A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, October 31, 2009

They'd Rather Be Right

Frank Rich on the special election in New York state.
The battle for upstate New York confirms just how swiftly the right has devolved into a wacky, paranoid cult that is as eager to eat its own as it is to destroy Obama. The movement’s undisputed leaders, Palin and Beck, neither of whom have what Palin once called the “actual responsibilities” of public office, would gladly see the Republican Party die on the cross of right-wing ideological purity. Over the short term, at least, their wish could come true.

Just Say Yes?

Jacob Weisberg foresees an end to prohibition.
Within 10 years, it seems a reasonable guess that Americans will travel freely to Cuba, that all states will recognize gay unions, and that few will retain criminal penalties for marijuana use by individuals. Whether or not Democrats retain control of Congress, whether or not Obama is re-elected, and whether they happen sooner or later than expected, these reforms are inevitable—not because politics has changed but because society has.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Necessity of Passion

Ta-Nehisi Coates on journalism and blogging.
Incredible journalism is like incredible baby-making--it starts with passion. The guy combing through the city budgets because it's his job, isn't the same as the guy combing through them because it keeps him up at night, because he thinks about it when he shouldn't be. Institutions support that passion--but they don't create it. When my old Howard buddy was killed by the cops, it was all I could think about, and it was all I wanted to write about. And I did it almost for free, because it helped me sleep at night. I was burning to get it down. I deeply suspect that the bloggers you love, and the reporters you love, are similarly on fire inside.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What I'm Listening To

George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess. Willard White (Porgy); Cynthia Haymon (Bess); Harolyn Blackwell (Clara); Damon Evans (Sporting Life); Bruce Hubbard (Jake); Cynthia Clarey (Serena); Marietta Simpson (Maria); Gregg Baker (Crown). Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, conduced by Simon Rattle.

I'll never give up my fondness for the old Leontyne Price-William Warfield highlights album -- on which Price not only sings Bess's arias but also Clara's "Summertime" and Serena's "My Man's Gone Now" -- but this complete version is undeniably one of the great opera recordings. The cast is superb and the choral and orchestral work outstanding, but the real genius lies in Simon Rattle's conducting. Seriously, if you don't own this one, you should. (The video below is from a made-for-TV version available on DVD, with Haymon and White, conducted by Rattle.)

Outfoxing Fox?

John Scalzi on why the Obama administration's attack on Fox News is a smart strategy.
The White House says Fox News is not a real news organization and is the propaganda arm of the GOP, Fox News throws a very public shit fit about it, which gives it higher ratings and an impetus to skew even more to the right in its presentation, and go out of its way to criticize Obama even further. Meanwhile the noise is all covered by multiple other news outlets, which in aggregate reach a much larger audience, which show Fox News anchors and personalities in the middle of ideological conniptions, confirming to the general population the proposition that, indeed, Fox News is more interested in politics than news, and reinforcing the impression that Fox News and the GOP are reading off the same page. Which makes the GOP look unreasonable in an era in which its popularity isn’t, shall we say, spectacular to begin with.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Folding the Newspapers

Kevin Drum forecasts the demise of newspapers.
A few years ago I was on a panel discussion and the moderator asked us all how long newspapers distributed on newsprint would last in the United States. My guess was 20 years: that is, the last newspaper in the country would shut its doors in 2025. That's now looking pretty optimistic: a lot of people these days seem to think that 2012 is more like it, and today's news won't do anything to change their minds. At the same time, there are various ways you can look at that 10% drop, and one of them is simply that the recession has condensed several years of decline into a single year. A $500 newspaper subscription is a prime candidate to get sliced out of the family budget when times are tough and news can be found everywhere.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What I'm Watching

Revolutionary Road

Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on exactly why a film doesn't work for you. Here's a well-acted, skillfully designed movie that doesn't make the impact it should, given all the talent on display. It seems disjointed, as if pieces of the plot and keys to the characters are missing. There's no faulting the performances. DiCaprio's boyishness is just right for Frank, who hasn't yet figured out what it is to be a man. And Winslet delivers April's comparative maturity with her accustomed brilliance. To its credit, the film doesn't devolve into a look-how-far-we've-come commentary on the fifties -- it doesn't put the era down, the way "Mad Men" sometimes condescends to the era in which it's set. Frank and April are acutely aware of the social and emotional limitations of the age in which they're living, but they haven't figured out how to rise above them. I'm currently reading the novel, which has all the depth and all the connective tissue that the film lacks, but more on that later. And all that said, one should be grateful for a movie that exhibits such raw power as this scene, which earned Michael Shannon an Oscar nomination:

Friday, October 23, 2009

When Is News Not News?

Rachel Maddow explains what's wrong with Fox News's claim to be just another news channel.

What I'm Listening To

Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes. Jon Vickers (Peter Grimes); Heather Harper (Ellen Orford); Jonathan Summers (Balstrode); Elizabeth Bainbridge (Auntie); Forbes Robinson (Swallow); Patricia Payne (Mrs. Sedley). Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Colin Davis.

I can't help thinking of this as Britten's greatest opera, though really what I'm thinking of is the breathtaking power of Jon Vickers' singing and acting. I've never heard the recording with Peter Pears, for whom the role was written, though I'm told that there are those who prefer Pears's interpretation, including the composer, who is said to have walked out on Vickers's performance. But no tenor that I know of had a greater control of dynamics than Vickers, who could sing with both hushed intensity and clarion brilliance. For me, he's the definitive Tristan and Siegmund and Florestan -- and Grimes. This recording, incidentally, has no libretto, but that's no real handicap -- you can find one online here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Obama Is Nixon? Get Real!

Joe Conason puts the Obama-Nixon comparison in perspective.
Over the past few days, that false comparison has been made by Ken Rudin, the political director of National Public Radio, who called the Obama White House "Nixonesque"; by Karl Rove, who played a bit role in the Watergate saga as a Young Republican dirty trickster; and by Ruth Marcus, who likened Obama to both Nixon and his attack dog Vice President Spiro Agnew in the Washington Post -- a place where ignorance of the true history of the Nixon era is inexcusable.

But ignorance is epidemic on Capitol Hill and in the capital's newsrooms, so let's say this very simply: Nothing that Obama or any of his aides has done or said remotely resembles the war on the press waged by the Nixon White House until Watergate ended that administration's assaults on the Constitution. Nobody has sent Joe Biden out to question the patriotism of reporters and columnists who criticize the president, as Agnew did repeatedly. And nobody has tried to intimidate the media with obscene threats and tax audits, in the Mafia style of Nixon's aides.

Fox Noise

Everything you need to know about Fox News in five minutes.

What I'm Reading

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers, by Jan Freeman

As I've said before, I make it a policy not to review books by friends of mine, or even people I know. But that doesn't stop me from recommending, very highly, this delightfully annotated reprint of a usage guide published a century ago by Ambrose Bierce, perhaps best known today as the author of The Devil's Dictionary.

I met Jan Freeman -- oh, god, has it been thirty years ago? -- when I went to work for Inc. magazine, which was then located in Boston. We bonded quickly over our shared dismay at the editorial product we were ostensibly hired to make better. (Neither of us ever got much support at that.) What I learned pretty quickly was that Jan was a terrific editor and an immensely knowledgeable student of the English language. She was, for example, the first person to disabuse me of the notion that none always takes a singular verb.

Jan was not appreciated at Inc., and she took the earliest opportunity -- the birth of her daughter -- to get out of there. (I got booted out a year or so later.) She went to the Boston Globe, where she was an editor on the Sunday magazine, and now writes a weekly column, "The Word," for the newspaper. Her column is a delightfully unstuffy survey of the way people say things; it is grounded in a realization that some ways of saying things are better than others, but it's never snobbily prescriptive. It deserves all the attention and adulation that William Safire's language column for the New York Times Magazine used to get -- though actually it deserves them more.

Now Jan has published a book that is partly a reprint of Bierce's diatribes against what he saw as substandard diction and grammar, but is mostly a level-headed and revealing commentary on language cranks, past and present. As Jan points out in her introduction, the hunger for guidance on language had been whetted in the 18th century and was ravenous by the end of the 19th. The anxiety for correctness was particularly intense among the upwardly mobile of an America moving out of its frontier years. Slang, neologisms, and Americanisms were frowned upon, and "by the later 19th century many educated Americans worried that their native locutions were less refined than whatever the Brits were saying." So language snobs became gurus.

We're still anxious, of course. And we still have no lack of people willing to make pronouncements on the rightness and wrongness of what we write and say. But as Jan says, when she started writing her own usage column she "began to learn how many of the rules we take as gospel are actually quite recent, or are based on misunderstandings, or are simply the fossilized remains of a casual opinion delivered centuries ago." Bierce was a self-appointed language authority, who saw no harm in ratifying his prejudices into law. But "the most striking fact about Write It Right is how many of its 441 cautions are obsolete. ... And nobody is campaigning to bring back the good old days when fix was a slovenly word, reliable was ill-formed, and pants was vulgar. ... Could it be that by the year 2109, most Americans will feel just as distant from our current quarrels over decimate, epicenter, and enormity? Of course it could."

Still, Jan has a lot of fun exposing how obsolete Bierce's cautions are. Take that slovenly fix, for example. (Bierce's proscriptions are boldface, Jan's comments on them lightface.)
Fix. This is, in America, a word-of-all-work, most frequently meaning repair, or prepare. Do not so use it.

... This is just loony. As MWDEU [Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994)] points out, fix has fewer different senses than take, set, do, or run, and nobody calls these words slatternly. Fix for "repair" or "prepare" (a meal, a drink) dates to the 1760s; the OED's first example is "A number of hands came to fix our whale-boats." The verb may never be elegant, but it is standard American, and it's spreading. These days even British newspapers occasionally refer to "fixing" a BMW or the world economy.

Sometimes Bierce is the only person who has ever been known to object to a usage.
Even for Exact. "An even dozen."

The idiom "even dozen" is the relic of a use of even -- to denote round, rather than fractional, numbers -- that dates to the 17th century; Bierce is apparently the only critic who considers it a misuse. "Even dozen" may have survived because it contrasts with the still earlier "baker's dozen," or maybe just because we like the sound of it. As for the mild redundancy, peevologists need to learn that in language, that's a feature, not a bug.

Sometimes one supposed abuse has taken the place of another.
Graduated for Was Graduated.

The verb to graduate was in transition a century ago; the older passive, "Joe was graduated from college," was being supplanted by "Joe graduated from college." ("To graduate college," without the preposition, was not yet on the horizon.) ... [But] the Biercian orthodoxy was stoutly defended into the 1980s. And then, of course, along came "Joe graduated college" to scandalize traditionalists. The goalposts have moved, but the contest goes on.

Bierce usually tries to find a reason for his prejudices, and frequently fails.
It for So. "Going into the lion's cage is dangerous; you should not do it." Do so is the better expression, as a rule, for the word it is a pronoun, meaning a thing, or object, and therefore incapable of being done. Colloquially we may say do it, or do this, or do that, but in serious written discourse greater precision is desirable, and is better obtained, in most cases, by the use of the adverb.

"Do so" is not really more precise than "do it," but it is more formal; it probably sounds even more elevated to contemporary Americans than it did to Bierce. There's a reason Nike didn't adopt the slogan "Just do so!"

A supermarket I go to in Palo Alto has a sign over its express lane: "Twelve items or fewer." This is the kind of thing Palo Altans will insist on. So did Bierce:
Less for Fewer. "The regiment had less than five hundred men." Less relates to quantity, fewer, to number.

Bierce, like many usage writers of his time and later, signs on to a "rule" that had not been enunciated (or observed) until the 18th century..... In fact, as MWDEU notes, less had been used of countables since King Alfred the Great did it in 888, writing (in Old English) "with less words or with more." But ... in the 20th century it became a serious shibboleth.
In practice, less is more often used than fewer when the number is thought of as a limit: A frying pan is "nine inches or less in diameter," for instance, because you aren't measuring in one-inch increments, just stating a maximum size. The same is true for Bierce's regiment: "Less than five hundred men," like "160 characters or less" for a text message, states an upper limit on a collection of countables; the countability isn't the point. It's a testament to our fondness for recreational nitpicking that so many of us think the less-vs.-fewer distinction is both rigid and important.

I could go on quoting, but you get the point. This is a book for anybody who is fascinated by language and what we do with it.

What's Wrong With the Democratic Party?

Matt Taibbi views with alarm.
[T]he Democratic Party as currently constituted is more afraid of losing the financial support of Wall Street and the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry than it is of losing progressive voters. In fact, I think I’ve put that wrong, because it implies that the Democratic Party pushes the agenda of industry insiders out of fear. That is a misread of the situation, I think.

I think they prefer those people to their voters. I think they feel more comfortable with them. I heard a story recently from a Democratic Party operative who tells me that certain members of one of the president’s cabinet departments only got wind of how hard it is out there for ordinary people to pay their bills when they invited in a major corporation to give them a presentation about their financial outlook for the holiday season — and through that report found out that this company’s prospective customers were spending less because large numbers of them had been laid off, or had huge medical bills, or had maxed out their credit, and so on.

Letters from customers, survey answers and such, were read to the cabinet group. And they were shocked. This is how they find out about the economic reality of this country — accidentally, from a major campaign contributor! That’s how out of touch these people are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

He Just Keeps Getting Better

Yet another reason to love Al Franken.

The hearing was on bankruptcies caused by medical bills.
Kerry Burns, a witness on the panel, testified that her son was treated for cystic fibrosis before he died while she fell into debt. "The collection calls were unrelenting, upwards of 30 calls a day," she said.

As part of the bankruptcy filing process, Burns has to undergo credit counseling, where she was asked how she could have avoided bankruptcy. She called the course "humiliating" and "a slap in the face," and to this day has not successfully filed for bankruptcy because she had not filled out the forms.

While [Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse was quick to express his outrage at the process she was required to undergo, after watching her son die, [Sen. Jeff] Sessions appeared more accepting.

"When the government starts to regulate anything, including health care, you have rules," Sessions answered.

When Diana Furchtgott-Roth from the Hudson Institute attacked everything from the public option to the health bill that passed out of the Senate Finance Committee last week, Whitehouse remarked that she "veered across three lanes of traffic."

"Did you actually read the bill that is the subject of today's hearing?" he asked.

When Whitehouse asked her about the issue she had failed to focus on -- bankruptcy -- Furchtgott-Roth replied simply that the current system does a good job.

"Did it do a good job for Ms. Burns?" Whitehouse rebutted, visibly frustrated. Furchtgott-Roth simply replied that Burns had been in a bad situation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rich Get Richer

Bob Herbert on economic inequality.
We’ve spent the last few decades shoveling money at the rich like there was no tomorrow. We abandoned the poor, put an economic stranglehold on the middle class and all but bankrupted the federal government — while giving the banks and megacorporations and the rest of the swells at the top of the economic pyramid just about everything they’ve wanted.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Post About Nothing

I admit that I never got "Seinfeld." But I like this video: every Kramer entrance in chronological order.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Substance Over "Style"

John McIntyre reviews a book about Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
In apparent disregard of Rule 9 (“Do not affect a breezy manner”) he writes that Harold Ross’s prospectus for The New Yorker “reads like a sort of literary bat signal that must surely have twiddled the antennae of E.B. White as he worked over his desk in the Frank Seaman agency.” And I think that Mr. White, if present, would sigh over Mr. Garvey’s preference for gauntlet over gantlet on three occasions. In short, Mr. Garvey’s little book on the Little Book illustrates the terrible, terrible fate of the writer that Auden identified in his elegy on Yeats: “he became his admirers.”


Jon Stewart on the Franken amendment.

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Their American Cousins

Alex Massie on what Britain's conservatives think about America's.
David Cameron’s “progressive Tories” bear little resemblance to the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Increasingly, British Tories wonder what has happened to their American relatives. It’s as if your favorite cousin had a nervous breakdown, found religion, and became an evangelist for an apocalyptic cult prophesying the imminent end of the world as we know and love it.

Hot Air

Ezra Klein on balloon boy.
Whether or not the drama was staged, it certainly served as a perfect metaphor for cable news: America spent hours riveted by a powerful and gripping story that turned out to be totally meaningless, and will have no significant impact on anybody's lives going forward.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bloggers Can Relax (for Now)

Re: this post. The FTC tries to reassure bloggers that it's not out to get them.
"We are not going to be patrolling the blogosphere," {Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection] said. "We are not planning on investigating individual bloggers." Engle stressed that the guidelines are just that – guidelines. “They are not rules and regulations, and they don’t have the force of law,” she said. “They are guidelines intended to help advertisers comply with Section 5 of the FTC Act,” which covers unfair or deceptive practices.

Rainbow Disconnection

Jon Stewart on media coverage (or lack of it) of the gay rights protest march.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book 'Em

Edward Champion reports that the FTC is going after bloggers who review things (like books).
This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an “endorsement” and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as “compensation.”

Markos Moulitas exposes the absurdity of this policy.
So stupid. You "could" sell it. If you buy a gun, you "could" shoot someone with it. If you purchase a knife, you "could" stab someone. If you open up a stock trading account, you "could" engage in illegal insider trading. If you buy shoes, you "could" use them to run away from a crime scene. If you get an accounting degree, you "could" use that knowledge to launder drug money. If you take a job at the FTC, you "could" become a blithering idiot.

Hed Spin

DougJ at Balloon Juice finds some good stuff in the judge's decision that orders birther Orly Taitz to pay a $20,000 fine for wasting the court's time. But the best thing is the item's headline:

"The Greatest Country on Earth"

Neal Gabler debunks a patriotic cliché.
The Greeks understood that the gods punished mortals for their hubris - for feeling that they were godlike. They knew that overweening pride preceded a fall. One suspects that nations are no more immune to punishment than individuals. A nation that brooks no criticism, a nation that feels it is always better than any other, a nation that has to be endlessly flattered and won’t face the truth, a nation whose people think they possess some special moral exemption and wisdom, a nation without humility is a nation spoiling for calamity.

The Party of No, Never, Absolutely Not, Nein, Nyet!

Eugene Robinson on Obama's right-wing opponents.
The problem for the addlebrained Obama-rejectionists is that the president, as far as they are concerned, couldn't possibly do anything right, and thus is unworthy of any conceivable recognition. If Obama ended world hunger, they'd accuse him of promoting obesity. If he solved global warming, they'd complain it was getting chilly. If he got Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu to join him around the campfire in a chorus of "Kumbaya," the rejectionists would claim that his singing was out of tune.

Peace, Brother

Matt Taibbi on the Nobel "Peace" Prize.
You never, ever get a true dissident from a prominent Western country winning the award, despite the obvious appropriateness such a choice would represent. Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.

Getting CNN's Goat

Jon Stewart on fact-checking.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Noise of the Day 10/12/09

Daniel Gross on the truth about the stimulus.
To begin with, the stimulus was $787 billion, not $800 billion. (Those of you who think there isn't much of a difference, please make out a check for the difference to Daniel M. Gross.) The more egregious error has to do with the timing. Many critics act as if the entire amount has already been spent. They're completely wrong. Even to argue that it's been half-spent, as the Post, does, is only half-right.

Yipes! Stripes!

Constance Casey on skunks.
Most who have been skunked say the smell is indescribably horrible, and many find it literally nauseating. But some who have worked at describing it say it's not the worst smell in the world, not as repellent as the scent of decomposition or defecation. It's dark, acrid, and earthy, akin in a disgusting way to coffee, chocolate, cannabis, or burning leaves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Colbert on Beck

Bend It Like Beck
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What I'm Watching

My Neighbor Totoro

Now 21 years old, this Miyazaki film is enduringly fresh. It is brilliantly grounded in a real human story, that of the mother in hospital and the father struggling to raise their two daughters; the school-age Satsuki and the four-year-old Mei are beautifully contrasted characters. And then Miyazaki adds on the fantasy elements without sentimentalizing or sapping the force of either the real or the fantastic. As usual, the backgrounds are impossibly gorgeous. And unlike
Kiki's Delivery Service or Howl's Moving Castle, the setting is recognizably Japanese, so there's less of an aura of Disneyfication. A small masterpiece.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part V: God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)

A group of conservatives recently announced their plans to translate (read: edit) the Bible and thereby eliminate the liberalism that modern translators have allegedly introduced. This latest salvo in the ideological warfare of our times only made me appreciate the more how bold Robert Wright has been in approaching the eternally volatile subject of religion.

Having surveyed early polytheistic religions and the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- he turns his attention in the last section (plus an Afterword and an Appendix) to the future. Specifically, he's concerned with the development of what he calls "the moral imagination" in an age of globalization, in which the various religions are often engaged in hostilities with one another. He's writing here primarily about Christianity and Islam, of course, the current headline-makers in the United States, and I think his argument suffers a little by not focusing more on the conflict between Judaism and Islam, and by ignoring completely the bloody conflict of Muslims and Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. But perhaps that's material for another book.

"As we've seen," he writes, "successful religions have always tended to salvation at the social level, encouraging behaviors that bring order." For example, Paul's enumeration of sins includes such behaviors as adultery, promiscuity, jealousy, and anger -- all behaviors that are in some sense anti-social. "But now religion seems to be the problem, not the solution."

Wright sees "moral evolution" in terms of game theory: One of his earlier books was Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, in which he argues that, historically, cultures that chose to strive for win-win ("non-zero-sum") outcomes have been more successful than those that chose to work for "zero-sum" -- win-lose -- results. This argument has been present throughout his discussion of the evolution of religions, though I've previously chosen not to present it in his terms because his overuse of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" struck me as verging on jargon; his argument is clear enough without them.
This is the way moral evolution happens -- in ancient Israel, in the Rome of early Christianity, in Muhammad's Arabia, in the modern world: a people's culture adapts to salient shifts in game-theoretical dynamics by changing its evaluation of the moral status of the people it is playing the game with. If the culture is a religious one, this adaptation will involve changes in the way scriptures are interpreted and in the choice of which scriptures to highlight. It happened in ancient times, and it happens now.

Consider the conservatives' attempt to "translate" the Bible to exclude liberals from their circle of salvation. Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum approach, the reverse of the approach of religions that strove for greater inclusiveness and tolerance, and thereby succeeded and thrived. And of course, "the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of westerners. The West's goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support." For the West, as Wright sees it, the solution is to convert to a "non-zero-sum dynamic" -- to try to alleviate the discontent of Muslims as a whole, to show respect and to make them aware of the benefits of involvement with the West, thereby cutting off the source of the discontent that nourishes terrorism.

The problem is "that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world." We instinctively distrust that which is different, that which is not-like-us. And this often blocks "our 'moral imagination,' our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person."
Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we've seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum."
The book has traced the widening circles of the moral imagination from encompassing family, then tribe, then state, then international relationships. And now, faced with global problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation, the circle has to widen to encompass the whole planet. "Technology has made the planet too small, too finely interdependent, for enmity between large blocs to be in their enduring interest."

This is the next stage in the evolution of religion, of god: "[T]raditionally, religions that have failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well. And, like it or not, the social system to be saved is now a global one." Conscious that many people no longer believe in the afterlife, the salvation that religions have held out as a reward for good behavior in this life, Wright provides a secular definition of "salvation" from its Latin roots, "meaning to stay intact, to remain whole, to be in good health. And everyone, atheist, agnostic, and believer alike, is trying to stay in good mental health, to keep their psyche or spirit (or whatever they call it) intact, to keep body and soul together."
So the basic challenge of linking individual salvation to social salvation can be stated in equally symmetrical yet more secular language: the challenge is to link the avoidance of individual chaos to the avoidance of social chaos. Or: link the pursuit of psychic intactness to social intactness. Or: link the pursuit of personal integrity to social integrity. Or: link the pursuit of psychic harmony to social harmony.

Can this be accomplished without religion, without belief in a personal god? That it can be is the crux of Wright's argument. God, he posits, is essentially unknowable. He likens god to the electron, the existence of which scientists deduce pragmatically: "Granted, we believe in the existence of the electron even though our attempts thus far to conceive of it have been imperfect at best. Still, there's a sense in which our imperfect conceptions of the electron have worked. We manipulate physical reality on the assumption that electrons exist as we imperfectly conceive them and -- voilà -- we get the personal computer." Similarly, Wright posits the existence of "a moral order, linkage between the growth of social organization and progress toward moral truth." He sees the evolutionary process as moving in this direction, and deduces something that created the process.
The best we can do within the intellectual framework of this book is to posit the existence of God in a very abstract sense and defend belief in a more personal god in pragmatic terms -- as being true in the sense that some other bedrock beliefs, including some scientific ones, are true.

This may or may not come as comfort or consolation for those who cling to a traditional belief, especially those who turn to religion for solace in times of crisis. It certainly doesn't go very far to assuage my agnosticism, either. As Wright admits, "as divinity is defined more abstractly to fit more comfortably into a scientific worldview, God becomes harder to relate to." No kidding.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Hating Obama

Matt Taibbi notes Martin Peretz's diagnosis of Obama's "clinical narcissism" and links it to the rest of the flood of anti-Obama propaganda.

It seems to me that the determination of the Obama haters to worry about irrelevancies and nonsense, and not his real policies, is evidence that they find something soothing in this villain-fantasy. Clearly, for one thing, the fantasy does not involve worrying about or even thinking about real problems. It allows people to transfer real anxiety and fear and anger over real problems into this fictional arena where the only thing to worry about is the presidency of this evil black Wizard of Oz-like figure who lies about his birthplace and has secret plans to institute a clearly-will-never-happen program of national servitude. If you’re in that place mentally, you might as well be playing Dungeons and Dragons. There’s no way thoughts like this can ever feel completely real, which maybe is the idea.

Another Reason to Like Al Franken

From Think Progress:

In 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones was gang-raped by her co-workers while she was working for Halliburton/KBR in Baghdad. She was detained in a shipping container for at least 24 hours without food, water, or a bed, and “warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she’d be out of a job.” (Jones was not an isolated case.) Jones was prevented from bringing charges in court against KBR because her employment contract stipulated that sexual assault allegations would only be heard in private arbitration.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) proposed an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill that would withhold defense contracts from companies like KBR “if they restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.”

Thirty Senators -- all Republicans, of course -- voted against it.

Noise of the Day 10/7/09

Matthew Yglesias on the decision of Nike and Apple to resign from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of its opposition to climate change legislation.
The fundamental problem the Chamber of Commerce is going to have on this is that they’re really really wrong. Not like how they’re morally wrong about, say, labor rights or workplace safety rules. They’re analytically mistaken about the interests of the United States business community. If we take action to avert ecological catastrophe, economic growth will still happen. Capitalism will march on. Big companies will be big, and people will earn lots of money managing them. Yes, the present-day owners of coal companies or manufacturers specifically wedded to unusually energy-intensive processes will be in trouble. But “business” in a broad and general sense will keep on keeping on. People will still want gadgets and furniture, will shop at stores, will buy and sell, and generally keep being customers for business.

Daily Kos, Steve Benen and Ezra Klein on the Republicans who have announced their support for support health care reform.

Jon Stewart on Obama's delay on Don't Ask/Don't Tell.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Where There's a Will...

Mark Liberman on George Will's pronoun-counting.
How in the world did our culture award major-pundit status to someone whose writings are as empirically and spiritually empty as those of George F. Will?

All the News That Fits, They Print

John McIntyre, totally nailing it, on why people don't read newspapers anymore.
The vanishing generation of newspaper readers formed the habit when you had to read a newspaper when you wanted something more than the thin gruel of information offered by the radio or television. But the rising generations had more choices and did not form the newspaper habit. My children and my undergraduate students do not do much more than occasionally glance at a newspaper, if that. Why do you think? Perhaps because so much newspaper writing is appallingly, relentlessly, unapologetically DULL. And journalists are trained to write that way.

Noise of the Day 10/6/09

John Cole notes that Martin Peretz has called President Obama a "clinical narcissist" and Joe Klein knows why.

Matt Taibbi on what's wrong with Michael Moore's new movie.
It’s natural for Michael Moore to behave like someone who thinks he’s taking on the world alone. Because he is, sort of. If we want him to stop behaving like this, it’s kind of on us to do something about it. At some point we’re going to have to make a commitment to giving up our escapist entertainments for a while while we fix our actual lives. I’m as guilty as everyone else, spending half my time watching movies and sports. putting off my problems until later. If we all did less of that, my guess is that we might start thinking less like movie and TV critics, and more like citizens — at which point the flaws in Moore’s movies won’t seem so bad at all. We might not even notice them.
Conor Friedersdorf on right-wing attacks on the New York Times.
Is it too much to ask for right-wing media outlets to employ an ombudsman, a talented pool of reporters, and ideologically heterodox columnists like the Times; to check facts as carefully as the New Yorker; to challenge its own orthodoxies as regularly as The New Republic; and to assemble an staff alumni list as impressive an influential as The Washington Monthly?

But ... but, the Olympics! [Sound of Republican heads exploding.]
The United States is the most admired country globally thanks largely to the star power of President Barack Obama and his administration, according to a new poll. ... "What's really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States for 2009," said Simon Anholt, the founder of NBI, which measured the global image of 50 countries each year.

Rod Dreher on the Conservative Bible Project -- rewriting the Bible to take out the liberalism.
It's like what you'd get if you crossed the Jesus Seminar with the College Republican chapter at a rural institution of Bible learnin'.
Questions I've Never Thought to Ask Department: Which is the most environmentally friendly -- CD's, vinyl records, or downloads?

Monday, October 5, 2009

From the Well, Duh Department

In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

Noise of the Day 10/5/09

Paul Krugman on Republican schadenfreude.
How did one of our great political parties become so ruthless, so willing to embrace scorched-earth tactics even if so doing undermines the ability of any future administration to govern? The key point is that ever since the Reagan years, the Republican Party has been dominated by radicals — ideologues and/or apparatchiks who, at a fundamental level, do not accept anyone else’s right to govern.

Joe Conason on the return of the vast right-wing conspiracy.
As Clinton himself pointed out, the same forces that wanted to defeat and destroy his administration have predictably mobilized against Obama. For the moment, however, those forces cannot muster the same kind of concerted attack that almost brought Clinton down. They may still have Scaife's money but they have no independent counsel, like the partisan zealot Kenneth Starr. They have no scandal-mongering allies in the mainstream media, like the late William Safire of the New York Times. They have no congressional majority, and nobody like Newt Gingrich to build and lead one -- at least not yet.

Roger Cohen on why Europeans don't understand the American debate over health care.
Whatever may be right, something is rotten in American medicine. It should be fixed. But fixing it requires the acknowledgment that, when it comes to health, we’re all in this together. Pooling the risk between everybody is the most efficient way to forge a healthier society. Europeans have no problem with this moral commitment. But Americans hear “pooled risk” and think, “Hey, somebody’s freeloading on my hard work.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part IV: The Triumph of Islam

Those of us raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition are always going to have problems comprehending Islam, in part because its foundation in the Abrahamic beliefs and traditions puts it so near to us, while its rejection of some of the key dogmas of Judaism and Christianity puts it so far away. And, truth be told, the essence of Islam, the Koran, is so difficult for us to approach. It is, as Wright says, "unlike the religious text westerners are most familiar with, the Bible. For one thing, it is more monotonous.... The Bible came from dozens of different authors working over a millennium, if not more. The Koran came from (or through, Muslims would say) one man in the course of two decades.

Suppose, Wright says, "the whole Bible had been written by Jesus." By which he means the "historical" Jesus -- "the Jesus who, so far as we can tell, was ... a fire-and-brimstone preacher who warned his people that Judgment Day was coming and that many of them were a long way from meriting favorable judgment.... [T]his book would have the flavor of the Koran. Jesus and Muhammad probably had a lot in common." The Koran "shifts in tone, from tolerance and forbearance to intolerance and belligerence and back," Wright says. And this reflects the changing circumstances in Muhammad's life. "By the time of his death, Muhammad had gone from being a monotheistic prophet, preaching in the largely polytheistic city of Mecca, to being the head of an Islamic state with expansionist tendencies." And as Wright has shown in writing about Judaism and Christianity, theology and morality "are ultimately obedient to the facts on the ground."
From the standpoint of high-status Meccan polytheists, if there was one thing worse than someone who denounced the wealthy and preached monotheism, it was someone who did the two synergistically. That was Muhammad. Like Jesus, he was intensely apocalyptic in a left-wing way; he believed that Judgment Day would bring a radical inversion of fortunes. Jesus had said that no rich man would enter the kingdom of heaven. The Koran says that "Whoso chooseth the harvest field of this life" will indeed prosper; "but no portion shall there be for him in the life to come."

We're also so used to referring to Muhammad's god as Allah, that we sometimes forget that Allah is the same god as the one worshiped by Jews and Christians: "Muhammad's basic claim was that he was a prophet sent by the god who had first revealed himself to Abraham and later had spoken through Moses and Jesus." So Wright chooses to refer to Allah as "God" in his discussions of Islam. Moreover, there is some evidence that Allah was the Judeo-Christian God, who had been "accepted into the [pre-Islamic] Meccan pantheon some time earlier to cement relations with Christian trading partners from Syria, or maybe brought to Arabia by Christian or Jewish migrants.... This explains the rhetorical thrust of the Koran -- not to convince Meccans to believe that Allah exists or that he is the creator God, but to convince them that he is the only God worthy of devotion, indeed the only God in existence."

Of course, in the post-9/11 world, what bothers us most is the question of tolerance versus belligerence, the problem of the Koran's attitude toward "infidels." Here again, Wright sees the inconsistencies in the Koran as reflective of "the facts on the ground." "At one point Muhammad is urging Muslims to kill infidels and at another moment he is a beacon of religious tolerance. The two Muhammads seem irreconcilable at first, but they are just one man, adapting to circumstance." In his years in Mecca, which produced most of the writings in the Koran, Muhammad often counseled his followers to be patient and "resist the impulse of vengeance."
When you encounter infidels, says one sura, "Turn thou from them, and say 'Peace:'" Let God handle the rest: "In the end they shall know their folly." Another Meccan sura suggests how to handle a confrontation with a confirmed infidel. Just say: "I shall never worship that which ye worship. Neither will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your religion; to me my religion." ... This theme is constant through Muhammad's days in Mecca. In what is considered one of the earliest Meccan suras, God says to Muhammad: "Endure what they say with patience, and depart from them with a decorous departure."
As Wright says, this is entirely consistent with Paul's admonitions to bless one's persecutors and the Hebrew Bible's advice to the Israelites, when they were on the losing side, to practice tolerance of non-believers. "After moving to Medina and mobilizing its resources, Muhammad would, like the Israelites of Deuteronomy, find war a more auspicious prospect.... But so long as Muhammad remained in Mecca, fighting was unappealing and religious tolerance expansive."

Wright sees "the difference between Muhammad in Mecca and Muhammad in Medina" as "the difference between a prophet and a politician." As his political success grew, he tried reaching out to Jews and Christians: "the Jewish ban on eating pork was mirrored in a Muslim ban on eating pork, probably first enunciated in Medina." And he accepted the Christian belief in the virgin birth, although he drew the line at Jesus's divinity, believing it was a step toward polytheism. On the other hand, he wanted Jews and Christians "to accept that their own scriptures, however sacred, had been a prelude to the Koran; that their own prophets, however great, had been preludes to himself. Any merger of religions he may have envisioned wasn't a merger of equals." And that would be too much to ask.

And so the Koran is, like the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, filled with ambiguities, with the result that "Even today, some Muslims like to emphasize [Muhammad's] belligerence -- they wage holy war and say they do so in the finest tradition of the Prophet -- while other Muslims insist that Islam is a religion of peace, in the finest tradition of the Prophet." Today, much interpretation of the Koran centers on the word jihad, which means "striving" or "struggle," but actually appears in the Koran only four times. "And depending on which of those four verses you pick, you could make the case that jihad is either about an internal struggle toward spiritual discipline or about war; there is no 'doctrine' of jihad in the Koran.... If the Koran were a manual for all-out jihad, it would deem unbelief by itself sufficient cause for attack. It doesn't."
Muhammad pursued an expansionist foreign policy, and war was a key instrument. But to successfully pursue such a policy -- and he was certainly successful -- you have to take a nuanced approach to warfare. You can't use it gratuitously, when its costs exceed its benefits. And you can't reject potentially helpful allies just because they don't share your religion.... Indeed, if the standard versions of Muslim history are correct, he was forging alliances with non-Muslim Arabian tribes until the day he died. Once you see Muhammad in this light -- as a political leader who deftly launched an empire -- the parts of the Koran that bear on war make perfect sense. They are just Imperialism 101.
Wright observes that Muhammad took on, at various times in his career, the character of many of his "Abrahamic predecessors." In Mecca, where he was the leader of "a small band of devotees, warning that Judgment Day was coming," he resembled Jesus. Like Isaiah, he prophesied that his persecutors would suffer the wrath of God. Like Moses, he led his followers to the promised land: Medina. Like Paul, he proselytized among the Jews. And when he gained power, "he started to resemble King Josiah, the man who put the ancient Israelites on the path toward monotheism in the course of gathering power."
To be sure, Josiah's moral compass seems to have been more thoroughly skewed by his ambitions than Muhammad's. The prescription in Deuteronomy for neighboring infidel cities is all-out genocide -- kill all men, women, and children, not to mention livestock. There is nothing in the Koran that compares with this, arguably the moral low point of Abrahamic scripture. Still, if Muhammad never countenanced the killing of women and children, he did countenance a lot of killing.

In some regards, the Koran is more generous than the Bible when it comes to salvation. It "says more than once that not just Muslims but Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation so long as they believe in God and in Judgment Day and live a life worthy of favorable judgment." On the other hand, the Bible is a more cosmopolitan work than the Koran. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament "captured ideas of great civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Christianity's Hellenistic milieu. The Koran took shape in two desert towns on the margin of empires, uttered by a man who was more a doer than a thinker and was probably illiterate." Still, Wright sees Muhammad as "a more modern figure than Moses and Jesus." He had "no special powers. He can't turn a rod into a snake or water into wine.... [T]he Koranic Muhammad, unlike the biblical Jesus and Moses, doesn't depend on miracle-working for proof of proximity to God."

And the question remains about whether the teachings of any of the Abrahamic religions remain relevant to the circumstances of our century. This is where Wright is headed next: to a discussion of "the effect of changing circumstance" -- the facts on the ground -- "on
human moral consciousness." The Koran, Wright observes, oscillates from "To you your religion; to me my religion" to "Kill the polytheists wherever you find them." "All of the Abrahamic scriptures attest to the correlation between circumstance and moral consciousness, but none so richly as the Koran. In that sense, at least, the Koran is unrivaled as a revelation."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

What I'm Watching


"True stories" are such a trap for a filmmaker, especially the "incredible but true" variety of stories like the one J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay tries to tell. Eventually any effort at a documentary-style film is going to get lost if you cast a superstar like Angelina Jolie, or even familiar faces like John Malkovich and Jeffrey Donovan. You stop believing in the characters and start evaluating their performances. Jolie is a good actress, but the makeup artist did her no service by making her plumped-up lips more emphatic with bright red lipstick -- she comes perilously close to being a caricature of herself. (If they ever, god forbid, remake Mommie Dearest, it's her turn to play Joan Crawford.) On the whole, Clint Eastwood's characteristic low-key touch works well with material like this, though I could have used a little less of his score, which only emphasizes the sentimental elements of the screenplay. And I wish he had reined in Jason Butler Harner, whose execution scene goes way over the top.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Noise of the Day 10/2/09

Mark Kleiman on Don't Ask/Don't Tell and why he thinks Obama has pursued a successful strategy to end it.
Just as the Republicans need to be reminded that the man whose character they’re trying to assassinate is the only President the country has, and that Putin and Ahmadinejad and bin Laden and Chavez will all be delighted if he fails, some progressives need to be reminded that Barack Obama is, for better or worse, the public face of the progressive movement, and that whatever damages his public standing damages the country’s chances of emerging decisively from the era of right-wing dominance that started in 1966 and (inshallah!) concluded in 2006.

David Sirota on the civilian government and the military.
By separating political from military power, and vesting our elected representatives with ultimate authority, the Founders purposely constructed a democracy that seeks to prevent the dictatorial juntas that often arise when no such separation exists.

Rachel Maddow on conservative glee over losing the Olympics. WTF?