Politics Prose

The Two Novels That Can Change Your Life

Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I mention this as I’m working myself up to read Atlas Shrugged soon. Stephen Colbert, among others, piqued my interest.

Politics Prose

The elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring

Bob Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows:

The White House is a poignant place. I spent more years working there than any President but Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it seems to me that for those who live and work there, if they are completely honest with themselves, with rare exception the most vivid memories are not of victory but of crisis and defeat — and, for a fortunate few, of one or two occasions of historical importance. This is why character counts for so much in a President. In the White House, the elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring.

H/t Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times.

National Security New York City Reflections

Liberty in the Face of Men With Guns

[digg-reddit-me]In which I recount the story of a minor incident that occured yesterday (St. Patrick’s Day) in Midtown Manhattan, that is entirely unimportant in it’s impact, but significant in what it reveals about being an American citizen.

For regular users of the Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway system, the message is repeated and insistent, as disembodied voices over the loudspeakers intone:

Backpacks and other large containers are subject to a random search by the police.

I was in a hurry to make my train, but I had to drop off a FedEx package first, so I dashed around the corner to deposit that. This took me in the exact opposite direction from where I needed to go – but I moved quickly. I crossed 42nd Street on a fast-blinking “Stop” hand, but made it without blocking traffic. From there, it was a half-block to the subway station – which I got through moving into and out of the strolling mobs of tourists and the slower-paced commuters. As I entered the subway station, I could see the turnstile and knew that I only had to make it down the three flights of stairs to make my train. 

I noticed a portly, bald-headed cop twirling something – a police baton perhaps – casually strolling into and out of the rush hour crowd. He pointed at me as I went to swipe my MetroCard: “Random security search. Get over to the desk,” he said. It’s minor thing, I know. But in that moment, of being casually ordered around while doing no wrong in a public place while everyone around me continued on – I felt a surge of anger at being told what to do, of frustration at being impeded while trying to make my train, of annoyance at the inconvenience, of the slight fear that comes from entering into an interaction with armed men who are regarding you with some suspicion, of resentment at being casually ordered about. I wondered if I was doing something that made me a target – my walk, my age, the fact that I made eye contact with the police. 

But I did what I was told – after a moment of slight hesitiation in which I looked around to make sure the officer meant me. He nodded and said, “You.” At the desk, there was a different officer. He seemed apologetic. Behind him was a third officer, hand on his weapon holster, stern-faced. “Put down your bag.” I did. Waited a beat. The officer behind said, “Open up the pockets,” with an attitude suggesting I should have known better than to wait before doing this. Another spasm of annoyance at that attitude.

“All of them?” I ask. My bag has eight pockets. “Just the main ones,” the second officer said, still apologetic. “I know you don’t have anything in the bag.” Then why are you looking? I thought, but at the same time, relieved that he thoughtI look and act trustworthy. He looked at the bag – perhaps even into the pockets. I can’t imagine he would have found anything with his search unless it was shining brightly. “Thanks,” he said. I hurried back off – and missed my train by about 20 seconds – it pulled out of the station as I was still descending the stairs.

That’s it. The encounter is truly trivial. I missed my train – but this is but a small inconvenience. None of the officers were abusive. There was a slight attitude – but no one’s perfect. I don’t oppose the policy of random searches, although I’m not sure how effective it is.

But within this interaction something important occurred – something that occurs every day across the world: The local political authorities set up a checkpoint to search innocent people in the hope of finding or deterring illegal activity. In some nations this is routine and perhaps becomes accepted. The bursts of anger and annoyance I felt but did not act upon become dulled or perhaps aren’t even felt by citizens of these nations. These citizens perhaps become inured to the daily violence being done to their essential liberties. Or perhaps they don’t.

What exactly had happened? Armed men picked random people from a crowd and searched their belongings for signs of illegal activity. In my case, through no fault of my own, I was temporarily detained and pressured to allow the authorities to search my possessions. My personal space was violated. My private possessions were searched. I was pressured to consent to a search without a warrant. For a moment, I was regarded as a person of suspicion, on the “other” side of the law – and my freedom was suddenly at the whim of the armed men around me. In a primal sense, my liberty was violated. Violence was done to the God-given, inherent rights I enjoy as a human being – which the American government was formed to protect. 

Yet – I do not oppose this policy. I am not saying what the police officers did was wrong. If this policy of random searches prevents a single terrorist attack, it’s probably worth it, in my opinion. Steps were clearly taken to ensure that I was inconvenienced as little as possible. From what I recall, I had the right to walk away from the search and not enter the subway. But that does not change the fact that my rights were violated – perhaps with due cause and sufficient safeguards – but they were violated nevertheless, and I could feel on a gut level that they were being violated.

Now imagine all of the circumstances in which there are additional factors making a search like this more intrusive and seem more unjust – if I needed to go through it every day instead of once in a year; if I was required to submit to it instead of having a choice; if the officers seemed to bear me some kind of ill-will; if I was a member of a targeted ethnic group; if I did not accept the legitimacy of the authority conducting the search – or if I had no say over how they acted. Imagine if the procedures were more intrusive.

Imagine what emotions Palestinians must feel having to be searched by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints; that Iraqis must feel being searched by American troops to move about their own country. Imagine as the anger builds up at each minor injustice, each negative attitude, each time one’s impotence in the presence of men with guns  is brought home.

One thing that is easy to forget when creating checkpoints such as this is the fact that each search is a violation of the liberty of an individual. It may be in the interests of justice – but there is a tradeoff involved. This isn’t about the ACLU agitating for more rights – it is about my sense of liberty moving about in a free society. To lose that is a precious thing. To be denied it is something that will make anyone angry. 

Which is why I’m glad I felt violated by this occurence – it lets me know that I still am alive, that I still consider myself a citizen in the basic American sense of the word. 

Baseball Morality Prose Reflections

The Latitude To Be Human

Former centerfielder and now occasional Times columnist Doug Glanville defends Alexander Rodriguez in the only way possible, asking that we not judge this man too harshly, or any of our fellow humankind, for despite the near perfection of A-Rod’s game, he, like all of us, needs the latitude to be human:

So whether you are A-Rod or the last guy to make the team out of spring training, you might not always be as forthcoming as some would like. It could be for fear of not living up to something, or to keep someone safe, or maybe it’s pure deception — all the ways we all use to avoid facing certain unpleasantries in our lives. It’s human nature to preserve and protect. And even though this game inspires magic, its magicians need the latitude to be human.

Financial Crisis Politics Quotations

The Brave and Wise Politician

[digg-reddit-me]I was listening to Governor David Patterson speak at the Council on Foreign Relations podcast of a recent session – and was somewhat favorably impressed with him. His remarks were coherent and interesting and clearly showed that he was an intelligent person gathering information and acting as he saw best. He seemed to have an almost Bushian disregard for the legislature though – and a sense that he – and he alone – knew what was best.

Much more interesting than anything Gov. Patterson said though was moderator and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld’s offhand comment:

There’s no one so brave and wise as the politician who’s not running for office and who’s not going to be…

The remark certainly conveys a certain wisdom in itself – as even prosaic politicians are found to have some real insight once they leave office. It’s an interesting comment on our political system – that bravery and wisdom are seen as detriments to political success and acceptance.

Politics Prose Scandal-mongering The Opinionsphere

The Inherent Character Flaws of Politicians

From a blog post by Timothy Egan last week in the New York Times about Portland’s mayor:

But with the betrayal by Sam Adams, the city now offers an old lesson in timeless and tawdry human weakness. The story of Sam Adams is not about gay predators or gay anything, because Portland has seen this civic morality tale once before, with a heterosexual mayor.

It’s about why voters should never give their hearts over completely to politicians. As a class, they are inherently insecure — a character flaw at the base of all politicians, from Bill Clinton to Bob Packwood. And they lie, with rare exceptions — a hard thing to say at a time when the doors of possibility are open to leaders yet untarnished.

That’s an eternal lesson, though, as with all rules, there are rare exceptions.

Prose Quotations Reflections

My Thirteen Favorite Updike Quotes

[digg-reddit-me]I discovered John Updike when most people should – when I was about 13. Updike explained in an interview that he wrote his books aiming towards this existence as:

books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a …teenaged boy finding them, having them speak to him.

And that is how I discovered them. His books were depressing and yet exotic with a sad sexuality that I was enticed by but did not understand. I read through the Rabbit Angstrom series as well as a number of other minor works. Later, I rediscovered Updike in a novel which has scarcely been mentioned in his eulogies, Toward The End of Time, which seems to me to be exceptional. It takes place after the end of civilization and the fall of the American government due to a war with the Chinese. I still vividly remember the casual indifference of the narrator in what is, I think, a quintessential Updike quotation:

One advantage of the collapse of civilization is that the quality of the young women who are becoming whores has gone way up.

For me, this quotation demonstrates both the author’s humor, the misogyny of his characters, the world-weariness, the carnality, the enforced normalcy and mundaniety.

As a man who would go on to write 61 books, Updike had an almost pathological need to write as his obituary in The New York Times made clear:

I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.

Given this compulsion to write, it’s no surprise that Updike wrote in every form – short story, poetry, novel, criticism, nonfiction. The New York Times called him:

a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words

Updike seemed to finding what meaning he did in life from his art:

But the work, the words on the paper, must stand apart from our living presences; we sit down at the desk and become nothing but the excuse for these husks we cast off.

As his obituaries attempt to categorize his work, I’m not sure anyone can do better than his near-contemporary, the similarly prolific, Joyce Carol Oates:

John Updike’s genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies.

At his best, Updike described his work as giving “the mundane its beautiful due.”  These quotations below are either from my collection or in the various collections of Updike quotes online and in his obituaries:

  1. He had returned to the archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand. Bech had expected the pathos, the implied pecking of furtive typewriters, but not the defiant beauty of the end result. (jwcampbe.)
  2. I think “taste” is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves. (Wikiquote.)
  3. Sex is like money; only too much is enough. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  4. To say that war is madness is like saying that sex is madness: true enough, from the standpoint of a stateless eunuch, but merely a provocative epigram for those who must make their arrangements in the world as given. (Wikiquote.)
  5. A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. There are few men so foolish, hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world. (The Telegraph.)
  6. An affair wants to spill, to share it’s glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  7. He was bad at the business of life, which is letting go. (jwcampbe)
  8. To be President of the United States, sir, is to act as advocate for a blind, venomous, and ungrateful client. (The Telegraph.)
  9. In asking forgiveness of women for our mythologizing of their bodies, for being unreal about them, we can only appeal to their own sexuality, which is different but not basically different, perhaps, from our own. For women, too, there seems to be that tangle of supplication and possessiveness, that descent toward infantile undifferentiation, that omnipotent helplessness, that merger with the cosmic mother-warmth, that flushed pulse- quickened leap into overestimation, projection, general mix-up. (Wikiquote.)
  10. Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went. (ThinkExist.)
  11. Truth should not be forced; it should simply manifest itself, like a woman who has in her privacy reflected and coolly decided to bestow herself upon a certain man. (BrainyQuote.)
  12. I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone. (BrainyQuote.)
  13. We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one. (Conversations with John Updike.)
Criticism Reflections

The Existential Clown

I haven’t yet decided whether James Parker’s piece in The Atlantic on Jim Carrey, “The Existential Clown,” is profound or pretentious. Sometimes the line can be awfully thin. And at times – James Parker seems to be stretching his points a bit too much:

Who knows how the self became such a problem, or when we began to feel the falseness in our nature? “There’s another man within me, that’s angry with me,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici, three and a half centuries before the scene in Liar Liar where the hero stuffs his own head into the toilet bowl.

Yet, for all of that, I have the feeling Parker is onto something profound – and I am always interested in the profundities that can be understood in a deep reading of our pop culture.  Here’s a taste of his thesis:

Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self…

Movie after movie finds Carrey either confronting God (“Smite me, O mighty Smiter!” he roars in Bruce Almighty) or enacting, violently and outrageously, some version of the dilemma identified by the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y Gasset—that man, as he exists in the world, is “equivalent to an actor bidden to represent the personage which is his real I.” One wonders what the French make of him. Here in America, we’ve been content to regard him as a blockbustering goofball, but in France, beautiful France, where philosophy is king and Jerry Lewis is awarded the Légion d’Honneur, might not they be readying garlands for Jim Carrey?

Yes Man, out this month, is Carrey’s latest existential parable. If, as has been speculated, Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard shared a libertine moment in the salons and cellars of 19th-century Copenhagen, they could have brainstormed this movie over drinks.

I forward it on to Andrew Sullivan, who despite his place at The Atlantic, might be able to judge whether this piece merits a Poseur Award or not.

History Political Philosophy Politics Prose Quotations Reflections

Quote of the Day

In Europe during most of the twentieth century (here come a few shameless generalizations), the political thinkers of the right and the left have pictured the best of all societies as something other than democracy. The better world of their fancy might have been (depending on party affiliation) feudal, fascist, Communist, or revolutionary socialist in one of several versions – but it was not likely to be democratic in any ordinary sense. In the European imagination, democracy was a politics of compromise and true. It evoked a spirit of tolerance, moderation, caution, sobriety, rationality, and fatigue, which might amount to wisdom, but also to mediocrity. Democracy was something to arrive at only when the bright dream of exterminating one’s enemies no longer seemed within reach and the notion of a truly superior society had been abandoned. It was a “secondary love derived from a primary hatred,” in Andre Gluckmann’s phrase.

Paul Berman in A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, pages 49 – 50.

Reflections The Web and Technology

Subtle Connections and Far-reaching Implications

What blog type am I. Typalyzer answers the question. (H/t Andrew Sullivan.)

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

I think this type may be a bit too common though – as Daily Kos, Think Progress, and about a half dozen other sites I tossed in all came up as “The Thinker” too.

I liked the graph though.