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A Question

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

If — and I’m pessimistically assuming when — Scott Brown wins tonight, how long will it take before a member of the Senate Democratic caucus announces his or her intention to reject “Plan A” (i.e., a quick wrap-up of negotiations and a full vote on final passage before Brown is seated) because it would presumably “flout the will” of Massachusetts voters?


Breitbart Self-Parody Watch

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

As Sadly, No! and Mr. Bogg have already documented, Ben Shapiro’s latest entry at Andrew Breitbart’s Aesthetic Stalinism for Dummies is a classic. It actually starts out a little frighteningly by identifying two actually decdent candidates for such a list, but instantly removes any credibility from his Ridley Scott pick by IDing Gladiator as his best film. After that, though…wow. I particularly enjoyed:

3. Woody Allen. He’s pretentious and unbearable. His movies are like nails screeching on a chalkboard, only with less humor. He is as nerdy as Peter Orszag, but he acts out his fantasies and illuminates his insecurities in film and expects us all to watch.

Haha, Peter Orszag, nails on a chalkboard — I hope Woody calls up Shapiro for some advice on comic writing!

Raging Bull is gross. Mean Streets is gross and soporific. Taxi Driver is perhaps the most overrated film in Hollywood history — dreary, grungy, and subzero.

See, if Scorsese was a good director, his portrait of 70s Manhattan would have been clean enough to get one of those Film Advisory Board ribbons (indeed, their sense of what makes a good movie would seem to track Shapiro’s almost exactly.) And it would definitely be above zero!

Awful stuff. If Big Hollywood insists on staying in business, it should at least stick to the creatively insane, like Ben Stone’s thoughtful assessment of that well-known piece of Communist propaganda, Casablanca. Now that’s more like it! (via Edroso.)

Remember Those Guantanamo Suicides?

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

Actually, maybe they weren’t. So says this advance expose by Scott Horton in Harper’s, based on interviews with four US servicemen who were previously told by their superior officers to keep quiet. Print issue will hit the stands next month.

Don Draper is, of course, never himself.

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

Let me open with a quick clarification about the previous Mad Men post: as to the purview of self-fashioning, we all do it. In blog terms, you know me as this guy, i.e. the one who caught those students, made that other one extremely uncomfortable, is frequently victimized by the library, hid his cancer from his wife, etc. Those are the stories I tell about myself to explain myself to myself. To quote Gertrude Stein from Everybody’s Autobiography:

Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself. That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.

The phrase “of course” captures the central irony of all self-fashioning: we know, of course, that we are more than the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and yet we only understand ourselves, and can only be understood by others, through those stories. In case you ever wanted to know why narrative diversity is important, there you have it: the more narrative modes available, the more possible understandings of themselves the people who encounter them can have.

This is self-fashioning at its most mundane, and in terms of Mad Men, this is why Peggy Olson becomes more modern: once she understands herself in terms of the upwardly mobile career-oriented woman, the audience understands her frustrations in terms of the conflict between that meritocratic fantasy and the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated working environment. She becomes more recognizably modern not because the world she inhabits does, but because the way she responds to that changing world elicits a chorus of “of courses.”

Neither she nor Peter Campbell become “more real” as the series progresses—fictional characters, being fictional, can only aspire to escape the fictions they inhabit—but as the stories they tell themselves about themselves in order to understand themselves come to resemble ours, they’ll seem more realistic because they’re telling themselves the same stories we tell ourselves and we, of course, live in the real world. What I meant when I wrote the following, then, is that Campbell is increasingly understanding himself in reference to the same narratives we do, whereas Don Draper is not:

Campbell is, in a sense, becoming us, and we revile his behavior to the extent that we recognize our sins in his actions. Draper, however, is becoming art, and as such we hold him as responsible for his actions as we would Emma Bovary. His self-fashioning was not merely based on literary precedent, it was an act of literature, if you will, and much of the appeal of the show is based on watching an inscrutable literary character interact with actual humans.

Draper’s self-fashioning is not remotely this mundane—it is radical. He envisions himself not in the way a person envisions his or her self, but in the way an author envisions a character, which is why Joseph Kugelmass refers to it as aesthetic self-fashioning. To a certain extent, this is how my blog functions, i.e. as a stylized version of the life I actually live and the person I actually am; but because there are stories central to my conception of myself that have not and will never make it on the blog, the person you associate with my name will always feel, to me, like a persona. If withholding certain core stories so alters the warp and woof of my persona that it aestheticizes my self-fashioning, you can imagine what would happen were I to start inventing those stories whole cloth à la Draper.

The only people who know him on the show are the dead actors in his increasingly frequent hallucinations, because only they have access to his entire allotment of self-narratives—and, of course, they only have that access because they are the stories he tells himself about himself. The audience is privy to some of them, but not the entire store, which is why Draper remains ever at a remove. To the extent that Mad Men belongs to Draper, it is a story about someone will never be able to integrate his stories with the ones he wants told about him even to himself. His hallucinations bully and hector him in order to remind him “that it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right,” because the troubled antecedent of Stein’s “it” is even more troubling when the narratives that constitute identity are the convenient inventions of an unsettled soul.

If this conception of self-fashioning seems less modern than modernist, that would be my point: the manner in which Draper is integrating his competing narratives into a semi-coherent sense of self is entirely consonant with the modernist obsession with integrating competing narratives into semi-coherent sense of self. From the unstable “I” in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy to the endless renegotiation of familial roles in Joyce’s Ulysses, literary modernists sought to explode the tidy, reducible self that had been the hallmark of literary realism. Draper is, then, something of an exploded man sifting through bits of himself in search of the core to which all these bits once belonged. However, until he accomplishes this impossibility, his self-fashioning will still be far more aesthetic than that of the other characters on Mad Men, and as such, the show’s literate audience will still be drawn to him more than them.

I keep on meaning for these Mad Men posts to move beyond Draper so I can talk about Joan or visual rhetoric, but I can’t quit Draper quite yet.

Because Jeebus Has Always Been About the Shooting…

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

This is irritating:

Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the United States military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found…

One of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Other references include citations from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John dealing with Jesus as “the light of the world.” John 8:12, referred to on the gun sights as JN8:12, reads, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Trijicon confirmed to that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon, which is based in Wixom, Michigan, said the inscriptions “have always been there” and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them.

The company claims that the inscriptions are about American values and the defense of individual freedom, which would be more plausible if the inscriptions referred to, say, constitutional amendments.

What kind of person wants to think of Jesus while he’s shooting someone?

Open Thread on Nicholas Kristof’s MLKJr Day Advice to Palestinians

[ 1 ] January 18, 2010 |

If you are a Facebook fan or friend of Nicholas Kristof, and it happened to show up in your newsfeed (or, if you were set to “live feed” and you happened to be on at the right time of day), you saw this status update earlier:

“On Martin Luther King Day, I wish more Palestinians would absorb the lessons of King and Gandhi and use non-violent but confrontational approaches in challenging settlements, etc. Non-violence is not only morally superior to terrorism, it’s also more effective in challenging a democracy.”

The post has attracted lots of comments. I wonder how LGM readers will react to it.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

A Mad Men placeholder.

[ 0 ] January 18, 2010 |

I’ll have a substantial sequel to my Mad Men post up later today or tomorrow, but for the moment, you can read two solid replies from Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and my friend Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve. For the most part, I agree with what Amanda wrote and think Joe is as wrong as wrong can be when the discussion involves the topic of your dissertation (as this one does his).

Only The Democrats

[ 0 ] January 18, 2010 |

Can turn what should be a sure thing into an angst ridden few days. The only thing more fulfilling than rooting for Celtic in European competition, or the Mariners prior to 1995, is consistently setting myself up for disappointment by supporting the Democrats.

I have several disorganized sets of semi-organized comments on this. First, the validity and reliability of polling in this election, second, the structural and contextual issues facing the Democrats, and finally, what the worst case scenario could mean.
538 has been doing their usual comprehensive, rigorous, and analytical job of covering the polling side of this race, but even they are flailing about at night, in a deep fog, on a Pacific Ocean beach, after drinking way too much vintage port, unable to work out east from west, north from south, blindfolded. With the tide coming in. (Yes, this is personal anecdote, save for the blindfold. But then it wasn’t really necessary). Polling is going to be particularly problematic in this electoral setting. Polling houses rely on likely voter models that vary based on a series of assumptions. These assumptions are usually, but not always, defensible in a normal electoral setting such as a Presidential or even mid-term year, where we have heaps of past empirical data to model, from which we can estimate probabilities of who is more likely to turn out and who less likely.
A mid January election in the state of Massachusetts held in the current political climate does not afford such a wealth of data, needless to say. I would be extremely reluctant to use polls conducted in this electoral context as the empirical base for a projective model formulated during a “normal” year (2008) for Senate elections to estimate a probability of either a Brown or a Coakley victory tomorrow. Indeed, Franklin reports that the polling in this race is highly varied; where in general elections we find various poll estimations within +/- 5% 95% of the time, the results here are all over the map. This is not at all surprising, since nobody has a clear idea what the electorate will look like tomorrow.
However, there are a few certainties that we can cling to, and none warm my heart. First, turnout will be lower on Tuesday than in November 2008. As structural variance in turnout affects different socio-economic categories at different, and largely predictable, rates, it’s safe to say that the drop off in Republican turnout will be less extreme than Democratic turnout. In a needlessly close rate hinging on independent voters, this matters, even in a state where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans.
Second, while we can point to NY-23 for evidence of how the tea-bagger label or support can be toxic in certain settings, a year in to the administration, the present race can be assuming more of a protest vote dynamic. Obama and the Democrats are becoming associated with the economic malaise. While Obama is right to suggest that it takes more than one year to reverse what eight years caused, this evidential argument doesn’t necessarily play. Democrats can’t run against Bush indefinitely. There comes a point where the party has to present a positive message about its policies, and while this has always been a stretch for the Democratic Party in my lifetime, the effectiveness of “running against the past” will attenuate with time. As this is essentially a by-election where the fate of the executive branch is not at risk, and most people don’t really understand how the U.S. Senate operates (i.e. that 60th vote does matter, like it or not), those content in their support for the current administration and the Democratic Party have less incentive to turn out than the tea bagging set, those swayed by seductive populist appeals, those independents who have reasoned concerns with the approach of the administration, or even those, independent and Democrat, who just want to send a message of protest or frustration with the current climate.
The Democrats, both in Congress and in the administration, are the incumbent party of power now, and will start to bear the burden of blame for current conditions.
Finally, as fellow Massachusetts pol Tip O’Neil famously said, all politics is local. Coakley has, at best, run a complacent campaign. At one extreme, the campaign can be portrayed as a campaign of entitlement — she expected to coast to victory. I can understand the national Democrats’ overlooking the Mass. Senate race, but the actual candidate still has to win, and convincing her base to support her in a special election in January is critical. She hasn’t. Massachusetts has elected Republicans state-wide, and until 2007 had a lock on governor for 16 years. They’re not scared of electing Republicans, and in an election that superficially appears to not matter, very well may do so.
The problem is that, as we know, this election does matter in both tactical and strategic senses. Tactically, it could (and probably would) torpedo health care reform. Of course, the Democrats can then blame the Republicans for this failure, but a) that’s the only good that would come from a Brown victory, and b) this argument, too, assumes that average citizens understand that 59% of the vote in the US Senate is not enough. They won’t get that, but rather see a party with 59% of the votes in the Senate failing miserably to pass the Administration’s signature issue.
Strategically, the implications are clear. The Democrats can, and will, be portrayed both as free-spending socialists who can’t be trusted with our tax dollars, yet simultaneously be portrayed as unable to simply and effectively govern with huge majorities in both Houses of Congress and the Presidency. We can’t trust the Dems because they’re pointlessly spending all our money, yet we can’t trust the Dems because they can’t seem to spend all our money.
This is before the symbolic value of it being Massachusetts, in Teddy Kennedy’s seat, is exploited even superficially. The tea baggers and Republicans writ large will go ape shit, and the Democrats will embrace chicken little. Both will be over-reactions, but the potential damage caused by not passing health care reform should not be underestimated.
If Brown should win, I don’t think the Democrats will suddenly lose the House in 2010. The conditions are different than 1994, which is another post entirely. They’ll lose seats in both the House and the Senate, but anybody who knows anything about House elections already know that the Dems will lose seats in the House.
Will Brown win? Silver suggests a tend back towards Coakley, and these numbers don’t include the weekend blitz by the Democrats (contra Silver, as he points out, Franklin reaches a different estimation). I wouldn’t be surprised either way, yet I have faith that Coakley will pull it out. But it’s nothing more than faith, and it pisses me off that it should come to nothing more than faith in Massachusetts of all places. Rationally, structural and contextual variables are aligned against the Democrats in this special election: significantly lower turnout favors the Republicans, the Democrats are now the incumbent party of government lending a protest-vote dynamic that typify special elections, and Coakley has run a magnificently shitty campaign.
However, in a state as blue as Massachusetts, the Democrats should have overcome these hurdles due to the built in partisan advantage. They haven’t.

Clint Dempsey

[ 0 ] January 18, 2010 |
I have a post on the small matter of tomorrow’s Massachusetts Senate election underway, but figured I’d fire this off ASAP. Dempsey was injured in Fulham’s 2-0 loss to Blackburn Rovers yesterday, which is not a positive development for the US MNT’s chances in the upcoming World Cup.

Whining Loser of the Day

[ 0 ] January 18, 2010 |

Keith Brooking. Aww, a professional team playing another professional team in a playoff game continued to play football in the fourth quarter, boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo.

And now the punchline:

“They get to see us (next season) so you better believe I will have that one circled on the calendar,” Brooking said.

Oooh, I’m sure that sent a massive wave of terror through the Vikings dressing room.

Aside from the utter lack of merit in Brooking’s pathetic whining, I should also note that anyone who shares a locker room with Flozell Adams should be permanently enjoined from calling any member of another organization classless.

The Medium Rare Rant

[ 3 ] January 18, 2010 |

Time for an unjustifiably general rant against the people of an entire region of the United States:

The Midwest of the United States appears utterly incapable of properly cooking a steak. To be specific, the terms “rare” and “medium rare” have no meaning in the Midwest. As far as I can tell, both “rare” and “medium rare” are interpreted as “medium,” while “medium” is interpreted as “well done.” The blame for this problem lies with the people of those states of the Midwest; I do not hold the restauranteers responsible. After hearing 531 complaints about underdone steaks after some idiot ordered “medium rare” when he meant “well done,” I’d stop trying, too. Last year at the Precinct, one of the best steakhouses in Cincinnati, the wife (seven months pregnant at the time) ordered a medium rare steak. The steak came back at what can charitably be termed medium well. Upon complaint, the waiter (apparently believing that pregnant women randomly go insane, and that dealing with crazy people was above his paygrade) summoned the manager, who immediately and with all sincerity promised to take the steak back to the kitchen in order to COOK IT LONGER. It didn’t even enter the manager’s imagination that someone might want a steak that was actually medium rare; no one, apparently, had ever expressed unhappiness about an OVERDONE steak. The wife politely declined the manager’s offer, and proceeded to eat as much of the charcoal as she could choke down.

I mention this today because the “rare side of medium rare” steak that I ordered at a Michigan steakhouse came back the medium side of medium well. Our server confirmed the extraordinarily unusual nature of my complaint; no one, it appears, ever complains about a steak that is overdone. I observed that an underdone steak could be fixed, while an overdone one could not, but this logic gained no apparent traction. It’s a ridiculous situation; you can get medium rare in Seattle, in New York, in Washington, and even (depending on where you go) in Lexington, but you can’t get it anywhere in the state of Ohio.

Midwesterners need to stop being idiots.


Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

[ 0 ] January 17, 2010 |

I figured that it would be a long time before I saw anything as pathetic as the PUMA conference. But, apparently, I might be mistaken…