Thursday, September 29, 2005

So You Think You Know The Bible?

It's been a while since I seriously studied the Good Book, but I don't think I ever would have scored particularly well on this test, hosted by Steve Whitney of the Presbyterian church and designed to help prospective pastors to train for their content exams.

My score was lame. I scored particularly badly on the later prophetic books--I mean, c'mon, who gets into Micah?--and on the Pauline letters.



Tuesday, September 27, 2005

n+1's Third Edition, James Wood on Criticism

The new issue of n+1 finally hit New York independant bookstores last weekend. (I'd been hearing rumors of rumors about it for at least three weeks beforehand, and Gawker announced the review's coming-out party, as it were, a full week and a half before the issue became available. Okay, I'm done kvetching.) The fact is, I've been eagerly awaiting this issue, as I am vaguely acquainted with the editors, was at a reading associated with their initial launch, and have a great deal of respect for their goal to take culture seriously, dammit.

I'm reading through the issue rather more slowly than I'd like; maybe I'm savoring it. Below the fold: "The Intellectual Situation" and "James Wood on Criticism"

The first section one turns to, as a matter of course, is their New Yorkeresque "Intellectual Situation," which, like "The Talk of the Town," gives an overview of what their milieu is complaining about. Since their milieu is like my milieu (twenty-to-thirty-something grad students and the like), most of the entries resonate with me.

Yeah, those of us who went into grad school during the tech boom go-go years felt a certain self-righteous and yet protected abnegation: "If we ourselves weren't making much money, and were sometimes jealous of former classmates who were, there was comfort in feeling we could always sell out, if we wanted to."

Yeah, dating is an unrealistic model for marriage: "Dating, like the tyrant, seeks perfection (within a certain price range)."

And yeah, a lot of bohemian dreams are funded by inheritance--but just not enough to feel rich: "I liked my investment advisor [R. says], but there was a bit of a gulf there. We settled for a hippocratic compomise: let me own no companies that do positive harm to the environment or their workers."
(This is one place in "The Intellectual Situation" where the anonymity seems problematic. R. "speaks" in his--I'm assuming--own words, yet the whole section is quoted from his own words. R. should just have written his own damned piece, yet if he had done so, in this entirely anonymous section, it would have seemed as though the editors were all also inheritors. Yet R. seems to represent something general than just his particular story; the disavowing starts to seem protective, disingenuous. The editors deserve kudos for talking about money--and not just abstract capital out there but the real capital needed to support intellectual work--but I still wish this section hadn't been so baroquely disavowed.)

n+1 deserves real kudos for its treatment of James Wood's reply to the 1st issue's salvo. To begin with, any group of intellectually committed young people can come up with a point of view. To then come up with a magazine and a manifesto is already an impressive step--but then, to have one's manifesto be taken seriously enough by one's opponents to have them write eloquent defenses, that is indeed to shake the columns. So, I have to admire the fact that n+1 published James Wood's reply, under the category "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," and subtitled it only with "n+1 takes its lumps." That was a graceful act, and I am very glad that the editors published this wonderful essay.

Like Wood, I hope that the critic should be able and allowed to take the artist seriously, to be neither a cheering section nor a pooh-pooher but to enter into the logic of writers and to read their works with a sensitive dispassion--which will sometimes seem critical, sometimes seem laudatory. Shortly before reading Wood's article, I heard Leonard Lopate interview Zadie Smith, a famous target of Wood's critical regard; she claimed that the negative reviews helped her to think more carefully about what she was doing. The positive reviews, and here I'm remembering and extrapolating, seemed to dissolve under scrutiny.

So here's from Wood's own article:
Fixated on negativity--tellingly, they note only the negative pieces, never the laudatory ones--the Editors accuse the books page of the New Republic of "taking down" writers like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Don Delillo. I detest that verb. For one thing, no review ever does "take down" a writer: the writer has a way of popping up very punctually, three or four years later, with another offering. For another, a serious critique, of the kind I have written of Underworld or Paradise of White Teeth, takes nothing down; it takes something seriously, as Zadie Smith has herself often acknowledged, publicly and privately. In what way can my review of The Corrections, a book I praised at length for its humane and moving rewriting of Delillo yet criticized for its residual and contradictory enthrallement to a DeLilloian idea of the paranoid "social novel," be seen as a "takedown"? To argue, for two thousand words, with the argument of Jonathan Franzen's Harper's essay (to argue that it is intelligent, suggestive, and finally illogical, seeking refuge in a thin aestheticism--the consolation of the "sentence"--which I doubt Franzen himself even believes in); to then argue for a further three thousand words with The Corrections itself, is to take Franzen seriously. To call the Harper's essay "elegant, infamous" and nothing more, to call The Corrections "a marvelous novel, more than deserving of its laurels," and little more, as Chad Harbach did in the first issue of N+1, is merely to take Franzen for granted.
I cannot concur strongly enough. The professional critic's role is to take artistic production very seriously indeed, to attempt an understanding of its deep logic, and to hold it against contemporary understandings. The critic's job is not to be a book reviewer, really; you shouldn't ask the serious critics to tell you whether or not to read a book, even though so few of us read all the books whose reviews we've read. To get a review in a major publication is already an indication of some status; to get a mixed review is to be taken seriously.

I once complimented an acquaintance on receiving what was a decidedly mixed review in the NYT, even though a much more connected friend had said, "Oh, that was a politely worded rejection." Even criticism is a serious response; novels are published, without fanfare, all the damned time.

I wrote a sucky novel once, and it took me over a year to find someone who was honest enough to tell me what was wrong with it. Critics who take work seriously, who hold work against an unforgiving light and judge deserve better than they've received. Yes, I enjoy The Believer, but I believe that the better art can make truth-claims in this world--and that those constitute a serious enough matter that critics ought to make intellectual claims about them.


Meta-Blogging 21: The Cocktail Version

Via Unfogged, which remains too intimidating to comment at, this Playboy cheat-sheet to the US political blogs. As Ogged notes, it should be considered an arrival of some kind.

It shouldn't really be considered a good guide to the political blogs, though. Anyone who actually reads Yglesias would be expected to know, for example, that he can't or won't spell properly, that he has a fixation on The Wire, and that he's very, very young. You'll be outed instantly as a poseur if you don't know these things, none of which the Playboy guide mentions. I guess that's the nature of Playboy guides to pithy uninformed conversation, though.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Espionage a la Cambridge-Murder-Mystery

Tony Cape’s A Cambridge Theorem, first issued in 1980, has been picked up and reissued this year by the Felony and Mayhem Mystery Press. Prices are high in this reprint market, but so far I’ve every reason to believe that the editors are savvy.

Cape’s mystery starts with the apparent suicide of a Cambridge fellow, Simon Bowles. Bowles earned his way into the college with his mathematics brilliance, yet he was known to friends to have pursued seemingly insoluble mysteries on the side.

>Having once been interned for a suicide attempt, the victim’s death--an upper vertebrae fracture consistent with hanging--would seem to be an open and shut case.

One Cambridge cop has his doubts.

A policeman who has never quite fit into the local police culture, in part because of his fascination with America, Sergeant Smailes takes an interest in Bowles’s suicide primarily because the latter’s earlier research into Kennedy’s assassination seems so authoritative and believable.

Once this threshold of conspiratorial believability has sunk in, Smailes gradually becomes willing to suspect that Bowles’s more recent research into the theorized fifth member of the Cambridge spy group might indeed reveal a long-term mole.

I'm putting the rest beneath the fold because I don't really think I've managed to describe the point of this novel. I don't give away the ending or any significent secrets maybe that's the problem, but I doubt it.
What intrigues me about this novel, in its success and lack thereof, is that it manages to straddle quite perfectly the country-house-murder genre and the espionage genre.

The novel begins with the characterization of a lower-level, local cop and never quite abandons that point of view, despite the national implications of what this lower-level cop discovers. Of course, anyone who has an interest, even a passing one, in the Cambridge spy ring should check this novel out: it’s very smart and very careful with the historical record as it presents the clues towards the author’s pet conclusions.

Even even you don’t already have an interest in the Cambrige spy rings, Sergeant Smailes’s sense and humanity might suggest enough humanity to interest you in his hobbies.

As the novel gets going, Smailes begins to realise that his passively chosen career demands some further committment: he must face the memory of his father, a powerful policeman, and he must negotiate these memories and his (more hackneyed) outsider status with his superiors.

And when the novel verges into noir, Smailes still seems credible, although his future, after the novel, becomes unimaginable. Recommended, with qualifications (price, special interest).


Meta-Blogging 20: Delurking Day

On September 21, when the nation was recovering from Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day, internet lurkers were asked to declare themselves. The call rebounded throughout the internets.

Pandagon traces the phenomenon to Chris Clarke, and Crooked Timber links to PZ Meyers, who gives props to Chris and to Lauren at Feministe. All of these links have interesting comments--which still represent only a fraction of the readers reached by the sites.

If anyone cares to delurk here, I promise to clap. If anyone cares to link to another interesting delurking thread, well, then you're contributing to research, aren't you?


It's A Bloody Miracle

My internet connection has suddenly decided to start working again. I had started to think that my computer had been taken over by Norwegian spammers or malicious Verizon golems. Then, also, I had begun to make the inevitable calculations about income and expenditure that an almost six year-old laptop tend to invite. Hooray for an incomprehensible return to service, and hooray for putting off decisions once again!

I've something of a backlog of things to write about, mostly reviews, but clearly I shouldn't be making much in the way of promises.


Monday, September 19, 2005

Say Hey, Me Hearties!

This Monday be th' International Talk Like a Pirate Day an' I be wishin' ya fair winds an' a rich haul.

Some booty:
--The Talk Like A Pirate site.

--An automated English-Pirate translator.

--The Pirate Ring, linkin' to o'er 100 piratical sites!

[More booty:

--Where to get yer pirate name. Ye can be startin' on callin' me Mad Mary Flint, an ye please.

--Jim "Pirate Macon the Staggering Drunk" MacDonald at Makin' Light has more.]


Sunday, September 18, 2005

US Prisons

Christopher Hitchens has become such a stock character for anti-war leftists that we forget that he can sometimes turn out a damned fine article.

His most recent Vanity Fair article takes a hard look at rape in US prisons--a phenomenon that, shockingly, has become so accepted in mainstream American culture that it has become a banal joke for sitcoms and even commercials. Hitchens reminds us that rape is rape, and just as murders in jail are prosecuted as murders, so rapes in jail should be completely untolerated. In US prisons as in Abu Ghraib, it would be stupid to claim that a few bad seeds are to blame: the responsibility for the outrageous rates of prisoner rape lies also in the institution, and in the complacent culture that sustains that institution.

In US prisons as in Abu Ghraib: Hitchens buries the lede somewhat by reminding us about halfway through that two of the prosecuted offenders at Abu Ghraib were former US corrections officers and that a widely muttered excuse for the scandal was that conditions were similar to those in US prisons. That circumstance should remind everyone to be shocked anew, if the stories and statistics about rape weren't awful enough. Apparently they haven't been.

Good on you, Mr. Hitchens, for writing this article, for bringing attention to one of the most appalling abuses within the US system of justice. More like this, please.


Saturday, September 17, 2005

Alan Furst

Alan Furst writes elegant historical espionage novels. By "historical," I mean that Furst writes within the the time and genre of ideologically understandable amateur espionage. He recreates the either-or of World War II, yet his plots remind his reader of all the complex choices within such an either-or: to get involved actively rather than survive and dissent, to become an anti-fascist agent, with a loss of autonomy, or escort some few refugees to safety. By "elegant," I mean that the plots are symmetrical, spare, and unsentimental and that the details of character are revealed in sparse sketches (here, an after-hours feast for expatriots hosted by a Russian chef in a posh Parisian bistro); and of course, I also mean by "elegant" that the "historical" dilemmas above described are never insisted upon, never become histrionic.

In Furst's 2002 Blood of Victory, the leftist Russian expat writer Ilya Serebin is recruited in Paris by the British government to serve in the anti-Nazi effort. Serebin desperately wants to defeat the fascists, yet the job to which he is assigned is very abstract and very dangerous: he is to revive an old, commercial-focussed Balkan intelligence network in the hopes of organizing an attack on the Romanian oilfields. The idea is that since the German war-machine relies on oil for its war-factories, destroying the Romanian oilfields (remember, our contemporary MidEast and Caucasian oilfields had not yet been developed) would slow down the German military effort. One of the central ironies in this careful novel takes shape between the abstraction of this goal and the brutally immediate sacrifices that Serebin must suffer.

I was very impressed by this novel: it evoked the atmosphere and dilemmas of a period while focussing on the choices and needs of vivid individuals. And no matter how much or how little one has heard of British efforts to undermine oil production in the East, one will wonder about--and be worried about--the fate of the principle characters in their goals.

[Edited slightly]


Answering the Call

For the past week and a half, I've been avoiding answering my home phone. There are about three specific people I don't want to talk to for various reasons, and since my cell phone has caller ID and an answering machine, I've just been letting the home phone ring. It's been ringing like mad all week, and each ring has made me feel like a horrible person.

This afternoon, I finally managed to clear my conscience with regard to those people whose calls I'd been avoiding. The instant I get off the phone with one of these people, the phone rings again. Assuming that that person is calling back to resume the conversation, I pick up the phone, with some trepidation. "Hello?"

"Mike Bloomberg asked me to call you with a single, quick question."


"Can he count on your vote in the mayoral election?"


"Thanks. Goodbye."
While I don't feel any warm fuzzies about the "Mike Bloomberg asked me to call you" part, I do have a great deal of respect for the "single quick question" part that turned out to be true. This young operative indeed had one quick question, and he didn't extend his welcome, despite my stated ambivalence.

I wonder how many of the calls I've ignored have been from NYC political operatives.


Danish Compassion

Via Matthew Yglesias, via Brad Plumer, I learn that the Danish government has been paying sex workers to provide services one time per month to disabled people.

The "Sex, irrespective of disability" plan has understandably come under fire by opposition politicians. Since most governments recognize that prostitution is not exactly a winning career, most governments that legalize or even assist prostitutes try not to subsidize them, per se. In the article, the Social-Democrat spokesperson points out the political contradiction:
"We spend a large proportion of our taxes rescuing women from prostitution. But at the same time we officially encourage carers to help contact with prostitutes."
(From the CIA Factbook I learn that the Feb 2005 elections put the Liberal Party at 29% and the Social Democrats at 25%, meaning that the PM, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is likely a Liberal under Social Dem breakaway pressure.)

Both Brad and Matthew are skeptical but intrigued; Brad wonders whether shy or ugly people shouldn't also deserve subsidization yet acknowledges some physical and mental health benefits from sexual activity, and Matthew remains very detached and worldly, dismissing the idea as politically impossible while sketching the utopian socialist background for sexual equality (Fourierism).

All that background aside, I am moved almost to tears by this policy. Click through for why. Once a government has decriminalized prostitution, there remains little official reason to stigmatize it. Of course we don't really want our daughters to become prostitutes, but in general we don't want our daughters to become bartenders, either. Both professions see people at their most vulnerable and most uncivilized, and both professions have historically left their practitioners destitute and unhealthy in their old age. What if, you know, there was a broad social policy in place to help these low-wage workers enjoy a safe, protected retirement? Would these professions seem quite as bad? Yes, prostitution is and probably will remain a stigmatized profession. But remember: in countries where prostitution is less hidden, less "street," and less suicidal, frankly, social mores may be shifting.

Again, once a society has allowed people to sell sexual services, and once a society has assumed some responsibility for the health of its citizens, why should it not try to help, in a small way, the sexual desires of those citizens most in need? If I broke my neck tomorrow, one of the next thoughts on my mind would be will I ever have sex again? Hell, when I broke up with the person I thought I'd marry, I had the same thought, and it was a great deal less objectively true then. If you were stuck in a bed, and yet still felt sexual desire, wouldn't it make the days seem more liveable if you could get off? Unfortunately, unless you've got excellent connections on the outside--a self-sacrificing partner or someone who knows a pimp--you're shit out of luck. Better to try really, really hard to transcend all human need, in good puritanical fashion. Only problem for society is: the ultimate, non-corporeal transcendence is suicide--or politics.

I am positively heartened to hear about this Danish initiative. I don't believe that any sex worker is being forced into providing services for disabled people, nor do I believe that any disabled person is forced into accepting the services of a sex worker. In fact, a sex worker might even have good reason to take the government up on its offer: a disabled person might be more routinely screened by doctors.* No matter how morally impalatably it may seem to some, once you have recognize sex work as legal, bringing that work to people who lack mobility yet need that work most becomes a positive good.

What I like most about the Danish government measure is that it doesn't pretend to operate in a libertarian fantasy in which all people suffering from sexual unattractiveness get market vouchers. Instead, since the Danish subjects aren't all full of themselves and their perceived need for equal treatment, they accept that some people, through no fault of their own, are probably going to have to overcome major probabilitic hurdles in getting laid. And, you know what? If I somehow became disabled, it would humiliate me so much to go through my friends to find someone willing to get dirty with me that I'd probably rather kill myself. That plus immobility, and the private sector in preventing suicide by sexual frustration is dead. Shy and ugly people may similarly suicidal thoughts resulting from sexual frustration--but they can walk, dammit, and they can hold jobs without filing access lawsuits.

Maybe it's because Denmark is a constitutional monarchy that it is able to offer one good thing for a sector of its population without the rest of the country's clamoring for equal treatment. Still, as far as I can tell, the argument within Denmark is about morality, and the argument for equal treatment is tacked on by bemused American bloggers.

*HIV infection rates in Denmark, however, seem to me to be impressively low: according to the CIA's 2003 numbers, only 0.2% of the population was infected, as compared to 0.3% in Canada, 0.4% in Switzerland and France, 0.6% in the US, 4.2% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5.6% in Haiti, or 12.2% in Mozambique. Of course all of these numbers are estimated and probably too low.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

British Rhetoric Goes Hardcore

I'm listening right now to an MP3 of "Gorgeous" George Galloway debating Christopher Hitchens. The debate is happening in NYC, so they both know that they're on foreign terrain, that their accents seem charming, and that they can get away with rhetorical excesses that would be impossible for Americans.

That said, good, heavens, the two biggest blowhards in the English language are delivering! While I think that both of them are full of it, oh, the spectacle!

Although I don't agree with his politics, I reached a decent download via John Cole. (Cole's link ended up working in Music Max Juke Box. So help me, I don't really know what that means.)

[Update: Galloway is interviewed on WNYC by Brian Leherer, here.

Looking back on the debate, I can' t really say who "won," per se; the style of the debators was so diferent and they both seemed to be playing more to the audience than to logic. On audio, Galloway seemed more audible and Htichens more credible, but in the final analysis, both came across as hacks.]


9-11-01 Reminiscences [Edited]

I haven't really written of this before, here or elsewhere, and never onegarded my own experience and emotions as insignificant: I wasn't downtown that day--I worked on Wall St. on Mondays and Wednesdays--so I didn't see much of the chaos, and I haven't been part of the military response to that day, so my understanding of the ensuing policy has been abstract, yet it's seemed very personel.

Despite my caveats, I was in New York that day, that day changed my life, and I have a blog: at some point, it's inevitable that I should register my memories. For those who haven't had enough of 9-11 stories, click through.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I went into a seminar on "Religion and the Enlightenment" that began at 9 am. According to my records, we discussed Voltaire's Letters Concerning the English Nation, and I gave a presentation about the radical 17th-century history of the Quakers.

At around 11 am, I left the seminar. I was hanging out around the building's steps when an acquaintance remarked, "Isn't it crazy about that plane crashing into the World Trade Center?!"
Now, I had spent the previous year in France, where, in order to defend myself, I became more informed on US politics; I read the International Herald Tribune daily, Liberation at least weekly, and Le Monde Diplomatique regularly. I was quite familiar with the arguments of anti-globalization activists and remain sympathetic to many of them. And I knew quite well who Bin Laden was, what the Taliban was (having received emails about women's rights in Afghanistan since at least 1998), and why Al Qaida might target New York.

I remember a conversation I had on the banks of the Seine in 2000 with my father, an old-school conservative libertarian,; he argued that Gore's regulatory diplomacy would come across as pedantic lecturing, and I argued that the Southern Hemisphere was genuinely pissed off at the inequities that globalized markets seemed to create. He had the grace to admit, after 9-11, that his view of economic globalization had been too rosy. I'm not about to use that concession to argue that global socialism is the answer because I do not believe that to be true, but the inequities of globalization do give extremists more popular support than they deserve.

So even before I knew for a fact that a second plane had struck the WTC, I suspected and feared terrorism. And I felt a faint contempt for the woman who had told me--almost giggling with nervousness--about the attack.

Perhaps I was in shock, but the next thing I thought to do was finish the response paper for the seminar that was scheduled that afternoon. I went to the library to write out my thoughts on EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, and while responding to concerned emails from long unheard-from ex-boyfriends, I realized that this thing was big. I finished my response paper, astoundingly enough, and went home, not knowing what else to do.

There, I changed my clothes, slowly and self-consciously. At that time I owned a black skirt with a train and a feathered mourning hat. I didn't know anything but feared everything. Eventually I pulled out my tourists' guide to New York and found my local NPR station. When my roommate came home, I was lying flat on my bed in all my mourning, listening to the radio. With another couple of grad students, we went out to the park, where we watched armed vehicles roll off the highway. We watched the Coast Guard patrol the Hudson, and we heard Air Force fighter pilots boom overhead, as they would for weeks afterward.

In the following days, some of my friends ignored the public orders to stay away from the disaster scene and helped in the relief effort. One of my friends wandered down to the Chelsea piers and ended up unloading rescue gear from cargo ships. I listened to the radio news, heard that emergency-trained personnel were requested and that civilians should stay out; I evaluated my skills and stayed put. It's hard not to think that I was cowardly and passive, despite my rational mind's awareness that I would have had little to offer to the relief effort besides a strong back, some language skills, potentially mad-cow-corrupted blood, and Girl-Scout-level first aid training. Instead, I stayed at home and worried.

Within a week, I was back at my part-time job as a researcher and ad-writer for a company located on Wall Street. When I returned to Wall Street, most of the debris had been swept off the streets, but the air was still terrible. I left early on my first day back, pleading out and taking the hours cut because I could no longer breathe properly. Even three weeks after the attacks, lunch breaks were surreal. The air was too awful to go far. I'll never forget one moment, catching my breath inside a sandwich shop, waiting and daring myself to run the two blocks back to work; as I hesitated, I saw an Asian man wearing a cloth facemask on a bicycle loaded with deliveries pedal slowly by. At that time, the dominant media image for face-masks was SARS, and I remember thinking that Asian-Americans might have prepared better for air-contanminants than the rest of us had.

Even after the air cleared somewhat, one couldn't sit down anywhere to eat a lunchtime sandwich. Military-type personnel waved everyone off the Federal Courthouse steps, out of parks, away from targets. In Paris and London, I got over my nervousness about seeing machine-gun-armed guards, but it was still something of a shock to see overtly military units in my neighborhood. I remember eating sandwiches on the shallow steps of the pos tt office, as the only place I was allowed to sit in public, but I still smelled the faint tang of the WTC in my nose.

Perhaps it's the result of being in a committed relationship to a French citizen at the time, but within 24 hours of 9-11 I feared more what the US response to 9-11 would wreak than anything else. With the formidable military (and nuclear) capability that we have, can anyone think that assymetrical warfare will end well for humanity?

I will admit to a certain panic after 9-11. It was hard for me not to believe that the attack was not the first blow of WW3, and while I knew it was irrational, I feared that the Atlantic would turn into an impassable boundary, with my loved one on the other side. Yes, I did initially think of the US in terms of Occupied France, but to pursue the analogy further would not be complimentary to America. After all, it was hard not to be terrified when one heard fighter planes blow open the sky every night, when the the air poisoned one's lungs every day, and when one became aware of the distant rumble of the Policy for the New American Century.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Democrats Voted--Updated

But not very many of them. Turnout was very poor--estimated right now at some 450,000.

And according to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, Freddy Ferrar has received 39.495 percent of the vote--just shy of the 40% necessary to avoid a run-off election with young Anthony Weiner.

Ferrar has already given the equivalent of a victory speech. Weiner has yet to speak. (Both Fields and Miller have conceded with good grace.) Talk of recounts has begun.

The campaigns so far have been pretty damned colleagial: without a chance of beating Bloomberg, there was no point in leaving scourched earth behind. Recounts, though, tend to get nasty, and a run-off is necessarily more personal.

Let's see what happens next...

[Update 1: Anthony Weiner has just spoken: he's declaring himself to be in a run-off but says that he would rather lose the election than do anything that would divide the city. He really is an effective campaigner, despite my suspicions about him.

In other news, Scott Stringer is the new borough president, Robert Morgenthau continues as DA, and Betsy Gottbaum successfully fends off Stormin' Norman to remain Public Advocate.

A good online source for NYC political news is the Gotham Gazette.]

[Update 2: Apparently, Anthony Weiner has concluded that it's in his best interest to lose now with good grace rather than to lose later looking whiny. Today (Wednesday 14 Sept.) at noon, he conceded the primary to Ferrer.

Also, for the record, it's Freddy Ferrer, not Freddy Ferrar. That's what happens when you get your local news from the radio.

Poking around the blogs last night, I saw that at least half of the commentors on the Kos thread about this race strongly preferred Weiner over Ferrer. No mention of his stance on academic freedom. They saw him as a personable candidate making a strong case for middle class people feeling pushed around by big money, which, of course, he is. A few people accused him of being a stalking horse for landlord interests, but generally the pro-Weiner contingent dominated. Interesting.]

[Update 3: According to the New York Observer's blog, The Politicker, the City Board of Elections is saying that despite Weiner's conceding the primary, a run-off must still be held. Take that for what it's worth.]


Monday, September 12, 2005

Spam Spam Spam

I've been getting a bunch of comment spam in the last week or so. An occasional comment spam here or there wouldn't really bother me--they're pretty easy to spot and delete, after all--but the frequency seems to be increasing. Blogger sites are pretty easy to target.

So I'm considering installing human-verification in comments. Since without the spammers, this site would barely have any comments, I wonder whether the added step of proving oneself human would make potential commentors think replying not worth it. What do you think?


Should Friday Cat-Blogging Come With A Health Advisory?

Not exactly breaking news, but interesting nonetheless.

On September 21, 2003, the Sunday Times reported on research into toxoplasma gondii, a parasite carried by many cats. The cats get it from and pass it to rats. The article doesn't report on the effects of toxoplasma gondii on cats; its more immediate focus is the effect the parasite has on the human hosts who acquire it from their pets.

The percentage of cat-owners who've acquired the parasite is pretty impressive: half of Britain's population, about half of America's population, and a staggering 80-90% of France and Germany's population are infected with the parasite. (I would guess that in France and Germany there are more outdoors cats.)

Now for the effects of the parasite. It was long assumed to be mostly harmless, although pregnant women and people with damaged immune systems have been warned against hanging out with cats. But the study targeted behavior and personality--oh, hell, I'll just quote it:
Infected men, suggests one new study, tend to become more aggressive, scruffy, antisocial and are less attractive. Women, on the other hand, appear to exhibit the “sex kitten” effect, becoming less trustworthy, more desirable, fun- loving and possibly more promiscuous. [...]

The institute has already published research showing that people infected with the toxoplasma parasite are at greater risk of developing schizophrenia and manic depression.

The study into more subtle changes in human personality is being carried out by Professor Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague. In one study he subjected more than 300 volunteers to personality profiling while also testing them for toxoplasma.

He found the women infected with toxoplasma spent more money on clothes and were consistently rated as more attractive. “We found they were more easy-going, more warm-hearted, had more friends and cared more about how they looked,” he said. “However, they were also less trustworthy and had more relationships with men.”

By contrast, the infected men appeared to suffer from the “alley cat” effect: becoming less well groomed undesirable loners who were more willing to fight. They were more likely to be suspicious and jealous. “They tended to dislike following rules,” Flegr said.
Surely, the importance of this research for the blogosphere cannot be underestimated.

(The entire article is reproduced at Zwichenzug.)


Democrats of New York, Vote!

The mayoral Democratic primary, district council, and borough presidency are all up for grabs tomorrow.

So. Let's be frank about the Democratic mayoral candidates: they have no chance of beating Bloomberg. This is sort of amazing, given Bloomberg's Ahab-like quest to bring a gazillion tourists and potential terrorists to the city in 2012, his pandering to the national Republicans' desire to wrap 9-11 around their presidential convention, and given his hatred for all things tobacco-y. But Bloomberg is gonna win.

So what's going on with the Democrats? C. Virginia Fields must step down from her borough presidency, as must Gifford Miller, current Speaker of the City Council. Anthony Weiner is gearing up for a high-profile political career, and Fernando Ferrar seems to have said to himself, "oh hell, why not?"

The sharpest knife here is Anthony Weiner. In all the interviews and debates, he comes off as passionate, focussed, and funny. For reasons I have already discussed, I can't forgive him his opportunistic intervention into a matter of academic freedom.

The only candidate whose hand I have shaken is Gifford Miller's. He turned out to a labor rally at my university, and he has a strong record of supporting unions. Unfortunately, he's a prat.

C. Virginia Fields interested me early on because of her focus on affordable housing; she has a lot of support from the outer boroughs, which Bloomberg has tended to ignore. But she was totally lame in the debates. When asked how she would pay for her plans, she replied that she would start with cost-cutting measures within existing programs. Unless she means that she's going to cut services (which she wouldn't cop to), she has no real economic plan.

Fernando Ferrar is the only serious candidate left. He seemed a little tired during the debates, but his commitment to affordable housing and better schools seems real. His campaign is being more careful this go-round when it addresses questions of race and class, but most voters will remember his 2000 campaign and its message that minorities were getting a bum deal in NYC. He has received the ambiguously helpful endorsement of Al Sharpton. While I generally like Ferrer, he's kind of the inevitable candidate--I mean, what the heck does he do with his time when he isn't unsuccessfully running for mayor?

I guess I'm endorsing Ferrar, but I'm not sure I'd end up voting for him over Bloomberg.


Roundabout Pleas For Comity

My favorite blog, Obsidian Wings, is tearing itself apart.

The site grew out of, which used to be a place where political junkies could debate each other according to the most refined of rules. Tacitus moderates who felt marginalized by the honor-code of Tacitus's site founded ObWi, where interparty discussion was much freer. Of the people who have access to posting on the mainpage, Moe Lane (moderate conservative) has left, Katherine (issue leftist) has totally gone into comments, Slartibartfast (moderate conservative) rarely posts and sometimes briefly comments, Sebastian Holsclaw (principled conservative) sometimes posts and comments, Edward Underscore (realist leftist) has announced his intention to lay off posting but continues to open threads with seat-of-the-pants remarks, Hilzoy (principled leftist) is almost maintaining the site, and Charles Bird (more partisan rightist) has been taking flak for every post he makes, whether or not he follows up in comments.

It's been a good site, and I would hate to see it descend into eternal flamewars. These seven posters command a great deal of affect: Hilzoy has received I don't know how many offers of marriage, and Moe Lane seems to have become a kind of saint in his absence. Sebastian Holsclaw, on the other hand, has had singlehandedly to refute the anti-gay agenda of the Bush administration (he's an out gay man) while trying to present his foreign policy case. The mainpage posters have turned into local celebrities, and God knows it's not necessary to be fair or nice to celebrities.

I wish the meanness would stop and polite discussion would resume. To those who would retort that the evils of this administration foreclose polite discussion, I would beg them to join anti-war groups, to volunteer, to give money to liberal causes, to demonstrate, to write to their representatives--but, really, attacking someone on an avowedly discussion-based board is not a real substitute for political action.

All this is preamble to why I have created Hating On Charles Bird: a place for people who want to rant about conservatives to go when they know their rants will do more harm than good.

Since my committment to the site is very, very low, and since I may delete the entire place at any moment, I have posted a strange photo of myself there, if that interests any.


Saturday, September 10, 2005

Blackwater Security, the private company who made the US public aware of the phenomenon of private military-types in Iraq by losing four of its members in appalling fashion in Fallujah, is now patrolling the streets of New Orleans. Some, including fellow commenter at ObWi John Thullen, worry that Blackwater's presence in New Orleans reflects a kind of "Iraqification" of America.

First, the sourcing of the story. The careful leftist Gary Farber reproduces an NYT article here. And Kathryn Cramer, who's been following the "private security contractor" story since Fallujah (and took a hell of a troll attack for it), reports on their presence in NO here.
Next, to reply to some of the more paranoid fears: whether these specific "contractors" now patrolling in NO were in Iraq, we of course can't know. We shouldn't fear, quite yet, that the New Orleans "insurgency" will be treated as the Iraqi populace is being treated, despite the appalling stories about police conduct floating around.

That doesn't make me much happier about high-wage commandos in US cities. Not while there is a nation of concerned citizens willing to volunteer to help NO, not while states are willing to send their National Guards, not while there are cities (like my NYC) willing to send their police and fire fighters.

No, the problem is structural, or rather, the problem is the ideological direction in which the structure is being taken. What the use of private security in Iraq made clear to me is the extent to which the basic state functions have been contracted out, and this has certainly been a factor in the New Orleans debacle.

I'm sure many have read DeLong's post reproducing the email of an insider who witnessed the "Hurricane Pam" drill. The most damning part for me, the one that ties into the use of Blackwater now, is this one:
There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I'll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donation and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources.
I understand how such contracts make sense in the abstract, but the idea of a public emergency should give one pause before entering into private and restricted contracts for potentially limited resources.

There seem to be three alternative solutions to this kind of restrictive contract: 1) rely on volunteered goods and simply coordinate them effectively, 2) seize goods as need becomes clear, 3) write non-restrictive contracts to use both the pre-arranged goods and the volunteered/seized goods.

None of these more sensible arrangements makes anybody richer before tragedy strikes, of course.

The argument is always that private companies have a greater incentive to deliver effective results, but the record of subcontracting during this administration--for security, for delivery of emergency supplies, for testing our students--should stand as a counter-argument to this idea. Restrictive contracts make money in the short term, but in the long run, the American taxpayer ends up paying through the nose. And nobody ends up being responsible because the shellgame of contracting obscures all relationships.

Sit back and think for a minute. Do you know anyone who once worked for a public agency? Did they stay there or did they quit and found a private business? Know anyone who weighed going into, say, the DA's office or a corporate firm? Yeah: you make a helluva lot more money outside of government. And now government seemed to have thrown up its hands, and instead of paying its employees better--rather, it's destroyed federal employee unions--it's putting executives in charge of coordinating private companies. That might work as the fervent Norquist-types hope, except that the current politicos trying out this strategy have been appointing hacks and incompetents as CEOs to these private companies.

The corporate management culture of maximizing profits and efficient results is probably antithetical to humane public governance. That's my general belief, anyways. And in the wake of Katrina, when the contracted private companies were unable to organize relief and the volunteer relief were prevented from delivering in order to protect the prior contracts, I feel somewhat justified in my belief.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Real Paleo-Cons Mourn Aristocracy

When my sister and I told each other stories growing up, one character always managed to appear under different guises: the Duke of Dorque--or, to give the variants for more contemporary narratives, Duke or Ducas Dorque. He was a kind of Commedia dell'Arte archetype of a boorish, lecherous power-figure. When the good Duke arrived on the scene, the threatening mighty was about to get smacked down.

I had always thought that the many characters in English novels with the last name of "Dalrymple" might have served a similar function: the name is so overwhelmingly associated with snobs whose frailities are usually revealed in short order that it seemed natural to conclude that the name was a kind of insider joke, a nod to one's predecessors.

Then I clicked on a link at Making Light and found this extraordinary piece , penned by one "Theodore Dalrymple." I cherry-pick without mercy:
The signs—both large and small—of the reversal in the flow of aspiration are everywhere. Recently, a member of the royal family, a granddaughter of the queen, had a metal stud inserted into her tongue and proudly displayed it to the press. Such body piercing began as a strictly underclass fashion, though it has spread widely to the popular culture industry—into a branch of which, of course, the monarchy is fast being transformed. [...]

Advertising now glamorizes the underclass way of life and its attitude toward the world. [...]

Diction in Britain has always been an important marker, to some extent even a determinant, of a person's place in the social hierarchy. Whether this is a healthy phenomenon may be debated, but it is an indisputable fact. Even today, social psychologists find that the British almost universally associate what is known as received pronunciation with high intelligence, good education, and a cultured way of life. Rightly or wrongly, they see it as a marker of self-confidence, wealth, honesty, even cleanliness. Regional accents are generally held to signify the opposite qualities, even by people who speak with them.

So it is a development worthy of remark that, for the first time in our modern history, people who would, by upbringing, use received pronunciation as a matter of course, now seek to suppress it. In other words, they are anxious not to appear intelligent, well educated, and cultured to their fellow countrymen, as if such attributes were in some way shameful or disadvantageous. Where once the aspiring might have aped the diction of their social superiors, the upper classes now ape the diction of their inferiors. Those who send their children to expensive private schools, for example, now regularly report that they emerge with diction and vocabulary little different from the argot of the local state school.

See how seamless the transition from the pseudo-sociological terms "underclass" and "regional" to the almost quaintly moralizing "superiors" and "inferiors"! Marvel at how this Dalrymple uses the language of class without talking about money! And finally, wonder at how well he ties the trend into hatred for the pointy-headed! I'm only going to take topic sentences, for this Dalrymple seems to have had rigid paragraph structure spanked into him at some point in his past.
Like so many modern ills, the coarseness of spirit and behavior grows out of ideas brewed up in the academy and among intellectuals—ideas that have seeped outward and are now having their practical effect on the rest of society. [...] British society and culture were additionally vulnerable to attack from the intellectuals, for historically they were openly elitist and therefore supposedly undemocratic. [... skip one] The combination of relativism and antipathy to traditional culture has played a large part in creating the underclass, thus turning Britain from a class into a caste society. [...] Having in large part created this underclass, the British intelligentsia, guilty about its own allegedly undemocratic antecedents, feels obliged to flatter it by imitation and has persuaded the rest of the middle class to do likewise.
And then of course he cops out and wonders, so disingenuously, whether it must ever be so?

In some ways, I find this screed almost endearing in its stupidity. These are the thoughts of a genuine Dalrymple! yearning for a Wodehousian paradise! condemning the aesthetics of people who don't give a shit about him!

Then, slowly, I realize the this Dalrymple has been publishing such poison for years, and that his most recent title, Our Culture, Or What's Left of It (2005), has garnered something of a following.

Enough of one that the above essay was hosted at the Manhattan Institute, whose "about" page headlines a plug by Giuliani and claims that its goals are to win "new respect for market-oriented policies and help[...] make reform a reality." Reform, in the interest of the market, combined with a hosted essay condemning the accents and habits of "social inferiors." Does anyone else smell what I do?

I wouldn't have expected that there was much of an ideological overlap between New York market-conservativism and English nostaglic aristocratic twaddle, but then, I tend towards innocence and optimism. Still, Dalrymple's pseudo-earnest worry about the deleterious message on young people of the Blair-Oasis detente seems so readily translatable, but since contempt for popular culture is filtered here through Englishness, American conservatives can cite Oasis as a completely metaphysical reason to hate gansta rap. After all, our Dalrymple never once mentions race.

And that's why I find myself losing my sense of humor; this silly Edwardian has found an audience in modern-day America, where racial inequality has been one of the most hyped topics of the last three decades, obscuring almost totally economic class structures. And this literary charicature finds an American venue to lecture about the decadent diction of the British upper classes? Are you people daft to host such a loon?


Monday, September 05, 2005

New Orleans Is Not New York

And Mayor Nagin was in no position to be a Rudy Giuliani.

According to William Finnegan's July 25, 2005 article "Defending the City" in the New Yorker, the NYPD employs almost 50,000 people. The population of the five boroughs is over 8 million. We've heard over and over that the New Orleans Police Department had 1500 officers before it melted down. The 2000 census gave New Orleans proper a population of 484,674. If my math is right, the NYPD has sixteen times the personnel per inhabitant that New Orleans had.

(Caveat: it really would be better to compare total employed with total employed, and uniformed officers with uniformed officers to make this point more scientifically.)

It's important for people to stop using the NYPD as a benchmark to judge local responses to catastrophe. The NYPD has organized itself into something that a smaller country would call a national army: it has a foreign intelligence arm, sophisticated scientific analysts, and even a sort of a diplomatic corps. The NYPD has managed to blungeon the feds into accepting its special status, but almost no other city would be allowed to mount such an effort.

Nor would other cities be able to fund such an effort: the NYPD is funded by a local government that has given it a blank check and by a population that pays through the nose in taxes. Remember: NYC residents get a special in their NY state tax forms. I'm poor, so I don't end up paying NYC tax, but more wealthy NYC residents get hit; non-residents get hit when NYC ups the tolls on bridges and tunnels in order to avoid raising taxes on residents.

Many have made the point that during Giuliani's hour of leadership, he didn't have to work with an entire city out of commission: north of Houston, life felt strangely normal on that day, and the troops came in on the freeways. New Orleans was flooded, with transportation impossible and many communications systems down. In this radio discussion of the response to Katrina, one commenter (I think Stephen Flynn, but I'm not sure) remarked that an attack on Lower Manhattan was the only catastrophic event that could make a local official look competent. In all of the other scenarios projected, damage would be utterly uncontainable.

Despite all the reports on flooded schoolbuses, despite the stories of corruption, I tend to see Mayor Nagin as a Giuliani without resources and faced with a total collapse of the infrastructure that his office could have hoped to lead.


The Safest State for the GOP?

This is rather an older story: when Bush finally came out from Crawford to start his round of speeches to try to explain the Iraq war, one of his stops was in Salt Lake City, on August 22. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Utah was one of the reddest of red states, and so having an event there was politically safe for the President. To further stack the odds, of course, the President's handlers arranged for this speech to have a backdrop of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I'm very happy to report that Bush's visit did not go unprotested. The numbers of the protesters range from 500 (CNN link above) to 2000 (AP). The Mayor of Salt Lake City, Russ "Rocky" Anderson, personally called for a "vigorous" protest.

And most cheering to me: this photo, taken by a friend of a Feminist Mormon Housewives commenter, shows a very LDS-looking woman waving a sign reading Mormons Against Bush. Heartwarming.

[Note: I've been wandering around the LDS blogs to try to gauge the Church's response to the hurricane. The widely linked July 2005 New Orleans Times-Picayne article on New Orleans's lack of a real evacuation plan--see Brad DeLong's site for the fullest excerpt--prominently features the Mormons as having the fullest private contingency plans. I commend the LDS sites for not having or even linking to any triumphalist posts about the Church's efficacy. However, this seemly reticence leaves me without any information about the Church's response. Instead, right-wing political sites were quicker to champion the LDS humitarian services: from Hedgehog, from Free Republic. The latter links to every possible article. One of the most telling passages is this factual bit from a Meridian Magazine article:
President Conlin had also developed a warning system and evacuation plan for the New Orleans stake which was put into place this past weekend. This stake has an automated phone system so that the stake president put in a prerecorded message on Saturday and again on Sunday morning that rang into 1700 homes. The message was to evacuate the city. If they weren’t leaving their homes, they were given an 800 number so they could report where they were going to me.

The evacuation plan called for people to go to three different stake centers—two in Mississippi and one in Lousiana that were near the three major arteries that lead out of the city. A member knew which one to go based on the highway that was closest to him."

This sort of centralized planning should have been going on, on some level, in the government. Whether a centralized plan from government could have commanded respect and trust as the Church did is another matter.]


Sunday, September 04, 2005

Interesting Times

The Iraqi constitutional mess has slid entirely off the radar of the American public as the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has come into its own. I don't have anything meaningful to say about Iraq because, like the rest of the US citizen-punditry, I've been transfixed by the ongoing political musical-chairs going on in the South. This diversion of attention is probably dangerous, but then waging a long-distance battle for "hearts and minds" was always dangerous. The difficult negotiations between fractious parties that seemed so crucial in the American press have suddenly been relegated to the mid-sections. Who knows what damage to the American goals of democratic process (such fragile hopes to begin with!) will be committed during this hectic time of domestic posturing.

More terrifying is the prospect that the Department of Homeland Security, that megalith into which FEMA was absorbed, is not able to coordinate effective disaster relief. Katrina was not an attack; there are no infrastructrural failures or chemical seepages that were not predicted and modelled. And still, this chaos is what the new DHS delivers? Color me that much more paranoid for the future. Thank God I live in New York City, where the locals are well-funded, paranoid, and essentially add up to a local army--because we have learned that the feds, under this administration, haven't been paying attention to local disaster scenarios. They're willing to give press conferences, however.

And it seems as though posturing is all that this government is able to do in the face of a catastrophe. Most readers of this blog will already know how this disaster was predicted. If anyone tumbles here who doesn't know about the massive governmental failures in the wake of Katrina, I recommend spending some time at Gary Farber's site---which has recently been added to the blogroll.

Again, the good people of Making Light and bOingbOing have done incredible work at coelscing coordinating netroots, in their own ways. If you want real linkage, start there.

In years past, I agonized about what to put on my protestor placard. There were so many stupid ideas I wanted to protest that choosing one seemed difficult; all the specific instances of malfeasance seemed so wonkish. "Remember New Orleans," on the other hand, might tie all the strands together.