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Idiots Against Immunization

[ 21 ] September 9, 2010 |

The efforts of people such as Dr. Jenny McCarthy seem to be having their desired effect.

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Mad Men: Structural Oppresion in “The Suitcase”

[ 23 ] September 8, 2010 |

“The Suitcase” may well be the best episode of Mad Men to date.  Not that admiration necessarily precludes critique, but as I may gush a little bit about Jennifer Getzinger‘s direction or Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss’s acting, I wanted to make it clear that 1) what follows is not an appreciation and 2) I may bear down a little harder on the episode’s only flawed moment so everyone knows this isn’t an appreciation.  “The Suitcase” opens with the distribution of tickets to an “Exclusive Theater Telecast” of the Ali-Liston rematch.  That these advertising folk are attending a viewing instead of the fight itself is no doubt significant, but not significant enough to dwell on in light of everything else going on in this episode, the first hint of which happens here:

Getzinger places Danny Strong’s “Danny Siegel” in what is clearly a subordinate position, which is ironic because 1) Draper is confidently predicting a Liston victory in the fight, and 2) Draper had coopted Siegel’s idea earlier and is therefore his superior in name alone.  Peggy will later remind Draper of this fact and precipitate the first of Draper’s many breakdowns, but for the moment it is enough to note that the framing of this shot militates against its manifest content and move on to Don receiving the news that the wife of the man whose name he stole is about to die:

Note how severely the camera frames this moment: a) despite being quite a distance from each other, the lamps on the desks in the foreground and background simultaneously occupy the center of the frame; b) the lights on the ceiling and the angles of the wall suggest a classic one-point perspective terminating in an unseen vanishing point; c) Draper and his secretary are not simply balanced, they are equidistant from both the each other and their side of the frame; d) as are the secretaries in the background); e) coupled with the suggestion of an unseen vanishing point, the symmetry of Draper and his secretary occupy the same position relative to the architecture of the building and the lines of perspective.  Let me show you what I mean as best I can given my limited Photoshop skills:

Now that I’ve cleared that up, compare the above with the shot that immediately follows:

The severely ordered world of the previous shot is unbalanced by the switch from a medium long to a conversational medium shot, with the overall effect being that a symmetrical abyss seems to have opened up behind Draper.  By shifting the camera slightly off-center, however, Getzinger creates the impression that this orderly abyss has opened up to swallow Draper and Draper alone.  At the bottom of it?

Read more…

Which Direction in China?

[ 0 ] September 8, 2010 |

I wonder what Yasheng Huang would think of this argument…

During its decades of rapid growth, China thrived by allowing once-suppressed private entrepreneurs to prosper, often at the expense of the old, inefficient state sector of the economy.

Now, whether in the coal-rich regions of Shanxi Province, the steel mills of the northern industrial heartland, or the airlines flying overhead, it is often China’s state-run companies that are on the march.

As the Chinese government has grown richer — and more worried about sustaining its high-octane growth — it has pumped public money into companies that it expects to upgrade the industrial base and employ more people. The beneficiaries are state-owned interests that many analysts had assumed would gradually wither away in the face of private-sector competition.

New data from the World Bank show that the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse. Moreover, investment by state-controlled companies skyrocketed, driven by hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending and state bank lending to combat the global financial crisis.

Huang argued that the Chinese economy moved heavily towards the private (mostly rural) sector in the 1980s, only to retrench in favor of the state owned public sector and foreign direct investment in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. This retrenchment produced high levels of inequality and reduced innovation and productivity growth. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, Huang argues that the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, in favor of private enterprise. I’m curious whether the Great Recession has halted that process, and reaffirmed the move back towards state intervention. It’s certainly a plausible interpretation of events, although there isn’t as of yet a lot of data on precisely what’s happening. If Huang is correct about the productivity imbalance between the Chinese public and private sectors (he argues that the latter is much more productive), and if the Great Recession has shifted the direction of Chinese economic policy, then the long term consequences could be severe in terms of inequality (more) and productivity (less).

Security Sector Reform in Our Communities

[ 3 ] September 8, 2010 |

Women’s Justice Center in California asks how law enforcement could be made more responsive to the needs to children and women, particularly in domestic violence situations. They suggest Civilian Oversight Boards could be the answer, but only if citizens exercise oversight of the Oversight Boards to assure they have the specific qualities to make civilian review work for women.

Stop him before he says something truly despicable.

[ 25 ] September 8, 2010 |

Lawrence Meyers disagrees with Roger Ebert. All well and good. However, the reason Meyers disagrees with Ebert?

Yet I have to wonder if the physical and mental trauma Roger has endured has taken a toll on his mind …

Is it because the anger he must have concerning his condition is being projected onto the Right? After all, [Ebert’s blog at the Sun Times] started after all the physical damage had been done to his appearance …

Okay, so thus far it can be chalked up to the usual debate style of the Left. But here’s what concerns me about his state of mind …

I don’t care what his political beliefs are, ultimately. I care about his mental faculties, and how he is undermining his own legacy as one of cinema’s great champions.

I really wish he would return to the balcony.

This is, I believe, a new conservative tactic: “I disagree with the partisan pollster you agree with, but instead of acknowledging that the obverse is also true, I will assume that during your struggle with thyroid cancer and the seven painful, but ultimately unsuccessful, surgeries to restore the ability to eat, drink and speak that followed—I’ll assume that somewhere in there you lost your mind and I’ll just mourn your death now, so can you please shut the fuck up already?”

Seriously, that last line about “return[ing] the balcony” sounds like nothing so much as a former slave-owner longing for the days before all his former charges had the right to say whatever they damned well pleased. Meyers is annoyed because Ebert’s expressing the opinions he’s always held, but is blaming Ebert for his own inability to separate the body of work from the man who produced it. I wonder how he feels about Faulkner, whose politics he would (I hope) disavow as adamantly as he does Ebert’s?

UPDATE: Crap!  Meyers is absolutely correct, or so I must assume because, like Ebert, I’m in no position to judge.  I apologize in advance for the misunderstanding.

An Easy One

[ 10 ] September 8, 2010 |

The politics of extending Bush’s upper-class tax cuts are indeed straightforward. If you win and just extend them for lower brackets, fine.   If you lose, you still win: you have a political issue, and the new policy status quo would be much better than extending the Bush tax cuts (and arguably better than the selective extension.)    Letting the cuts expire will be painted by the GOP as a “tax hike,” but they’ll say that no matter what.    And extending all of the tax cuts in exchange for a “deal” to let them all expire is indeed particularly senseless, not least because you’d have to be crazy to think the Republicans who will probably control some or all of the relevant branches of the government when the time comes will actually respect any “deal.”

LGM Has Now Fully Colonized the Bloggingheads Lifeworld

[ 11 ] September 8, 2010 |

All your Bloggingheads are belong to us now.

How Did I Get it Right?

[ 89 ] September 7, 2010 |

In honor of the trend of “How did I get it wrong” posts, this is a brief examination of how I managed to get it right on Iraq.  Revisiting correct decisions can often be just as productive as probing failures.  I’m also interested in working through it again because it’s kind of surprising that I got it right. Over the past years, more than a few people have guessed that I was an advocate of the Iraq War, in spite of the fact that I opposed it from the start.  To be fair, there are a couple of big reasons why people might think that I would get it wrong:

  1. I like punching hippies. No excuse for this, although if you graduate from the University of Oregon there’s a high chance that you’ll be either a hippie or a hippie puncher, and there was really no way that I was ever going to end up a hippie. In thinking about what precisely this means, I suspect that it goes back to the cliche that all politics are local. Every social circle features people who make stupid arguments about something, and in social circles that trend heavily left, you get more stupid foreign policy arguments from the left than from the right. It’s not as if “No blood for oil in Kosovo, man!” or “People shouldn’t read Tolkien because he believes that violence can solve problems” are the best arguments that hippies made in my presence while I lived in Eugene or Seattle, but they’re among the most memorable. There are certainly much stupider foreign policy arguments on the right, but because I didn’t regularly have dinner (featuring stupid vegan hippie “food”) with right wingers, the intellectual fissures developed along hippie vs. non-hippie battle lines. This meant on a guttural, emotive first cut I often wanted to find myself standing opposite the hippies. Part of my general effort to move away from dispositional thinking has been to note that even if the stupid hippie believes that George H. W. Bush personally killed JFK, it doesn’t mean that the hippie is wrong about some other question of policy.
  2. I am not “antiwar” in the sense that most use the term. I am against some wars, but not others. As long time readers will know, I think that the modern state inevitably kills people when it gets out of bed in the morning. War is simply another manifestation of state violence. I tend to think of war as existing on one end of the spectrum of state violence, different quantitatively than other state brutality (imprisonment, etc.) but not morally distinct. This doesn’t mean that I have to be in favor of every war, or of any particular war, but it does mean that I don’t find most constructions of antiwar pacifism very compelling. Prior to the 2003 Iraq War, I had supported most of the military interventions (Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan) that had occurred in my adult life. This belief leaves me in position to make dreadful errors on the question of particular wars; say what you will about the tenets of pacifism, but pacifists very rarely make the error of supporting stupid wars.

And so, there were some reasons to believe that I might make a serious error on the question of the Iraq War. In fact, however, I was barely tempted; for a very long time I could hardly even bring myself to believe that people were seriously proposing something so self-evidently stupid. Political science helped, I think, by providing some reasonably clear tools for thinking about military intervention and the state.  The reasons why I didn’t support the war:

    1. I believe in deterrence theory. Like many others, I believed that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. I just didn’t think that it mattered for US policy. As a general rule, states don’t undertake suicidal policies, making it deeply unlikely that Iraq would ever attack the United States or any United States client state with weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the chief American proxy in the region had the capability to destroy Iraq in the case of any attack. I also understood that “weapons of mass destruction” were not all created equal. Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons were of trivial effectiveness against any serious military foe. A nuclear weapon would be of greater concern, but possession of a small number of crude nuclear devices would not transform the military situation in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, I was reasonably confident that a sanction regime that would minimize the possibility of Iraq developing nuclear weapons could be maintained.I was also unimpressed by Iraq’s conventional capability. In 1991, Iraq had demonstrated in dramatic terms that it did not possess a world class conventional military. Since that time, Iraq had lost ground against Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Indeed, “losing ground” doesn’t quite capture it; Iraqi military capabilities had substantially regressed, while those of every other state in the region had moved forward. Iraq simply did not pose a plausible military threat to any of its neighbors, and would not for the foreseeable future even if the sanctions regime had utterly collapsed.

    In terms of threat, Saddam Hussein had demonstrated that he was risk acceptant but essentially rational. He had not used chemical or biological weapons against any foe that could have annihilated him. The wars he launched stood some chance of success. He had not launched any wars since 1991, when his military capability was effectively destroyed. He acted in ways that were basically predictable, not as some sort of “crazy man.”

    I was equally uncompelled by the notion that Iraq would simply hand over weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. Such a move would leave Iraq vulnerable to attack from the enraged target, who would naturally assume that the weapons had come from Hussein. The idea that Iraq would give a nuclear weapon to terrorists is too absurd for words.

    While I think that the construction “Bush lied, people died” is probably too strong regarding the existence of WMD, I think it’s quite appropriate to the discussion of the implications of WMD. I think that the administration and its proxies believed that Iraq had WMD, and simply exaggerated the available evidence. However, I believe that advocates for the war intentionally and explicit mislead the US public and the international community regarding the threat that such weapons might pose. People who understood all of the above, including Hussein’s rationality, the principles of deterrence theory, and the military ineffectiveness of Hussein’s WMD, simply lied about the threat in order to advocate invasion. Understanding that the advocates were either making a serious strategic error or straight out lying, even before the we failed to find WMDs, helped make it easy to oppose the war.

    2. I understand how destructive war is. Any effort to conquer Iraq would involve a large-scale air campaign and destructive ground invasion that would kill tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Moreover, tenuous Iraqi infrastructure, already weakened by the 1991 war and the sanctions regime, would come under sustained attack. The reconstruction of Iraq was likely to be far, far more expensive and time consuming than the war advocates suggested, even absent an insurgency. I was extraordinarily skeptical of the interest and ability of the Bush administration to undertake seriously the reconstruction of a battered state. The experience in Afghanistan indicated how limited the Bush administration’s commitment to physical reconstruction was, and in a more modern economy requiring much more modern infrastructure, the failure of the administration was likely to be far more destructive.

    3. I appreciate how awful disintegrated and failed states can be for human security, and understand the difficulty of building a state from scratch. I’m a bit of a Hobbesian, and while I didn’t expect Iraq to descend into a classic state of nature upon Hussein’s fall, I did believe that the collapse of the regime would be met with a substantial amount of chaos and destruction. Because of the aforementioned inability of the Bush administration to think seriously about the nature of the state, I suspected that the Iraqi state would be constructed heavy on neocon principles on low on any practical ability to do anything, including control its own borders and disarm violent substate actors. That the Bush administration did not understand the basic foundations of coercive state power made it clear that any political reconstructive efforts (as opposed to material reconstruction) would almost certainly be disastrous. Handing people hostile to the basic concept of responsible state policymaking the keys to a state was a recipe for disaster. If Franklin Roosevelt had explained to me personally that he and his policy team were personally going to supervise the reconstruction of Iraq, with a claim on unlimited funds and political authority, I might have been persuaded. That, and the Jedi.

Like I said, it wasn’t even close. The only thing that might have affected this calculus was clear, conclusive evidence that Hussein’s regime had been operationally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Such a revelation would have produced questions about Hussein’s rationality and ability to be deterred, and also would have furnished a clear jus ad bellum rationale for war. Nothing of the sort ever appeared, the pathetic fumblings of Stephen Hayes and Eli Lake* notwithstanding. And so, with the help of political science, I managed to get it right.

*While Lake has maintained that Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda had connections, he has never argued that Iraq had a hand in 9/11.

Still the Gold Standard of Hackery After All These Years

[ 14 ] September 7, 2010 |

Yep, Glenn Reynolds has still got it.     His latest crackpot claim is that “eliminationist rhetoric” is far from confined to one nut who took hostages at the Discovery Channel but is prevalent among contemporary environmentalists.    His “evidence” for this assertion is as follows:

I’m not sure if this quite comes up to the level of some of his past McCarthyite Comedy Classics, but it belongs in the discussion.

UPDATE (SEK): I was going to write about this earlier, but got distracted by this awesome book.  Had I not, I would’ve written a post that included the following self-explanatory image:

Data!

[ 8 ] September 7, 2010 |

The XXers have done what I was too lazy to do with respect to the NYTBR’s treatment of female writers, and the data supports Weiner’s position (at least on the more general point of whether the NYTBR gives proportionate attention to female writers) more powerfully than I would have guessed.    It’s not just the raw numbers, which (as the article notes) could be the result of sexism at different stages of the publishing process, but this very useful list of books given reviews and, especially, double reviews.     Looking at it, I know how I’d address this issue:

Weiner seems most concerned about how we, as a literary culture, draw the boundaries around a certain group of books. Let’s call this category zeitgeist fiction—commercial fiction that is for some reason deemed worthy of serious analysis, either because of sales (Twilight), cultural impact (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or surprisingly spry writing (High Fidelity).* Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”

Authors given two reviews for a single book by the Times include the “commercial”* writers Steig Larrson, Scott Turow, Stephen King, John Irving, Nick Hornby, Elmore Leonard, John LeCarre, Christopher Buckley, and Stephen Carter, not to mention John Grisham(!) and Dan Brown(!!). There are some female equivalents, but many fewer, and Bushnell is the only one whose novels seem to clearly fit in a “chick lit” category. When you throw in the “literary” novelists whose status as major novelists is highly contestable (such as Moody and McInerney) and major novelists who few would consider at the peak of their form (such as DeLillo and Updike)…I think it’s hard to argue that the overrepresentation of men in the NYTRB is simply a question of what publishers make available or a product of not enough women meeting the NYTRB’s high standards (not that either of these were plausible explanations anyway.) Eyeballing the list I think that “literary” female authors are probably underrepresented too, but when it comes to popular writers Weiner’s criticisms seem especially well-supported.     If — as Tannehaus says — the NYTRB’s goal is to  “identify that fiction that really will endure,” the bar for creating allegedly enduring art seems to be a lot lower for men than women.   I’m going to boldly predict that 100 years from now very few literary anthologies (in whatever form they take) will have sections devoted to the short stories of John Grisham.

*I emphasize that by “commercial” I do not mean “unworthy of attention” or “devoid of aesthetic merit” — I like several of the first set of authors — but the discussion seems to treat these writers as different than “literary” authors such as Mitchell or Morrison or Pynchon or Munro, whether the distinction is useful or not.

UPDATE:   In comments, Farber notes that the NYTBR and the other book reviews in the Times are editorially independent.    Fair enough, but in the context of this specific criticism I don’t think this gets the Times off the hook — what books both wings choose to cover is surely a relevant question even if the decisions aren’t coordinated.    And while Tannehaus doesn’t bear personal responsibility for the double reviews, it remains the case that while he claims that he can’t cover what its detractors call “chick lit” because his review is dedicated to high literachoor that will stand the test of time, a quick perusal of the books he actually chooses to review indicates plenty of middlebrow fiction that straddles the blurry lines between “literature” and “entertainment,” genre fiction that sometimes ditto, the work of outright hacks, non-fiction of no discernible merit or cultural impact, etc.

Two things memeorandum informs me that Google will be the death of:

[ 4 ] September 7, 2010 |
  1. Rick Santorum’s presidential hopes.
  2. Howard Kurtz’s patience Serious journalism.

Sadly, I believe these are both overreactions.

War Is Boring I

[ 7 ] September 7, 2010 |

[I’m breaking this review into separate posts. Part II will be up tomorrow.]

David Axe’s War Is Boring belongs, in a very general sense, to the grand tradition of American road trip narratives. Unlike Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, in which the Nobel Laureate set out to reconnect with an idea of America; or Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the good doctor set out to obliterate that notion altogether; or Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which a creative writing professor ignores both the country and all notions of it in favor of calling attention to his own profundity—that is to say, unlike those nonfictional account of road trips by American authors, the travel narrative that frames War Is Boring is not aimed at an American audience. I mean this literally: Axe recalls the past five years of his life as a United Nations van and its driver, Adrian Djimdim, shepherd him across Chad. That he tells his story to someone who has experienced life in a conflict zone is significant because it allows him the sympathetic space required to recount the intimate moments and minor worries of combat life without seeming a solipsist.

The wars to which he flashes back in conversation are not about him in the way that Salinas is about Steinbeck, Las Vegas about Thompson, or Pirsig about Pirsig. They are not an extension of himself because War Is Boring partakes of no Emersonian “upbuilding of a man” and Axe refuses to serve as a delegate for our moral improvement. For example, later in the novel, after being mistaken for former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, he informs Djimdim that:

As Djimdim is presented as an observant listener, he must have recognized that Axe had fed him a similar line earlier:

Note that the difference is not in growth, but simple addition: Axe doesn’t correct him, he merely adds the names of his actual employers, committing what could be called a sin of omission by addition. He presents himself here not as a model to be emulated, but a person for whom old, successful habits die hard—that is, as a sympathetic example of our flawed species.* But War Is Boring is always as much about the narrative as it is the narrator, even when the stakes of the conflicts narrated are not altogether clear. While that might seem a criticism of the book, I don’t mean it as such. The view from the ground will always be more chaotic than its aerial equivalent, as Axe himself argues via juxtapositions like those that open his chapter on East Timor:

The helicopter is as isolated from the events below as it is in Axe’s camera, but for the moment, so is Axe. That first panel fails to inform us whether the narrative is in its Chadian frame or East Timor, and the second one only provides visual clues as to when and where we are. Moreover, the perspective Axe and, through him, the reader has on that helicopter is a familiar and unpleasant one: the isolation of the helicopter somehow representing both imperialist ambitions and the sinking feeling in a soldier’s gut as his last connection to a life outside of war pulls into the sky. In fact, this framing of the conflict occurs throughout the chapter on East Timor, neatly paralleling the fact that Axe feels like he learned little in the two weeks he spent there.

*If I seem excessively focused on the personal or confessional aspects of the narrative, it’s likely because I’m working on my lesson plans at the moment, and War Is Boring slots in nicely with the theme of “Confessional Comics.” Reading it in conjunction with Craig Thompson’s Blankets, the content of which could hardly be more different, makes plain one of Axe’s strengths as a novelist: his willingness to depict his self-important or oblivious behavior, as in the “Detroit” chapter, bolsters his credibility throughout.