Thursday, July 31, 2008

588 Days After...

...his last post at the whiskey bar, the great Billmon, who for a long time was my very favorite blogger, (his old site is down but archives of it can be found here, here and here) has put up a post at the Daily Kos. (via)

And there was much rejoicing...

Movies That I Wish Were Not Coming Out

There are lots of movies -- classic, current, in production, hypothetical, and impossible -- that I have no desire to see. (And lots of interesting-looking ones that I look forward to seeing, natch.) But it takes a special something extra not only to not want to see a film, but to actively wish that the film in question didn't exist -- or, since all three seem to be movies in production (at the very least, not yet released), wish that they would somehow derail before their public debut.

Three such have recently crossed my attention: one I knew about, and have been long dreading; the other two are news to me.

The one I am least sure about -- one which I can imagine I might even end up liking -- is Oliver Stone's forthcoming biopic about George W. Bush, "W". Stone is, of course, a leftie, and the description hardly looks like an exoneration. Yet somehow I wish he wasn't doing it. Partly because it seems that the film will, inevitably, make Bush overly sympathetic just by focusing on him (just as it will, even more inevitably, not give full due to the stories of his victims). Even more, it's because I think it will portray Bush's vast clusterfuck of a presidency in a way that trivializes the roots of the scope of its disaster: it seems inevitable that the film will adopt the tempting (but ultimately both false and exculpatory of the true agents) analysis that Bush was simply incompetent, ambitious above his station, or misled by sinister advisers (i.e. Cheney) When, in fact, the roots of the Bush disaster are comparatively little in his (admittedly vast) incompetence and lie far more in the fact that he was a conservative president with a conservative (for 3/4 of his term) and compliant (for all) congress, and thus he implemented conservative policies with a free hand and unquestioning heart. To make Bush a Shakespearean figure, even if a fool, both overstates his personal importance and prepares the grounds for future disaster. (And I fear Stone, given his tendency to see Shakespearean tragic figures in recent Presidents,* will in fact try to play him as a tragic figure -- a Macbeth overcome with "vaulting ambition", an Othello naive in his trust of foul advisers, and a [were any Shakespearean protagonists simply incompetent?].) But above all, I am simply sick of this foul man and hope to think of him after January 20 only in the context of the news about his war-crimes trials and the ongoing revelations about the true depths of his administration's depravity due to congressional hearings and the like.** And I resent Stone for drawing my attention back to Bush, above all in what I suspect will be an (albeit probably only marginally) exculpatory context.

The one that is the most clearly idiotic (to the degree that even Hollywood executives*** should have been able to see it) is the forthcoming sequel to the brilliant film Donnie Darko, "S Darko", about the grown-up adventures of Donnie's little sister Samantha, featuring meteorites and a rabbit.... no, sadly, I am not kidding, although I admit that when I first saw this on Wikipedia I thought (and hoped) that someone was playing a joke on that easily-marked internet institution. But no. Someone really thought that this was a good idea. (And not Richard Kelly, the director of the original film, who might at least have won a hearing if he wished to make such a film.) I presume I don't have to spell out the true stupidity of this idea to anyone who has seen the original film; for the rest of you... go see it, before its existence is polluted by a terrible sequel. It's a great movie, one that bears repeated re-watching, at once a great SF film and a great portrait of daily life in a 1988 suburban family. But the idea of a sequel, at all, is silly; and this idea... well, it's worthy of having been come up with by the Bush administration, put it that way. Anyway, while this has started filming (according to Wikipedia), it seems farthest from the screen of any of the three, so let's hope that something goes wrong and it crashes and burns before ever being finished.

Finally, the one I have been long dreading: the forthcoming film of Watchmen, a graphic novel which I continue to maintain (in the face of a surprising number of detractors given its safely canonical status) is one of the great works of art of the second half of the Twentieth Century, and certainly of the new and exciting medium it helped usher into existence. But Alan Moore has a very bad track record of having filmed versions of his work, which range from the unspeakable to the middling, but which have never yet come close to the genius of his original works: partly because his instincts are so anti-Hollywood, partly because his work is so tied into its medium (both that of comics and his original language) as to be unfilmable. As I wrote a year ago tomorrow, "It can't possibly be any good, and will simply tarnish a great book with whatever dirt rubs off due to its memetic proximity." Unfortunately, in our culture, film versions of books tend to swamp the imagination, inevitably coloring the original works, usually to the detriment of the latter. And this is a book that I hate to see tarnished.

Based on the trailer (warning: visual-imagination pollution at the link), it looks like a lot of the film will be visually close to the graphic novel... although the exceptions are truly horrific (Silk Spectre's costume? And who is that twelve-year-old boy they got to play Ozymandias?) But even if they maintain the basic story and themes of the book - and is thus simply mediocre rather than actively abominable (and the latter still seems like a distinct possibility) I find it practically impossible that the film will be as brilliant as a movie as Watchmen was as a comic. Watchmen was a brilliant use of the medium, expanding it in dozens of ways (and directions). Thus even a good film will necessarily betray the original work. But can the film, from a major studio, really be faithful to the subtle critique of power of the original work (let alone to its characterizations, the beauty of its language, the humor of its pastiches...)? Nah. At best it'll be a film with the subtly of a decent superhero movie like Dark Knight (which I liked, but didn't love): that is, good in comparison to the majority of the recent outings of the genre but hardly on a par with what Watchmen was and is. And at worse? I shudder to think.

Of all the films on this list, Watchmen is the one I suspect I'll end up seeing. But I wish I didn't have the option: I wish I'd never seen the trailer: because I wish that they had continued to fail to make it (as they did, actively, for years). For what it's worth, Alan Moore agrees with me on this -- wishes the film hadn't been made -- and apparently talked Terry Gilliam (the one director one can almost imagine doing justice to it) out of doing it on the (valid) grounds the book was unfilmable.

In ancient Athens, the citizens practiced Ostracism, voting certain citizens "off the island" (to mix the historical and the recent), which meant their 10-year banishment from the city. As a free speech absolutist, I would never recommend, nor support, any equivalent for works of art. But I wish that the only restraints that freedom can tolerate -- self-restraint, reasoned criticism, and wisdom -- had worked in all three of these cases. And -- despite the odds against it, at least in some of these cases -- I wish all of them quick disappearances from the box office, and a quick passing from public memory.

* I remember Stone saying in interviews that he saw Nixon as a Shakespearean figure, undone by his own character; and he clearly saw JFK's assassination as a tragedy for the country. Interestingly, in doing those two Sixties presidents, he has failed to portray the one president in modern times whose life actually holds good material for a Shakespearean-style tragedy, Lyndon Johnson (probably because seeing the tragedy is precluded by his "JFK's death destroyed everything" worldview).

** Hey, we've all got our fantasies...

*** Assuming, that is, that they are as stupid and venal as they are so often portrayed as being in the movies... a fact for which the existence of S. Darko gives a certain amount of evidence.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Poem of the Day: Pied Beauty

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

A beautiful poem indeed -- and one on my mind today. So I thought I'd share it with you.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Diversions, Curiosities and Miscellaneous Points of Interest

I found everything linked to here interesting, fun, beautiful or otherwise worthy of attention. It's all non-politics, because that's the mood I'm in right now. And some of these links are old (in internet years), although I think none are the worse for that. Enjoy.

Twelve youtubes of Tom Lehrer in concert, playing some of his classics. If you love Tom Lehrer -- or if you have no idea who he is -- check these out. Really.

Alison Bechdel's "Compulsory Reading": if you've missed this fabulous strip by the brilliant cartoonist Alison Bechdel, go read it. It's compulsory.*

Five proofs of the existence of Santa Claus in the mode of Thomas Aquinas. It's terrific. My favorite is probably the utterly-inarguable number four:
The existence of Santa Claus Can be proved in five ways... The fourth way is taken from the grades which are found in Christmas spirit. Indeed, in this world, among men there are some of more and some of less Christmas spirit. But "more" and "less" is said of diverse things according as they resemble in their diverse ways something which is the "maximum." Therefore there must be something which has the most Christmas spirit, and this we call Santa Claus.
Read the rest.

• Unlike many superheroes, Batman has no superpowers; therefore, in theory, his exploits could happen. Right? Scientific American investigates the realism of Batman, and concludes "Batman could exist -- but not for long."

• Kitty Genovese's brutal murder with 38 witnesses looking on and doing nothing -- which became a modern parable of apathy and indifference -- is mentioned in a lot of history books, although (as for many, I suspect) it's most vivid from its role in art such as Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" and Moore & Gibbons's Watchmen. Well, a contemporary investigation shows that the mythic aspect -- the 38 indifferent bystanders -- may be largely a myth, originating in the early NY Times article that brought it to the public's attention. The author argues that the police were most likely called, possibly many times (it was back before such calls were tape recorded) and that few of the witnesses understood -- or, even, had reason to understand -- what was in progress. Worth a read if you've heard of this famous case.

The Big Lebowski has not been served well by for-TV editing. If you know the movie (and if you don't, it's just brilliant, go see it), this youtube is absolutely hilarious. (Maybe even if you don't know it... but I find it hard to judge that.)

Classic photos re-done in Logo. (In particular for fans of Vik Muniz's memory series.)

Photos from space -- stunningly beautiful. (via)

The New York Times reprints some classic Mad magazine "fold-ins". Jeeze these are fun. (In reference to this profile of their creator, Al Jaffe, interesting in its own right.)

• If you find it interesting (as I do) that "18 is the only number (other than 0) that is twice the sum of its digits", then check out this page on What's special about this number? If not -- don't.

• Comics geekery links (probably of specialized interest):
- 6 Creepiest Comic Book Characters of All Time (particularly funny)
- Wolverine from the 50's (You really need the background for this one)

• A detailed comparison of Cricket and Baseball on Wikipedia.

• Always-thoughtful blogger (and college professor) Tim Burke thinks about why negative feelings/stereotypes about academia have purchase in our culture. His commentators also weigh in interestingly. (For more interesting Burke blogging, check out his thoughts inspired by the recent book The Ten Cent Plague.)

* I make no apologies.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Le Petit Prince: the Complete Text Online

I'm pleased to note that the complete text of Antoine de Saint Exupéry's marvelous children's book*, Le petit prince, is online in its entirety at a site called Wikilivres -- a web site hosted in Canada, which is why the book can be hosted at there: apparently the book is in the public domain up north. In addition to the French original, there are a number of translations of the book at the same site. Most relevant to my readers is probably The Little Prince (English -- the Katherine Woods translation). But there is also El Principito (Spanish), Der Kleine Prinz (German), and one that I'm guessing is Russian, although I can't really be sure.

Anyway, it's delightful, and I'm happy to see it online. Three cheers for the internet! (And a big raspberry for US copyright laws...)

(The above was via the Wikipedia article; from the same source, this site has detailed comparisons of the various English translations of the book's most famous passage (as well as of translations in Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese, which may or may not interest you...))

*Although some adults may be wise enough to understand it too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Internet Time-Waster du jour

Via, this application makes word clouds. Hours of fun for geeks and borderline OCD sufferers the whole family. Of course I started doing classical literary texts, like Genesis (in the King James version), and King Lear:

(Clicking will take you to the full-sized versions on the Worlde site.) It was only later that I discovered that I was hardly the only one to do so. (That last one I did independently.) Then I did a few from philosophy, like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (text source).

But of course there are other fun texts to do, too, so I tried The New York Times (as of now, shortly before 11 pm on Monday, July 21):

and the titles of Bob Dylan's Songs (text from here):

Another fun thing to do is to input really short texts, and see what comes out. For example:

(Answer here.)

-- and here I'll stop, or at least I'll stop posting them. But try it yourself -- it's strangely addictive.

(Update: Post restructured with different images put in (twice.))

Update 2: Fun ones by other people: the Complete Works of Shakespeare; Shakespeare sonnet 118; Poe's Annabel Lee.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

James Falen, An Odelet in Praise of Constraints

A little googling indicates that this delightful little poem is online primarily in the quotes file of this blog (and in comments elsewhere when I myself quoted it). Oh, it's elsewhere -- e.g. in Google Books -- but it is not particularly well-represented in the everse, so I thought I'd promote it a bit.

The poem's original publication, so far as I can tell, was in Douglas Hofstadter's wonderful* book Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (p. 272). Hofsdater says that James Falen (who is best known as a translator of Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin) included the poem in a letter, and describes it as "an 'odelet in praise of constraints'" -- which I think of as the poem's title, although it seems to have been given by Hofstadter, not Falen.

So, without further ado, the poem:

Every task involves constraint,
Solve the thing without complaint;
There are magic links and chains
Forged to loose our rigid brains.
Strictures, structures, though they bind,
Strangely liberate the mind.

-- James E. Falen
A marvelous little poem, to my ears.

(Note: this post is my first experiment in scheduled posting. If all goes well, it should go up on Saturday, July 19, even though I'm writing it on Wednesday, July 16. We'll see...)

* Thought provoking, delightful to read, and wrong on many topics, but in a way that is fun to argue with and which leads to a lot of great other books. So, with that caveat, I recommend it highly. (Can a book you think is fundamentally wrong in its central argument be one of your favorite books? If so, this is one of mine.) An earlier version of Hofstadter's section of the book on Pushkin can be found here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

W. H. Auden's Selected Poems: Differences Between Editions

W. H. Auden's Selected Poems -- edited by Edward Mendelson -- is an important book, more important than one might deduce even if one knew Auden's status as one of the great 20th Century English-language poets.

The reason for this is straightforward: among Auden's peculiarities was the habit of heavily revising, or even disowning, some of his best work. Thus, one of Auden's very best poems -- September 1, 1939 -- widely quoted in the wake of 9/11 -- is not, in fact, in his collected poems. Nor is "Spain"; nor Petition. Further, the explanations he gave for this disowning involved interpretations of them that would elicit C's from an undergraduate: clunky misinterpretations, nuance-less literalism, and the like. In other cases he simply eliminated great material, such as the three fabulous stanzas he eliminated from his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats (the 2nd - 4th stanzas of section 3).

But Auden's Collected Poems reflects -- appropriately, I suppose -- the poet's final wishes.

So if you want some of the good stuff, you have to go look at the Selected Poems, in which it's included. (Although, of course, there's a lot of terrific stuff in Collected that's not in Selected: get both books, is my advice.)

Well, I recently discovered that there's a new, expanded edition of the Selected Poems. The version I have has 100 of Auden's works; the new one has 120. (You can find the table of contents of the new edition here). And I was curious about what new works were included.

So herewith, I give you the fruit of my obsessiveness: the poems added in the "expanded edition" of W. H. Auden's Selected Poems.

29. Underneath the abject willow
31. Fish in the unruffled lakes
33. Funeral Blues
38. Johnny
42. Dover
45. O Tell Me the Truth About Love
53. Calypso
57. Eyes look into the well
63. Leap Before You Look
75. A Household
80. Their Lonely Betters
81. Nocturne I
85. Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier
90. The Old Man’s Road
91. The Song
98. A Change of Air
104. Amor Loci
105. Profile
116. A Shock
118. Aubade

(This is assuming that the poem that comes between "The Willow-Wren and the Stare" and "Bucolics" -- called "Nocturne" in the first edition and "Nocturne II" in the second -- is, in fact, the same poem. (I'm working off a physical copy of the old edition, and the electronic contents of the new, so I can't tell myself.))

One of these -- "Funeral Blues" -- is the poem made famous by its inclusion in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Its fame postdated the first edition of the book, so it's completely unsurprising that it was incorporated into the new edition. (Before the film, it was one good Auden poem among many, and its omission was unsurprising; after, it rapidly became a glaring omission. Such is the power of cinema in our culture.)

As for the rest, one or two are ones that I was sort of surprised to realize hadn't been in the first edition; others I don't know. (O Tell Me the Truth About Love is the major one in the first category.) Nor do I know if any of them were excluded/altered in the collected poems.

But they're Auden, so they're probably worth reading. He's probably my favorite post-Yeats poet when all is said and done.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Options on the Table

This is a simple attempt to get a new phrase, meme, talking point -- call it what you will -- out into the world. I've never seen anyone advocate it or suggest it before, although if someone has, that's great, since the point is to get people saying it and thinking it.

There's a ritual invocation now said by American politicians across the spectrum that "all options are on the table". What they mean by this, of course, is that military action is on the table -- usually that unilateral military action is on the table. After all, Bush and McCain have been pretty explicit about taking diplomatic talks between the US President and high-level Iranian leaders off the table -- which would be covered in the normal usage of "all options" (that is, when non-politicians use the phrase). (There's a good recent analysis of this phrase, this idea and this possibility here.)

"All options" is a phrase that thinly veils a threat of force -- aggressive force, force against a weaker adversary who has not attack us -- within what purports to be simple open-mindedness. Who's against keeping all options open? It sounds, in principle, so reasonable. (Of course, as I just noted, Bush and McCain are against keeping all options open: they're closing off some types of diplomacy. But that's not brought up in this context.) Which is one reason that it's said equally by people on the left as the right -- Obama (and Clinton, and everyone else) constantly say they want to "keep all options on the table" too.

It's a way to threaten that sounds like simple reasonableness, simple open-mindedness. Anyone who objects to the threat can be made to seem like they are (narrow-mindedly, dogmatically, prematurely) closing off options.

The reason that politicians of all stripes repeat it so often is because, in this framework, it works. It's effective. It's a good meme (even if it's a very bad idea).

So here's a counter-meme. One designed to work on its own, but also -- more importantly -- to try to render the currently common meme ineffective. The idea here is rhetorical counter-punching. If this doesn't work, maybe someone will suggest something better. But here's my idea.

I think we should always keep all legal options on the table. The key here is the clear but not-sufficiently-mentioned fact that an aggressive war (including its subcategory, preventative war) is illegal -- at least under international law.*

But rather than emphasizing the prudence, morality, efficacy or other virtues of not committing aggressive acts of war -- virtues that, in our current political culture, are far too often dismissed as wimpy or impractical or quaintly outmoded or whatever -- it emphasises the issue of legality, which everyone still pays at least lip service too.

It thereby removes disastrous options from the "table" in a way that's harder for war proponents to criticize. If one were to say, "we should keep all non-military options on the table", the reply would be, "you're too wimpy to use force." But if one were to say "we should keep all legal options on the table", what would the reply be? "No, I think illegal options should be on the table too?"

Actually, I suspect, if it became common enough the response would be a direct attack on the notion that aggressive wars are illegal -- at least for the United States. But I think this would be a good thing, or at least a better situation than we have now. It force out into the open the idea now assumed in our political discourse, namely, that the U.S. has the right to attack whomever it wants to, but that attacks by other countries (or at least non-authorized attacks) are illegal and immoral - are aggression.

"All legal options" underlies the criminality of aggressive war, while also removing it from the possibility set in a way that is perhaps rhetorically (and not just morally or prudentially) defensible in today's political climate.

There's more to say on this, perhaps, but let's leave it there for now. Pass it around: let's see if it can catch on.

Iran: all legal options are on the table.

And no others.

* Do any lawyers out there know if American law rules out aggressive use of force? (In theory, I mean, regardless of how things are de facto.) My guess would be that we've signed UN conventions, treaties, etc, that outlaw it, which would make it American law too, but haven't passed any individual laws to that effect. But I don't actually know.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Just Throwin' It Out There: Chris Ware and John Updike

An analogy just occurred to me, and I thought I would share it with my Noble Readers. This is a sort of off-the-cuff thing, so I might end up retracting it tomorrow. Further, I know the novelist in question largely from his short stories and essays, so I am almost certainly (if not uniquely) unqualified to write about him at all. Taking all that as read --

I think that Chris Ware is to the contemporary comics world as John Updike is to American (prose) fiction. Not only in the sense that each is one of the marquee talents celebrated in their respective media, nor in the sense that each writes closely observed portraits of (often despairing, although far more so in Ware's case than Updike's) daily life.

I also mean this to apply to what they do well -- and what they don't.

In both cases, Ware and Updike are utter masters of their mediums on the micro-to-mid levels. Ware draws and colors with grace and clarity and beauty. And Updike is probably the best composer of English-language sentences since Nabokov. Further, each works superbly well on a slightly larger scale: Ware's page design is brilliant, among the best in the medium today; Updike's paragraphs too are graceful and carefully constructed. (Although one place in which the analogy breaks down is that Ware is more experimental than Updike.*) They are both celebrated for these talents -- their undeniable genius in simply drawing superb comics pages, or writing great English prose, respectively.

Here's an example of each, pretty much chosen at random. A paragraph by Updike:
Different things move us. I, David Kern, am always affected -- reassured, nostalgically pleased, even, as a member of my animal species, made proud -- by the sight of bare earth that has been smoothed and packed firm by the passage of human feet. Such spots abound in small towns: the furtive break in the playground fence dignified into a throughoufare, the through of dust underneath each swing, the blurred path worn across a wedge of grass, the anonymous little mound or embankment polished by play and strewn with pebbles like the confetti aftermath of a wedding. Such unconsciously humanized intervals of clay, too humble and common even to have a name, remind me of my childhood, when one communes with dirt down among the legs, as it were, of presiding fatherly presences. The earth is our playmate then, and the call to supper has a piercingly sweet eschatological ring.

-- John Updike, "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" (from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1963))
And a page by Ware:

(Page by Ware from The Acme Novelty Library #18; scan from this site. Click for a larger version.)

Brilliant, both, each in their own domain.

But I think both Ware and Updike fail at the larger levels -- character construction, plot, story. Updike, for instance, is a prose writer at the Nabokov level; but does he have any characters who are as powerful as Kinbote, Humbert or Pnin? If so, I haven't encountered them.** Ware designs pages as well as any artist working in comics today; but his overall stories are tales of unremitting bleakness -- a trick that is very difficult to pull off and still be interesting and worth reading. Beckett pulled it off; I don't think Ware does. Neither of them tells a good story, in a way that is occasionally scorned in modernist-influenced high-brow art discourse, but whose virtues, I think, can't be underestimated.

So I will continue to read both Ware and Updike, to learn about the possibilities of comics panel-and-page construction and the marvels of good English prose, respectively. But I usually find myself browsing rather than reading: since the shimmering, masterful surface is the point -- not the structure or the whole, which is usually less than the sum of its parts.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Share 'em: I'd love to hear 'em.

* Ware, in turn, has (to my knowledge) no body of work analogous to Updike's extensive criticism, nonfiction and reviews -- where (as Baker says) some of his best prose appears. Actually, probably my single favorite Updike piece ever is his baseball essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

** Even Nicholson Baker, whose fabulous book U and I first got me to read Updike, says that Updike is "our best writer", but not "our best novelist" (he says Iris Murdoch); I think that Updike's deficiency in story and character are what Baker is capturing here (although, granted, he's hardly one to complain on those fronts, having a very similar set of strengths & weaknesses to Updike.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Fear My Incredible Mind Control Power

The nation has been hypnotized by the swaying and the gesturing of the Watusi and the Frug.

-- Jesse Helms, 1966
Yes: my hypnotizing swaying and gesturing is unstoppable. You will all grovel before me.

Now, who is this Watusi person? I didn't know I had a rival...


(My serious reaction to Helms's death here (or just scroll down); I've updated since it's posting.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940 - 2008

I just learned (here) that Thomas M. Disch, science fiction writer, poet and critic, died on July 4 at his own hand.

Disch's Camp Concentration is an absolutely fabulous novel (one of the books I've tried giving as a sampler to people who don't like SF, with some success). I posted* two of his many poems on this blog, the first three years ago ("Dreams: a Darwinian View") and the second just this January ("Waking Early New Year's Day, Without a Hangover"). You can read more of his poetry here. I found his book of poetry criticism The Castle of Indolence a lot of fun to read. While there is a lot of his work I haven't read yet, what I have read of it has meant a lot to me.

I met him a few times at Readercon; despite a reputation for being difficult to get along with, he was, on the occasions I spoke with him, friendly, charming and interesting. One of the times I talked to him he looked at my my name tag and said to me, "The worst story I ever wrote was a called 'If You Don't Frug Baby Then What Do You Do?'". He said it was a pornographic story he wrote under a pseudonym; and despite my repeated begging, he wouldn't tell me where it was published.

I just went to his livejournal and found that -- ominously -- the penultimate post was titled "Letters to Dead Writers" -- an idea for a book he said he'd never write. (The last entry speaks about inflation and food; people have started leaving goodbyes on it. I clicked on the "next" button, and the standard error message -- "There is no entry following this one." -- took on a darkness that it probably doesn't usually have.)

Just a few weeks ago I went looking for his essay (story? joke? what was it?) "Pyramids For Minnesota", and couldn't find it anywhere.** It's not in any of the Disch books I have, nor in any anthologies I could find, nor online (that I found). I remember it quite vividly -- and like it a lot, which is why I wanted to reread it -- but I haven't the slightest idea where I could have read it.

Locus has an obituary here. And Making Light has a thread on Disch here.

Rest in peace.

Update: Another anecdote from one of the occasions I chatted with him. (I assume this is common knowledge and he said it in interviews, but for all I know no one else knows.) Disch's first poetry collection, from 1972, was The Right Way to Figure Plumbing. Disch told me that he named the book that because a person named Tom Disch -- if I remember correctly, no relation that he knew of -- published a book in the 19th century called The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, and he was amused at the notion of some librarian (for some reason I remember him mentioning the NY public library -- maybe they had a copy?) holding the two books, by two Tom Disch's, and being absolutely baffled. I mentioned that I had an ancestor, S. Frug, who was a Yiddish poet, and must have mentioned that I wrote, because he encouraged me to find out the name of a book that Simeon Frug had published and to publish a book under the same title, for the same joke.

Update 2: There's a round-up of reactions/remembrances/what-have-you here. And here's one they missed, by Jim Henley.

Update 3: The New York Times obituary. And the Washington Post obituary. (Both via this thread.)

Update 4: Via, the eulogy from Elizabeth Hand at Salon. And John Clute's obituary for the Independent here.

* Yeah, illegally reprinted. Whatever. I like 'em. Go read them and see what you think.

** Harpers has it online, but only if you have a subscription. Enough to let me correct the title, though (for, not in).

Department of Nuclear-Strength Irony

In most lines of work, a person does his credibility real damage by denying the obvious and asserting the manifestly untrue.

-- David Frum, June 29, 2008

The gloomsayers... have been proven wrong when they predicted the United States would sink into a forlorn quagmire in Iraq... Like General Barry McCaffrey, they predicted a military disaster in which the United States could potentially suffer, 'bluntly, a couple to 3,000 casualties.'

-- David Frum (with Richard Perle), An End to Evil, 2003

George W. Bush was hardly the obvious man for the job. But by a very strange fate, he turned out to be, of all unlikely things, the right man.

-- David Frum, The Right Man: the Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush

[O]rder was restored to Afghanistan. For all the questions about whether the United States has done enough to stabilize Afghanistan, there's no doubt at all that the world's wildest country has become freer and safer than ever before, and that it has ceased to be a base of operations for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.
-- David Frum, December 28, 2002

The United States and its allies are now ready to strike at Saddam Hussein... My prediction is that the war will go with blinding speed.

-- David Frum, Ibid.

If the preparations for the Iraq round of the war on terror have gone very, very slowly, the Iraq fight itself is probably going to go very, very fast. The shooting should be over within just a very few days from when it starts. The sooner the fighting begins in Iraq, the nearer we are to its imminent end.

-- David Frum, February 24, 2003

Fortunately, it now seems overwhelmingly probable that the US will succeed in Iraq and that Bush will be re-elected; that the Iraqis will gain their freedom and the Palestinians will get their state.

-- David Frum, November 23, 2003 (Maybe 1 out of 4 ain't bad?)
But perhaps, if I quote the context for the first quote above, it will explain something:
In most lines of work, a person does his credibility real damage by denying the obvious and asserting the manifestly untrue. Yet in the book world, there can be very large rewards for a writer who boldly turns reality on its head. (emphasis added)
Ah, that all makes sense now.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Key Point About the Late Jesse Helms

Matt Yglesias captures what is to me the key point about the career of the late Jesse Helms:
One fascinating thing about the death of Jesse Helms is the conservative reaction. One might expect that Helms' death would prompt from conservatives the sorts of things that I might say if, say, Al Sharpton died -- that he and I had some overlapping beliefs and I don't regard him as the world-historical villain that the right does, but that he's a problematic guy and I regard him and his methods as pretty marginal to American liberalism. But instead conservatives are taking a line that I might have regarded as an unfair smear just a week ago, and saying that Helms is a brilliant exemplar of the American conservative movement.

And if that's what the Heritage Foundation and National Review and the other key pillars of American conservatism want me to believe, then I'm happy to believe it. But it reflects just absolutely horribly on them and their movement that this is how they want to be seen -- as best exemplified by bigotry, lunatic notions about foreign policy, and tobacco subsidies.
Lindsay Beyerstein makes a similar point here. And it's true; conservative web sites have been falling all over themselves to praise Helms. (A sampling of links is collected here (via.))

The one quibble I'd have with what Yglesias said is his implication that this is a choice that conservatives are making -- "if that's what [conservatives] want me to believe" and all that. But it's not a matter of spin. Jesse Helms's politics and all that it stood for (well, maybe not tobacco subsidies) are deeply bound up in the DNA of the conservative moment -- a point that increasing numbers of historians are writing about, incidentally. This is not to deny the rhetorical shifts that have taken place in the past forty or more years -- hell, I just wrote a whole dissertation about 'em -- but the point is that the writers from the National Review & elsewhere are right, that Helms is not incidental to, or extricable from, the modern conservative movement. (However much a few conservatives would like to pretend he was.)

It's just that Yglesias is right that this "reflects just absolutely horribly on them."

(Elsewhere in Yglesias Helms blogging, he notes that
One strange aspect of the settlement of the Civil Rights controversy was that this social and political upheaval resulted in surprisingly little actual political turnover. Instead of segregationist politicians being defeated and hounded of out public life, in essence they agreed to stop challenging the core principles of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (gutting enforcement under GOP presidents was still okay) and in exchange everyone else agreed to sort of ignore their backgrounds.
And that too is a major theme of the dissertation I just submitted.* Look for it from a University Press.... maybe, sometime, after I do a lot more revisions, and then begin to submit it...)

Update: I'm pleased to see that this is being talked about a lot. Yglesias has a bit more on this here. Steve Benen discusses this in the context of the National Review's editorial on Helms. Then there's Johnathan Chait here, and Ezra Klein here.

But the single other post to read, if you're going to read one, is Hilzoy's extensive round-up of both conservative praise for Helms and for Helms's record here. She (as so often) nails it. It's not a pretty picture. But it's an accurate one.

Update 2: Still more: from Rick Perslstein, here and here. More from Ezra Klein here. And Andrew Sullivan here, although he doesn't quite come to grips, I think, with the implications of the entwining of Helms's conservative positions and his bigotry that he acknowledges.

Update 3: Not every conservative is celebrating Helms (although Hilzoy's list is certainly impressive); some (at least partial) dissents from Max Boot here, and from Ross Douthat here. The latter is in explicit reaction to the sort of liberal blog posts link above, including Ylgesias's and Hilzoy's.

* Oh, and I promise I won't normally talk about it this much. It's just sort of on my mind this week, is all.

"Ordinary" is a Context-Dependent Term

From one of the pages in which Cornell walks you through the process of electronically submitting a dissertation:
For most, a final dissertation or thesis is a large computer file -- too large for an ordinary 3.5-inch floppy diskette.
Dude, where's your web page update?

Of course, what "ordinary" means hasn't changed in a decade; it's simply that what is ordinary has changed in that time -- to the point where I found the statement incredibly funny.

This has been a commentary on the original intent theory of constitutional interpretation ("cruel and unusual punishment", for instance).

Friday, July 04, 2008

Our Founding Fathers Knew How To Deal With "A Prince whose character is marked by every act which may define a Tyrant"

As always, I like to remember, on the Fourth of July, the nature of the cause we celebrate today:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King... is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world....

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

-- The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
A glorious cause indeed, and one well worth the pledge of "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" that the signatories to that noble document made -- a promissory note that, in some cases, was in fact cashed.

Let us hope that we live up to their noble example.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

Update: What Joseph Galloway said. (via)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Pushing Back Against Pro-Bush Apologetics

Kevin Drum, who is sometimes far too much a "sensible liberal" to see the world clearly, tries to distinguish Nixon's law-breaking from Bush's law-breaking:
At the same time, the difference here really is pretty obvious. Nixon broke the law repeatedly for purely political purposes: to help his friends, punish his enemies, and keep tabs on domestic groups he happened to personally dislike. There was no ideological dispute about the value of what Nixon did: once it became clear that he had actually done the stuff he was accused of, liberals and conservatives alike agreed that he had to go. Obviously that's not the case this time around. So far, anyway, there's no evidence that George Bush has done anything wrong for purely venal purposes. He approved torture of prisoners and violated FISA because he genuinely thought it was necessary for national security reasons after 9/11 — and unfortunately, lots of people agreed with him at the time and continue to agree with him today. I too wish there were a broader consensus that Bush has acted illegally and ought to be held accountable, but the fact that he hasn't met Nixon's fate doesn't really say all that much about how tolerant we are of executive lawbreaking. Ideological disputes are simply a different kettle of fish than personal vendettas.
Even taking into account Kevin's update -- that these remarks apply only to the FISA/Torture issues, and not to the venality of, e.g., the the U.S. Attorney scandal -- this still won't wash.
This is wrong -- I'm tempted to say 'venal' -- in two respects.

First, the fact that there is a policy dispute about whether torture and widespread warrantless wiretaps ought to be legal is wholly irrelevant to the fact that Bush's actions were, on their face, illegal under our current laws. If he had gone to the Congress and tried to change the law before implementing his policies, that would be a different matter -- a matter of gross immorality and disdain for democratic principles but not flagrant illegality. And, as the recent cave by the Democrats on FISA shows, he'd probably have gotten whatever powers he asked for, up to and including John Yoo-approved crushing the testicles of children. But the point is, he didn't ask. He didn't advocate policy. He broke the law.*

So yeah, it says everything you need to know about our current attitude towards Presidential lawbreaking: IOIYAR. Nixon in today's climate would hardly have to give a press conference to explain himself, let alone resign.

And yeah, I think that Kevin Drum (who I like & read daily) is actually supporting the attitude here that's created this situation. The "as long as there's controversy, it's different" attitude... basically a subset of the old "opinions on the shape of the earth differ" motif.

Also the fact that there is widespread support for Presidential venality makes it no less venal. Under Kevin's reasoning, Nixon would have been fine if Republicans had simply rallied around to what he did. I think there's actually some circularity here: Kevin is arguing that Bush was ok because a lot of people thought that his flagrant breaking of the law was justified... therefore, people gave him a pass on his breaking of the law. Which is to say, if the David Broders of the world had screamed (as Broder, at least, didn't in the case of Nixon, actually) about Bush's lawbreaking, then the right would have had a harder time giving Bush ideological cover... and he might have actually faced some consequences for his misdeeds.

That's the main point, but the secondary point is worth making too: we don't know how venal Bush's actions were, because we still don't have the slightest sense of precisely who he wiretapped, or why. In some of his wiretaps (or even all), Bush's actions may have been as narrowly partisan as Nixon's. We don't know because the press and the Congress and the opposition party have all failed to investigate Bush the way they did Nixon. So to say that Bush's actions weren't Partisan is (perhaps) to excuse a cover-up on the basis of that very cover-up's success.

Nixon was a crook, and he should have been impeached. (And he should have been tried, not pardoned; it might have helped us go down this road again.) But Bush's actions have been, as Nixon aide John Dead said, "worse than watergate" -- many times over.

The only difference is the cowardice, connivance and corruption of the institutions that helped force Nixon out of power.

But don't worry. Once we have a Democrat in office -- FSM willing, Obama -- they'll all go back to believing in the rule of law. Because the flip side of the current "it's okay if you're a Republican" modis operrendi is that it's only okay if you're a Republican. Once Obama is in office, expect David Broder to be shocked, shocked by... well, he'll think of something, I'm sure.

Update: Similar thoughts from Firedoglake, and from Digby. But, once again, Tom Tomorrow puts it best. Update 2: And Matt Yglesias, to whom Kevin Drum was replying, makes the point as well.

* Of course, to change the law in the torture case Bush'd have to have abrogated treaties as well as US law (not to mention US custom going back to George Washington).. but that just shows how seriously embedded in our legal system the Bush-violated prohibitions on torture are (or were).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

By Such Means: an Anecdote

From Cosma Schalizi's review of S. Robert Remsey's The Languages of China:
A conference of scholars and politicians met... to decide on a national language for the newly-declared... Republic. Ramsey opens with just that conference, which in real life began on 15 February 1913 in Beijing. It was not a success: the participants lacked linguistic knowledge and worked largely on the basis of political jockeying, the Mandarin-speaking North against the more linguistically diverse, and socially and economically advanced, South. ``As tempters flared, Wang Rongbao, one of the leaders of the Southern faction, happened to use the colloquial Shanghai expression for `rickshaw,' wangbo ts'o. Wang Zhao [a Northern leader] misheard it for the Mandarin curse wángba dàn `son of a bitch' (literally, turtle's egg),' and flew into a rage. He bared his arms and attacked Wang Rongbao, chasing him out of the assembly hall.'' By such means Mandarin was declared the national standard for pronunciation.
I have no idea if this is true or not, but it made me laugh.

Too Awful for Either Words or Silence

I somehow can't let this pass without comment, and yet have nothing to say, either. The Bush administration copied torture techniques from Mao's dictatorship. As Andrew Sullivan put it, conservatism has come to copy communism.

"We have met the enemy, and it is us."

Oh, and as Eric Martin says:
One of the candidates, John McCain, wants to continue to permit our government to engage in a policy of torture gleaned from observing the methods employed by brutal Communist regimes. The other candidate, Barack Obama, doesn't.
That about sums it up.

Bush borrowed his torture techniques from Mao.

He, and everyone else involved, should stand for trial as war criminals. And then spend the rest of his life in a very small cell.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Strange Theories of Causation

One of the conservative columnists I read from time to time -- whenever I feel a need to kill some brain cells and up my blood pressure -- is Dennis Prager. Prager is a figure of fun in the left blogosphere, and for good reason. But his most recent column, "Why I Support John McCain", is overall more reasonable than is his wont. His basic point is that if you're a conservative you should vote for McCain, since he's more likely to do conservative things than Obama is -- which is pretty inarguable. (Whether anyone, having seen a conservative government's record over the last seven and a half years, should want to promote conservative ends is a different matter.) Oh, the specific claims Prager makes, both about Obama and McCain, are generally silly. But his overall point -- McCain is the best choice for conservative voters -- is true, which is more than you can say about most of his columns.

Prager does make a insuperable claim* that Obama will be our first "leftist" President, as opposed to Clinton, Carter, LBJ, JFK & Truman, who were all just "liberals". What issues Prager bases this on is unclear. Presumably he says this because he needs some way to distinguish Obama from Clinton, since otherwise people might look at the country during the Clinton years, compare it to the Bush years, and decide that Prager's warnings about liberal harm to peace and prosperity are pretty weak tea. (This distinction also contradicts all the times that Prager has blurred the liberal/left distinction in order to criticize his target dujour... but never mind, that's a different blog post.) Anyway, as far as Prager's claim that Obama will be a leftist not a liberal President -- meaning, presumably, that he'll oppose imperialist policies in foreign policy and be a LBJ-ish figure on domestic ones -- all I can say is that I wish he was correct, but that it's pretty clear he won't be.

But the real kicker is in Prager's paragraph about the benefits that will flow from the fact that McCain will "win" in Iraq. The word is never defined -- magically turn a sectarian bloodbath into a Jeffersonian Democracy through military occupation seems to be the basic idea, presumably with a side-order of indefinite occupation of dozens of military bases -- and, of course, how McCain will differ from Bush (who has even in Prager's view obviously failed to "win", or we'd have "won" already) is left totally unspecified. Ok. Set all that aside. Let's look at what Prager claims will be a consequence of this promised victory:
It will teach potential enemies not to attack America (whether Iraq did so directly is irrelevant to the point).
Wha' huh?

OK, first there's the implicit lie, that Iraq did attack America indirectly. This is, as we really should all know by now, simply false. We were attacked by Al Queada; Iraq had nothing to do with it. (In fact, Al Queada hated Saddam for their own reasons.) So Iraq is a country that did not attack America at all. Full stop.

But even aside from this, I am really at a loss to understand what Prager could possibly be thinking -- I use the term loosely -- here. I mean, a lot of his stuff just flows from premises that I find either silly or malevolent (if you start out with the premise that gay rights are a terrible thing, a lot of what he says about the Supreme Court makes a lot more sense). But I really don't understand what the idea is here. If you attack us, we will respond by invading an unrelated country with a dictatorship that both of us (albeit for varying reasons) despise is hardly the sort of threat that will get most people shaking in their boots.

Ok, to be slightly less snarky, I think the logic (again, speaking loosely) goes like this. If you presume that "Islamists" are a monolithic group, united in their goal of opposing Western Civilization, then attacking them in one area is a reasonable response to their attacking us elsewhere. No one thinks that, just because Germany sent bombers at London from a particular base, that a British attack elsewhere in Germany was not a response. The problem, of course, is that this premise is -- to put the matter politely -- blatantly untrue and mammothly uninformed.

It is, however, a belief with a long pedigree. Throughout the cold war, conservatives insisted that international communism was a single, unified, monolithic force which acted in concert towards a single aim. This was bollocks, of course, and caused us to miss all sorts of big, obvious, important things like the Sino-Soviet split or the fact that the Vietnamese communists were quite suspicious of the Chinese communists (a few years after abandoning our ongoing war in Vietnam, a war fought in part to keep the Chinese from 'taking over' Vietnam, the Communist government of a united Vietnam actually went to war with China). But in the cold war, at least you could say that conservatives were just falling for enemy propaganda in a (stunningly naive) way. I mean, the communists did claim to be a monolithic block devoted to the elimination of the West.

But do the Islamists even make that claim? I mean, I'm no more an expert in these matters than Prager, but my sense from reading the newspapers is that the Sunnis and the Shias don't make any particular secret of their disagreements; that Iraqi nationalism was pretty clearly articulated even before our invasion of that poor country; that Al Queada has a lot of enemies in the region, including a lot of governments and movements that we would think of (if we were being all monolithic about it) as "Islamist" -- although of course they are also opposed to a lot of the corrupt autocracies that we help to prop up too. Still, so far as I can tell, in this case, conservatives aren't even falling for enemy propaganda: they're just fighting phantoms in their own heads -- which wouldn't be so bad if the bullets they were shooting didn't hit real people.

I guess this is all just the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics: if we show the world our Indomitable Will, they'll be intimidated, even if we show that Will by invading unrelated countries in response to an attack by non-state actors located elsewhere. But it's always startling to think it through and see how stunningly detached it is, not only from the real world, but from any reasonable ideas about causation too.

* Yeah, okay, among many, many others. But this is one I wanted to talk about. Sue me.