Archive for September, 2008

Elitist Pastime

September 26, 2008

Since things are quiet, and the political news is too bizarre to contemplate, I thought I’d do one of our periodic “Whatcha Been Readin’?” posts. So: whatcha been readin’?

My list:

Owen Sheers, Resistance. It’s a “what if” novel set in Nazi-occupied Wales during WWII. It’s not a war novel in the Herman Wouk/Tom Clancy sense, though. It’s about a small community of Welsh women who are trying to make their lives work with their husbands gone to join the resistance, and a German patrol occupying their small valley; and about that German patrol, trying to turn a short mission into a long-term break from the brutality of the war. Highly recommended.

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road. A medieval hoot, is what this is. A fun, short, breezy read. Chabon’s original working title was “Jews with Swords.”

Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day.  This is terrific.  It’s the layman’s version of research Venkatesh did as a grad student in sociology at the University of Chicago.  He spent several years hanging out with the leader of one of the gangs that controlled Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes — the biggest housing project in the country, and one of the poorest and most violent.  I’d go so far as to call this a Must Read.

Some false starts:

Matthew Kneale, When We Were Romans. This novel is told from the POV of a 10 yr. old boy, Lawrence, whose emotionally damaged mother takes from rural England to Rome, along with his little sister, Jemima, to escape their [abusive?] estranged father. I had to put this one down after a hundred pages or so. It’s incredibly well written and all — the young narrator is almost totally believable — but it was just too sad for me. The kid is so sweet, and trying so hard to help, but mum’s problems keep getting in the family’s way.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. It’s a classic, the first modern novel, blah blah blah. Too ruthless for me. It’s like Wuthering Heights, in that regard. Everybody in it is either an infuriating dullard or a completely self-absorbed ass, and the author himself clearly has no sympathy for any of them. Who needs this?

Peter Carey, Theft. I’ve had this one since it came out, which was . . . I dunno . . . a year or two ago. I’ve started it a couple of times, but can’t seem to get more than a couple dozen pages in before I lose all interest in both the characters and the story.

Currently reading:

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. An interesting journalistic history of American politics and society from the election of 1964 to the election of 1972. In that eight years, the country swung from giving socially liberal Lyndon Johnson an historic landslide victory, to giving socially conservative Richard Nixon an historic landslide victory. Perlstein’s questions are: what happened in those 8 years to move the country so far, so fast, and how does it affect present day politics? It’s an interesting read. Perlstein makes no pretense of being unbiased — it’s very clear he doesn’t like Nixon and thinks the country would be better off if the swing from 1964 to 1972 had not happened. Sometimes he verges over into outright polemic, which is annoying and distracting, but at least he keeps it brief; not more than a sentence or two. Despite his bias, his is probably the best history of “The Sixties” that I’ve seen. (In part, that’s by default: the others really, really suck.)

George Eliot, Janet’s Repentance. Just started this one. It’s one of Eliot’s early, short novels.

(And, of course, as soon as I finished this and hit the “Publish” button, I see Ms.P has just put up a post.  Can we support two posts at once?  Stay tuned.)

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The Heart of Rock and Roll

September 26, 2008

I’m sure some of my fellow Hippos will be closely following the big debate this evening. I, however, will be reveling in Huey Lewis and the News in honor of both candidates (John McCain b/c they’re old school, Barack Obama because they’re totally hip to be square). Which leads me to the point of this post. What are the best live musical acts you’ve ever seen? Here’s my short list.

1. Marc Broussard – The first time I heard of Marc, he was opening for Maroon 5 and Gavin Degraw and blew them both completely out of the water. It’s all about the voice with this guy. In these days of the ballady singer-songwriter (which I love, don’t get me wrong), it’s nice to see a fellow who can simply wail. And not in the big hair 80’s sense. He’s from New Orleans and definitely has the whole Louisiana vibe going.

2. Lyle Lovett – In terms of sheer quality, Lyle is the best out there. My brother, the illustrious Brandon Goff, Doctor of Music Composition, commented that seeing his show was worth 3 years of music school rolled into one. Had I ever been to music school, I would agree. Apart from the music itself, Lyle has an understated charm and a surprising sense of humor. He’s much more of a showman than you might expect.

3. The Decembrists – When The New Daisy is hushed in silence, you know you’ve got a commanding presence on stage. This is one of those groups that thrives in the live venue. I rarely pop in their CD, but their stage show is complete brilliance. You are not allowed to be a non-participant.

4. The Avett Brothers – These boys are raw energy. I just saw them for the first time about a month ago and STILL can’t get their songs out of my head. They are an impossible blend of bluegrass and punk that, judging by the crowd, appeals to all ages. Bonus: you get to count all your inevitable dancing as exercise for the week. 

5. Guster – Fun, fun, fun. If you want to have fun singing harmony at the top of your lungs, see these guys.

6. John Mayer – Aaah, John. I’ve been a fan of JM since he was playing in clubs for 50 people, so he has a special place in my musical heart. Now he’s on the cover of US Weekly, but he still has mad skills. 

7. Rocket Summer – This might seem like a 15 year old emo choice, but hear me out. The kid writes undeniably catchy (and complicated) songs with lyrics that actually mean something. Plus, he delivers the energy of his albums and then some. Who cares if you’re the only 30-something there? Okay, maybe you. And the frightened 13 year old you’re standing behind. But it’s worth it. Trust me.

I could go on and on, but those are the first people that come to mind, so there’s probably some truth in their impact. Some folks didn’t make the cut simply because I haven’t seen them (U2 comes to mind). Other favorites didn’t make it because their live show doesn’t beat their albums in my opinion (Ryan Adams, Indigo Girls, Foo Fighters, etc.).

Musical Genius: From Tommy to Rex

September 18, 2008

So I was talking to Tommy Lee at “Meet the Teacher Night” last night…

Hey, I’m being serious here! So our kids have a coupla classes together, what’s so strange about that?

Anyway, we were all lost on the way to the gym, but we found an assistant principal that got us where we needed to go.

Meet the Teacher night in Malibu isn’t that much different from the rest of the world except that the PTA’s tub of bottled water for everyone to take was filled with Perrier.

And, for the first time since moving on a college campus, Jody & I felt young. (I guess there must be a strong correlation between financial success and having children late in life.)

Oh, and Tommy Lee was there.

Really, the coolest part of the evening was that we signed a waiver in Hillary’s choir class. Seems that one of Hillary’s classmates will be doing a follow-up interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” next week. We googled him once we made it home and were blown away by his story. Maybe you’ve seen it already. His name is Rex, and he is simply amazing. Check it out HERE.

Sometimes life can just be fun.

Bailing Out

September 17, 2008

So huge financial bailouts are in the news, right? The feds (or the Fed) stepped in to help with BearStearns, let Lehman fall (but helped anyway by making sure it was as soft and slow a fall as possible), and now we’re all the proud new owners of AIG, the biggest insurance company in the world.

“Too big to fail” is the phrase of the moment. Some of these Wall Street firms and hedge funds, they’re just too big to let them fail; if they go down, the whole financial system crashes and burns. We had to bail out AIG because if they’d gone down, they would’ve taken a dozen other huge financial services firms with them, due to something called “counterparty” implications, which I don’t pretend to understand.

“Too big to fail.”

Matt Yglesias has a post up today that got me thinking. In economic terms, what’s bigger: AIG, or the American middle class? I ask because, you know, we totally let the American middle class fail. All these financial companies are in trouble because — the Dow is tanking because — we let a huge number of middle-class home “owners” default on their mortgages. We let them fail. If the justification for saving AIG and BearStearns and certain others is that letting them fail would have too drastic consequences on the economy, why did we let those companies reach the point where they might fail, by allowing the middle class to fail? Couldn’t we have avoided all of these corporate bailouts by nipping the problem in the bud? That is, by bailing out the middle class, where the whole problem started?

What possible justification — economic or moral — is there for letting the middle class fail, but saving the corporations? Both made bad financial decisions. Both bought into more debt than they could afford. Both acted on the belief that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

If we need to let the middle class fail so it learns its lesson, how is AIG any different? Don’t Wall Street geniuses need to learn exactly the same lesson?

If the justification is purely economic, I still don’t see how it makes any sense. Bail out the middle class so it doesn’t default on its mortgages, and you don’t suffer all this Sturm und Drang in the financial system, nor have to bail out the corporations that held all that middle class debt.

How, O, Hippos of Hunger, does what we’ve done make any sense?

John McCain: Old School Foreign Policy Maverick

September 15, 2008

Here, for your delectation and education, is extremely rare footage of John McCain’s first statement of his fundamental stance on foreign policy. It was delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations, way back in 1982, when his hair was still dark and he still wore the beard he grew during his years as a POW.  (You did know he was a POW, right? ‘Cause he was. Totally. But he doesn’t like to talk about it.) The CFR was composed mostly of Realists back then, so McCain’s views didn’t go over as well as they do today.

The Sign, the Signifier, and the Defiant Stance

September 12, 2008

Andrew Sullivan, writing about the series of lies the McCain campaign has been caught repeating since the GOP convention, says:

I know many people believe that the American people – especially the under-informed swing voters – are too dumb to know when they are being lied to. But these lies are so obvious that this cannot be true.

Here’s the problem with that: I don’t think it’s ignorance the Rovians running the McCain campaign are counting on; it’s symbolism.

To the segment of America that Rove understands — the segment he worked twice to get George W. Bush elected — the fact that they’re being lied to doesn’t matter. What matters is that in telling the lie, McCain/Palin are sticking their thumb in the eye of all the Americans that that segment of the population sees as the smug, oppressive Other: the liberals, the media, the elites.

Theirs is a mindset we can all understand, because it’s one we’ve all shared at some point. Maybe it was in rooting for an underdog sports team, or an underdog “American Idol” contestant, or an underdog tv or movie character. Whoever it is we’re emotionally invested in, after they’ve been put upon and oppressed for long enough, we experience a thrill when they finally stick it to their tormentors, even if they have to fight dirty to do it.

(Is there any reason for these Americans, after the past 16 years and especially the last 8, to think they are put upon or oppressed or underdogs? No. That doesn’t matter. The fact is, that IS how they feel. Nursing that sense of grievance, that siege mentality, is one of the core functions of right-wing media.)

This is the mindset the Rovians understand better than anyone else. They understand that the truth or rationality of what a politician says or does is irrelevant to roughly 30% of the electorate, as long as the politician does or says whatever it is in a way that seems to stick it to this 30%’s resented Other. Another almost 20%, apparently, will tag along almost as far as the 30%. If you can get all those people, you’ve got a real shot at winning a 50+1 race; you’ve got a high floor of support. It’s the calculation central to Rove’s electoral architecture. It’s how Bush won re-election.

If the media elite say your campaign claims are lies, this is good. It gives you an opportunity to stick your thumb in their eye by continuing to repeat those claims. The claims themselves are almost irrelevant. What matters is that repeating them symbolically says, “Oh yeah, smart guy? Well I don’t give a damn what you think! I say [a Fundamentalist hockey milf DIDN’T ask for earmarks, or the angry black man DOES want to set up a porn theater in your child’s kindergarten classroom, &c]!” (Think of Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens says she’s the kind of person who, when doubted on a claim, simply enlarges it and repeats it more emphatically. That’s what we’re dealing with.)

It’s the defiant stance that matters.

Rovian politics is all symbolism. The symbolic value of a speech or act is all that matters. Correspondence to reality is irrelevant. Value to long-term American interests is irrelevant. The real enemy is at home: the liberals, the media, the elites. Run a campaign that sticks a thumb in their eye, and you’ve locked up the aggrieved 30%, and you’ve got a good shot at another 20.

It’s too good for a thoroughly amoral campaign strategist to pass up: you can win elections by saying literally almost anything, without regard for consequences, because if you get caught in a lie or a blatantly stupid idea, it only helps you. Repeating the lie only helps you. Following through on the stupid idea only helps you.

This is the reality of American politics. This is why I’m worried about the future of my country as never before.

Update: Here’s a wittier version of my point.  (h/t Yglesias)

Ithaca

September 12, 2008

I absolutely love this.

I’m a Shepherd

September 11, 2008

I’m one of those weird people who don’t really recall much about their younger years. But most of the things I do remember involve me and my friends quoting significant portions of the movie Fletch.

Which I only mention because the author of the Fletch  books — a series of books on which the movies were based, as well as a series of books I’ve never read — died Sunday. Gregory MacDonald sold over 100 million books. I’ve never even seen one of his books in a bookstore, to be honest, but I’m glad he wrote them.

Who Else Noticed

September 6, 2008

I thought for a while no one else noticed the absence of minorities at the Republican Convention, but found this article in the LATimes.

Why isn’t this getting more press?

PS –  If any of you techies want to get this reference in the proper form, I’d appreciate it.

Good Question

September 6, 2008

I have been thinking for several days now about everything that the Religious Right has sacrificed in its singular zeal for the “pro-life” cause.  (I will only use that term in quotation marks because it’s both overinclusive and underinclusive).  This article on Slate describes what I’ve been puzzling over.   Back in 1980, one of the goals of religious conservatives was to reduce divorce — remember that?  And the furor over Murphy Brown having a child on her own?  What ever happened to conservative promotion of  two-parent families?  Since I know that no one reads linked articles, here’s an excerpt or two:

In fact, these two conservative social goals—ending abortion and upholding the model of the nuclear family—were always in tension. The reason is that, like it or not, the availability of legal abortion supports the kind of family structure that conservatives once felt so strongly about: two parents raising children in a stable relationship, without government assistance. . . .

By vaunting their pro-life agenda over everything else, conservatives are abandoning one of their most valuable insights: that intact, two-parent families are best for children and for the foundation of a healthy society. The evidence here is overwhelming. Children with two parents, whether of the same sex or the opposite sex, are vastly better off. By every measure social scientists have devised, those raised by two parents grow up healthier (physically and psychologically), wealthier, and wiser, on average, than those raised by a single parent, divorced parents, or even a parent and a stepparent.

I understand and sympathize with people who oppose abortion, although I mostly disagree with their public policy prescriptions.  But I am truly baffled by the fact that it seems to trump all other issues for a significant number of voters.  Could someone please explain this to me?  This is a sincere question.  I know that some of you have written me off as part of the domestic axis of evil, and I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to reconsider that position and engage in a real conversation.  I have some guesses, but would like to hear what others think.