Full (and very funny) video from the Al Smith dinner here.
This actually lines up with a piece I'm writing on All Star Superman, which should be posted early next week. Until then, suffice it to say that every good joke has some basis in truth.
Full (and very funny) video from the Al Smith dinner here.
This actually lines up with a piece I'm writing on All Star Superman, which should be posted early next week. Until then, suffice it to say that every good joke has some basis in truth.
Not a lot of time for blogging around here. In addition to the usual end-of-semester crunch, I spent a couple of Saturdays driving up to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to canvass for Barack Obama (after doing some much easier, and tremendously rewarding, local canvassing here in Prince George's County in February). I wasn't planning to go back up again after mid-April--I was out of town the weekend before last, and classes are wrapping up, and I had an important talk to deliver on Wednesday. I figured I was entitled to sit one out.
Then I bought Steve Earle's I Feel Alright, one of the first albums Earle made after his release from jail. The tracks are anthems of survival and defiance and perseverance and continued fuckups, especially the title song (which ran over the montage that ended season two of The Wire). It's great music for digging deep, picking yourself up, and starting all over again. It would also be great for throwing away a relationship or starting a fight.
Steve Earle's music, in short, can inspire a man to do stupid things. I'm just lucky I'm enough of a dork that my fight was to go up to Lancaster one last time to get out the vote for Obama on primary day. The senator owes Earle for one more day of volunteer labor (with partial credit to David Simon and Ed Burns).
But that's not where this story starts. It starts about five weeks ago when Christy and I went up to register voters before Pennsylvania's deadline. It was not a great day. We didn't sign up that many people, and we were almost as likely to register McCain or Clinton supporters as Obama ones.
The McCain guy told us that he'd already met some Clinton people doing the same thing, and they wouldn't register him. That struck me as a pretty characteristic move from the Clinton campaign: pugnacious, selfish, and short-sighted. As one of the local Obama organizers told me, he was happy to register any Clinton leaners as Republicans--since that locked them into the other race in the state's closed primary.
Our reasons for registering McCain and Clinton supporters were a little less cynical. We couldn't refuse anyone on general principle. Barack Obama runs his campaign on a community organizing model of voter empowerment, and we took that to mean we should register anybody who wanted to register. We also hoped that, as representatives of the Obama campaign, our willingness to talk to and sign up anybody might cause people to think better him. So we registered anybody who asked, even if they said they supported Hillary Clinton. I'm glad we did, but I drove home that evening wondering if we'd netted more than one or two Obama voters for the day.
Last Tuesday, while I was doing a last-minute canvass in a poorer neighborhood in Lancaster, I ran into one of those Clinton voters I'd registered. She happened to be the last name on my list, the last voter I contacted after three long shifts; I recognized her, but I don't think she remembered me.
This was a list of identified Obama supporters, and she proudly said that Barack Obama was her guy. In the past five weeks, she'd switched candidates. I don't think our registering her had anything to do with that; more likely it was a result of media exposure and Obama's campaigning in the state and the steady work of the local volunteers (who ran a great operation--Obama has the best-organized campaign I've ever seen), and maybe the influence of friends or family. But if we hadn't signed up that soft Clinton supporter, we would have had one less vote for Obama.
That chance encounter was the perfect way to end my Pennsylvania canvassing, and it took a lot of the sting out of Obama's primary loss. Even more than seeing him rack up a solid win in Lancaster County--proof that grassroots efforts matter--it was good to see that his method of campaigning and organizing does pay off over the long run.
I hope we get that McCain guy in November.
If The Wire does nothing else for American society, it's still made an indelible impression on Maryland politics. Clay Davis isn't just drawn from a couple of disgraced Baltimore politicians. He's so perfectly archetypical that a number of local bloggers and commenters--and apparently a few journalists--have started using Clay as a synonym for corrupt machine politicians like Maryland's Al Wynn, recently voted out of office in a primary challenge from local activist Donna Edwards.
I was reminded of Wynn when Clay Davis took his crack at "Prosecutor Obonda" in episode seven, and when he insinuated that Rupert Bond was doing the work of white puppetmasters the week before that. Wynn is an Obama supporter (as is Edwards), but he, like Clay Davis, was perfectly happy to argue that his opponent was a pawn of white interests bent on bringing down a black politician. In the days before the primary, Wynn's supporters in the real estate and credit industries funded a barrage of ads that attacked the netroots-supported Edwards because she was funded by "super-rich people from out of state who don't get our community." Emphasis very much in the original. (Edwards, like Wynn, is black, so he couldn't aim the smear directly at her. He did say she was part of a "vast, dare I say, left-wing conspiracy.") Davis merely went one step further, implying that his prosecutor was inauthentically, insufficiently black--the last remnant of an odious argument floated by Clinton surrogates in the days before South Carolina. (BET founder Robert Johnson compared Obama to Sidney Poitier in much the same way that Davis linked Bond to Obama. That was positively genteel compared to Andrew Young.)
Those attacks generated a powerful backlash in the primaries--a backlash that The Wire failed to see coming. You can tell this season was written and filmed a year ago; looking at the Maryland primary results, I'm guessing no defendant in a Baltimore courtroom would try to link his prosecutor to Barack Obama today.
I had thought the shared race-baiting cemented the Clay Davis-Al Wynn connection until Wynn entered the cast of The Wire this week, in heavily doctored form, as Congressman Upshaw. The scene where Carcetti goes to DC to put down a Prince George's County challenge for the governor's mansion alludes to the 2002 gubernatorial race, when Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend passed over black DC-area Democratic prospects to choose a former Republican from Annapolis as her running mate, and generally neglected the DC suburbs (which are increasingly rivaling Baltimore for power in the Democratic party and the state). Plenty of people in the DC area were not pleased by the snub, including Al Wynn, who had been using his congressional seat to position himself as a kingmaker in state and county affairs. Wynn is even rumored to have squeezed Townsend for money if she wanted to keep him from throwing his Get Out the Vote operation behind the Republican candidate, and to have done the same with
Tommy Carcetti Martin O'Malley four years later.
Townsend went on to lose her race, the first time Maryland elected a Republican governor in nearly forty years (since that paragon of class and ethics, our gift to the nation, Spiro Agnew). That loss had little to do with Wynn per se and a lot more to do with Townsend's inept strategy and lackluster campaigning--upon hearing that Townsend endorsed Hillary Clinton, this Obama supporter breathed a sigh of relief--but it set up Wynn to pretend he had more influence than he did. He continued to play kingmaker and to vote against his constituents, at least until Donna Edwards scared him in 2006 and unseated him in 2008.
That upset is an indication that maybe things aren't as hopeless as they sometimes seem on The Wire. Sure, the show's done elections before, and the challengers have won, and they have learned how little they can change. But the Donna Edwards victory removes a Clay Davis Democrat from office, and Al Wynn was failed by the tactics that let Clay wriggle off the hook.
I write this as a P.G. County native and a proud graduate of the Prince George's County public schools. Held together with glue? Look out, Upshaw--maybe the netroots of the Wireworld are coming for your ass, too.
He likes Barack Obama, and for one of the best reasons. (No word on how he feels about Omar.)
In the same paper, Erica Jong writes a piece endorsing Clinton called "Hillary vs. the Patriarchy." Because nothing would topple the patriarchy like voting for a woman based on who she married. Or supporting another "liberal hawk" and DLC centrist who believes the only way to defeat the establishment is to vote just like it.
The amazing thing about Jong's piece is that it contains almost nothing supporting Clinton's policies or her accomplishments in office. She praises Clinton for her triangulation and compromise on Iraq and Iran, not because she says those are the right stands to take, but because she says those are the stands that will help Clinton get elected. Her biggest argument is that Hillary Clinton regularly caves in to the opposition and supports George W. Bush's saber-rattling so she can be the most electable candidate--in 2004.
Like many Clinton supporters, Jong can't let her arguments for Hillary pass without slipping in a couple shots at Obama. (Chabon follows the example of his candidate and makes an affirmative case for Barack Obama without stooping to name, let alone attack, his opponent. I wish I met that standard.) She claims Obama was "lucky enough not to be in the Senate when the Iraq war resolution was floated," implying that he somehow ducked the issue when in fact he took a considerable political risk by speaking out against the Iraq war at a time when "Dixie Chick" was becoming a very nasty verb. Jong hints, without quite having the courage to say it, that supporting Obama is "tokenism and condescension," which is pretty damn condescending itself--as if we only like Obama for his symbolic value and not his actual values.
Her piece is also a great illustration of Chabon's point that so many of the arguments made by establishment Democrats against Obama boil down to fear--fear that anybody who doesn't make the cynical, cowardly choices the Clintons made is somehow incapable of winning office in this country. One of the best things about Obama's campaign, the element Chabon highlights, is that he's showing us we don't have to shed our principles. We don't have to become the things we fear. Barack Obama (and John Edwards, for that matter, when he was still in the campaign) is inspiring because he offers something that's been completely absent from our political discourse over the last eight to fifteen years--so absent we didn't even know it was missing. We've forgotten that leaders can appeal to our best instincts and not our worst. And he can actually win the White House, if primary voters reject the self-defeating calculations that drip from Jong's piece.
In short, Michael Chabon and Erica Jong have both written fantastic endorsements of Barack Obama.
The actor mentioned at the end of the article, Michael Kostroff, plays Levy. How can Obama lose with Levy on his side? That guy always--
oh god I hope Herc isn't working for Obama--
Ernesto Priego, a doctoral candidate at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College, London, and a scheduled presenter at this year's International Comic Arts Forum, has been denied entry into the United States of America. The United States government declined to renew Mr. Priego's visa and has not given any explanation why he will not be allowed in the country.
Mr. Priego's exclusion is part of a recent and disturbing practice of denying entry to foreign scholars, and an infringement on academic freedom in the United States.
I have included Mr. Priego's paper abstract and biography below.
“The Tell-Tale Smell of Burning Paper: ‘Logic of Form’ and the Origin of Comics”
Inspired by Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history, this paper discusses the origin of comics through a study of the “logic of form” in comic artists from the 1870s to the 1930s: the departure point being the recognition of a series of formal aspects that could be agreed as essential or definitive of the comics language. Different technological and artistic factors were involved in its development, resulting from the convergence of industrial development in the form of a transformation of printing and distribution techniques, artistic trends, and significative codes employed at the time.
Ernesto Priego, a poet, essayist, translator, and PhD candidate at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College, London, has taught English literature and critical theory at major Mexican universities and published a translation of Jessica Abel's award-winning graphic novel, La Perdida (Astiberri Editores, Spain, 2007) and a first book of poetry, Not Even Dogs (Meritage Press, 2006).
Readers may judge for themselves what sort of security or immigration risk he poses to the American people.
Good news from Chicago: Thomas Frank's journalThe Baffler has returned after a long absence. The latest issue features strong essays on online poker, the ongoing destruction of our legal system, and a Thomas Frank column on centrism that, among other valuable services, demolishes the "doctrine of symmetry" that pretends to balance every far-right offense with an injudicious Michael Moore aphorism.
I have a much more ambivalent reaction to "Free (Market) Verse," in which Steve Evans chronicles the efforts of a group of businessmen and bureaucrats to "deny, disrupt, and discredit existing networks of poetry production" and replace them with vapid, affirmational kitsch on the assumption that kitsch speaks more directly to some hypothetical average reader. (You can read an online version of Evans' essay here.) I want to like any essay that dismantles the reactionary populism of energy executives, pharmaceutical companies, and Bush appointees, and I really want to like any essay that connects these ideologies to cultural production. But on the other hand, I can't get behind an essay that defends MFA programs as bastions of creativity, artistic diversity, and democratization. When Evans scornfully cites an executive's criticisms of the "hothouse" environment of contemporary poetry, I find myself agreeing with the wrong side.
The essay has a tendency to invert and recycle the very logic it rails against. Evans says poetry magazines "irrevocably decentralized the world of poetry by taking the power of publication out of the hands of a few authoritative editors and giving it directly to poets themselves"--this is the language of market radicalism that The Baffler has been deflating for nearly two decades, the language of decentralization that drives the privatizers and deregulators Evans despises. Maybe that language is more appropriate here--maybe art should be decentralized and utilities shouldn't--but Evans doesn't make that distinction. Instead he serves up market-pop platitudes to the most skeptical audience possible.
Evans also commits a curious and persistent ad hominem where he criticizes Poetry Foundation president John Barr, NEA Chair Dana Gioia, and former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser by listing their credentials as an investment banker, marketing writer, and insurance underwriter, respectively. These past occupations are meant to suggest that the unholy trinity is bringing the market logic and debased aesthetic of the corporation to the world of poetry--which, it appears, they are--but they also insinuate that the trio is just too square for a niche that is by divine right the province of pierced baristas, trust fund babies, and brittle neurasthenic suicides. If every white-collar professional were disqualified from poetry we wouldn't have Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, or William Carlos Williams. Worst of all, Evans doesn't need to flagellate the trinity with their resumés: Kooser's experience as an underwriter could not possibly be as relevant as his plodding sense of what constitutes good poetry.
For that, we need no further evidence than Barr and Kooser's American Life in Poetry project, which plants short poems in rural newspapers across the country as a means of reaching out to the common man, the flyover poetry reader who's been unjustly neglected by the bicoastal poetry elite. Evans eviscerates the project simply by summarizing the first sixteen poems, laying their mundanity bare for all to see. But couldn't he be cheating? Doesn't any poem sound banal if you reduce it to a one-sentence summary? ("A speaker leaves a note to his wife apologizing for eating the plums in the refrigerator.") I decided to go to the American Life in Poetry website and see for myself.
Oh, how I wish I had listened to Steve Evans. Here's one of the poems Evans summarily dismisses, "Turning Forty":
At times it's like there is a small planet
inside me. And on this planet,
there are many small wars, yet none
big enough to make a real difference.
The major countries—mind and heart—have
called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler,
no one remembers him well.
The hollow but relentless simile, the child's diction (small, many small, big enough, real difference--suddenly I long for Sophie Crumb)--this poem should not be read anywhere outside of a high school notebook, the margins decorated with rockets and tanks. Evans' summary ("A tamed speaker recalls his youthful virility on the eve of his fortieth birthday") is better written, though the point it distills is still yawn-inducing--everyone already knows it, even if they haven't themselves turned forty, and the war on Planet Me won't show them anything new.
But Ted Kooser, like most practitioners of market populism, doesn't seem to think that highly of the salt of the earth readers he celebrates. Every one of the American Life in Poetry columns is preceded by a brief introduction that reduces the poem to the most basic and trite message. Kooser's glosses are so artless they make Evans' summaries look like Fabergé eggs. ("The speaker feels a sense of peace at forty, but recalls a more powerful, more confident time in his life.") Even a halfway interesting piece like this one--I confess I only clicked on the link to make fun of it, and was surprised--gets saddled with a commentary that explains, and obviates, the entire poem:
Of taking long walks it has been said that a person can walk off anything. Here David Mason hikes a mountain in his home state, Colorado, and steps away from an undisclosed personal loss into another state, one of healing.
This is the final result of Kooser's, Gioia's, and Barr's self-righteous didacticism: poetry so obvious you don't actually need to read it. When a rare poem does slip through the screening process and threatens to invite further contemplation, culture warriors like Kooser will be there to make sure the good, simple readers of the plains don't have to think too hard.
But Kooser is most revealing when he eschews the obvious for the trivial. Here's his introduction to the latest column:
Those of us who have hunted morel mushrooms in the early spring have hunted indeed!
Indeed! The poem in question is a tepid William Carlos Williams imitation (Williams seems to be a favorite model for Kooser's poets; maybe we should purge the good doctor from the canon after all) that mistakes a short line for a style and builds up to this surprising realization:
By the slumping log,
by the dappled aspen,
they grow alone.
A dumb eloquence
seems their trade.
Like hooded monks
in a sacred wood
Tomorrow we are gone.
The poem lays bare the fundamental mistake made by both Evans and Kooser, Barr, and Gioia: the folly of opposing the poetry establishment of corporate donors and the Bush administration with the poetry establishment of the universities and literary magazines.
It's a petty epiphany poem, no different from the ones MFA programs are churning out by the thesis. A little less au courant, maybe a little less technically proficient--maybe--but no less invested in the belief that art should be made from mundane observations of quotidian moments. The American Life in Poetry project promotes that belief with a monotony that would humble even the most formulaic workshop. And while the academic and literary poets produce more sophisticated work, their careers are supported by the ranks of graduate students enrolling in workshops that encourage them to craft the kind of muted observations that would delight our mushroom-loving former poet laureate.
Evans offers an astute, scathing analysis of the reactionary ideology and patronizing aesthetic of the "MBA poets," and, to be honest, they probably land some solid hits on the MFA programs. But when it comes to evaluating their own side they're both mouthing the same pseudo-radical rhetoric, circling each other warily, unaware that they're shackled together at the ankles.
Just when I thought the midterm election character assassinations couldn't sink any lower, along comes the drummed-up "controversy" over Michael J. Fox's ads promoting stem cell research and the candidates who support it, which prompted no less a medical luminary than Rush Limbaugh to pronounce that Fox is "exaggerating" his Parkinson's disease symptoms. (I guess he went to the same diagnosis-by-video medical school as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.) I don't expect any better of Limbaugh, but do the television networks have to repeat the charge, even to the point of grilling Fox, as if it had any basis in fact? No, on second thought, I don't expect any better of them, either.
The insinuations that Fox has been faking his own degenerative disorder remind me of another famous case of blaming the victim, the many attempts to twist the fatwa against Salman Rushdie around until it was Rushdie's fault. In his essay collection Step Across This Line, Rushdie documents the efforts of right-wing journalists, radical British Muslims, conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and leftier-than-thou radicals like Alexander Cockburn to whip up some cheap moral indignation by accusing him of creating his own problems, stirring up controversy, being insufficiently dedicated to free expression (Cockburn, naturally), or costing the British government too much to protect him. Rushdie sums up these criticisms:
In the rest of the free world, the "Rushdie case" is about freedom of expression and state terrorism. In Britain, it seems to be about a man who has to be saved from the consequences of his own actions. Elsewhere, people know that the outrage has been committed not by me but against me. In certain quarters of my own country, people take a contrary view.
Or, as he says in a lighter context (the frothed-up furor over his selection of ten "Best Young British Novelists" in 1993), "Apparently I am the only person not allowed to make fatwa cracks."
And apparently Michael J. Fox is the only person not allowed to talk about Parkinson's disease and stem cell research. In a saner world, Fox's ads are about the importance of using a science that neither creates nor destroys life to help people suffering from horrible disorders; the only controversy would be about a conservative movement that's dominated by religious fanatics who value embryos above human beings, and by "moral" voices who will smear anyone else's character in their last, desperate bids to hold power. But in the American media, the controversy is a he-said/she-said debate where Limbaugh can question Fox's medical condition and his ethics with no evidence whatsoever, where a newly respectable Katie Couric treats the fabrication like it's a valid possibility, and where Michael J. Fox is the shameless liar.
Yes, I realize nobody is placing a bounty on Michael J. Fox's head. (The preceding sentence is the kind of obvious disclaimer nobody should have to issue, except to forestall other people from pointing out the obvious differences between the situations as if they invalidated the galling similarities. Also, that sentence is kind of fun to type.) But both men have been criticized for speaking out on issue that affect them more than anyone else--literally life-or-death situations. At least nobody accused Salman Rushdie of faking the fatwa.
So the Republican solution to neurological disease is to blame the victim. This is nothing new, but it reinforces the need to drive their anti-science, anti-medicine candidates out of office. Because in a world run by conservatives, if you have a genetic or idiopathic disease it's your fault and you're the only person who can't talk about it.
Michael Steele, the Republican Senate candidate here in Maryland, is a conservative party insider who's running as a political moderate and a Washington outsider because he knows most of the state opposes his hardcore conservative views. While he quietly takes millions of dollars from national Republicans, his public campaign has been virtually content-free: the major policy statement in his first ad was "I love puppies."
He may love puppies, but he doesn't seem to care about his fellow human beings: he not only opposes embryonic stem cell research, he compared it to slavery and the Holocaust. Michael J. Fox has endorsed his opponent, Ben Cardin. I wasn't too enthusiastic about voting for Cardin before that.
I am now.
In today's Washington Post, Stephen Hunter bemoans the lack of heroism in modern action heroes. (Free registration required.)
Initially, his taste in movie heroes looks pretty good. Effusing over John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Hunter looks for the qualities D.H. Lawrence identified in his survey of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales ("The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer"). But he finds them so lacking in today's leading men that he can only assemble them in a Frankenstein compilation of traits culled from the men who ruled the silver screen in the 1960s and early 70s, when Hunter was presumably coming of age. He devotes a lot of attention to individual body parts, until the whole column reads like a mash note to the strictly heterosexual crushes of his puberty.
But he can't swoon over the tough guys of his past without first running down the presumably softer heroes of the present, implying that we're suffering some sort of manliness shortage. He never really explains why Matt Damon (star of the admirably unsentimental Jason Bourne movies) and company aren't tough enough except to say that Ben Affleck is "too pretty"; the production department pitches in by running a picture of Johnny Depp in all his kohled-up Jack Sparrow glory. Hunter wants but cannot permit himself to say that the new stars are just too goshdarned effeminate, although again the production department comes through for him. In the illustration that accompanies the print version of the article, they've pasted the features from a half-dozen older stars onto a shaved, waxed, faux-hawked male body that looks like it's walked straight out of an underwear ad.
Since he won't directly voice this masculine anxiety, Hunter's case is mostly hypothetical and mostly negative as he inventories the things the new heroes won't do:
Today's stars need love. They don't want to be feared, they want to be hugged. They want to be told, "It's okay, big fella." They don't want to shoot anyone, if possible; they certainly won't beat a confession out of a suspect [...]
In other words, today's male action heroes are wusses because they won't torture people. By the end of the paragraph, this celebration of brutality isn't even subtext anymore:
They never get even, they don't punish, they see the folly of vengeance, they inflict pain only on special occasions. (Last year's "Sin City" was one such occasion, where the point of the film was its removal from a moral spectrum, thus allowing its brutish heroes the freedom to torture, which they did.)
Sin City must be a tough case for Hunter, providing exactly the kind of swaggering, suspect-beating, bitch-slapping heroes he pines for yet rendering them as moral and physical grotesques. I didn't much like Sin City but if it troubles Stephen Hunter by holding up a mirror to his ethic of abusive toughness then it did exactly one thing right. (It also foregrounds and amplifies the misogyny of those old-school heroes, something Hunter studiously dances around in his paean to them.)
Elsewhere in the same paper Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan (our freedom-loving partners in the Global War on Terror), provides another perspective on interrogation and torture as seen from outside the comforting darkness of a cineplex:
The next day, an envelope landed on my desk; inside were photos of the corpse of a man who had been imprisoned in Uzbekistan's gulags. I learned that his name was Muzafar Avazov. His face was bruised, his torso and limbs livid purple. We sent the photos to the University of Glasgow. Two weeks later, a pathology report arrived. It said that the man's fingernails had been pulled out, that he had been beaten and that the fine line around his torso showed he had been immersed in hot liquid. He had been boiled alive.
And, if this should seem far from home:
According to a press release distributed to local media by the U.S. embassy in Tashkent in December 2002, the [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov regime received more than $500 million in U.S. aid that year alone. That included $120 million for the Uzbek armed forces and more than $80 million for the re-branded Uzbek security services, successor to the KGB.
In other words, when the prisoner was boiled to death that summer, U.S. taxpayers helped heat the water.
But I'm sure the authorities got their confession, administered by torturers with the eyes of John Wayne, the lips of Clint Eastwood, and the callused, manly hands of Lee Marvin.
Hunter gives away his game when he writes that "Only a few boys seem to have the man-junk that can get them through the heavy lifting of a hero's role." (The first one he lists is Samuel L. Jackson. Mr. Hunter, I offer you this advice: you might want to reconsider any sentence construction that has you referring to fifty-seven-year-old Samuel L. Jackson as a "boy.") There it is, surfaced at last--the man-junk. He wields the words with all the dexterity of a middle-aged dad picking up slang from his son, but the meaning is clear: our generation of sensitive, torture-averse heroes just don't have the balls for the job.
His essay provides yet another reminder of the inadequate, appalling, embarrasingly Freudian explanation for the Bush administration's misdeeds in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and "black prisons" all over Europe. We have inflicted horrible violence on the world, our principles, and ourselves because on September 11, 2001 our masculinity was threatened. With the White House occupied by the worst possible people under those circumstances--a pair of guys who ran on a hawkish platform but had ducked the military conflict of their youth--our leaders became desperate to reassert our (their) manliness by any means necessary. Too many of us, equally threatened, fell right in step behind them. (Hunter, by the way, is a conservative movie reviewer and novelist who praised Dick Cheney's "samurai" qualities after the VP shot his hunting/drinking buddy in the face. Apparently the modern samurai can coast by on draft deferrals--the important thing is the steely resolve with which he sends other people to fight.) And so a bunch of the softest, most cowardly bastards in history play at hard men by ordering their subordinates to shock, drown, strip, beat, and humiliate prisoners, while the Stephen Hunters berate our fictional heroes for not joining in.
Which brings us to one of the most puzzling things about Hunter's piece: our culture currently has no shortage of torture heroes. From movies to TV to comics, you don't have to look far to find entertainment that luridly dramatizes, justifies, or outright glorifies the business of inflicting pain on captives. (An aside to my academic friends: another sign that most culture doesn't "subvert" a damn thing. An aside to my conservative friends: still more evidence that "liberal Hollywood" doesn't just make liberal product. Popular culture eagerly offers itself up to whoever's in power, ready to spread whatever good news they dictate.)
We would all do well to remember another piece of film criticism from New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels:
In even the most morally unsophisticated forms of popular storytelling, it is certainly not violence in itself, not even killing, that unmistakably separates good guys from evil ones. It is torture. Heroes may kill; villains torture [...]
Our government would like to obliterate that difference in its desire to excuse its own crimes. We don't have to help them.
I think I need to find the June issue of Harper's. My subscription copy was lost to the subterranean warrens of the U.S. Postal Service during the May exodus. As a result I missed not only Art Spiegelman's take on offensive cartoon images, but this remarkable essay by Kevin Baker on how "the stab in the back"--a lurid fantasy of treachery, betrayal, internal weakness or lack of will--"has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism."
It would be a mistake to attribute conservatism's rise to power, and its remarkable ability to keep that power even in the face of its sustained failures, to a single factor, and Kevin Baker doesn't make that mistake. But if you had to rely on a lone essay to understand the politics of the last five years--or the last fifty--this just might be the one. Baker synthesizes multiple analyses of conservative ideology and cultural myth, from Jerry Lembcke's work in debunking the urban legends of hippies spitting on returning Vietnam veterans to Thomas Frank's assessment of permanent culture war as the overriding conservative wedge issue. (He doesn't share Frank's misstep of trying to make cultural issues subordinate to economic ones simply by wishing it were so.) The piece is more persuasive for abutting so many other well-sourced, well-argued accounts, even those that emerged after it was published; the backstab myth is the necessary counterweight to The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, the narrative of betrayal that explains why conservatism's awesome displays of resolve never work out the way they're supposed to.
Baker also displays a compelling historical sense, tracing the backstab myth's cultural lineage all the way back to the dolchstosslegende of Wagner, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and that wacky Nazi Party. Baker's observations on American history will seem more familiar and immediate, though, his explanation of how Richard Nixon still sets the tone for American political discourse leading right into Bill O'Reilly's request that the FBI incarcerate Air America for the treasonous crime of not agreeing with him.
And while he's mostly concerned with the connections between politics and culture, Baker will occasionally unleash a stinging structural criticism, as when he observes that most Americans' real lack of support for the war in Iraq--our refusal to make any changes in our own lives, to do anything more than slap ribbon magnets on our Hummers--is a result, not of some Wagnerian betrayal on the left, but of conservatism's twenty-five-year agenda to dismantle the very notion of government service. I would pull out a choice quote or two, but every line in this essay is a keeper. Many thanks to Jim Henley for bringing it to my attention.
Jim's been on quite a roll himself lately. Not only has he scoffed at conservative fantasies of weakness, but recent circumstances have, sadly, prompted him to reprise the best line he ever wrote: "George [W.] Bush’s unfailing reaction to a bad bet is to double down."
Just remember, when Dubya runs out of chips the right will have a ready explanation for why it's all our fault.