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We Will Not Accept Defeat In the War on Prose

[ 0 ] May 27, 2007 |

I understand that anything less than fulsome praise for the artistic stylings of untalented multi-millionaires will crush the Fragile Spirits of today’s Sensitive Teenagers (and, alas, I do think that this comment was serious.) Despite this, I see no way to avoid quoting from this review of Newt Gingrich’s new literary classic, which has the soaring ambition to be the worst art ever produced about Pearl Harbor (far from an easy task, given that America’s Worst Director has already set the standard.) How bad does a book have to be to get a hatchet job from Janet Maslin? Behold:

When the attack began, it was Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor but Dec. 8 in Japan. The book is subtly subtitled “A Novel of December 8th” to signal its attention to the Japanese point of view. On the basis of that detail, you might expect a high level of fastidiousness from “Pearl Harbor.”

And you would be spectacularly wrong. Because you would find phrases like “to withdraw backward was impossible,” sounds like “wretching noises” to accompany vomiting, or constructions like “incredulous as it seemed, America had not reacted.” Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol.

This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. “One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,” the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, “not to realize they were sallying forth to war.” Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot’s intelligence — or, presumably, the reader’s.

Some of these glitches are brief, while some are windier. The long ones are particularly dangerous. Here is what happens when James Watson, an academic and a decoding expert who is one of the book’s cardboard Americans (as opposed to its cardboard British and Japanese figures), has lunch:

“James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.”

James lives in Hawaii with his half-Japanese wife, Margaret. Margaret is the book’s only female character, and she barely appears. This is evidence that Mr. Gingrich has learned that politicians writing fiction are well advised to avoid eroticism. The book’s only trace of the lascivious is a reference to rising wartime hemlines in Britain because of an effort to conserve cloth.

Elsewhere in Hawaii, among the fighting forces, things are typically editor-proof. In a case for James’s decoding skills, the book says: “The boys had money in their pockets to burn and fresh in from the West Coast the obligatory photos with hula girls, sentimental silk pillows for moms and girlfriends, and ridiculous-printed shirts had sold like crazy.”

Even leaving aside the writing that could make Jewel look like Yeats, the apparent lack of not only eroticism but female characters pre-empts some of the so-bad-it’s-entertaining moments that distinguish the fiction of Bill “He was speaking hushed tones, telling her how much he enjoyed her body, using words that in polite conversation would have been vulgar, but in this context were extremely erotic” O’Reilly and Orson “Thank God after a long day of dealing with liberal academics who, after solemn reflection, I’ve convinced are entirely evil I can return home to the killer bod of my wife, Scoop Jackson” Scott Card. Whoops, there I go again, discouraging teenagers who might otherwise be writing novels about killing everyone who ever gave them a negative job evaluation or stapling a bunch of position papers rejected as “too simplistic and knee-jerk reactionary” by a local Young Republican newsletter together and calling it a “novel.” My apologies, but keep in mind that if they keep pressing on they can get a featured podcast interview from Glenn Reynolds, so it will all be good…

Shrum and the Consultant Class

[ 0 ] May 26, 2007 |

Finally, Yglesias’s review of the new apologia from Bob “Losing Pitcher” Shrum is out. Its subtitle (“Memoirs of the man who thrice saved us from a Democratic presidency”) suggests a kinship with Jon Chait’s classic Nader demolition “The Man Who Gave Us Bush,” and if there’s not quite that acidic it’s still very much worth reading. Particularly good is linking Shrum to the Democratic consultant racket:

This is where the story gets both weird and all too typical. After working for years on Kennedy’s staff, Shrum decided he wanted to become a political consultant.

The consultant’s racket, especially on the Democratic side, is a good one to break into. Clients who lose wind up leaving office, losing power and stature. The D.C. power structure, meanwhile, is composed of winners, some of whose campaigns you probably worked for in the past. Even better, it’s fairly rare for an incumbent to lose, so once you have some significant politicians in your Rolodex you don’t need to be especially good at your job to rack up wins. Challengers who hire you and win are in your debt. Challengers who hire you and lose are yesterday’s news. And challengers who want credibility with the big-dollar fundraisers and other party kingmakers need to demonstrate that credibility by hiring someone from the circle of established consultants.

It’s nice work, if you can get it. And having a powerful senator like Kennedy in your corner is a good way to get it. Never mind that there’s no reason to think a person well suited to the job of writing speeches for Kennedy’s booming voice, outsize personal story and legacy, and passionate brand of politics would actually be good at a generic political strategist’s job. The point, however, is not that Shrum was especially unqualified for his consultant’s gig, but that his story stands in for that of his entire profession. Campaign operatives who succeed in any subfield reach for the prize of consultanthood, whether or not there’s reason to think they’ll be good at it. More to the point, once they reach that prize, it’s extremely difficult to dislodge them from it.

In limited defense of Shrum, I do think Matt somewhat underestimates the Catch-22 facing Gore. The media narrative (Matt, regrettably, doesn’t mention the War on Gore) of him as a phony is endlessly plastic, and had he given a speech about global warming in Michigan could have (and, I’m quite certain, would have) been portrayed as false passion (“like the Tipper kiss!”), pandering to the Chardonnay and Volvo environmentalist set over good honest Michigan heartlanders, etc. Given an a priori assumption that you’re inauthentic, anything can be adduced as evidence for your inauthenticity. Still, it’s hard to argue that Shrum (especially before the convention) ran a good campaign, and I think that Gore’s choosing Shrum as pique against Clinton merits some criticism as well.

Birth Control "Is A Pesticide"

[ 0 ] May 25, 2007 |

More reasoned discourse from America’s profoundly serious and morally superior pro-life movement, this time from National Abstinence Clearinghouse Sweepstakes spokesperson Leslee Unruh. You will not be surprised to learn that Unruh and her spouse were featured “experts” of the uber-crackpot South Dakota Forced Pregnancy Task Force. More on Unruh here.

[Via Feministing.]

I Really Hate Myself For Doing This

[ 0 ] May 25, 2007 |

The Talking Dog has another of his terrific interviews with lawyers representing Gitmo detainees, this one with Robert Rachlin. As an aside, I was struck by this:

Pat Leahy is co-sponsoring a bill to amend the Military Commissions Act to restore habeas corpus with Sen. Arlen Specter. I don’t know where that stands, but certainly, as Leahy and Specter are respectively the chairman and ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, it will surely get a committee hearing.

It’s really nice that Specter wants to restore habeas rights. What would have been even nicer is if he had used his position as chair of the Judiciary Committee to stop it from passing in the first place. Or at a minimum he could have not voted for the goddamned thing. As far as I can tell, Specter’s alleged civil libertarian credentials rest on 1)casting a (non-decisive) vote against Robert Bork, and 2)otherwise engaging in lots of self-aggrandizing hand-wringing before voting to gut people’s rights. (Cf. especially his behavior at the Thomas hearings.)

A Solemn Apology

[ 0 ] May 24, 2007 |

A TBogg commenter claims that d’s recent worst-American profile means that L, G & M has “jumped the shark.” And you know, I think he has a point; it was horribly unfair to John Wayne Gacy and Roy Cohn for d to compare them to Jewel. But it’s difficult to find someone who’s done precisely the same level of evil in every post, so cut him some slack…

Do You Hate the Rule of Law, Or Just Accountability?

[ 0 ] May 24, 2007 |

Good question:


Hiring for career positions in the Justice Department was being done on the basis of the political positions of the applicants. If you don’t think Gonzales deserves impeachment for this, is it because you think violating law and civil service rules to politicize law enforcement is no big deal, or because you think that it’s unreasonable to hold Gonzales responsible for what his aides do, or is there some third option I haven’t thought of?

Nope–it really is one or the other.

Degrading

[ 0 ] May 24, 2007 |

Via Kay Steiger, an excellent COHE article about U.S. News and World Report‘s ludicrously arbitrary university ranking system. The rankings, created with formulae that have little internal logic, are worse than useless. First, because the apparent certainty of quantification gives them an authority they don’t remotely merit. And more importantly, because they’re so arbitrary they’re also easily gamed, causing universities to shift priorities to increase their (educationally meaningless but believed to be meaningful) rankings. The two pathologies work together in distorting the educational missions of institutions:

In other words, you have to act like Baylor. One of the first steps the university took, after appointing Van Gray, associate vice president for strategic planning and improvement, to oversee the efforts of all departments, was to tie money for new programs to the standards set forth in its strategic plan. Any official who wanted money beyond his or her budget for a new project had to fill out a form stating how that project would further the goals of Baylor 2012.

At Baylor, as at many other institutions, the admissions office plays a crucial role in improving the rankings because 15 percent of U.S. News’s formula is determined by measures of student selectivity, including scores on standardized entrance exams and the institution’s acceptance rate. To improve those numbers, Baylor increased its total scholarship offerings from $38-million in 2001 to $86-million in 2005 and created an honors college. Since 2002 applications have increased (from 7,431 to 26,421) and the acceptance rate has dropped from 81 percent to 42 percent. Over the last five years, the average SAT score of enrolling first-year students has risen 30 points, to 1219.

“We looked very deliberately at what kind of class we wanted because that’s an issue that’s somewhat controllable,” says Mr. Gray. “I believe we have attracted much higher-performing students as the direct result of this 10-year plan.”

While Baylor says the changes it is making are within the overall mission of the institution, colleges that are ranked lower and want to rise may need to change their very nature.

Take, for example, Chapman University.

Chapman, in the heart of Orange County, Calif., has long been known as a college that gave a second chance to underachieving high-school students who showed promise. When James L. Doti became president, in 1991, he says, Chapman essentially had no admissions criteria, other than the best judgment of the staff.

Students were “using Chapman like a community college,” he says. Only 42 percent of students graduated within five years. The university had one endowed chair. There was almost no money for merit-based financial aid.

So Mr. Doti dropped the athletics program from Division II to Division III, thereby eliminating all athletics scholarships.

“We took that $2-million a year in athletic aid and added it to the financial-aid budget,” he says. The institution increased its tuition one year by 25 percent, so parents and students would perceive that the college had as good a program as “the colleges we wanted to compete with.”

Mr. Doti decided to set a minimum SAT score required for admission. “It was 740, which is nothing great, but for Chapman, at least it was something,” he says. “The next year, it was 760. That lops off a lot of people at the bottom. Every year we went up another 10 or 20 points.” The university began a scholars program with grants for high-achieving students.

Almost all the changes were designed expressly to help the college rise in the U.S. News rankings. “I can quibble with the methodology, but what else is out there?” says Mr. Doti. “We probably use it more than anything else to give us objective data to see if we are making progress on our strategic goals.”

The liberal arts colleges who refuse to participate have the right idea.

Pajamas Media: The Good One

[ 0 ] May 24, 2007 |

I was happy to see that the annual Fistful Of Euros Satin Pajamas awards were up–I’m always happy to be introduced to new European blogs I wouldn’t otherwise see. I was then surprised and gratified to see that L, G & M has been nominated for best non-European weblog (although I think it was my French name that put me over the top.) Make sure to check it out.

On the Beach

[ 0 ] May 23, 2007 |

Reading this reminds me that I’m a bad coastal citizen since I don’t get beaches; I have no desire to go to one at all. I wouldn’t dream of a vacation to the Caribbean, say, when the money could be used to go to a real city. And I still have no desire to ever go to beaches even though a week in the Rhone Valley slightly softened my radical pro-urbanism. (I still don’t understand New Yorkers who use their wealth to acquire a house in the Hamptons, though. I mean, I’m sure that’s nice status and all, but presumably it entails leaving New York for significant periods of time to go to the Hamptons, which seems highly undesirable.)

The Vote Fraud Fraud: Potemkin Think Tank Edition

[ 0 ] May 23, 2007 |

Richard Hasen has a must-read article about the “American Center for Voting Rights,” which was ginned up to varnish bullshit Republican claims of widespread voter fraud and has completely disappeared. It’s a classic 21st century Republican story, featuring incompetence, junk science and abuse of the justice system in the service of vote suppression. Hasen makes another point I think is important, noting the source of registration (as opposed to voter) fraud the fruit of an Americna electoral system that is badly designed from A to Z:

Second, there’s no question that there’s a fair amount of registration fraud in this country, an artifact of the ability in many states to pay bounty hunters by the head for each new registrant. Some unscrupulous people being paid $3 to $5 for each card turned in will falsify registration information, registering pets or dead people or comic-book characters—none of whom will show up to vote on Election Day (with or without an ID). (I, for one, would turn the whole business of voter registration over to the government and couple a universal voter-registration program with a national voter-ID card paid for by the government—but that’s another story.

Many apologists for Republican vote-ID legislation point out that many other liberal democracies have such requirements. Which is true, but it’s all about context. I, like Hasen, would have no problem with a requirement to show state-provided IDs in a system in which the government actively and consistently ensured the enfranchisement of its citizens and facilitated their ability to vote. Have the government (rather than private individuals with the incentive to submit fraudulent names) be responsible for registration, provide funding to ensure that districts have enough voting machines for their population and don’t allow wealthier districts to have more reliable equipment, make Election Day a national holiday, etc. — the kind of actions taken by countries with much higher turnout — you’d get much broader participation and you’d have less possibility for fraud, disasters like 2000. Alas, such a comprise won’t work because these Republicans don’t care about vote fraud — they care about suppressing the votes of minorities and poor people. As Hasen notes, the lack of Republican concern with absentee ballots — which are considerably more prone to fraud and abuse, but whose users happen to skew to Republican demographics — gives away the show.

Hilzoy has more.

Where Brain Cells Go To Die

[ 0 ] May 23, 2007 |

Shorter Maureen Dowd: Al Gore is fat.

Hillman Awards

[ 0 ] May 23, 2007 |

I went to the awards ceremony (looking at the list of honorees, even as an indirect winner, my sense of things was pretty much “what the hell am I doing here?”) last night, although since I wasn’t a named winner I wasn’t charged with the task of speaking in between Spike Lee, Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte. But Sam (flanked by 4 sharply dressed, corsage-appended colleagues) did a fine job. My feeling of being out of place did not really improve throughout the evening, although I was lucky enough to have chats with the brilliant journalist Rukmini Callimachi and (entirely in French) her Cameroonian boyfriend, as well as with Hendrik Hertzberg and a large number of other fascinating people. It was a surreal experience, but congratulations to Sam, Ann and my fellow bloggers for the honor.