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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

[ 32 ] February 11, 2011 |


From Jay McInerney’s review of Kenneth Slawenski’s new Salinger biography:

For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

It’s remarkable how little evidence of such experiences is to be found in Salinger’s published writings (Slawenski suggests Salinger suffered from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as clinical depression). As we continue to be flooded by non-stop paens to “the good (sic) war,” it’s worth considering how on June 6, 1944, there was perhaps a 90% chance that the man who had yet to write The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories was going to perish on some forsaken beach or forest, as anonymously as any of the war’s 60 million other victims.

Comedy gold and/or Apocalypse Now

[ 34 ] February 10, 2011 |

The GOP primary season is shaping up as a reality TV freak show of Springeresque proportions, what with Michele Bachmann about to toss her tinfoil hat in the ring, Donald Trump threatening to make America “respected” again, and Sarah Palin continuing to mull whether to add her crayon-scrawled resume to the hopper. Then there’s Professor Gingrich making noises about bringing his unique style of pro-colonial historical analysis to the struggle to overthrow the Kenyan usurper. Throw in Ron Paul, this week’s version of Mitt Romney, and a healthy dose of groveling before the Tea Party’s demands that the government balance the budget by getting rid of NPR, and the 2012 presidential race promises to be a veritable laugh riot.

Of course one of these guys/gals could well end up getting elected, in which case the joke will be on Planet Earth.


[ 26 ] February 8, 2011 |

Laurence Tribe has an interesting piece in today’s NYT about how the SCOTUS should and apparently therefore will deal with the constitutionality of the ACA. The piece is interesting not because of its deployment of already well-worn arguments regarding the law’s constitutionality, but rather as a sociological document. To wit, what does Professor Tribe think he’s doing? One understanding of the piece is as a Profession of Faith in The Law, i.e., Tribe really and truly does believe that

(1) Questions such as the constitutionality of the ACA have legally correct answers — answers that exist independent of both the narrowly political and broader jurisprudential commitments of the socially authoritative interpreters of these questions (in other words, the answer to the question of whether a law is constitutional is something other than a prediction of what five SCOTUS justices are going to do); and

(2) The current members of the SCOTUS can be trusted to discern those answers correctly, and apply the law without regard to whether they personally like the outcome of the case and controversy in question.*

*Note that Tribe brackets Bush v. Gore so as to exempt it implicity from (2).

Another understanding of the piece is that Tribe doesn’t believe either of these assertions, or at least he doesn’t believe the second one, and he’s merely engaging in politics by other means, by trying to pressure a SCOTUS justice or two into acting as he would like to see them act — which of course is to uphold the ACA while purporting to vindicate the validity of claims (1) and (2).

Yet a third possibility is that it’s a little bit of both: that for someone like Tribe, belief in The Law, and the integrity of its interpreters, is a transitory thing — on some days he believes, on others he doesn’t, and on most he just doesn’t think about the question.

(For something that sounds very much like the voice of the true believer, see Professor Randy Barnett’s Senate testimony last week, that comes to diametrically opposite conclusions to those Tribe reaches regarding the ACA and the Constitution).

Yet another question this kind of thing raises, at least for me — that is, for someone who is professionally obligated to teach students to either actually have the beliefs about the nature of the law and legal decision making Tribe and Barnett profess to have, or to at least successfully simulate having those beliefs in the appropriate settings — is how do you deal with this stuff when you don’t believe in it yourself? This, needless to say, isn’t exactly a novel question. Back in the day, Roberto Unger observed that he joined a Harvard Law faculty full of “priests who had lost their faith but kept their jobs.” (For some reason this remark has always reminded me of the Monty Python sketch in which Dinsdale Piranha is described as “a cruel man — but fair!”).

At one level this is a purely practical question. Doctrinal legal analysis isn’t a particularly difficult activity, as intellectual ventures go, but still like any technical, highly self-referential discourse, it’s full of terms of art, rhetorical strategies, and picayune disagreements that are really hard to follow if you’ve lost your faith in the basic cogency of the whole enterprise. Reading a debate between Tribe and Barnett about the Commerce Clause, if you don’t believe in any of this stuff, is probably a lot like trying to follow a theological debate about the Nestorian heresy if you don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or a heated argument about whether Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin’s interpretation of Lenin’s revolutionary praxis were valid if you are not now and never have been a member of the Communist Party.

It’s funny because it’s true

[ 129 ] February 7, 2011 |

Bill Maher. I think it was the guy who owned the Cowboys back in the 1970s who pointed out that the NFL owners were a group of “28 capitalists who always vote for socialism.”

Also, although I like my NFL football as much as the next guy whose sister hasn’t been assaulted by Ben Roethlisberger, I’m finding it more difficult to stomach the Super Bowl, which over the years has become an orgiastic celebration of the corporate state, militarism, and the media-entertainment complex. I especially dislike the oh-so postmodern meta-analysis of the commercials, which inspires the Don Drapers of today to pull stunts like the Timothy Hutton Groupon ad. This cynical and tasteless exercise in generating publicity via “outrage” was made even more obnoxious by the fact that ad agency that produced it — a Boulder outfit that transports its drones around town in a bus with the legend “Paradigm Shattering Machine” inscribed on the side — no doubt pitched the thing on the basis of the claim that exploiting the suffering of the Tibetan people to sell product was actually really helping those people, because it would raise “awareness.”

That said, I thought the Eminem Chrysler ad was pretty cool (although, like Bladerunner, it would have been better without the voice-over).

Ann Althouse and the paranoid style

[ 155 ] February 3, 2011 |

One big problem in America today is that people like Glenn Beck are spouting a lot of bizarre conspiratorial paranoid nonsense in “respectable” high-profile media settings, because their employers have found that encouraging crazy people to regale millions of Americans with pernicious lunacy on a daily basis is quite profitable. I wish it wasn’t necessary to point out that this is an undesirable state of affairs. I also wish it wasn’t necessary to point out that pointing out this is an undesirable state of affairs is not an attack on “free speech” in any useful sense of that term.

Still, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride:

Remember when lefties were all about free speech? When did that change? Why did that change? Perhaps the answer is: Free speech was only ever a means to an end. When they got their free speech, made their arguments, and failed to win over the American people, and when in fact the speech from their opponents seemed too successful, they switched to the repression of speech, because the end was never freedom.

This is Professor Althouse’s response to Robert Wright’s suggestion that on the whole it’s a bad thing that Fox News provides Glenn Beck with a multi-million viewer nightly platform, given that he uses it to say lots of certifiably crazy stuff in the guise of “political analysis.”

Now of course phrasing the matter in this way only proves that I am a clueless member of The Left, who has failed to appreciate that, in the literal sense, Fox didn’t “give” Beck his enormous audience: Fox merely facilitated Beck’s extremely successful (from a financial point of view) campaign to transform himself into one of America’s most popular demagogues. Yes indeed: Beck’s career represents a remarkable triumph — both for himself and for Rupert Murdoch’s fabulously profitable brand of gutter journalism — within what the ingenuous Professor Althouse calls “the marketplace of ideas.” That this is the case might give one pause about the value of that metaphor, and the possible failures of that “market.”

In America today, paranoia runs deep — and it seems to be contagious. The quote above is a classic representation of the paranoid style. Consider the identities of Althouse’s crypto-Stalinist bogeymen of the moment: Robert Wright and Scott Lemieux! Again, is it really necessary to point out that someone who claims that, in America today, people like Wright and Lemieux are at the center of a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy to crush political dissent via the “censorship” of Glenn Beck has lost all sense of perspective?

Obama invites Elliot Abrams and Robert Kagan to the White House

[ 58 ] January 31, 2011 |

To discuss what “we” should do about “our” Egypt problem.

The good folks at Commentary are in ecstasy.

What exactly do these people have to do to discredit themselves? Is it even theoretically possible?

Apparently a neo-conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality, and decided he was never going to visit reality’s neighborhood again.

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Good news and bad news

[ 17 ] January 28, 2011 |

The good news is that the web is awash in reports that Hosni Mubarak has fled Egypt. (Update: Mubarak is currently on TV claiming he’s not going anywhere).

The bad news is that the New York Times is quoting Donald Douglas on the subject. I thought it was bad enough when it was LGM giving this guy’s feverish combination of right-wing paranoia and retarded sexuality any attention. (And yes I recognize the paradoxical ironies inherent in this post).

James Wolcott grapples with the basic dilemma.

A disaster of technology

[ 42 ] January 28, 2011 |

For somewhat obscure reasons the Challenger disaster became, in the USA, what (much more understandably) the assassination of JFK had been for a previous generation: a shocking event whose symbolic resonance was such that, as the cliche has it, everyone can remember where they were when they first heard the news.

One of the odder aspects of the event was the extent to which, in the aftermath, the whole business never took on any real taint of scandal, even though it was a scandal.

First, the whole shuttle program was — and remains — a classic bureaucratic boondoggle: a massive waste of public resources on a venture that never had any good scientific, economic, or even non-utilitarian justification. (It has been noted that using the shuttle to put payloads in to orbit is the equivalent of putting a postcard into a safe before mailing it.) As for the “romance” of human space flight, the original thrill of placing people in low-earth orbit — the shuttle never rises more than a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface — understandably faded long ago.

But beyond that, the specific cause of the disaster, which took the life of a civilian schoolteacher as her own students were watching, was a combination of a very familiar and predictable brand of managerial incompetence, manifested in a willingness, for both psychological and political reasons, to wildly over-estimate the safety and reliability of shuttle flight. That was made clear by Richard Feynman in his understated — and therefore all the more devastating — critique of the program, which he appended to the Challenger Commission’s whitewash of the disaster. Feynman’s short but very detailed report is well worth reading in its entirety, as it captures the essence of what Charles Perrow has since named “normal accidents.”

Ask your doctor if political blogging is right for you

[ 13 ] January 26, 2011 |

One of the disadvantages of this medium is that its messengers are sometimes afflicted by Editor-Absence Dysfunction, or “E.D.”

He still loves his wife. But after 25 years of marriage, he has lost his enthusiasm for sex with her. Still. It is Valentine’s Day. And she has been hinting. So he takes her to a nice dinner, uncharactertistically orders an after-dinner drink, and feels extra discouraged when it only makes him more tired. He is 55. And so tired. Upon returning home, he wants more than anything to just fall asleep, but damnit, he makes the effort. He surprises her with a gift, lights candles, and dutifully makes love to her in the fashion he thinks that she will most enjoy.

It is with similar enthusiasm that some responses to the State of the Union are penned.

Sarah Palin’s America

[ 27 ] January 21, 2011 |

Some amusing nastiness from James Wolcott, on the development of the next hit reality TV show, tentatively entitled Reality.

Like soul brother Beck, Sarah Palin has moonshot herself into a zero-gravity zone that is beyond parody, where brazen self-caricature takes on the bold outlines of cartoon stardom and nothing she does perturbs her fan base. They have adopted her as their mommy savior and the ridicule and criticism she receives only endear her more to the faithful, proof of how much she gets under liberals’ prickly skin. With each new iteration of herself (tweeter, best-selling author, Fox News political analyst, Facebook avenger), Palin becomes more of an infotainment fembot, an irresistible force impervious to the political rules that hamstring lesser phonies. Had Al Gore or John Kerry made the gaffe Palin made over the Korean conflict (“Obviously, we have got to stand with our North Korean allies”), it would have been pin-the-tail-on-their-donkey-butts for weeks, whereas for Palin it’s just another dot in the pointillism of her ongoing cavalcade. Palin’s worst enemies have never been David Letterman, the “lamestream media,” or Katie Couric but her own insatiability for attention, a narcissism with no Off button or volume knob.

Wolcott cites David Seaton for the interesting idea that the bug-eyed craziness of Beck et. al., is a (conscious?) strategy on the part of the Lords of Capital:

A blogger named David Seaton provided the keenest insight into the tactical superiority of Beck’s home-brewed surrealism. “To understand what Beck is doing, to understand him, you must suspend your capacity for rational thought and just let the emotions wash over you and try to take note of them as they assault your endocrine system,” Seaton wrote. As America enters the downward slope of empire—its debt mounting, the disparity between wealthy and poor continuing to chasm, the environmental ravages becoming irreversible, high unemployment becoming the cruel norm—the Richie Riches have a vested interest in misdirecting people by blaming the powerless for the sins of the powerful. Incoherence isn’t a bug in Beck’s software program, it’s the primary directive. Seaton: “That is what the Tea Party, Fox, etc is all about: keeping people from thinking straight. The idea is to play on people’s emotions: fear, hate, racism, xenophobia, just to keep them from doing the math. The Teabaggers, Beck, [Gingrich] and Fox [News] are often criticized for not making any sense This is not a failure of communication or an error on their part That is the object of the exercise: to make rational thought difficult or impossible due to emotional overload.”

As is so often the case in this postmodern world, what was once satire is now sociology:

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic


GOP discovers filibusters are wrong as a matter of principle

[ 39 ] January 19, 2011 |

A bill to repeal the health care law drew the full force of both parties Tuesday as debate on the measure opened in the House, launching a two-year battle over President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Ahead of the vote Wednesday, House Republican leaders pressed a new line of attack, accusing Democrats of thwarting the will of the people by not committing to give the bill an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

I defer to H. L. Mencken and (the apocryphal) P.T. Barnum.

…UPDATE [SL]: Some useful data to put this highly principled Republican claim in context.

Drug violence

[ 3 ] January 19, 2011 |

Read the original story.

Then watch the video:

Subsequent reporting.

See also Radley Balko.

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