally they don’t value learning at all and are in fact suspicious and hostile towards it, the ones who aren’t protecting their kids from the knowledge that life is hard, but are protecting them from an education.
We are a nation that on the whole despises what schools do---teach. All the nations we’re competing with “globally” revere their teachers. We mock ours and are currently engaged in a state by state effort to beggar them, and we’re doing it because we don’t think what they do is worth paying for.
We’re proud of our anti-intellectualism, boast of thinking with our gut and not our head. We despise experts, especially those with advanced degrees, and prize street smarts, savvy, and (all too) common sense to the point that we’d rather persist in being wrong than accept correction from the experts.
Bruni is a contributor to this anti-culture through his affiliation with the National Press Corps and its many adherents of the Church of the Savvy who are still looking for ways to prove that their guts were right about the 2012 election and Nate Silver with his math and numbers was wrong, and he catered to it when he was covering the 2000 Presidential election by writing love letters to that intellectual slacker and proud ignoramus George W. Bush while his colleagues in the press corps were telling us not to trust Al Gore because he was too smart for his and our own good.
Bruni is also complicit in his championing the “reformers” who can’t seem to find any other reason for improving schools than that it will help us to better “compete globally.” Learning, education, the whole idea of schools only matter only to the degree they make students marketable. Under these circumstances, students’ (or as they should be called, the paying customers’) rational response to any assignment is “Will this help get me a job?” and honest teachers will almost always have to answer “Probably not.”
I’m a skeptic when it comes to standardized tests, obviously, but I’m generally in favor of introducing a more rigorous curriculum. I believe kids should be taught early that life is sorrow and toil and full of disappointment, unfairness, and downright nastiness, although my rhetoric is more influenced by Ecclesiastes than by ESPN:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
And the point isn’t just to get them used to pain and heartbreak, but to help them appreciate their own good luck as just that, luck, so they feel compassion for those whose luck fails and want to help them as they will need help when, inevitably, their own luck fails.
The object isn’t to scare them into buckling down and turning themselves into little workaholics and pathological overachievers.
The hope is to get them thinking there might be more to life than worldly success.
At any rate, I could blame those parents, in fact I’m more or less did that, but there are problems with it, starting with my not actually knowing those parents are there or there as a force. I’m just going by what my gut tells me. But it’s also reductive. I’m doing what I really don’t like about Bruni’s column.
I see him doing what I see being done too much everywhere these days: identifying an Other to scapegoat.
The problem with our schools isn’t systemic. It isn’t political. It isn’t economic. It isn’t cultural. The problem is…
How many of Bruni’s readers you figure recognized themselves in his indictments of those coddling parents?
My bet would be none.
Readers of the New York Times op-ed page know better. They demand better. They set standards. They expect real results. Meritocrats themselves, they’re not about to let their progeny slack off.
No, that’s not us.
We’re not the problem.
A tale of "reform" in action. NYC Art Teacher: How Reform Destroyed My School and My Career.
I swear, there’s now a critical mass of cars on the road driven by people who people who learned how to drive from playing video games. They drive aggressively and for advantage as if a Thanksgiving trip to grandma’s is a race. One of them cut me off on the highway yesterday afternoon. He was coming down the entrance ramp. I was in what he clearly thought of as his lane. There were cars on my left, so I couldn’t pull over to let him in, and another car coming up fast behind me so I couldn’t drop back. If he was looking he’d have seen he needed to slow down. Rules of the road require him to yield anyway.
He wasn’t looking at anything but the space ahead of him and me.
Rules of the road don’t apply to guys like him, anyway.
He raced me and got into the lane way too close to my front end for comfort.
Then he got off at the very next exit, which was about a quarter of a mile away. He didn’t slow down to do that of course.
I really wanted to hate this guy.
And if his fast and furious driving wasn’t enough he gave me other reasons.
He was driving an SUV.
A BMW SUV.
He had a big Yankees decal taking up half his rear window.
He had New Jersey plates. Probably voted for Chris Christie.
I was all set for a good long hate.
Then I saw it. On his rear gate. Another decal. A yellow rectangle. With three red bars grouped in the middle, two thicker green bars on each end.
Of course, if he was a Vietnam Vet, he was too old to have learned to drive playing video games. He’d have taken a real driver’s ed class in high school.
Still can’t hate him.
I’m no fan of Matthews. Nothing personal. I’m no fan of any TV talking head shows mostly because I think all they do is stoke angers. I can’t bear to listen to Matthews’ yelling but more than his yelling what I find hard to take is that he’s a sentimentalist.
This actually makes me like him more than I do most of his colleagues who either go in for cheap cynicism or sophomoric ironies.
But Matthews seems to have gained his world view from Frank Capra’s movies and the paintings of Norman Rockwell, entirely missing the point that Capra and Rockwell were both saying Too bad people really aren’t like this, but it wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Listen to Matthews, even when he’s hopping mad, and you can’t miss it. He thinks we all live in Bedford Falls.
When I want to think life is like a Frank Capra movie or a Norman Rockwell painting I watch a Frank Capra movie or look at Norman Rockwell’s paintings.
I don’t buy books by Chris Matthews.
His Kennedy bio, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, was just another visit to Camelot. The sentimentality of this new dual portrait of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan is breezily and fatuously announced in the title, which I know Matthews may not have chosen himself. Reagan never answered to “Gipper.” It was an advertising slogan cynical members of the Press Corps parroted to help peddle an image of Reagan as a wise in his folksy way, genial but tough when he had to be father-figure that nobody in Washington bought except, apparently, a young aide to Tip O’Neill named Chris Matthews.
The premise of Tip and the Gipper, that politics worked in the 1980s because O’Neill and Reagan could put aside partisan differences and hash out compromises for the good of the American people, doesn’t jibe at all with my memories of the time. Politics worked when O’Neill and other Democrats in the House and the Senate got together to keep Reagan from getting what he wanted and forced him into accepting things he didn’t want.
Here’s the odd thing though.
If I hadn’t already decided to give Tip and the Gipper the skip, Greenberg’s review wouldn’t have convinced me to. In fact, it might have made me want to read it.
There are things in it that strike me as being as basically wrong as calling Reagan the Gipper.
Starting with this:
The problems begin with the false symmetry Matthews sets up. He paints Reagan and O’Neill as mirror images: two “larger than life” “Irish-American” politicians, titans of their parties, standard-bearers for their worldviews. But O’Neill wasn’t “larger than life” (only large). Nor was he a notable spokesman for liberalism as Reagan was for conservatism — or as Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy were for liberalism. Even the most powerful House speakers haven’t rivaled the president in importance.
Greenberg should have tried out that paragraph in certain precincts around Boston.
Tip O’Neill didn’t appear on the national stage as Speaker of the House in 1981 any more than Reagan made his entrance in the 1980 Presidential election. O’Neill became a “titan” of his party as Democratic Majority Leader during Watergate. There’s really no defending the phrase “larger than life” but if any politician of the last third of the 20th Century could be accurately described as larger than life, and not just large, ha ha, it was O’Neill. And someone who’d be happy to tell you so is Barney Frank, who during the Reagan years wasn’t the “notable spokesman” for liberalism he would become. He was a very junior member of Congress whose influence, to the degree he had any, was due to his being the protégé of Tip O’Neill who was grooming him to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. The reasons Frank never became Speaker are obvious but he almost didn’t last out the eighties as Congressman at all. He survived “coming out of the room” as O’Neill put it and the scandal that attended it because O’Neill protected him. There’s no being glad of Barney Frank without being glad of Tip O’Neill. When Reagan came to Washington, he wasn’t met by just some “old-style, steaks-and-cigars Boston Irish pol”, as Greenberg would have it. He was met by the Democratic politician who may have been most instrumental in running Richard Nixon out of town.
Greenberg gets to the central fallacy of Matthews’ book by pointing out that O’Neill and Reagan squared off against each other from the start, although I’m not sure that his one example is all that telling as evidence of O’Neill’s less than larger than life status or that he and Reagan didn’t spend Reagan’s Presidency in affable deal-making.
But on the key legislative issue of Reagan’s presidency — the 1981 fight over his budget, which slashed taxes on the rich — O’Neill simply got rolled. Spooked by the president’s popularity, which surged after he was shot by John Hinckley in March of that year, O’Neill failed to compete with Reagan in the new age of media politics. Worse, he also came up short in his supposed strong suit — riding herd on his caucus — as scores of Democrats, fearing the tax-cutting bandwagon, defected to back the Reagan bill. The consequences — skyrocketing budget deficits and debilitating inequality — have plagued us ever since.
Those tax cuts happened right at the beginning of Reagan’s first term when he was flush from his trouncing of Jimmy Carter and the economy was still a wreck from years of double-digit inflation, slow economic growth, and stubbornly high unemployment. It’s hard to oppose tax cuts under any circumstances, let alone those doleful ones.
(To be fair to Greenberg, who is a professor of history, journalism, and media studies and Rutgers University, the review reads like something that started out much longer and was haphazardly trimmed to fit by a hurried and distracted copyeditor with no real knowledge of the subject at hand.)
The real question is what happened over the course of the next seven years?
And basically what happened is what didn’t. Reagan wasn’t able to bring about the Reagan Revolution movement conservatives hoped for.
Not that he didn’t do damage.
It’s just that without Democratic opposition---obstructionism?---led by O’Neill the Reagan Years would have looked a lot like the George W. Bush years. Just as a for instance, Reagan wanted to go to war, at least by proxy, in Central America. He wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and replace them with Right Wing militarists. That didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen not because Reagan and O’Neill put aside their differences. It didn’t happen because Reagan lost the political battle to O’Neill.
Central to understanding what was going on between Reagan and O’Neill is Iran-Contra, which is not a story of the happy triumph of bipartisanship.
Reagan and O’Neill did practice the art of self-interested hypocrisy. But that’s what it was on both their parts, hypocrisy. They pretended to get along despite their differences in order to maintain their sanity as much as anything else. But the differences mattered to them. They were both intensely partisan and both fighters by nature.
But there were other factors at work shaping their relationship, one of them being Reagan’s health, which was not good.
Reagan was genuinely of the Right. But he wasn’t as ideologically committed to Reaganism or Reaganomics as his disciples would have and as they are. He was pragmatic and he was something else. Old. His image as a man who somehow defied age was an image. His brave and cheerful response to the assassination attempt inspired affection and admiration among people who loathed his politics but really the wound took a lot out of him, physically and mentally. It aged him. He didn’t recover like a young man. It’s likely he never truly recovered. And then there was his Alzheimer’s. It’s clear now, and should have been then, that in his second term he was already drifting away.
Throughout almost the whole of Presidency, Reagan didn’t have the physical energy or mental focus necessary for a sustained ideological battle. What may have looked to the young Chris Matthews like a willingness on Reagan’s part to cut deals and make compromises may very well have been evidence that Reagan just didn’t have the stamina left to care.
O’Neill was on the way out the door himself, as it happened.
In other words, what Matthews is remembering as a golden time in American politics was in reality a tale of two old men wearing out in public.
Maybe I’m being sentimental.
Let me add this.
The reason sentimentality has to be guarded against is that it often also nostalgic. Nostalgia is pernicious because it causes us to see people and events out of time, that is, apart from the circumstances and conditions that made them what they were and as cut off from things they themselves caused in the present.
Even if Matthews was right about the relationship between Reagan and O’Neill, it has to be seen as a product of the political conditions of the time, and there’s no making it a model for our political moment without recreating those conditions and undoing the political history of the last twenty-five years.
Some things happened since the days Tip and the Gipper hoisted beers together and those things were brought about by things Ronald Reagan did.
Greenberg points out something that can’t be pointed out enough when talking about Ronald Reagan. Yes, the man could be genial. That warm chuckle and the twinkle in his eye were genuine signs of a sunny disposition and affable nature. But he had a mean streak.
And it infected his politics. It was there in his talk about Welfare Queens. It was there in his callous indifference to the AIDS crisis. It was there in his dismissal of all the small Midwestern farmers facing foreclosure and the ruin of their and their families’ and their communities’ lives as “the inefficient.”
And with a warm chuckle and a twinkle he sold that meanness to the nation. Government is the problem, he said, but the problem was that government, liberal government, was based on the idea that we’re all in this together.
Nonsense, the Gipper chuckled and twinkled, we don’t owe anything to each other, we’re all in for ourselves, and the object of government to the degree it has one is to keep out of the way of the selfish and greedy.
Reagan himself wasn’t able to enshrine that in legislation because Tip O’Neill wouldn’t stand for it.
It had to wait for the arrival on the national stage of another larger than life politician.
All Reagan’s heirs have had as their goal to out-Reagan Reagan in meanness.
But Newt got their first and paved the way for the rest of them.
As you could probably tell, the reason I resent Greenberg’s characterization of Tip O’Neill is that it’s a challenge to my own probably sentimental view the man. That view is the product of two things, his actually having been my Congressman for during the first four years of Reagan’s Presidency and my having read at a too impressionable age Jimmy Breslin’s How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes From an Impeachment Summer, still to my mind one of the best books about Watergate, although sentimental as only Breslin can be.
Of course He does. And this is one of my favorites of His tweets ever:
Some keep the Sabbath by going to church. I keep it by going on Twitter. Follow God by clicking here.
Every word in the Bible is literally true. Then they start grouping themselves into sentences and you've got yourself a problem.— God (@TheTweetOfGod) November 23, 2013
Bogging down in J. Michael Lennon’s biography of Norman Mailer, A Double Life, just about the point where I’d have expected. The Naked and the Dead is a bestseller and Mailer’s trying to cope with his newly acquired celebrity---mostly by sleeping with as many women as he can find time to---hanging out in Hollywood, looking to sell the screen rights and struggling to come up with an idea for his next novel.
Which puts him in the same position he’ll be in for the rest of his life. A celebrity writer whose fame and reputation rest on his being a great novelist but who has no more great novels in him to write.
I should say the position he held when I first became aware of him almost thirty years later.
A sad way of looking at that is that at fifty, Mailer was still what he was at twenty-five.
A better way of looking at it is that at twenty-five he'd achieved a literary and intellectual prominence very few American writers of any age have come close to achieving and none has since Mailer left the stage.
Either way you look at it, it's still the case he didn't have that next great novel in him. And that seems to have been apparent from the moment he cashed his first royalty check from The Naked and the Dead.
I was hoping he book would help me better appreciate Mailer's other novels, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, Why Are We in Vietnam?, even An American Dream and Tough Guys Don't Dance. Doesn't look like that's going to happen.
At this point in the story, he's toying almost aimlessly with ideas for his next book, none of which are grabbing him. It's likely he was intimidated by the expectation that he had to come up with something that would top The Naked and the Dead or at least prove it wasn't a fluke. It’s also possible he was distracted, having too much fun enjoying the perks of his fame and fortune. His friend Marlon Brando thought so. On his way out the door at a party Mailer and his wife were throwing for a house full of movie stars, Brando stopped to upbraid Mailer.
“Norman, what the fuck are you doing here [in Hollywood]? You’re not a screenwriter. Why aren’t you on a farm in Vermont writing your next novel?”
Probably though it was simply that he didn't have any stories of his own he felt compelled to tell. Having decided for reasons he doesn't appear to have been able to make clear to himself or anyone else, he left himself no options but to find stories in other people's lives or hope to live out a good one himself.
Turned out he was able to do both but both led to great journalism not fiction.
At the time though, he claimed he was on the lookout for a subject that would give him the chance to capture the historical sweep of the moment, an ambitious but vague goal. But he was thinking of himself as the heir of his literary hero. No. Not Hemingway. John Dos Passos. The Naked and the Dead owes more to the novels in Dos Passos' USA trilogy than to A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, something I'd never thought of until Lennon pointed it out.
The big subjects were there. The return of the G.I.'s to civilian life. The rise of McCarthyism. The Cold War. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Mailer tackled the first in Barbary Shore but lost his thread in the mélange of sex, politics, and Kafka-esque surrealism. (James Jones eventually made it his with Some Came Running .) He intended to take on the second in The Deer Park and I guess it's in there somewhere, although all I remember is the clumsy and self-aggrandizing attempts to make his fictional alter-ego, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, a better Hemingway hero than any of Hemingway's heroes. He didn't get around to the Cold War until Harlot's Ghost in 1991.
And thus he let the fifties and his reputation get away from him.
So it appears that what I have to look forward to is how Mailer recovered his status as celebrity novelist and public intellectual after turning out two weak novels during a decade when Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, James Jones, Carson McCullers, Herman Wouk, and Irwin Shaw were coming into their own and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos were still alive and productive.
Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this Hollywood interlude, although I wish Lennon had more of a knack for anecdotes and character sketches. But you know who leaps off the page? Shelley Winters. I knew she was smart and savvy from her appearances on The Tonight Show and you can see the spark of humor and wit in even her most tragic roles from her noir days and the goofiest from her later great second career as a character actress. But it's fun reading how she bought her intelligence to bear as a young starlet. Lennon reports that she credited Mailer with her getting the part of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, George Stevens' updating of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Sometime shortly after the Mailers arrived [in L.A.], Shelley Winters asked for his help. She wanted desperately to get a role in an upcoming film, A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which George Stevens was directing and producing for Paramount. According to Winters, after a dinner at a Mexican Restaurant with Mailer and Burt Lancaster (with whom she was having an affair), she asked Mailer to explain the novel to her, especially [the] factory girl who is murdered by the protagonist…(played by Montgomery Clift in the film.) After Lancaster left, Winters asked him to come to her apartment. Mailer remembered that he had his “own little agenda tucked into the middle of it. Hey, I’ll be alone with this blonde actress and maybe good things will come of it,” but Winters was “totally unsexy'” that night. She was very worried and looked “ready to go in for a strong case of the weeps,” he said. Winters was impressed by his blue eyes, and for several hours, she said, “the young handsome Norman Mailer talked to me about the inner workings of that girl’s mind and what Dreiser wanted the reader to feel about the whole American syndrome of success at any prince. Norman knew so much about Dreiser that I got the feeling he had been his protégé.” Mailer gave her the key character trait: [she] is “a girl completely without artifice.” Winters used the line with Stevens, got the role, and did a magnificent job in it. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best director, and Clift and Winters were nominated for Oscars. She told and re-told the story of he coached her many times, always acknowledging with gratitude his role in launching her career.
Mailer’s adventures among the movie people would make an interesting and colorful novel.
Too bad Mailer himself didn’t write it.
Instead he turned out The Deer Park.
Going to keep plugging away at A Double Life. Something else I’m hoping to find out---what’s the actual historical basis for my thinking of Mailer as the towering literary figure and one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s. As I wrote in my post Owing Norman Mailer one a couple weeks back, I became aware of Mailer as MAILER. He was a given. I don’t think I questioned his standing any more than I questioned Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s, with the difference being that it was my teachers who told me to revere Hemingway and Fitzgerald and it was people on television and in magazines and newspapers who were in awe of Mailer, even when they hated him and made fun of him and tried to dismiss him as a blowhard and a clown. Gore Vidal probably did more to convince me of Mailer’s importance than Mailer did himself. Ironic, ain’t it? I just figured that anybody who got under Vidal’s skin like that had to be some sort of real deal. Keep in mind I was and am a fan of Vidal in a way I never was and doubt I’ll ever be of Mailer. But when I was in eighth grade, I was more influenced by what I saw on television, and the grown-ups on my TV told me to pay attention, so I paid attention.
The question I didn’t ask and that I’m expecting A Double Life to answer, is just what those grown-ups were paying attention to.
By the way, I know how I became a fan of Vidal. A friend of mine in high school who was two years ahead of me was a fan. He could quote whole swatches of dialog from An Evening With Richard Nixon and… He pushed Vidal’s essays and Washington D.C. and Burr at me. Then Pop Mannion started subscribing to the New York Review of Books.
When I call myself a fan, though, I mean of Vidal’s style and wit as a writer and the way he played “Gore Vidal” on TV. I’ve since come to realize that as a writer he was an incorrigible liar and fabulist. He wrote things and professed to believe things he knew were not true just for the malicious fun of it. Mailer, I’ve always thought, wrote what he believed to be the truth and which, often and not coincidentally, was true.
But speaking of Vidal, did you read this sad story about Vidal’s miserable final years and his strange, almost perverse disposition of his estate in his will at the New York Times, For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist?
Worth checking out.
Definitely worth checking out, the Self-Styled Siren’s appreciative eulogy for Shelley Winters, who died in 2006.
And, although it’s not directly related but since I did bring up James Jones’ novel Some Came Running: via Movie City News, an excerpt from Richard Elder’s book, The Best Film You’ve Never seen, here’s director Richard Linklater talking about Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 adaptation of Jones’ novel starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacClaine.
I’m not sure what I accomplished in yesterday’s post, Obamacare as a feat of engineering, except to make a metaphor for metaphor’s sake. What I wanted to point out was that given the goals of Obamacare, the “disastrous” rollout was entirely predictable. And those goals are not to ensure that everybody who needs to see a doctor gets to see one even if they can’t afford it or even to make sure everybody has health insurance but to ensure that everybody can see a doctor because they have health insurance and do this without costing taxpayers too much or requiring a total overhaul of the insurance industry.
That meant it was going to be a confusing mess to start.
By predictable I don’t mean “Should’ve seen it coming and fixed it before it happened.”
I mean, it was a necessary part of the design.
(Except for the bungled website. That was predictable in the first sense.)
It’s a very complicated bit of machinery (There I go again, metaphorizing again.) with lots of moving parts that have to function both autonomously and in synch and it all has to be timed just right---if it moves too slow, insurers and potential customers drop out; if it moves too fast, insurers get scared off and potential customers can’t keep pace and fall away.
What this means is that it was always going to be the case that moving too smoothly and swiftly would be as bad or worse than what people are afraid is happening, that things are moving too slowly and roughly.
So…built into the design was encouraging competition among insurance companies as a way of keeping down costs and making sure buyers had a variety of decent policies to choose from.
But requiring that the choices be decent meant the cancellations and the rate shock (for many but not all or most or even close to a large percentage) were built in to the works.
Here’s where the President’s assurance that nobody would have to give up a policy they liked falls into the first category of predictable. He should have known this wasn’t true, that is, if he understood his own program. Makes you wonder if he didn’t or if he was lying the way salesmen do or if he was assuming that people holding junk policies knew their policies were junk and of course didn’t like them and were just itching to dump them for something better. I’d bet the last one. He seems to have a habit of assuming that what he regards as the obviously intelligent thing is obviously the obviously intelligent thing to everybody else.
At any rate, the cancellations and rate hikes are features not bugs…or were. But for a similar reason so was the initially slow rate of sign up.
Encouraging competition increased choices, all right, but that increases the time necessary to evaluate those choices and make a decision between them.
To put it simply, you don’t buy insurance the way you buy a book from Amazon or decide what video to stream tonight.
Buying insurance is a complicated, confusing, worrisome, bothersome, time-consuming chore.
And that’s with the help of an agent.
Having to do it on your own, without an agent, without a Staff Recommendations or a People Who Purchased This Policy Also Purchased…is terrifically more vexing and intimidating and anxiety-inducing. No matter how careful you are, you can’t escape the feeling that you overlooked something or checked the wrong box or misread the instructions or could have made a better choice, because odds are you did, did, did, and could have.
So of course if you’re going to buy a policy you’re going to be extra-careful, you’re going to take extra time, you’re going to put off a final decision until you’ve gotten all the advice you can get and read and re-read all the fine print, and, because it’s how human beings are, you feel time’s up and you can’t put it off any longer.
I would bet that the designers, whom I’m assuming understood that, would have liked to have built into the design more time for people to sign up, but they had to plan against another potential problem.
There are many potential customers who can’t put off the decision as long as possible. They have to buy today because they need to see a doctor today. The effect is what it was always going to be, the first wave of sign-ups were going to be the people insurance companies don’t want as customers. Sick people. People with pre-existing conditions. Older people. Poorer people.
But to get back to the slow sign up rate.
Anyone who points to that as proof people don’t want Obamacare should be asked when was the last time they bought insurance themselves.
Any type of insurance. Life insurance, home owner’s, auto, health.
And not the last time they updated an existing policy. But bought a whole new one.
Then they need to prove that when they did, they read the whole contract including all the fine print through and through, understood it all, and finalized their decision in an hour!
They should also have done it online without the guide of their agent.
Or they should be asked if they have good health insurance at work if their company changed insurers or altered coverage recently and if so did they read the memos and brochures that came down from HR? Did they read over everything in the folders and binders handed out? All the fine print too?
Or did they change jobs and when they were hired did they look deeply into their new employer’s health insurance package? Did they do all the above?
Almost certainly not.
Almost certainly they glanced at the basics and assumed the rest was good, trusting their bosses or unions to have made the best choices for them.
If they tell you they did read it all, including the fine print on the fine print, then either they are OCD, or paranoid, or much smarter and more diligent and blessed with more free time than us average mortals or…they’re lying.
Buying insurance takes time and trouble under the best circumstances. If people were rushing to sign up it would mean there are a whole lot of reckless and careless and foolish people out there or a lot more people who need to see a doctor today than we knew, an absolutely horrific thing to contemplate, or some insurer somewhere is offering gold policies at bronze prices to all and sundry, which would be great, although I’d be surprised if that wasn’t foreseen by the designers and designed against from the start.
At any rate, we need to wait until people have had more time to do some smart and careful shopping or until time’s running out and people feel they can’t put it off any longer.
Two articles from the Los Angeles Times via Eric Boehlert, who tweets the first link with the preface "wouldn't it be nice if LATimes columnists didn't have to fact-check God-awful Obamacare reporting?": a column by Micheal Hiltzick, The Myths of Obamacare's 'failure' and a story by Noam N. Levey, Healthcare plan enrollment surges in some states after rocky rollout, which may be a more optimistim-inspiring headline than the whole story warrants but is still good news for the President or at least encouraging news.
Two academics with disabilities go to an academic conference on disabllities and unfortunatey this is not the beginning of a tasteless joke.
Must read post by Bill Peace: An Unexpected Humiliation at a Conference on the Humanities, Disability and Health Care.
When I was in first grade, our class' part in the school's Christmas concert was to sing The First Noel and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing! Guess what we had to dress up as.
Our costumes were fairly simple. Robes made from sheets following a pattern the nuns sent home with us. Halos made of coat hanger wire wrapped in tinsel. And poster board wings we cut out and painted in art class. Attaching the wings turned out to be the tricky part. Most of my classmates had theirs taped or stapled or sewn to the backs of their robes, but mine were bolted on.
I can't remember what method I'd tried to start, but for some reason my wings wouldn't stay on when I tried the on at home the afternoon before the concert. I was in despair. I was going to be the only angel without wings. But Pop Mannion came up with a solution. Pop was trained as a scientist but he's always had a bit of the engineer in him and by the time he was done I owned the sturdiest, most securely attached set of wings any angel could hope for. I hated them.
Pop's design involved nuts and bolts, a backing of sturdy cardboard, and an elaborate network of belts and straps and twine. When he was finished, I felt more securely harnessed to my wings than an astronaut in his capsule. I didn't wear the wings. The wings wore me. I was also embarrassed, because Pop's design also required cutting an opening in the back of my robe so everbody could see that I was the Frankenstein's monster of angels.
Still, it worked. My wings stayed on and open in an almost realistic way. But it was an engineering solution to what was a relative simple problem in creative design. Needlessly complex, inelegant, and ugly.
I'm sure I complained, and I'm sure Pop didn't understand the reason for my complaints. He and I saw attaching the wings as different sorts of problems.
I'm thinking Obamacare is an engineering solution to a relatively simple problem.
The problem that needs to be solved is that too many people in this country can't afford to see a doctor when they need to. That is, the problem is inadquate health care. The simple solution is for the government to just pick up the tab for everybody. That, however, would mean the end of the health insurance industry. The problem Obamacare is designed to solve is that too many people can't afford to see a doctor because they don't have health insurance. And part of solving that problem was figuring out how to get people insured without blowing up a major American industry.
I've compared looking at the messiness of the rollout and declaring the whole project a failure to looking at a construction site in the first weeks after breaking ground and declaring that the building will never get built. But maybe it's more like trying to replace all the sewer and water mains beneath a city without closing off any streets or shutting down any businesses for even a day.
It'll get done. But it's needlessly complex, inelegant, and ugly.
Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) watches as his brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) blows up Sherlock’s cache of private papers for reasons not worth explaining here. But I’m hoping the fact that Mycroft knows how to build a bomb is a clue he isn’t just the playboy restauranteur he’s seemed to be so far on CBS’ Elementary.
The writers of Elementary have introduced their versions of Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, and Mycroft Holmes and the disappointment of the blatant revisions of their characters as they originally appeared in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories is nothing compared to the infuriation caused by less immediately noticeable but even more truly fundamental changes.
Making Irene Adler a criminal and Holmes’ erstwhile lover has been done in the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey Jr movies and, to kinkier effect and with more amusing perversity, in the BBC series Sherlock. And it’s nothing to have Moriarty a woman, especially after working a gender change on Watson, except that rather than the effect being feminist, it’s subtly misogynistic, depending on whether you think the good of having Holmes’ intellectual equal a woman outweighs the fact that evil female nemeses are a staple of insecure males’ nightmares. Also, it’s been done too: In Law and Order: Criminal Intent. By the way, Olivia d’Abo, who played Nicole Wallace, Bobby Goren’s female Moriarty, appeared in last week’s episode, The Marchioness, I hope as a wink to fans of both series and not just coincidentally. It’s even less than nothing to have slimmed Myrcroft down and sexed him up, and the idea that the Holmes Brothers are rivals with a complicated family history isn’t at all faithful to Conan Doyle’s stories, in which, although Sherlock is affectionately critical of his older brother’s apparent laziness and lack of ambition, the two men like and admire and trust each other, but it is a nod to---or an out and out steal from---Sherlock, where, however, the rivalry, animosity, and distrust are all on one side and symptoms of Sherlock’s personal dysfunctions. It’s also implicit in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and it's the stick---and schtick---that drives the plot of Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, although the smarter brother isn’t Mycroft, it’s Sigerson, Wilder’s in-jokingly named invention.
Reducing Mycroft not just in bulk but in achievement and status from an important government official who likes a good meal to a playboy restauranteur may turn out to be a good, that is, actually creative, change. It’ll depend on how things play out and what surprises are in store. Mycroft is going to be a recurring character this season and it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a good reason Alan Moore made Mycroft the second head of the agency that would become the MI6 of the James Bond universe in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (See The Bruce-Partington Plans.) He’s also the second in what, judging by Skyfall, is a long line of M’s for whom M is not just short for Minister.
So these changes don’t bother me---too much---because they hardly strike me as changes, except in the Been There, Done That, Bought a Higher-Quality T-Shirt way.
But having Irene Adler outsmart Holmes by being sexually manipulative, taking away Moriarty’s mathematics degree and professorship, and not allowing Mycroft to demonstrate he’s smarter than his brother diminishes those characters and diminishes Holmes in the process.
I’ll have a lot more to say about Moriarty and Irene Adler in a future post, but for now I need to say this about Elementary’s Irene versus Conan Doyle’s original:
I think it’s a given among casual fans of Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia that Holmes comes to admire Irene Adler and compliment her with the title the Woman because she outsmarts him. but that’s not quite the case. She barely does. They play a game of chess, trading pieces, until she contrives to upend the board.
It turns out that they’re playing against a clock, a fact she knows, because she’s arranged it, and he doesn’t, because she manages to keep him from discovering it until time’s up and it’s too late.
So she does outsmart him in that way.
But he’s used to being outsmarted. It happens. Not very often, and he doesn’t like to admit it when it does. But it does. There are cases he’s failed to solve, criminals who got away. Irene’s almost certainly the first woman to do it, and he admires her for pulling that off. But his admiration is for her is based on something more and less than that, as well.
Until she comes along, Holmes doesn’t believe that any women are capable of outsmarting him. It’s not that he thinks they’re unintelligent or less intelligent than men. He thinks they’re too emotional. Too flighty. Too undisciplined in their thinking. He doesn’t doubt their brains. He is contemptuous of their characters. However inherently intelligent they may be, they don’t have the willpower or the moral fortitude to act intelligently. (This, by the way, is his excuse when he is outsmarted by other women or feels that he might be: You can’t out-think someone who isn’t thinking.) Irene surprises him not just by being smart but by being pure of motive. She's honest and decent and, instead of indulging herself emotionally, she does the right, that is, the intelligent thing in the end.
This doesn’t change his opinion of women. He just makes an exception---the Exception---for her.
By having their Irene “outsmart” their Holmes by sexually beguiling and emotionally toying with him, the producers of Elementary have made her into exactly the sort of inferior being Conan Doyle’s Holmes takes all women to be. If he saw what happened to his 21st Century counterpart, he wouldn’t dub Adler the Woman. He’d say, “Isn’t that just like a woman” and feel confirmed in his misogyny.
Back to Mycroft.
Here’s how we’re introduced, through Watson, to Conan Doyle’s Mycroft in The Greek Interpreter.
Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.
“I am glad to meet you, sir,” said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal. “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler. By the way, Sherlock, I expected to see you round last week to consult me over that Manor House case. I thought you might be a little out of your depth.”
“No, I solved it,” said my friend, smiling.
“It was Adams, of course.”
“Yes, it was Adams.”
“I was sure of it from the first.” The two sat down together in the bow-window of the club. “To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot,” said Mycroft. “Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.”
“The billiard-marker and the other?”
“Precisely. What do you make of the other?”
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
“An old soldier, I perceive,” said Sherlock.
“And very recently discharged,” remarked the brother.
“Served in India, I see.”
“And a non-commissioned officer.”
“Royal Artillery, I fancy,” said Sherlock.
“And a widower.”
“But with a child.”
“Children, my dear boy, children.”
“Come,” said I, laughing, “this is a little too much.”
“Surely,” answered Holmes, “it is not hard to say that a man with that bearing, expression of authority, and sun-baked skin, is a soldier, is more than a private, and is not long from India.”
“That he has not left the service long is shown by his still wearing his ammunition boots, as they are called,” observed Mycroft.
“He had not the cavalry stride, yet he wore his hat on one side, as is shown by the lighter skin on that side of his brow. His weight is against his being a sapper. He is in the artillery.”
“Then, of course, his complete mourning shows that he has lost someone very dear. The fact that he is doing his own shopping looks as though it were his wife. He has been buying things for children, you perceive. There is a rattle, which shows that one of them is very young. The wife probably died in childbed. The fact that he has a picture-book under his arm shows that there is another child to be thought of.”
I began to understand what my friend meant when he said that his brother possessed even keener faculties than he did himself.
Over the course of last season, Elementary got better and better, and cheekier and cheekier, about riffing off the Conan Doyle stories, and when Mycroft was brought on screen (in the person of Rhys Ifans) in the first episode of this season, I expected the writers to play around with that.
Didn't happen last week either when Mycroft showed up in New York and there was an actual opening in the plot for the dueling deductionists bit as Mycroft followed his brother around through a clumsy homage to Silver Blaze (made clumsier by the writers having used the big reveal of that story, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, in a previous episode). But Mycroft doesn't interrupt as Sherlock walks and talks his way through his investigation to point out something Sherlock's missed or even show signs he's taking in at least the same things if not more than Sherlock observes, and Sherlock gives no clues he's expecting Mycroft to chime in and one-up him.
Maybe tonight, but I'm not holding my breath.
There’s some cheating by Conan Doyle in that scene from the Greek Interpreter. The Holmes brothers are indulging in guesswork and basing too much on assumptions and prejudices like the idea that an expression of authority can be seen, never mind defined, from a view from an upstairs window or that there’s such a thing as the cavalry stride. But otherwise they are working from observable physical facts that Watson could have and, Sherlock would say, should have seen himself. The difference is that Sherlock and Mycroft know what to look for.
This is how Shawn Spencer works on Psych.
Shawn is hyper-observant. He solves cases by seeing things that are there to be seen by anybody if only they knew to look (and they like him have 40-20 vision; some cheating by the writers goes on) and that they often do see but don't grasp the significance of or connect to other clues. Shawn makes the connections and this is how a case can turn on something as simple as his reading the shipping label on a packing crate and Shawn still comes off as the smartest person in the room, and keep in mind the room usually includes Gus, Juliet, Lassiter, and Henry, none of whom are dummies. Shawn's genius isn't in the deduction, but in his having thought to read the label.
This isn't how Elementary's Holmes works, though. He doesn't make deductions based on observable clues. He doesn't do much observing at all. He doesn't have to. He's able to pull things out of his head no one else could know unless they'd read ahead in the script. We've seen him perform the trick of taking in another character's life story at a glance, but without explaining how he's done it so we're left to infer he's seen something that was there to be seen by anyone if only they'd looked more closely, if they'd not just seen but observed. It turns out, however, this isn't what's been going on.
In another recent episode, Holmes takes Watson to the police station on a Friday night as part of her training as a junior detective and orders her to deduce what's landed each of the prisoners in the holding cell in jail. He doesn't flat out say, "You know my methods, apply them," but that's her assignment. And she comes through by...reading their body language.
Well, actually, by reading time-worn bits of business actors have used since the days of the Ancient Greeks to convey their characters ' emotional states to audience members way up in the cheap seats. But still, that's what she does, treats gestures, postures, and expressions as if they are as signifying as smudges of dirt on a shop clerk's trousers, wax drippings on a lost bowler hat, or a children's picture book under the arm of a man wearing widower's weeds and ammunition boots. And presumably this is how Holmes does it, which means, since real human beings aren't as obvious and predictable as mediocre actors, he's not so much observing clues as reading minds.
And when he's not solving cases by telepathy, he's solving them by being literally a know it all. This Holmes knows stuff. Tons of stuff. He reads and watches and memorizes everything. We've seen him training his mind to do the impossible, take in streams of information from multiple sources at once and file it all away in his mental attic from where it can be retrieved instantaneously the moment he needs it. Conan Doyle's Holmes makes a point of not knowing stuff. He keeps his mental attic as uncluttered as possible so that nothing extraneous is there to get in the way of his thinking a problem through, confident that if there's information he needs he can find it quickly outside his head. Transported to the 21st Century, Conan Doyle's Holmes would be a cheerful and enthusiastic user of Google. In fact, Sherlock's Sherlock is. He's as wedded to his smart phone as other, more traditional Holmeses have been wedded to their magnifying glasses. (Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes uses one of those too, a sign that there are things there to be seen. Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes doesn't need one since there's nothing he needs to see to solve a crime. Even if there was, he still wouldn't need one,because it turns out he has superpowers. "My senses are unnaturally keen," he's boasted, which makes him more like Adrian Monk than like Sherlock Holmes, although Monk has the good grace to be sorry about it, calling his OCD inflected abilities a blessing and a curse.) Elementary's Holmes has his smart phone with him at all times too and has an impressive computer set up at home as well. But when he takes to the internet it's generally to confirm what he already knows, which makes it basically a trope the writers use to convince us of the reality of Holmes brilliance: See, he really is that smart!
But what it all comes down to is that the only way Mycroft, or Irene Adler, or Moriarty, or Watson can be smarter than Holmes is by knowing stuff he doesn't know. But the show's already established that he knows everything. So the only way he can be outsmarted is by his lapsing into sudden stupidity, which is how it comes about that Irene Adler bests him by getting him to think with his...um...heart...and not his head.
It'll be interesting to see what they finally do with Mycroft and if and how he's revealed to be the smarter brother. I'm pretty sure there's more going on with him than he's letting on. I’ve heard that an episode based in part on The Bruce-Partington Plans is in the pipe. Maybe it's tonight's.
I don’t know if I should get my hopes up. Mycroft hasn’t shown he’s the more intelligent brother so far, but he’s proving to be the more sensitive one. Which is in keeping with Elementary’s emphasis on recovery and relationships. Whatever the case Holmes and Watson are working on in the main plot, the subplot is usually about someone getting in touch with their feelings. Although their originals got along happily, Elementary’s Sherlock and Mycroft have a number of issues to work out, starting with the reason for their current estrangement---Sherlock slept with Mycroft’s fiancée.
Yep, both these Holmes brothers are robustly heterosexually sexual.
The Non-Adventure of the Dueling Deductionists continues. Friday morning update with minimum spoilage: Last night's episode, Blood is Thicker, did do a take-off on The Bruce-Partington Plans, using the central gimmick of that story, a body mysteriously appearing on the roof of a moving vehicle, a delivery truck here instead of a train car. And it turned out to be a rare occasion when Holmes did the Shawn Spencer routine and came to a conclusion based on observable physical clues that anyone could have seen had they thought to look. But Mycroft didn't figure in solving the mystery at all. And there was another missed opportunity for him to one-up Sherlock or what would have been an opportunity had the writers been setting things up for it in Mycroft's two previous appearances. Early on, Mycroft wonders why Sherlock missed the opening of Mycroft's new restaurant, the Diogenes (Get it?), and Sherlock testily replies that he was busy solving the abduction of a teenage girl. Here, if the writers had been doing it right, Mycroft should have said quickly, "It was Adams, wasn't it?" He didn't and the brothers just continued on working out their personal issues.
There was a nice in-joke bit of casting though. Back in the 1980s there was a TV Movie called The Return of Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes wakes up in the late 20th Century after having been frozen like Austin Powers for 80 years and teams up with his old friend Doctor Watson's grand-daughter, Jane Watson. Jane was played by Margaret Colin. Last night's guest star on Elementary? Margaret Colin.
Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, and Jon Michael Hill, with, from time to time, Rhys Ifans. On CBS, Thursdays at 10 PM Eastern, 9 Central. Recent episodes are available to watch online at the Elementary website.
Just got around to reading all of Richard Cohen’s now notorious “gag-reflex” column in the Washington Post. Have to say that for the first six paragraphs it’s not offensive. I even agree with it. It sounds like something I could have written myself. In fact, I have written it myself or, at least, variations on Cohen’s themes here. That the Radical Right and Religious Right Wings of the Republican Party have taken over the GOP, that Ted Cruz has made himself the hero and tribune of those wings, putting himself in the best position to win the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016 over any and all challengers especially a “moderate” like Chris Christie, that Christie’s landslide re-election as governor of New Jersey will count for nothing with the voters who will decide the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary and thus decide the front runner for the nomination and probably the likely winner, those same Radical Right Wing and Right Wing Christians who are rallying around Ted Cruz.
But then Cohen misses the point of his own argument.
It begins with his noting that the Right Wing Christians want to nominate one of their own and Cruz is one of their own and Chris Christie definitely isn’t and probably won’t do a good job of pretending he is. Mitt Romney had to repudiate his Mormanism. Rick Santorum is nominally a Catholic but he knows how to talk like a Right Wing Christian and does it so well that it’s probable that in the matter of his religion he thinks and believes like one to the point that I doubt his belief in transubstantiation and the efficacy of good works.
But Christie is made of sterner stuff. He may not be the most devout Catholic in the pews every Sunday, but he’s not likely to pass as an evangelical Protestant. Even if he can force himself to mouth the words, the Fundamentalists will sense how he’s repressing his own gag reflex. And there’s where Cohen begins to go off track.
He leaves out a word.
Which means he leaves out another reason the Evangelical Right won't take to Chris Christie.
For forty years and more, the so-called liberal media has been assiduously failing to notice this about the Religious Right. They’ve been determinedly presenting the Right as just folks, well-meaning conservative types, who may be a step or two behind the times and given to occasional lapses that reveal their quaintly old-fashioned views, but essentially decent-minded with their hearts in the right places who really don’t mean what they say, they just get grumpy or forgetful some times is all, but they can be excused for a lot because when all’s said and done they are the real regular Americans.
Except, when all’s said and done, they actually hate most other regular Americans.
Catholics live in cities and have ethnic sounding names. Catholics are Kennedys. Catholics believe in transubstantiation and the efficacy of good works.
Catholics are others, part of the THEM and the Republican Right is united in one thing. Hating on THEM.
The Republican Right is a tribe of bigots and haters and since the Right controls the Party then, effectively, as Cohen the Republican Party is a party of bigots and haters.
Now comes Cohen’s notorious paragraph:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, no one thinks Cohen is confessing to his own nausea at the thought of a white man married to a black woman. He’s talking about the Tea Party types who we know are sickened by the thought. And enraged. And frightened. Just remember the reaction to the Cheerios ad this past summer.
But here’s the thing. He’s just said that the people who think like this aren’t racist.
He calls them “people with conventional views.”
But being sickened, enraged, and frightened at the thought of a bi-racial couple isn’t conventional. It hasn’t been conventional for going on two generations, at least. And even when it was conventional it was also racist. Racism itself was conventional. There are surely old people who still hold views that were “conventional” when they were very young, but those people’s views aren’t conventional today. They’re hide-bound, calcified, atrophied, ignorant, and racist. And anybody who isn’t old, and I mean well-over seventy, who holds those views can’t claim they’re just conventional.
It’s that exculpatory “conventional” that undoes Cohen. With it he is excusing racists. But he’s actually gone further. He’s excused a political party actively pursuing a racist agenda. “Today’s GOP is not racist.”
Cohen isn’t the only member of the Village Media in denial about the racism fueling the Republican opposition to everything President Obama tries to do. He isn’t the only one plugging his ears when Republican politicians boast about what they intend to do with their voter suppression efforts. He isn’t the only one refusing to see the Confederate flags waving at rallies. And while I haven’t seen Cohen doing it himself, if he has, he wouldn’t be the only one blaming the open contempt Republicans show for the President not on them but on the President’s “aloofness,” that is, on his refusal to grovel and shuffle and otherwise show them he knows his place in their company.
You are either a fool or a liar if you claim not to see how much of what is going on is intended to humiliate the black man who had the nerve to become President.
They’ve just announced they’re going to impeach Eric Holder and, never mind their trumped up charges, they’re going to do it just to show Holder he’s been uppity. But the fun for them includes another chance to embarrass the President and show him who are the real bosses in their America.
Cohen is on track to make this point in those first six paragraphs, and then he ignores the thrust of his own argument to go out of his way to give Republicans an excuse to deny what’s happened to their party.
Cohen’s column is headlined “Christie’s Tea Party Problem.” But the Tea Party isn’t just Chris Christie’s problem. It’s every Republican’s problem, because, as Cohen says, the Tea Party is running the Party and the Tea Party is a tribe of bigots, haters, and racists who don’t happen to hold “conventional views.” They are radical reactionaries who are trying to re-establish white supremacy as the law of the land.
Watch how pictures like this get used in the upcoming Republican Presidential campaign.
Ta-Nehisi Coates handles this much better than I have: Richard Cohen in Context.
Make sure you read all of Cohen’s column.
Frank Schaeffer, author, artist, blogger, and uneasily loving but apostate son of prominent fundamentalist parents:
To be true to the heart of the gospel message — redemption through selflessness, hope and Love — necessitates a fearless repudiation of parts of the same book (and tradition) that also brings us a message of hate. To find the spiritual truth that’s hidden within the Bible it must be edited by people of good will who are informed by the spiritual truth we carry within us.
The loyalty of those who wish to live as Christians as opposed to those who wish to force others to be like them, by using Christianity as a weapon, must shift from fidelity to the Bible (or any other text), to seeking the life-affirming message of transcendence buried within the madness, ignorance and fear that we discover not just in the darker portions of all “sacred” texts, but in every human heart.
Emphasis added. Read all of Schaeffer’s post at Patheos, What my Parents Never Seemed to Have Done is Consider that the Bible Contains a Paradox.
PS. I’m planning to read Schaeffer’s new novel, And God Said, Billy!
As things stand these days, we have ceased to see ourselves as living in a society and gotten used to seeing ourselves as being part of an economy.
Economies are only the ways societies feed and shelter themselves, which means they are only about money and how it works. But our particular economy is about making more money. More and more of it. Obscene amounts of it, for its own sake. And it works by treating all of us as interchangeable and disposable. We only matter to the degree we are useful to the making of more money. Once we are deemed not useful, once we are disposed of, that’s it. We cease to matter.
Except as problems.
This is not true.
It’s only the way things are because we’ve given control of the money and the making of money to assholes.
We aren’t here to make assholes money.
In the words of Dr Vonnegut, the novelist’s son, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.
In a similar vein, from Why Washington Is Cutting Safety Nets When Most Americans Are Still in the Great Recession by Robert Reich:
The second big reason why shares are up while most Americans are down is corporations continue to find new ways to boost profits and share prices by cutting their labor costs – substituting software for people, cutting wages and benefits, and piling more responsibilities on each of the employees that remain.
Like I said. Interchangeable. Disposable. Useful only to the degree we help make more money.
For the most of the last five years I thought the most historically important fact about Barack Obama was that he’s our first African American President.
Turns out, that’s nothing.
In the last few weeks I’ve learned that the most historically important fact about him is that he’s the first politician to ever break a promise or make one on which he couldn’t deliver.
Live and learn.
Rest stop on the New York State Thruway, somewhere just east of Utica, around ten this morning. Tuesday. Novemeber 12, 2013.
Artist Jeff Bennett:
“My friend and I used to joke about buying a [painting by Thomas] Kinkade, and if one of us did something stupid, punishment was you’d have to hang it up for a week,” Bennett told WIRED. “We never did it, ’cause no one wanted to spend that much on it. But one night watching Apocalypse Now, we talked about [superimposing] the whole ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene on a Kinkade.”
That never panned out, but the joke ended up inspiring him a few years later to create something far nerdier — and, as it turns out, viral.
“[Lately], I’ve had trouble sleeping,” he said in a 4 a.m. email. “One night recently, I came across something on Kinkade and how he was the ‘Master of Light.’ That’s when I thought I’d throw the Dark Side at him. Instead of helicopters [this time], I pictured AT-ATs looming over.”
See all seven of Bennett's Wars on Kinkade images in a slide show at Wired.
Spock: Captain, I haven’t been able to locate Dr McCoy, but I believe I’ll soon be able to access his Twitter feed and we might find clues to his whereabouts from that.
It isn’t all skittles and beer over on my Twitter feed. Things are generally stern and earnest. But that doesn’t mean we never have any fun. One of my favorite games to play with folks I follow and who follow me back is to change the titles of movies, usually with the substitution or addition of one or two words, to evoke an ironic or snarktastic alternative universe film. Last night’s game was to make any film a Star Trek movie, for example, Roman Holiday became Romulan Holiday.
I can get carried away when I join in on these occasions, but here are a few of my Star Trek movies:
With Six of Nine You Get Eggroll.
The Voyager of the Damned.
The Worf of Wall Street.
For the Earth is Hollow and I Have Touched the Vanilla Sky.
Ferengi the Bell Tolls
Captain Sisko Pike. (I thought of making this one Captain Sikso Christopher Pike but decided that was too much.)
The Counselor Troi directed by Ridley Scott.
The Man Who Would Be Klingon.
Gorn With the Wind.
The Data of the Jackal.
And my personal favorite, The New Jack City on the Edge of Forever.
Ok, on the one hand, most of this is just the same amateur psychobiography that's been the Village conventional wisdom on Barack Obama since he started running for President and that's always boiled down to self-important jackasses saying to each other, "He doesn't laugh at my jokes. What's wrong with him?"
And, his golf game? Really? Didn't we get past this with Clinton and his fondness for mulligans?
On the other hand, a lot of it rings true and it fits with things I've been told by people who knew him at Columbia. And...while I'd like to think that refusing to make self-important jackasses feel their own importance even more isn't a character flaw, it is a political failing. Making self-important jackasses feel important is part of a politician's job at every level, from town board on up to the White House.
That said, here's Vanity Fair's Todd S. Purdum on President Obama, The Lonely Guy.
Self-containment is not simply Obama’s political default mode. Self-possession is the core of his being, and a central part of the secret of his success. It is Obama’s unwavering discipline to keep his cool when others are losing theirs, and it seems likely that no black man who behaved otherwise could ever have won the presidency.
But this quality, perhaps Obama’s greatest strength in gaining office, is his greatest weakness in conducting it. And as he ends the first year of his second term, that weakness seems to dog him—and to matter—more and more. At a time when the abrasions of office leave any president most in need of friends, Obama is the capital’s Lonely Guy.
Read all of Purdum's article at Vanity Fair. Quick note: Don't get me started on Thatcher and Reagan, but Tony Blair's "special relationship" with first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush wasn't good for the United States or Great Britain either. And I don't know what Angela Merkel feels about it coming out what I'll lay odds she already knew---the Germans are no slouches at espionage themselves---I'm pretty sure that no matter what else she thinks of President Obama, she's just glad she won't be subject to any more surprise shoulder rubs from an American President.
Hat tip to David Frum.