Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Teaching Graphic Novels: Stuck Rubber Baby

At Cornell, where I am currently an ABD struggling to finish a dissertation, there is a program known as the First-Year Writing Seminars program. These are roughly the equivalent of the various Freshman English and Expository Writing classes you get at most (all?) colleges. But there are serious differences too, and -- so far as I can tell from my limited perspective as a three-time teacher of one -- the Cornell program is a significant improvement over the usual fare.

The major improvement is that the courses are designed around (in their phrase) "writing in the disciplines". That is, rather than simply trying to teach "expository writing" in a sort of general way, or making everyone do English Lit as their writing focus, the courses are taught in areas throughout the curriculum; and the focus is supposed to be how to write in the discipline you're teaching. This recognizes that writing a physics paper, an anthropology essay and a linguistics analysis are very different things. The courses also are each designed around a topic: in theory the class spends half its time analyzing the subject matter and half its time on writing. This means that the students actually have something to write about, also an obvious improvement.

As a grad student in history, I've so far offered three of the seminars. Most grad students offer seminars on topics which more-or-less closely match their dissertation research, for obvious reasons. But I sort of felt that I should offer classes which would appeal to First Year Students, many of whom will never take another history class. (A lot of the dissertation topics strike me as too narrow and esoteric.) So the first time around I offered a seminar called "The Sixties", a topic which I felt (correctly) would have a natural audience; and it seemed to go well enough. A few years later, I was able to offer two more seminars in the course of a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. Rather than simply repeat my earlier seminar, I decided I'd like to try a new one, so I offered a class in....

Historical fiction.

Yeah, I know. A program where the specific benefit is teaching in the disciplines, and teaching writing in the disciplines, I, a historian-in-training, offered what was essentially a literature class -- an area in which I have no post-undergraduate training. Of course, we talked about history as well as fiction; but the class was centered around historical novels, and that was the basis of the essays the class wrote.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And, actually, I think it went pretty well -- about as well as my earlier seminar on a bona fide historical topic. (I should say that (not wanting to create two new courses if I didn't have to) I offered it twice, once in the fall of 2005 and once in the spring of 2006; my impression is that both went equally well, although of course mine is a particular and peculiar perspective on the matter.)

Now, one of the limitations of the First Year Seminar program is that you're only supposed to assign 75 pages of reading per week, to keep the workload manageable (given that they're also supposed to be writing on a weekly (or nearly weekly) basis too). My highly unscientific and rather undersourced impression is that a lot of the seminars don't obey this rule too strictly -- along with the other rules, like how much time is supposed to be spent on writing and how much rewriting is supposed to go on: talking to my students, it seems that a fair number of the seminars break these rules. FWS offered by professors (as opposed to grad students) are particularly bad on this score, and my impression is that a lot of professors just treat them like, well, any other seminar. It's in the way of things that professors are less monitored in this regard, I suppose. Fortunately, 2/3 of the FWS are offered by grad students, so most first-years (who take one each semester of their first year) will take at least one that, y'know, focuses on writing. At any rate, I felt compelled to follow the guidelines fairly closely, and did so.

Of course this meant that I could only assign a fairly small number of novels -- four, in the end, chosen for comparative brevity among other factors. (The students also each read an additional book for their long final essay, which doesn't count in the 75-page tally.) Now, keeping a discussion going about a single novel for three weeks -- which is what this turned out to mean -- was a bit tricky. I had to pick novels that could bear it. (In my experience literature courses usually spend only a week or at most two on a single novel, unless it's something both huge and complex such as Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time.) I think I did pretty well on that score if I do say so myself, but it was definitely one of the challenges I faced.

So I picked four novels. My understanding of "historical novel", incidentally, was a novel which focused strongly on historical events, even if the author had been alive at the time. Many people make it definitional that historical novels are about events the author did not live through. But I was less interested in historical novels as a genre than what it meant to learn history by reading fiction (which a great many people do -- to say nothing of the fact that, in my experience, a surprising number of history classes assign historical novels), and for those purposes novels based on personal experience worked just find.

One of the books I picked was a graphic novel.

I did this for a number of reasons. The first, and frankly in the end the most naive, was an attempt to appeal to the students -- I figured that kids liked comics, these youngsters had been kids fairly recently (like, six months before) and so that it might appeal to them. Mostly, however, my students hadn't read comics as kids -- in each of my two classes more than half the students had never read a comic before (I took a show of hands and don't recall the exact number, but it was slightly more than half.) Certainly the "appeal to kids" angle was fairly unimportant -- although in each class I also had one or three students who did really like comics, although generally not the sort of comics I was teaching, and were glad to read one, so I suppose it did work for a small subset of each class.

A second reason was that graphic novels are a up-and-coming medium, growing in cultural and aesthetic importance almost weekly, and I thought that kids should be exposed to them. A related third reason was that we live in a visual culture, and I thought some visual analysis would be good to throw into the mix. I think these two reasons worked out much better than the first reason.

A fourth reason is that it was fun for me. Self-indulgent, yes, but I might offer the defense that if I'm having fun they're more likely to too.

But the most important reason by far -- the reason without which I would never have considered it -- is that the graphic novel I chose was and is a genuinely wonderful book, a superb novel (in the sense of being a sustained narrative with well-developed characters and themes), a superb graphic novel and a superb portrait of a historical era.

The book I am talking about is one of my favorite graphic novels, Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby.

Howard Cruse grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 60's, at a time when it was one of the centers of the then-at-its-peak Civil Rights Movement. Cruse was white, so saw the events from a different perspective than many histories of the Civil Rights Movement are (though there are exceptions; a splendid recent one is Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything -- highly recommended.) Cruse was also gay, at a time when the Gay Rights Movement may have started (contrary to popular belief, it didn't begin with the Stonewall Bar riot), but clearly hadn't spread beyond a small handful of still-quite-closeted people -- there certainly is no indication in his semi-autobiographical novel that Cruse had heard of the Mattachine society or anything like it. So Cruse's semi-autobiographical graphic novel (try saying that three times fast) has an interesting and rich perspective on several key aspects of that era of American history.

(Yes, I said history, damnit. I taught these classes in 2005 - 2006; my students were first-years in college, which meant that most of them were about eighteen -- born, therefore, in the vicinity of 1987, more than two decades after the events Cruse depicts. Hell, I, their teacher, was born in 1971. These events were carbon dated to these kids. Martin Luther King was as dead and gone to them as Martin Luther.)

Stuck Rubber Baby takes place in a city called Clayfield, a thinly-fictionalized version of Birmingham, in what Cruse calls "Kennedytime" -- basically, as he admits in his fascinating and detailed web site about the book, between the October Missile Crisis and Kennedy's assassination.* It's lead character is a young, white gay man, sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement but somewhat clueless about it, as well as a distinct outsider, a man slowly coming to terms with his sexuality at a difficult time for it. But there are lots of very rich characters in the book, black and white, straight and gay -- one of the things that make it such a wonderful novel.

It's not a perfect book. Various structural criticisms my students made -- in particular, parts of the story left tantalizingly untold -- seemed fair to me. And I think that Cruse's distinctive but decidedly odd way of drawing people -- what is up with those chins? -- takes some getting used to. But it's a superb graphic novel, a wonderful book, which I recommend quite highly. If you've never read a graphic novel before, it's a pretty good place to start -- which was precisely the situation a lot of my students were in.

Here's some things I did in teaching it.

The first thing I did was to show my students episode four of the astonishing television documentary Eyes on the Prize -- a superb series, one of the best things ever to air on television, and a very good introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. Even better for my purposes, the history covered in Cruse's graphic novel fit very precisely with the events covered in episode four of the series -- the movement in Birmingham, the 1963 March on Washington, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church shortly thereafter. This gave my students some historical context to put Cruse's book in, and another version of the events which we could discuss.

Then I set about teaching them how to read a graphic novel.

A bit of this was really basic, as in, what-order-do-you-read-the-balloons-in basic. For this, I used the (two-page black-and-white educational version of) Jessica Abel's marvelous brief introduction "What is a Graphic Novel?" which introduces students to some of these basics. This was surprisingly necessary: while I, and other comics readers, tend to think of these things as as natural as reading prose, they turn out to be, well, as natural as reading prose, i.e. highly artificial, not natural at all, and a skill which one needs to be taught -- and not a skill that was included in the standard how-to-read-prose educational package. Now, it wasn't a hard skill to acquire -- most of them were familiar with comics if only from the funny pages, and a few minutes in class did the trick I think -- but it did need a little attention.

The harder part was teaching them how to read graphic novels in the literary sense of "read" as "analyze". This I did in two parts.

The first part was a class in which we discussed some pages in Cruse's comic as pages, focusing on their visual elements, his visual choices, and the way the visuals constructed the pages' meaning. We started, for obvious reasons, with page one, which looks like this:

And we talked about it. Why were the upper two images without panel boarders? What did they do as opening images? When were they set, anyway? What effect did it have to draw the narrator so large? Or shown at his present-day age? Holding a beer? Why did none of the three images on the left show a human face? What was the effect of this truncation? How would they describe the layout of the page as a whole? Why was the background of the lower half of the page black and the upper half white? And so forth.

We then had similar conversations about several other pages in the graphic novel, until they began to get the point that they had to read the images as well as read the words -- indeed, that the images and the words were a single thing -- a comic -- and not two separate, separable things which stood on their own.

That was our first full class on Cruse's graphic novel (we'd done a few minutes on how to read a comic the week before they even began reading it.) In our second class on the book I did the second part of my how-to-think-about-comics lesson, which nicely coincided with the FWS mandate of using lots of writing, including in-class writing. This was as follows. I gave them a list of possible pages -- focusing on slightly difficult ones, and ones from the first third of the book, which was all they had read -- and asked them to "translate" that page into what they imagined it would sound like if it had been from a prose novel.

The point of this exercise was how hard it was to do it. Not only did they have to pick a style, decide whether it was in the first person (an older version of the narrator does narrate the graphic novel) or third (looking at things happen in a graphic novel creates a decidedly third-person feel for a lot of people), but they had to translate many very specifically visual effects into purely linguistic ones. They quality of their versions varied, of course, but that wasn't really the point: the point was that they had another chance to notice how much was going on visually -- in the pictures, in the lettering, in the layout, etc, etc. Simply copying out the dialogue got them nowhere, or nowhere very good.

And after that, we could just talk about the book as a piece of historical fiction: how it portrayed the Civil Rights Movement, how it portrayed the lives of gays (and to a lesser extent lesbians) at a time before the Gay Rights Movement was widespread, how we dealt theoretically with the fact that, while this novel was based on real events, it was also set in a fictional city, and so on. I had them look at Cruse's web page, to see the ways in which the book was and was not based on real events, as well as the research that had gone into the book -- both its events and its visual construction. (He did a lot of research even though he'd lived through the events (or ought one to say very similar events?)) And finally they wrote essays (as they did about each of the novels we read) about the relationship between the personal stories and the larger historical forces as portrayed in the book -- how each affected the other, how historical choices and events were shaped by individual circumstances, and vice-versa.

It was fun -- certainly for me, and I think for them. I believe they learned a lot -- about gay life in the 1960's, about the Civil Rights Movement, and about how to read graphic novels. I certainly learned a lot about how to teach graphic novels. As someone who primarily teaches history, I have (alas!) limited opportunities to work fiction of any sort into my classes, let alone specifically graphic novels. But I think I learned a fair bit about how to do it. And, more-or-less out of nowhere, it occurred to me today that I might try and share some of what I learned with you.

I hope I have.

And if anyone out there hasn't read Stuck Rubber Baby, let me say, once again, that it is a simply splendid book, one I recommend very highly to one and all.

A comics-oriented-but-otherwise-unrelated bulletin: Scott McCloud's promised online supplement to his most recent book (which I previously wrote about here and here), "chapter five-and-a-half", is now online.

Later Update: I was cheeky enough to send a link to this entry to Howard Cruse himself; he not only read it, but in fact discussed it on his own blog! Click through to read what he has to say.

Still Later Update: I have written another lengthy post about Stuck Rubber Baby; if you liked this one, check it out -- I think there's fairly little overlap, considering.

* This is true for an interesting reason so far as narrative construction goes, actually; as Cruse says on his web site:
One challenge in constructing my chronology was to dodge the two big events of 1962-63: the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President John Kennedy. Neither of these national traumas had any relevance to the themes of my novel, but by virtue of their historic importance they would have required strong responses from my characters, which means that precious pages would have been drained from my story. So I constructed the pivotal incidents in Stuck Rubber Baby so that they could all occur between the Cuban crisis and the assassination (except for the final scene, which leapfrogged over Kennedy's death by several months).
This is, I think, probably a common problem in creating narratives with any sort of real-life connection at all; I recall a character in Nabokov's novel The Defense wrestling with a similar problem vis-à-vis the Russian Revolution, for example.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving Thanks

From Daniel Dennett, writing on his recent brush with death, come these words on giving thanks:
Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

... The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.
It's a good little essay; read the whole thing here. (But be forewarned: it is confusingly laid out: not only the italicized part at the top, but the next few paragraphs as well, are actually just selections from the essay; the essay proper begins with the second printing of the title -- just scroll down to there you won't miss anything (except Dennett's bio, I suppose.))



ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson



(credits: image; lettering by Spell with Flickr.)


Happy Thanksgiving to one and all, however you celebrate it, and to whomever and in whatever way you give thanks.

Among many, many other things, I thank you, my Nobel Readers, for reading.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Is This Man Worth Two Presidents?

Wallace: Hamilton? He ain't no president.
D'Angelo: ...Ain't no ugly ass white man get his face on no legal motherfucking tender, 'cept he president.

-- The Wire, Episode 1, "The Target" *
Via boingboing, I learn that the U.S. Mint is planning on releasing a new series of dollar coins -- a third attempt after the earlier unsuccessful Susan B. Anthony dollars and Sacagawea dollars.

The first interesting thing I learned from this article was why the Sacagawea dollars didn't go over. Everyone** knows that the Susan B. Anthony dollars didn't work because they were too much like quarters: people would get confused, and be shortchanged by a factor of 75%. Apt to make anyone cranky. But they learned from this experience, and the Sacagawea dollars are quite distinct in size, feel and color. So what went wrong that time?

Well, there's the fact that the U.S. population seems to be plain old resistant to using dollar coins. (For what it's worth, I'm for it: the dollar has dropped to coin-level worth some time since. England, for instance, uses a pound coin even though a pound is worth almost $2. But it's hardly one of my major concerns.) But the other factor apparently was that "limited Sacagawea quantities led to too many being stashed away by collectors, reducing circulation and thus familiarity." That's a pretty silly mistake: if you're going to roll out a new coin, do it right.

Anyway, we're up to take three here... except it's sort of like take three, four.... up to at least thirty-nine, and probably beyond. Borrowing an idea from their (apparently successful) "50-state" quarters, they are going to start releasing a coin for every U.S. President, in order, at four a year.

Or almost every President, I should say: U.S. law (quite properly and wisely) forbids the putting of any living person on currency. So, as of now, Ford, Carter, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 are off-limits. Which is presumably why, if you examine the schedule, you see that the last currently announced coin is the 37th President, Richard Nixon, scheduled for roll-out in 2016. This is what drove boingboing batty: that "Richard 'Lying Scumbag' Nixon" is getting his face on a coin.

And while I certainly appreciate the accurate historical memory of Nixon as a lying scumbag, the truth is that far too many Presidents have been liars; and not a few have been scumbags. After all, when the current President finally goes to his eternal reward -- and if there is any justice in the universe*** he'll go from a jail cell to a far worse place -- he'll also presumably be stamped on a shiny new dollar, and then someone who -- astonishing as it is -- outdoes Nixon in both the "lying" and the "scumbag" departments.

No, what gets me is another thing. You see one President is going to have two different coins in the series with his shinny face on them.

I'm speaking, of course, about Grover Cleveland.

I wouldn't really be surprised if some non-trivial proportion of my Noble Readers said Who?

Grover Cleveland comes from the list of Presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt 26 (as opposed to Roosevelt 32, natch) -- in other words, the Presidents no one ever remembers -- largely deservedly so, really: they're a fairly undistinguished bunch all around, although you can make cases for the odd one here and there.****

But what distinguishes Grover Cleveland, in a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others sort of way, from all the other Presidents, is that he served two nonconsecutive terms, 1885 - 1889 and 1893 - 1897.

Parenthetically, the reason he served two non-consecutive terms is the same reason that the current lying scumbag had the opportunity to toss our country down the toilet: the Electoral College. Cleveland actually won the popular vote in the 1888 election, just as he did in the 1884 and 1892 elections (thereby being one of only three men ever to win a plurality of the popular vote more than twice.*****) So to the Electoral College -- which has so many other negatives to its credit -- this minor irritation can also be ascribed.

In any event, once this occurred, the inevitable question occurred: how do we number Cleveland among the Presidents?

The first 23 are easy, Washington to Harrison (and how's that for a diminution?) But should Cleveland be simply the 22nd President, Harrison the 23rd -- with the quick-step to the 24th, William McKinley, interrupted by a brief return to the 22nd... or was Cleveland actually not only the 22nd, but also the 24th, President, with McKinley therefore actually the 25th?

Congress, leaping into action on important matters, officially declared****** that Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th President.

Well, I think they blew it.

Obviously there is a good case to be made that Grover Cleveland was the perpetrator of both the 22nd and the 24th Presidencies. But honestly, when do we think about that?******* If you're going to think about that, you might as well talk about Presidential terms, which admittedly gets you instantly tangled up in fractions given the nine Presidential terms that were divided between two people,******** but still, they're more important.

Usually, when we're not talking about Presidential terms, we're talking about Presidents. As in the people. As in the ugly ass white men who get their faces on legal motherfucking tender.

And Grover Cleveland, say what you will about him, was one guy.

So I think Congress made the wrong call. *********

Here's the best argument against their position, though. If you say that Cleveland was just the 22nd (individual to hold the office of) President, you get the odd situation that the 22nd President was after as well as before the 23rd. But that is a localized oddity: it will only come up when you're thinking about the Presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt 26. Which, let's face it, people hardly ever do, since they were an undistinguished bunch, as mentioned previously. But if you hold to the Official Position Of The United States Government and say that Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th President, then it comes up every time you think about any post-Harrison Presidential ranking, and you need to constantly include footnotes********** to the effect that Bush 43 might be the 43rd President, but there were still only 42 people to hold the office. It's a choice that instead of localizing the oddity -- an oddity that is, after all, real and odd but also local -- distributes from now until the end of time, the end of the Presidency as an institution, or the next time the Electoral College decides to fuck us in our collective ass, depending. In other words, given the choice they made, you get more oddities than you would otherwise.

Including not one but two dollar coins for Grover Cleveland.

And not because he deserves his own coin, like Lincoln on the penny, Jefferson on the nickel, Roosevelt 32 on the dime, Washington on the quarter or JFK on the half-dollar. But because... well. Because.

It's silly.

I readily admit that this is an issue on which intelligent people can disagree. In fact, it is pretty much a good candidate for the archetypal issue on which there is no "correct" decision. For instance, my beloved wife, who is usually right about everything, is wrong about disagrees with me about this.

But I think the localized-versus-distributed-oddity argument is a clincher, personally.

But Congress disagrees, so in 2012 we'll get two separate Grover Cleveland dollars. (Kevin Drum points out that 2012 will be a banner year all around for dollar coins, what with Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison joining Cleveland 22 and Cleveland 24 as their poster boys for the year.)

Otherwise, I have to say, the dollars look pretty well designed. They will be designed like Sacagawea dollars, so that the millions... er, thousands... well, all the machines that were re-designed to accept those will accept the new ones. And they will have three of the traditional inscriptions for coins -- the date, "E Pluribus Unum" and "In Ba'al We Trust"*********** -- on the coins' edges, which is frankly pretty cool. Anyway, I, for one, am looking forward to them.

But a lot of Presidents -- possibly a majority of those who weren't firmly in the lying scumbag category (and some who were in the "lying but not a scumbag" category) -- already have their faces on coins. It might be fun to put out a series of forty coins with other notable Americans on them, joining Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea with non-Presidential currency portraits. Martin Luther King might be a good place to start, since today everyone either admires his work or has to pretend they do. *********** At any rate, it would be more fun than all forty-three of the forty-two men who have served as President of the United States.

But I suppose that ain't no ugly ass white man get his face on no legal motherfucking tender, 'cept he president.

And people other than white men -- particularly after the failure of the Anthony & Sacagawea dollars -- need not apply at all.

Update: Matthew Yglesias says that the mining lobby was the force behind the new coins.

* I really hope I don't need to point out that Wallace, not D'Angelo, is correct here -- Alexander Hamilton never was President? (He was Secretary of the Treasury, and an important pre-Constitutional figure too.) For that matter, Benjamin Franklin, on the $100 bill, wasn't a President either (he died in 1791, during the first term of the first President, (who is currently gracing the $1 bill and the quarter.)) And it somehow seems typical of The Wire that they let the character who is wrong get the last word...

** Defined tautologically as those who actually know the information in question.

*** There isn't.§

**** You can make a case for almost anything, really.

***** Andrew Jackson, who was cheated of the Presidency by a combination of the Electoral College and the odd constitutional procedures for when there isn't a majority within it in 1824 (and then went on to win outright in 1828 and 1832), and Roosevelt 32, who of course did so not thrice but in quadruplicate. §§

****** I've known this for years, but a brief Google doesn't turn up the actual date of Congress's important decision on this matter. And I don't care enough to do a prolonged Googling.

******* I mean, even those of us who think about these things.

******** Sigh. 1841-1845, 1849-1853, 1865-1869, 1881-1885, 1901-1905, 1921-1925, 1945-1949, 1961-1965 and 1973-1977. Four natural deaths, four assassinations, and one lying scumbag. And no, I didn't need to look anything up to type all that out; I do this for a living. §§§

********* Shocking, I know. Try to control yourself. (As Orson Scott Card might say.)

********** And footnotes, as everyone knows, are an incredible nuisance. §§§§

*********** What? Why would that bother you? It's just ceremonial Ba'alism, which, as everyone§§§§§ knows, is not any sort of violation of the first amendment. Really. The Supreme Court has said so. Would they ever get anything wrong?

************ Otherwise, they might end up demoted from Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate to Minority Whip -- a shocking fall from being the most powerful Republican in the Senate to the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate.

§ Except what we put there. We could do the jail cell part, if we want. I, for one, am for it.

§§ There really isn't another in the sequence "once, twice, thrice..." is there? Or am I just not thinking of it?

§§§ Which means that I probably made a mistake somewhere. So you'd better look it up yourself if you care. You're always safer looking things up. Well, depending where you look.

§§§§ Don't you think?

§§§§§ Yes, tautologically defined. Wasn't this where we came in?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Regular Blogging to Resume Shortly

I know that for the first half of November, I was posting more-or-less daily, but that was mostly due to the election, plus a few non-political posts I'd had in the pipeline which happened to be ready at the same time. I will probably be resuming a more normal one-to-three-times-a-week schedule now... and, indeed, it might be even less through Thanksgiving weekend.

Meanwhile, if you haven't stopped by recently, there's some new stuff below (and from October too), so take a look.

Back soon --

Monday, November 13, 2006

Why "Attempts"?

No one's ever asked why I decided to call this blog "Attempts".* But then, no one ever asked me to blog, either. So I thought that, unbidden -- as a celebration of my 200th post (which this is) -- I would tell you.

Blogs are, of course, a medium more than a form: oh, there are blogospheric traditions and customs, to be sure. But basically blogs are a vessel with which one can do what one wishes; as Fred Clark once suggested, talking about blogs in the abstract is as silly as talking about paper in the abstract: "I know all the buzz about paper suggests its about politics and journalism, but many people only use it for personal diaries and as an outlet for expression." So blogs can be -- and are -- about anything, and for anything.

But for me, the best of the blogophsere approaches the literary form of the essay.

I'm far from the first to think this, of course. Christopher Lydon suggested that the "god" for bloggers should be Emerson: that preeminent American essayist, who "taught one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man".** And Holly says in the margins of her blog that "If Montaigne, father of the essay, were alive today, he'd keep a blog." (Which quote will give away my punchline to some of you!) So yes, the idea of the blogosphere as, at its best, the new home of the essay -- that strange and wonderful form, literary but spilling every boundary into the political and the philosophical and all sorts of other non-literary (or, as Samuel R. Delany would say, the paraliterary) forms -- is an old one.

Well, when I sat down to start a blog, I used the title that I had, for many years, thought I would use if I were ever fortunate enough to publish a book of essays: why save the title for a hypothetical volume when I was about to put real worlds in a genuine (if virtual) public place?

So I called it "Attempts".

Why Attempts?

Because Montaigne -- the first, and some claim still the greatest, essayist -- called his works essais: a French word meaning "attempts" or "tries".*** (We still have this verbal meaning for the word "essay" -- one can 'essay' something -- but I think it strikes most people as a little archaic.) His essays were meditations on diverse topics; they were deeply personal; but they were, above all, preliminary. Essays in a direction, not the final word on subjects.

Well, these are my essays: meditations on diverse topics, deeply personal -- and, above all, preliminary. But, since I speak 21st century English not 16th century French, I call them by a translation of Montaigne's name for them, in hopes to better recover the spirit with which he bestowed the name.

This is not to say that all my blog posts are up to this standard; I know they're not.**** This is, well, my blog, so I often use it the way that others use their blogs. So of course a lot of what I post are simply link collections or quotes or memes or whatever. Of course they are.

But I think the best of what I write are essays -- that is, at any rate, what I consider to be my goal here. To make forays into odd patches of personal, intellectual terrain. Those are the ones which I put up in the sidebar as "favorites". Those are the ones I hope that people will really read. Those are the ones I take to be, not typical, but proto-typical: what I want to do here.

To essay.

To attempt.

* Well, okay, my Aunt did; but no one else.

** Emerson also, as Lydon quotes, said "I hate quotations"; indeed, in "Self-Reliance" Emerson wrote that "Man... dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage": quoting, as Stanley Cavell has pointed out, Descartes. -- Yes, he was: just the Meditations, not the Discourse (which is where the more famous version, with 'therefore' ("ergo"), comes from.)

*** Yeah, that Wikipedia entry gives "attempts" as a translation of Montaigne's "essais". I thought of it independently, years before I ever saw it. But it was on seeing that that it occurred to me that I'd never explained why I called this blog "Attempts" -- and thus sparked this post. (Coming across Holly's invocation of Montaigne was another impetus behind it.)

**** That is, the standard of being "essays" in the literary sense; I know that none of my essays are up to the standards of Montaigne. I just hope, at my best, to be playing the same game, even if not in the same league.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

God and the Masculine Pronoun

Some of my favorite people in the world resolutely speak about God in non-gendered terms; others use "She", "Her" and so forth for God, as a counter-linguistic move to try to undermine the traditional (masculine) notions of God. I understand what they are doing and why, and once upon a time I used to (inconsistently) follow their example. But recently I am finding that I don't anymore; I am calling God He.

Now I should say that in general I am a big supporter of gender-neutral language. I wasn't always, but I have come around. Of the two counter-arguments that once seemed persuasive to me, I think that the "it's just grammar" argument is both clearly fallacious -- both studies and individual reflection show that people simply don't equally think of men and women if "he" is used (purportedly) for both -- and also begs the question, since grammar changes and the question is what language ought to be rather than what it has been (which, in any event, itself supports such things as the singular they). The other argument is the aesthetic one -- that locutions such as "he and she" are simply clumsy -- and I still think that that's a valid point, but the claims of both accuracy and justice simply override it -- or, rather, compel us to do aesthetic work to find better-sounding formulations for what accuracy and justice demand. So yes, in general, I am definitely on board with not using "he" when we mean "he or she" or "one" or "they" or whatever.

But with God I am still using He. Why?

I think it's because I am an atheist.

If I were a theist, I would probably try hard to use gender-neutral language about God.* Certainly the theology that I (albeit as an atheist) find most interesting and compelling include the notion that God is neither female or male. There is good biblical justification for it too in various places (although of course there is biblical justification to the contrary also) -- the very text of Genesis 1:27 -- "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He Him; male and female created He them." -- can be read as saying that what it means, or at least a part of what it means, to create man in God's image precisely is to make man both male and female. (Although even here the language, at least in translation, is sending decidedly mixed signals, with its "man", "His" and "He Him"; and even if one notes that the Hebrew word for "man" is "Adam" which has the meaning of "human" not "man" (which is "ish"), the same can't be said for the pronouns, which are male -- as are, for that matter, the verbs.) In any event, I won't go into further details of theologies and interpretations which I don't, in fact, believe; but I do have more respect for (or at any rate interest in) theologies which describe a gender-neutral God than I do with theologies that hold -- at least implicitly -- God to be male. And certainly I agree with the politics of those that describe God in gender-neutral terms -- their ends, insofar as they are political (in the sense of cultural politics) are ones with which I agree.

But here's the thing: I'm not a theist. I'm an atheist. And as an atheist, the only God I believe in is the fictional character believed in by actual believers. When I talk about God, I am no longer talking about a being which I believe exists; I am speaking only about a hypothetical object. Sometimes I talk about God as an abstract concept which, I happen to think, corresponds to no reality -- as I might speak of vampires or unicorns or the analytic philosophers' beloved current Kings of France, say. At other times I talk about God specifically referring to the entity believed in by others but which I happen to think they are mistaken about -- as I might speak of astrology or the valid justifications for the war in Iraq. But either way it is no longer a case of my language asserting what I believe: I am talking about others' beliefs -- they, and not I, get to define the concept under discussion.**

And most people talk about God as male.

I admit that this isn't a clear-cut case. The God of the theologians -- the abstract-concept use I referred to above, God as defined as the Unmoved Mover, or as an omnipotent omnibenevolent being, and so forth -- is pretty clearly not gendered. But the God of popular belief and language is -- in the vast majority of cases -- male. (And here I think that one has to include in "cases" the history of the concept, i.e. historical uses not just current ones. If the current conception were divorced from the historical ones, this might not be true; but since the current conception is specifically, overtly and deliberately grounded in the historical one -- even by those who deny some aspects of the historical one, such as its gendered character -- I think that the historical voices should count equally (not more, but not less) than the present-day ones.) That I may sympathize (for political and intellectual reasons) with my friends who use non-gendered neutral language for God doesn't change the fact that they are, clearly in the minority. They are endeavoring to change the culture -- a culture with millennia of inertia on the other side, but which (at the same time) they are not willing to simply discard (which would make the inertia irrelevant) -- but they haven't yet changed the culture, not by a long shot.

Why shouldn't I then help them in their quest to change the culture? Again: because I am an atheist, not a theist: it's not my place. As a comparison, I sympathize with those Catholics who wish their church to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians -- mostly for political reasons, although I might be able to come up with some theological ones as well (talking about the portrayal of Jesus in the bible being strongly focused on inclusion, for example). But the point is, I'm not Catholic; I'm not even a Christian (I'm not even a cultural Christian the way I am a cultural Jew); it's not my fight; and clearly, as it is constituted now, the Catholic church is not accepting of gays and lesbians. And if it is to be made so, I can't be part of that: again, it's not my fight.

And I think that the same holds true for the gender of God.

I think that non-gendered notions of God bear something like the same relationship to the mainstream of religious tradition that Kirk-Spock pornography does to the rest of Star Trek. By this I mean both that it is arguably implied in the more mainstream canonical literature; that it is an interesting and subversive reading that makes the resulting fiction even richer and more interesting; and that the proportion of Star Trek fans who think about Kirk and Spock getting it on is roughly the same as the proportion of the theists who think of God in gender-neutral rather than masculine terms. There is, to be sure, a difference insofar as the Star Trek universe is owned (by Paramount) and its owner resolutely denies the validity of the K/S tradition, whereas religious traditions are endlessly multiple and some of them actively promote the reality of gender-neutral language for God. Nevertheless, I think the points are more similar than different: in both cases the minority view is compelling but overwhelming denied, or even more ignored, by the majority of those involved with the fictions in question. And it would be bizarre to launch into a serious discussion of Star Trek -- not as a cultural phenomenon, and not focusing on K/S fiction, but speaking about the fiction as a whole -- with the presumption that Kirk and Spock were lovers.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. But the point stands.

If in talking about an abstract conception we're talking about a reality, or what I believe to be a reality, then I can argue for my view of it. But if in talking about God we're talking about a fiction -- and I believe that we are -- then the fiction is what its authors -- believers en masse -- make it. And, mostly, they talk about God as male. The God I disbelieve in -- the God that I am saying they are wrong about -- is the one they are asserting; and for the most part, that God is referred to as He. So I will continue to say, of God, that I disbelieve in Him; since it is (mostly) He, and not She or It or other language that is offered, to which I am asserting my skepticism.

A parallel might be made for other minority traditions about God. I disbelieve in the God who is morally imperfect just as much as I disbelieve in the traditional omnibenevolent God; but since the latter is more usually what is talked about, the latter is what I will be more usually denying if the subject arises. Mutatis mutandis, I disbelieve in Odin just as much as I disbelieve in YHVH; but the latter is what believers today mostly assert. And I disbelieve in the genderless, or feminine, God just as much as I disbelieve in the masculine one. But when theists discuss God, they usually mean the latter; so I must do likewise.

I suppose the one exception that might be taken to this is that, by my own admission, the most interesting theists assert a gender-neutral God, so that while (in sheer numbers) theists are biased towards God-as-He just as they are towards God-as-omnibenevolent, in terms of the people one might actually be most interested in engaging with they are far more likely to assert God-as-genderless. This is a fair point, and in some specific cases -- were I to discuss some particular theologian, say -- I would probably try to follow their example. But the point is that when theists talk about God, they are generally talking about a shared concept, albeit one that they have a particular take on. So mostly I need to talk to the shared concept to.

So when I speak of God, I shall continue to say that I don't believe in Him.

* I think; as I say above, the theologies that I currently, as an atheist, find most compelling are those that view God in gender-neutral terms. But, of course, I don't find those theologies compelling enough to believe them. It's hard to say whether a hypothetical theist me should be imagined as believing the theology that seems (to my actual atheist self) most compelling, or if instead the very act of my conversion would lead me to some strange other place -- an orthodox Roman Catholic, or something -- which is as likely to have a gendered as a non-gendered view of God. My inclination is to say that personality, culture and viewpoint tend to remain consistent even through religious conversions, and so that the former is more likely... but that answer is basically begging the question, since it assumes a natural rather than a supernatural conversion. If God were to truly speak to me, and convert me, who knows what form that conversion would take? -- But, of course, I consider this impossible. -- And since I could keep going around this bend endlessly, I'll stop here.

** This is not to say that anything goes; "that's not what 'God' means" is still a perfectly fair reply, and one I might make to (to take a random example) Mordecai Kaplan. But I would justify it not by claims about God (since I don't think that that word corresponds to anything real) but to other people's beliefs about God. It would be not like saying "whales aren't fish" (which one would back up by giving facts about the world) but would be like saying "unicorns don't have two horns" -- one would back that up by pointing to other imaginary depictions of unicorns in fiction, art, myth, etc. That's not to say that someone couldn't write a perfectly good book about a two-horned unicorn. But it would be deliberately altering the concept -- fair in fiction, unfair in philosophical debate (at least without admitting it explicitly).

Tangentially related announcement:The 53rd Carnival of the Godless has now been posted, including both my post Fruitful Inconsistencies (which I personally wouldn't have categorized as "debunking theism" -- it's about the role of inconsistencies in both religion and literature -- but whatever), and the post of Sean Carroll's that inspired mine, The God Conundrum, and lots more besides. Take a look.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Poems for Armistice Day

Eighty-eight years ago today World War One ended: after four mad years, the guns at last fell silent.

November 11, therefore, is Armistice Day -- re-named Veterans Day in the U.S. to extend its meaning. But it comes from the Great War, the war that should have taught us the madness of all wars. The war we did not learn enough from.

Some bloggers are posting In Flanders Fields to mark the day; but a few other poems come to my mind. So I give you three poems to mark Armistice Day.

The first is by Wilfred Owen, who died in combat November 4, 1918 -- just seven days before the war he wrote about was finally ended. (LGM has a good post today about the very last person to die in the war -- two minutes before the armistice took effect.)


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

-- Wilfred Owen

Next we have a poem by an older man who survived the war:

I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

-- Rudyard Kipling

And, lastly, a poem which I posted once before, but which is quite appropriate for today. Its author, W. D. Ehrhart, is a Vietnam Veteran.

I didn't want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn't want a postage stamp.
I didn't want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming:
"Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway."

What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
nor ours.

What I wanted
was an end to monuments.

-- W. D. Ehrhart
To the dead of the Great War; to the dead of Iraq -- Rest in Peace.

To the rest of us: may we learn to better serve those who serve us in days to come.

Update: As she reminds us, Teresa Nielsen Hayden had an extraordinary collection of WW1 links last (and previous) years. Well worth checking out.

One link from her collection that struck me in particular this year was Will Longstaff's painting Menin Gate at Midnight (Ghosts of Menin Gate), painted in 1927 by an Australian vetran of the Great War. Here's a picture of it:

(The link goes to the Wikipedia page, from where I got the image; TNH had linked to it on this page, where they have a very different reproduction of the same painting; worth looking at both, really: first, second.)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Snark and Boojum: Friday Bird Blogging

Posting pictures of one's pets is a blogosphere tradition -- one which I even participated in once when we were birdsitting some friends' cockatiels.

But something new came into our lives this week. No, not the Democratic Congress -- something else.

I'm speaking of a pair of lovebirds which we (re)named Snark and Boojum.

These are the first pets my wife and I ever adopted together. (She had a fish when we began dating). They seem, so far, happy and very loud. They seem to be constantly either snuggling contentedly or squabbling -- an old married couple, in other words. They're both male (we think), and they're something like 2 - 3 years old.

So, by way of both introduction and Friday Bird Blogging, here are Snark and Boojum:

That's Snark on the right and Boojum on the left.

How did we get them? We charmed them with smiles and soap, obviously.

So I hope you'll all join me in giving an enthusiastic welcome to Snark and Boojum...

(You can read about their namesakes here or here.)

The Care and Feeding of Memes

Memes survive by reproduction: in human brains, in print, in any medium they find hospitable. And as with all reproducing creatures, there are some memes ought to be encouraged in their reproduction, for they are helpful -- in the case of memes, "helpful" means roughly "true and important". So allow me to pass on some points that others are making that deserve to be spread far and wide. Because they're important. And true.

Investigate the Electoral Cheating. Rick Perlstein: Despite the fact that the Democratic wave was too big for Republicans to cheat their way around, they did try to cheat, and this fact desperately needs to be investigated, prosecuted, reported widely and anticipated in future elections, since they'll clearly try again. (More here.) I would add: and clean and fair elections laws should be a Democratic priority; there is no more important issue than this, since failure on this means failure on every other conceivable issue. (Update: And just because they didn't cheat enough to win the House, their vote-suppression may have won them some races.)

Winning Through Conviction. Greg Sargent: We won because we stood up to the Republicans on the failures of Iraq, the horrors of torture, the illegality of warrantless wiretaps. Do not let the Republicans -- or the "sensible" pundits of the MSM -- sucker us into retreat on these matters. Stick to our guns. We are not here to enable Bush's policies on Iraq, but to try and change them.

Hold them Accountable. We must, must, must find out more about what the Republicans have been doing while in power -- prosecute the illegality to the fullest extent of the law, and hold them politically accountable for the things that are merely immoral but not illegal. Digby:
None of that means that there isn't ample room for legislation on which we can all agree. The door should always be open to those who want to negotiate and compromise. But unless the last decade of Republican mendacity, malfeasance and corruption is exposed, the lesson republicans will take from this is that they can promise everything, do anything and the only repurcussions will a couple of years out of power when they can blame the Democrats for their failures. To not require some sort of accountability for this is a very serious moral hazard.
And, unsurprisingly, Glenn Greenwald is also all over this; see for example this and this. Corruption was a big issue this election; we need to clean out the Augean stables. It's our mandate. (And it should go without saying that the first step is not to let them pour any more filth in.)

(More to come, FSM willing. (Update: yep.))

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Further Brief Thoughts on the Revolution of 2006

• The "Revolution of 2006" is not a term I've yet heard, although I'd be astonished if I were actually the first to use it. But calling change-of-party elections "revolutions" has a long and storied history in the U.S., back to Jefferson's "Revolution of 1800" and most recently with Gingrich in '94. This one surely qualifies: we have deposed -- or begun the work that will be needed to depose -- another King George. (This isn't meant to imply impeachment -- although I'd be for it, since he deserves it a dozen times over (at least!) -- but simply holding his powers back to that of a President, from his assumed monarchy: one of the more important tasks for the new Congress.)

• Several people have pointed out that Rumsfeld's departure means that the Democrats are already improving things, even before assuming office. And I agree. Still, those who think that Rumsfeld's resignation is going to improve Iraq are in for a rude disappointment, I fear. The problem, all along, has been Bush, whose policies Rumsfeld has been implementing -- and, of course, the initial crime of the invasion. And, at this point, the choices are between terrible and even worse. Changing Rumsfeld won't change that: at best it will mean that Bush has decided to choose "terrible" rather than "even worse". But Bush isn't known for his respect for evidence, the voters, the lives of the troops under his command (let alone civilian Iraqis) or his ability to change course. So I wouldn't be surprised if Robert Gates simply put a new face on what Rumsfeld would otherwise have done -- if this was mere politics. But, again, even in the unlikely case that this isn't true, there are no longer any good options left. Only different terrible ones. And that's the fault, ultimately, not of Rumsfeld, but of Bush.

• A home-state note: I'm disappointed about New York's State Senate, which, despite the massive gains of Democrats in other races in this state, will remain in Republican hands. I'm disappointed not only because, as Jerome Armstrong notes, some senior Democrats didn't do all they could to push this (although I wouldn't draw such absolute conclusions about them that he does from that fact alone), but because I don't know if overall enough effort was made.

Yesterday when I walked into the voting booth to vote the straight Democratic ticket, I noticed that for one office there was no Democratic candidate -- namely, for our local State Senator. Now, given that Ithaca is an island of blue in a sea of red, I can well believe that for whatever the precise district is, any such challenge would have been purely nominal. Nevertheless, all our other representatives -- US House, US Senate, NY House -- are Democrats; and I would have bloody well liked a chance to vote against the current louse. (He's a sponsor of a pro-discrimination marriage amendment here.) I looked about the ballot, hoping for a chance to vote for someone, anyone, else -- but he was the only guy on the ballot (albeit, due to New York's cross-endorsement laws, for three different parties!). So I abstained in that race. (If I had known how to write-in someone, and there hadn't been a line behind me, I would have written someone in.) But why couldn't we at least have someone on the ballot, even if they didn't campaign a lick?

A lot of conservatives are now admitting that they have been carrying water for people whose governing they dislike. (More.) What they aren't yet admitting is that this ought to destroy their credibility even for those who are still so gullible to grant them some (for reasons that are self-evident: why admit it, given that only the gullible do still grant them any?) It would be nice, however, if the MSM would start treating these people as the admitted liars and principleless hacks that they are. (Update: Adding--) And you wonder if they will now openly admit what a disaster Bush has been? Or will they continue to lie about that until after he leaves office?

Pre-emptive meme immunization: If, as some are suggesting, Allen does not challenge the results in Virginia, expect a lot of bloviating about how this shows that Allen is a gracious looser, and Gore was a sore looser -- etc, etc, ad nauseum. This point is entirely invalid, for one overwhelming reason: Gore actually won while Bush stole the election, whereas Allen was the one trying to steal the election he would be challenging. It's not just that Gore won the popular vote, giving him moral legitimacy; it's not just that more people went to the polls intending to vote for Gore than Bush but weren't counted, from overvotes to butterfly ballots; it's not just that the Republicans used blatantly illegal means like "fixing" absentee ballots after the election was over: it's that if it had not been for Jeb Bush & Katherine Harris's illegal, immoral and racist program of using a private company to cut African Americans who had names vaguely similar to those of ex-felons off the voter roles in advance of the election, Gore would have won Florida despite all the rest. Gore had no obligation to be a gracious looser, because he actually won. Allen does have an obligation to be a gracious looser, because he not only lost fair and square, he lost despite his best efforts to cheat.

[Update: final point added.]

Reactions: a Round-Up in Five Parts

Part One: Celebration

Part Two: Snark

Scott Eric Kaufman (via):
Emails obtained by the Associated Press indicate that top Republican officials now believe that the margin of victory will be too high to rig the results. "A four or five percent margin, we can handle," said a GOP official from Connecticut. "But eight or higher? That's asking the implausible."

"John McCain joked on Wednesday he would 'commit suicide- if Democrats win the Senate in November." -- October 19, 2006
I wont get all nitpicky and ask for a 'real' suicide. A political suicide is good enough. Stand up, and admit that you've been a rubber-stamp crony for this administration, that you're a man who allowed torture but have no problem criticizing the looks of Chelsea Clinton. That you've enabled Karl Rove, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, to commit crime after crime against this country.

Josh Marshall: "Bush: for Rumsfeld before he was against him."

Part Three: Analysis

Quick, same-night list of firsts from Chris Bowers.

Kevin Drum, also last night:
So what caused the Republican meltdown?...
Iraq, of course....
Terri Schiavo and Katrina....
The economy....
Sleazy campaigning....
(Read the rest for comments on each. I think the most prominent item missing on that list is "Corruption".)

Rick Perlstein chez Atrios on the victories of the netroots. Chris Bowers adds his thoughts on this too.

Important underemphasized story: Dems gain in state legislatures too. (More here and here.) Other non-Congressional good news:
- South Dakota rejects abortion ban
- Arizona rejects amendment enshrining marriage discrimination
- Specter wins in New York
- Patrick wins in Massachusetts

Mark Schmitt casts a hopeful eye towards 2008's Senate races.

Rebutting conservative spin that it was "conservative" democrats who won last night: one, two, three, four, five. Even worse is this same (clearly false) spin from a Democrat. But ultimately Ben Adler notes (see also this follow-up post):
Donald Rumsfeld's resignation will spin very much to the Democrats advantage vis-a-vis the midterms. That is to say, all those talking heads on cable news saying that the Dems won on the strength of moderate and socially conservative candidates will not be able to spout that canard much longer. Clearly the Bush administration recognizes the midterm results as a rebuke of their Iraq War policy.

Glenn Greenwald tackles a whole slew of emerging conservative myths. So does Charles Pierce.

Eric Kleefeld: "if Joe Courtney's lead holds up in Connecticut 2nd, this election will leave just one Republican congressman in all New England."

Brad DeLong (via):
...the implicit gerrymandering of the Senate and the in-the-tank-ness of the press corps are keeping people from realizing how big the blowout was. Consider this: it looks like 32,100 thousand Americans voted for Democratic Senatorial candidates, and only 24,524 thousand Americans voted for Republican Senatorial candidates. That's a 13.4% margin of Democratic victor.
Follow-up post here.

Kevin Drum on what's to come:
For some reason, the talking heads last night were consumed with speculation about whether Bush would suddenly turn into a friendly, compromising, bipartisan wheeler-dealer now that he has to deal with a Democratic Congress. Have they learned nothing? That's just not who Bush is. I expect his speech today will contain a few well-crafted platitudes about the will of the people, moving forward, etc. etc., but it will also contain plenty of tough talk about protecting the American people and standing up for what's right. More to the point, Bush's actions over the next few months will almost certainly be as combative as always. He just doesn't have anything else in him.
This same post also has a bit on the failure of what Billmon's called Rove's 51% solution.

Publius has the list of the incoming Senate committee chairs.

This does not help McCain's 2008 chances. This is a good thing.

Zachary Roth on what may have turned the tide:
Ed Goeas... noted that, according to his numbers, the movement toward Democrats in the campaign's final weeks came not as a result of the Foley scandal, but instead after Bill Clinton's combative appearance on FOX News -- in which he lost his temper with host Chris Wallace -- a few days before Foley broke. Goeas said that his measurement for Democratic "intensity" skyrocketed after the interview, and that it seemed to act as a signal to Democrats not to back down.
If the dems don't learn from this, they are really, really, really stupid.

And Nathan Newman adds a bit of historical perspective:
Let's be clear-- this wasn't just a good night for Democrats. It was a good night for progressives, and no media spin that these new elected officials are "conservatives" changes who they are.... Let's remember-- those massive Democratic majorities of a generation ago were fake. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was able to control the agenda in Congress because 67 Boll Weevil Democrats essentially caucused with the GOP. In 1993, the Democrats had a "majority" of 258 but Clinton was only able to pass his initial budget by one vote, so he had a de facto majority of 218 votes. I actually am more confident in the present 228-230 Dem majority we are getting this round to support progressive initiatives than those fake-larger majorities of the past.

Tom Englehardt takes a broad view.

Part Four: Some People Are Just Never Happy

Michael Bérubé:
And all it took was the Abramoff scandal, the Foley scandal, the Haggard scandal, the suspension of habeas corpus, the creation of the Cheney Archipelago of secret torture sites, a criminally incompetent response to one of the worst natural disasters in US history, and a hopeless war that has killed thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and may well go down as the single worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the republic. I can’t wait for ‘08!
P. Z. Myers:
...It's good news, right? So why am I not particularly happy?
One reason is how they won. Republicans were just plain vile: they stunk up the joint with corruption, incompetence, greed, and viciousness, and they are saddled with an unpopular president and an unpopular war. They should have been easy to beat, and the Democrats relied on winning by default. There was little attempt to campaign on progressive values, just an expectation that the discontent of the Republican voters with their ugly party would scrape away enough voters that we'd come out on top. And we did. Rah.
A perfect example: we threw Rick Santorum, one of the worst senators ever, onto the rubbish heap, to gain…Robert Casey Jr, a bland, boring, pious middle-of-the-road Democrat who is anti-choice... (penultimate ellipsis in the original)
Part Five: Calls to Arms

What is the most important issue facing the country that the Democrats must tackle? The rogue presidency of George W. Bush.... I think it's a pretty safe bet, even for William Bennett, that Bush will try to precipitate a constitutional crisis over the limits of presidential power (from his standpoint, none) in the next two years.... this is what I think the position should be for the new Congress. Bush can, and will execute the duties of the office of the president but Congress should let him get away with nothing that exceeds the power of his office. No matter what he does or threatens to do.
Josh Marshall:
...a lot of the names in DC have built their reputations, meal tickets and most importantly their world view around the Republicans. I mean, Mark Halperin needs someone to abase himself to, right? Don't expect that to change overnight. That's a battle to be engaged.
Lerxst: "In the euphoria of yesterday's results we should not forget about the NRCC robocall scandal.... it is essential that the Democrats fight back on this HARD."

Glenn Greenwald:
The President is going to include all sorts of flowery odes to the beauty of bipartisanship in his upcoming speech this afternoon -- much to the inevitable delight of the wise Washington pundit class, which will excitedly take him at his word and demand that Democrats "work with" the President rather than oppose and investigate him. But what the Bush administration really means by "bipartisanship" -- as they are already making quite clear -- is that the Democrats in Congress do nothing to stand in their way and, most especially, that Democrats recognize that there will be no looking into what the Leader has done or subjecting his Decisions to any scrutiny...

It is vital to remember that we already have a constitutional crisis in our government. The choice is not whether to create one (since it already exists), but whether to confront and battle it, or acquiesce to it (as the Republican Congress has done). While it is nice that Democrats have taken over the Congress, it is vital to remember that we have a President who has repeatedly made clear that Congress is irrelevant in our system of government and cannot limit the President in any way. Re-establishing the rule of law -- and the principle that the President is not above it -- is still the most compelling priority for our country.

And while Amanda Marcotte sees gains in other areas as well, I think her most important point is her first one:
There’s no doubt that this election was a mandate and it was a mandate on two major issues: 1) Massive Republican corruption and 2) the war in Iraq. So the Democrats need immediately to start investigations plus demanding that we get the hell out of Iraq as fast as we can.

Coda: Celebrations (Adagio)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden
He didn’t have to make the run. When he started out, it was the longest of long shots. All political races are fueled by ambition, but he seems to have been equally motivated by a sense of what was needed and what was right.... Ned Lamont helped reframe the storyline and shake up the complacent. For that, he’s one of this morning’s heroes, and so are all the people who worked their hearts out for him.
John Podhoretz (via I-forget-where, sorry):
Happy or suicidal with tonight's results, something colossal and profoundly important has happened in the United States beginning in 2000 — the re-engagement of the American people with politics. We have had four enormously consequential elections in a row now in which voters have cast their ballots in numbers that we were told we'd never see in our lifetimes. I don't see how you can view this as anything but a wondrous development for the United States.

More may be added as I see 'em. (Update: Yep.)

In Which Your Intrepid Blogger Reacts To Last Night's Events With Sober Analysis

...more later, FSM willing.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

They're Trying to Steal the Election Again And They May Be Succeeding

...this is true in more ways than I can count.

Kevin Drum links to a Greg Palast article about the pre-election schemes the Republicans have used to pre-steal or suppress up to 4.5 million votes.

TAPPED is reporting that the vile robo-calling scheme is, in fact, working. (In case you haven't heard about it, this is the thing that the Republicans are doing -- in multiple states -- where they call repeatedly, often in the middle of the night, with a message whose opening makes it sound like it's the Democrat behind the calls. Hilzoy has a good piece with the basic information & links to more here.) Of course the !@#$% MSM isn't reporting it, so people fall for the trick, get pissed, and vote Republican...

Josh Marshall is doing extensive coverage of problems with voting machines and the like; he's also been covering the Robocalling story extensively.

It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

As Patrick Nielsen Hayden put it yesterday:

I’m voting the straight Democratic line. Not because there aren’t Democrats who are hypocrites, cowards, idiots, and fools. But because the Republican Party, nationally and locally, is in 2006 nothing more or less than a criminal conspiracy to destroy our democracy and loot our country. Their candidates, for every office, need to be defeated wherever they run.

Stolen elections and dirty tricks are only one of the many ways in which the Republicans are attempting to destroy our democracy; but it's in the running for the most pernicious. They have undermined the fundamental trust in democracy -- and, I hate to say it, deservedly undermined, since they have made our democracy untrustworthy.

If the Republicans hold on to the House, it will be because they stole the election. Just like they did in 2000. Just as they may have done in 2004.

Of course this simply makes it all the more important to vote, and to vote Democrat: we need not only to win, we need to win by such a large measure that their attempts at theft fail.


Or, to swipe even more from Making Light, this post by Jim Macdonald, which I am reprinting in its entirety (I hope he can forgive me):

Today it’s important to go to the polls and vote.
Vote straight-ticket Democrat.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for torture.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for corruption.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for cronyism.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against habeas corpus.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against our troops.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against liberty.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against the Constitution.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against being secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote against Social Security.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for “preemptive” war.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for incompetence.
A vote for a Republican, any Republican, is a vote for Bush.
Go out today. Vote Democratic.
Today is the first day of the struggle to take our country back.

Do anything and everything you can. Let's see if we can keep them from stealing the election this time.

The Next Morning: They're going to keep trying, with Montana and Virginia the battlegrounds. (Later: Montana's over.) (I don't know about Montana, but it's worth bearing in mind that the Virginia victory was on top of the multi-pronged efforts of the Republicans to steal that election. (via)) Nevertheless, this morning things are looking pretty good. We have to keep fighting to keep what we've won: but that's a better battle to have.

On to '08!